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Most significant bit

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Most significant bit

In computing, the most significant bit (MSB, also called the high-order bit) is the bit position in a binary number having the greatest value. The MSB is sometimes referred to as the left-most bit due to the convention in positional notation of writing more significant digits further to the left.

The MSB can also correspond to the sign bit of a signed binary number in one's or two's complement notation, "1" meaning negative and "0" meaning positive.

It is common to assign each bit a position number, ranging from zero to N-1, where N is the number of bits in the binary representation used. Normally, this is simply the exponent for the corresponding bit weight in base-2 (such as in 231..20). Although a few CPU manufacturers assign bit numbers the opposite way (which is not the same as different endianness), the MSB unambiguously remains the most significant bit. This may be one of the reasons why the term MSB is often used instead of a bit number, although the primary reason is probably that different number representations use different numbers of bits.

By extension, the most significant bits (plural) are the bits closest to, and including, the MSB.

The unsigned binary representation of decimal 149, with the MSB highlighted. The MSB in an 8-bit binary number represents a value of 128 decimal. The LSB represents a value of 1.

Most Significant Bit First vs Least Significant Bit First

The expressions Most Significant Bit First and Least Significant Bit First are indications on the ordering of the sequence of the bits in the bytes sent over a wire in a transmission protocol or in a stream (e.g. an audio stream).

Most Significant Bit First means that the most significant bit will arrive first: hence e.g. the hexadecimal number 0x12, 00010010 in binary representation, will arrive as the sequence 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 .

Least Significant Bit First means that the least significant bit will arrive first: hence e.g. the same hexadecimal number 0x12, again 00010010 in binary representation, will arrive as the (reversed) sequence 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0.

Other uses

MSB can also stand for "most significant byte". The meaning is parallel to the above: it is the byte (or octet) in that position of a multi-byte number which has the greatest potential value.

See also

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