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Bit field

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Title: Bit field  
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Bit field

A bit field is a term used in computer programming to store multiple, logical, neighboring bits, where each of the sets of bits, and single bits can be addressed. A bit field is most commonly used to represent integral types of known, fixed bit-width. A well-known usage of bit-fields is to represent a set of bits, and/or series of bits, known as flags. For example, the first bit in a bit field can be used to determine the state of a particular attribute associated with the bit field.

A bit field is distinguished from a bit array in that the latter is used to store a large set of bits indexed by integers and is often wider than any integral type supported by the language. Bit fields, on the other hand, typically fit within a machine word, and the denotation of bits is independent of their numerical index.


  • Implementation 1
  • Examples 2
  • See also 3
  • External links 4
  • References 5


"A bit field is set up with a structure declaration that labels each field and determines its width."[1] In C and C++ bit fields can be created using unsigned int, signed int, or _Bool (in C99).

You can set, test, and change the bits in the field using a mask, bitwise operators, and the proper membership operator of a struct (. or ->). ORing a value will turn the bits on if they are not already on, and leave them unchanged if they are, e.g. bf.flag |= MASK; To turn a bit off, you can AND its inverse, e.g. bf->flag &= ~MASK; And finally you can toggle a bit (turn it on if it is off and off if it is on) with the XOR operator, e.g. (*bf).flag ^= MASK; To test a bit you can use an AND expression, e.g. (flag_set & MASK) ? true : false;

Having the value of a particular bit can be simply done by left shifting (<<) 1, n amount of times (or, x << n - log2(x) amount of times, where x is a power of 2), where n is the index of the bit you want (the right most bit being the start), e.g. if you want the value of the 4th bit in a binary number, you can do: 1 << 3; which will yield 8, or 2 << 2; etc. The benefits of this become apparent when iterating through a series of bits one at a time in a for loop, or when needing the powers of large numbers to check high bits.

If a language doesn't support bit fields, but supports bit manipulation, you can do something very similar. Since a bit field is just a group of neighboring bits, and so is any other primitive data type, you can substitute the bit field for a primitive, or array of primitives. For example, with a 32 bit integer represented as 32 contiguous bits, you could use it the same way as a bit field with one difference; with a bitfield you can represent a particular bit or set of bits using its named member, and a flag whose value is between 0, and 2 to the nth power, where n is the length of the bits.


Declaring a bit field in C:


// opaque and show
#define YES 1
#define NO  0

// line styles
#define SOLID  1
#define DOTTED 2
#define DASHED 3

// primary colors
#define BLUE  4  /* 100 */
#define GREEN 2  /* 010 */
#define RED   1  /* 001 */

// mixed colors
#define BLACK   0                    /* 000 */
#define YELLOW  (RED | GREEN)        /* 011 */
#define MAGENTA (RED | BLUE)         /* 101 */
#define CYAN    (GREEN | BLUE)       /* 110 */
#define WHITE   (RED | GREEN | BLUE) /* 111 */

const char * colors[8] = {"Black", "Red", "Green", "Yellow", "Blue", "Magenta", "Cyan", "White"};

// bit field box properties
struct box_props
     unsigned int opaque       : 1;
     unsigned int fill_color   : 3;
     unsigned int              : 4; // fill to 8 bits
     unsigned int show_border  : 1;
     unsigned int border_color : 3;
     unsigned int border_style : 2;
     unsigned int              : 0; // fill to nearest byte (16 bits)
     unsigned char width       : 4, // Split a byte into 2 fields of 4 bits
                   height      : 4;


Example of emulating bit fields with a primitive and bit operators in C:

/* Each prepocessor directive defines a single bit */
#define KEY_UP       (1 << 0)  /* 000001 */
#define KEY_RIGHT    (1 << 1)  /* 000010 */
#define KEY_DOWN     (1 << 2)  /* 000100 */
#define KEY_LEFT     (1 << 3)  /* 001000 */
#define KEY_BUTTON1  (1 << 4)  /* 010000 */
#define KEY_BUTTON2  (1 << 5)  /* 100000 */

int gameControllerStatus = 0;

/* Sets the gameCtrollerStatus using OR */
void keyPressed(int key) {
     gameControllerStatus |= key;

/* Turns the key in gameControllerStatus off using AND and ~ */
void keyReleased(int key) {
    gameControllerStatus &= ~key;

/* Tests whether a bit is set using AND */
int isPressed(int key) {
    return gameControllerStatus & key;

See also

External links

  • Explanation from a book
  • Description from another wiki
  • Use case in a C++ guide
  • C++ libbit bit library (alternative URL)


  1. ^ Prata, Stephen (2007). C primer plus (5th ed.). Indianapolis, Ind: Sams.  
  2. ^ Prata, Stephen (2007). C primer plus (5th ed.). Indianapolis, Ind: Sams.  
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