C - Bit Fields

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Suppose your C program contains a number of TRUE/FALSE variables grouped in a structure called status, as follows:

struct
{
  unsigned int widthValidated;
  unsigned int heightValidated;
} status;

This structure requires 8 bytes of memory space but in actual we are going to store either 0 or 1 in each of the variables. The C programming language offers a better way to utilize the memory space in such situation. If you are using such variables inside a structure then you can define the width of a variable which tells the C compiler that you are going to use only those number of bytes. For example, above structure can be re-written as follows:

struct
{
  unsigned int widthValidated : 1;
  unsigned int heightValidated : 1;
} status;

Now, the above structure will require 4 bytes of memory space for status variable but only 2 bits will be used to store the values. If you will use up to 32 variables each one with a width of 1 bit , then also status structure will use 4 bytes, but as soon as you will have 33 variables, then it will allocate next slot of the memory and it will start using 8 bytes. Let us check the following example to understand the concept:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>

/* define simple structure */
struct
{
  unsigned int widthValidated;
  unsigned int heightValidated;
} status1;

/* define a structure with bit fields */
struct
{
  unsigned int widthValidated : 1;
  unsigned int heightValidated : 1;
} status2;
 
int main( )
{
   printf( "Memory size occupied by status1 : %d\n", sizeof(status1));
   printf( "Memory size occupied by status2 : %d\n", sizeof(status2));

   return 0;
}

When the above code is compiled and executed, it produces the following result:

Memory size occupied by status1 : 8
Memory size occupied by status2 : 4

Bit Field Declaration

The declaration of a bit-field has the form inside a structure:

struct
{
  type [member_name] : width ;
};

Below the description of variable elements of a bit field:

ElementsDescription
typeAn integer type that determines how the bit-field's value is interpreted. The type may be int, signed int, unsigned int.
member_nameThe name of the bit-field.
widthThe number of bits in the bit-field. The width must be less than or equal to the bit width of the specified type.

The variables defined with a predefined width are called bit fields. A bit field can hold more than a single bit for example if you need a variable to store a value from 0 to 7 only then you can define a bit field with a width of 3 bits as follows:

struct
{
  unsigned int age : 3;
} Age;

The above structure definition instructs C compiler that age variable is going to use only 3 bits to store the value, if you will try to use more than 3 bits then it will not allow you to do so. Let us try the following example:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>

struct
{
  unsigned int age : 3;
} Age;

int main( )
{
   Age.age = 4;
   printf( "Sizeof( Age ) : %d\n", sizeof(Age) );
   printf( "Age.age : %d\n", Age.age );

   Age.age = 7;
   printf( "Age.age : %d\n", Age.age );

   Age.age = 8;
   printf( "Age.age : %d\n", Age.age );

   return 0;
}

When the above code is compiled it will compile with warning and when executed, it produces the following result:

Sizeof( Age ) : 4
Age.age : 4
Age.age : 7
Age.age : 0


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