© Tony Lawrence, aplawrence.com
Understanding Packed BCD
See also Understanding Floating Point
Packed BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) is a numeric format that was directly supported on cpu's almost from the beginning, and still is today. Simply put, it relies on the fact that 4 bits are more than sufficient to represent decimal numbers. Therefore, two decimal numbers can be held in each byte, a 32 bit register can hold 8 such numbers, and a 64 bit register can of course hold 16. Many cpu's can do BCD math - it's just a matter of having the half bytes carry when their value exceeds 9, conceptually not a lot different than ordinary binary math. It also isn't very hard to write programs to do math on BCD numbers of arbitrary length.
There is also unpacked BCD, which of course is very wasteful of space: 1 byte per numeric digit stored.
If you look at hex representations of BCD numbers, the individual digits are simply read left to right: what you see is what you have (ignoring sign and any exponent). BCD formats are directly human readable without any more math than translating the bit values to numbers.
The advantage of BCD over floating point formats is that numbers can be accurately represented (assuming you have enough bytes to store the number). Floating point is a compromise: some numbers (6.25) can be represented accurately, but most can only be approximated. The approximation is very close with double precision formats, but it is still an approximation.
The disadvantage is range. In 32 bits, IEEE floating point can store numbers in the range of 2^-126 to 2^127 - very large numbers. In the same 32 bits, even if you ignore the need to store a sign, the largest possible number in packed BCD would be 99999999. That's less than 2^27 right there, which is a long, long way from IEEE floating point range. As you also need the sign and an exponent to locate the decimal point, packed BCD obviously needs much more storage space to handle typical numbers. However, people have used this: MBASIC on Tandy Xenix used packed BCD for floating point, and many an accounting package used BCD internally to avoid rounding errors.
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