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What is a Binary File?

By Archana Khambekar
Updated May 16, 2024
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A binary file is any file stored on a computer or related media. Any and all computer data is stored in binary form — that is, it consists of ones and zeros. Computer files that have only textual information are simpler than other files, such as those that store images, for instance. Therefore, a distinction is often made between text files and all other file types, and the term "binary file" typically refers to the latter.

Computer data is often broken up into characters, and each is called a byte of information. The word “Hi” is broken up into two characters — “H” and “i” — which can be represented as numbers 72 and 105. These numbers are then stored in a computer file in binary form as 01001000 and 01101001.

Text files may contain textual characters such as H, i, period, space, symbols, as well as information such as tab placement and start of a new line. Formatting information can be coded in a text file, for example, <b&gt indicates bold in web page HTML files. Computers manipulate data beyond this, however, and data could be normal numbers, big scientific numbers, images, sounds, videos, program instructions, etc. Such data cannot be stored efficiently in text files, and is stored in binary instead.

Common text file formats include .txt, .html, and .xml. For binary files, a huge number of formats exist, including .gif and .jpg for images, .wav for sound files, and .mid and .mpg for media files. In addition, program instructions are stored in a wide variety of formats, like .exe, .dll and .bin. Historically, such program instructions were called binaries.

To view and modify the contents of text files, simple text editors can be used that just convert the binary information to viewable characters and vice versa. If someone opens a binary file in a text editor, he or she will see lots of strange characters. Special viewers, such as hex viewers, are needed to read the contents. To modify one of these files properly, a person needs the appropriate application, such as a graphics editor to modify images.

Getting the content of a file is called reading, and putting in or modifying the contents is called writing. Applications for text files often read and write a whole line at a time, but for binary files, there is no universal equivalent to a line. As a result, they are read one byte at a time, and each byte must be interpreted. They must also be written one byte at a time.

Anyone can create their own file format for storing information and can interpret the ones and zeros in the binary file using their own application. For multiple people to use and share these files, however, standardization of formats is crucial. A number of experts come together and agree on standards. Some formats indicate how to interpret the information at the start of the file; this information is called a header or metadata. For example, a .gif file header indicates information about the several images that it contains.

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Discussion Comments
By CoffeeJim — On Oct 06, 2010

@sammyG, I would have to disagree with you on your point that music stored as binary files has overcome the degradation that digitalization brings to sound. Recently I participated in a study done with high definition compact discs and classic vinyl records.

The difference in sound quality, while slight, was apparent to most of the audio professionals in the room. Perhaps the biggest issue that people have with this kind of analysis is the use of proper equipment to undertake a comparison like this.

I will admit that the difference is slight and technology might actually overcome the degradation at some point but until then I will continue to prefer analog recordings over digital means.

By sammyG — On Oct 06, 2010

Binary files have changed our lives and the way that we can get media and social interaction but one thing to remember is that the use of binary files is not always a good choice.

Music is a good example of this issue. When we store sound in a binary file, the natural waveform that makes up the analog signal of the music is simplified into little bits and translated to a binary language. This simplification of data will unfortunately always result in a degradation and loss of information that exists in the file.

This is a similar effect on quality that scraping a vinyl record would have. If the grooves are destroyed in a song on the record then the information can never be recovered again unless you had a different copy.

Once you convert an analog file to a binary file you throw away parts of the information that will be lost forever.

Now this doesn't have to be a deal breaker in using music on computers and obviously the entertainment industry now relies heavily on the use of digital delivery for getting their goods to customers.

This is possible because the technology that now converts analog to digital binary signals has become advanced enough that the human ear cannot hear the difference between an analog signal and a digital signal.

Many tests have been done to prove and disprove this concept but the results have come in.

Using a higher bit rate to obtain a better quality binary file means it will take up more digital space but it also means the gaps created by the steps in information along the now digital wavelength are imperceptible.

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