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What Is a Wide Character?

By T.S. Adams
Updated May 16, 2024
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A wide character is a computer character that has a size exceeding the standard 8-bit measurement. Characters in a computer set such as the Universal Character Set (USC) illustrate a prime example of wide-characters, as USC can be encoded in 16-bit or 32-bit formats. This differs from older, standardized character sets such as the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which utilizes character of no more than 7-bits. The advantage to encoding character sets in wide characters is that it allows for more breathing room when it comes time to add additional and complex symbols to the set, giving character designers a wider range of freedom. Disadvantages come in the form of additional memory consumption, as wide character sets use more system memory while active on the computer.

Character sets must be customized to work with specific operating systems, and wide characters are no different. For Windows® operating systems--both 32 and 64-bit versions--wide character sets must be tailored to fit within a 16-bit framework, offering twice the storage capacity for each character compared to a "standard" 8-bit set. Unix®, on the other hand, requires wide characters to fit a 32-bit framework, offering four times the capacity of a basic character set.

The biggest advantage of wide character sets is that they allow for non-standard symbols and greater versatility in including different languages within their interfaces. For example, wide character sets can include the standard English alphabet, along with languages such as Cyrillic and Greek at the same time. This means that a single set of wide characters can apply to individuals spanning multiple countries, as opposed to requiring a unique non-wide set of characters for each individual language region.

Although useful to help standardize versions of software across different language regions, sets of wide characters come at a price. That price is an additional cost in memory overhead. While a 16-bit character set offers double the capacity of a standard 8-bit set, it also consumes twice as much memory. The same applies to 32-bit character sets, which swallow a significant four times as much memory as conventional character sets.

From computing and statistical perspectives, this is a significant "cost" to memory. In practical application, however, the cost is not so great as it might seem. Modern computers often contain four or more gigabytes of system memory, making storage of even a large 32-bit character set fairly negligible in practice. Only the most overworked — or underpowered — computers will notice a substantial performance hit from using sets of wide characters.

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