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An introduction to computers and computer systems
An introduction to computers and computer systems

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3 Representing data: bytes

A group of eight bits is called a byte, so an 8-bit binary code is 1 byte long, a 16-bit binary code is 2 bytes long and a 64-bit binary code is 8 bytes long.

Activity 3

Answer the following questions:

  1. How many bits are there in 4 bytes?
  2. How many items of data can be represented by 1 byte?
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  1. Four bytes contain 4 × 8 = 32 bits.
  2. Since one byte contains 8 bits, the number of items that can be represented by one byte is 28 = 256. (Note that if you had to work out the number of items that eight bits could represent by writing down all possible combinations of 8 bits it would be very tedious and there would be a strong possibility of making an error. Using the calculation 28 = 256 is much easier way of finding the answer, as would be 216 = 65 536 for the number of combinations of a 16-bit binary code.)

In general, computers that perform more complex tasks at higher speeds use a larger number of bits to represent their data and instructions. The very simple central heating controller, which only has to do a limited amount of processing, may use an 8-bit representation. More powerful computers will use 16-, 32- or 64-bit representations.

When a computer is running a program a lot of data is being passed around the various elements within the system. The data received by the input subsystem(s) must be passed to the processor in a form it can use, and the processor in turn must present data to the output subsystem(s) in the required format. Even more fundamentally, the processor must be able to recognise each instruction within the program and execute it.