Friday, 16 January 2015

Type Sizes and Max Values

Today, I want to take a step back and talk about something a bit more elementary.

If you've just started learning to program, understanding the value ranges of types can be hard. I hope that I can maybe impart some knowledge to you that will help you get a leg up.

In computing, we use a system called binary to count. Binary is a sequence of ones and zeros that are used to represent numbers.

We'll begin with...


I like to think of a bit like a gate in a yard; a gate that can only be in one of two states: open or closed.

An open bit is represented by the number 1. When open it allows an electrical current to flow through it. A closed bit, which does not allow electricity to flow through it is represented by the number zero.

This is the essence of binary. A grouping of numbers which have only two states.

Note: When a gate is open, it is in the “high state” (as it would be called in electrical engineering), allowing maximum electron flow through the gate. When a gate is closed, it is in the "low state".

Two’s Complement

As I just said, if something consists of a single bit, it has two states. 1 (one) or 0 (zero). So, if you add a second bit into the mix you have four possible states. Two states for the first bit and two states for the second.

All possible combinations of these two bits looks like this:

00 - bit one and bit two are both closed
01 - bit one is closed and bit two is open
10 - bit one is open and bit two is closed
11 - bit one and bit two are both open

If you add a third, you get 8 possible combinations. They are: 000, 001, 010, 100, 011, 110, 101, and 111.

Each bit you add has exponential growth for the maximum possible combinations. For each bit you have, you raise two to that power. One bit is two to the power of one. Two bits is two to the power of two. Three bits is two to the power of three and so on.

This is two’s complement.


A byte is a specific number of bits grouped together.

Different computer architectures can have a different number of bits per byte. The Intel 4004 CPU, for example, had a 4 bit word size. The ASCII character set is based on a 7 bit byte. An 8 bit byte is most common and the remainder of this article will be based on this byte size.

We must raise two to the power of eight to find out the maximum value a single byte can represent. Two to the power of eight is two hundred and fifty-six.

Want proof? Enter the number two into any calculator. Multiply it by two seven more times. 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 = 256.

Looking at the progression, one step at a time: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256.

A byte, then, can hold 256 different values but a single byte can’t actually hold the value 256. 

So, why not?

Zero is a Value Too!

Zero, is one of the 256 values that a byte can be. Consider a single bit. What are it's values? Zero or one.

When all the bits in a byte are closed it can only be one thing. Zero.

If zero is one of the 256 values a byte can be it means that the maximum value that can be held in a single byte is 255. 

Multiple Bytes

Bytes can be paired up, too, using two’s compliment. Two, four and eight are common multi-byte pairings.

Each time, we raise the power up further. A single byte is 2^8. Two bytes is 2^16. Four bytes is 2^32,. Eight bytes is 2^64.

Value Ranges of C Types

Lets look at a C type of each typical byte size.

  • char = 1 byte
  • short = 2 bytes
  • long (int) = 4 bytes
  • long long = 8 bytes

So, based on the above pairings, can you deduce what the value ranges are for each of these types?

Well, we already know how high a byte goes since it has 256 values including the zero value, so it has a range of 0 to 255.

  • A short is 2 bytes (16 bits). 2^16 is 65536 for a value range of 0 to 65535.
  • A long or int is typically 4 bytes (32 bits). 2^32 is 4,294,967,296 for a value range of 0 to 4,294,967,295.
  • A long long is typically 8 bytes (64 bits). 2^64 is 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 for a value range of 0 to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.

All you need to know is how many bytes a type consists of and you can work out the value yourself!

Stay tuned for more...

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