Word (computer architecture)
Base memory unit handled by a computer / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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In computing, a word is the natural unit of data used by a particular processor design. A word is a fixed-sized datum handled as a unit by the instruction set or the hardware of the processor. The number of bits or digits[lower-alpha 1] in a word (the word size, word width, or word length) is an important characteristic of any specific processor design or computer architecture.
|Computer architecture bit widths|
|Binary floating-point precision|
|Decimal floating-point precision|
The size of a word is reflected in many aspects of a computer's structure and operation; the majority of the registers in a processor are usually word-sized and the largest datum that can be transferred to and from the working memory in a single operation is a word in many (not all) architectures. The largest possible address size, used to designate a location in memory, is typically a hardware word (here, "hardware word" means the full-sized natural word of the processor, as opposed to any other definition used).
Documentation for older computers with fixed word size commonly states memory sizes in words rather than bytes or characters. The documentation sometimes uses metric prefixes correctly, sometimes with rounding, e.g., 65 kilowords (KW) meaning for 65536 words, and sometimes uses them incorrectly, with kilowords (KW) meaning 1024 words (210) and megawords (MW) meaning 1,048,576 words (220). With standardization on 8-bit bytes and byte addressability, stating memory sizes in bytes, kilobytes, and megabytes with powers of 1024 rather than 1000 has become the norm, although there is some use of the IEC binary prefixes.
Several of the earliest computers (and a few modern as well) use binary-coded decimal rather than plain binary, typically having a word size of 10 or 12 decimal digits, and some early decimal computers have no fixed word length at all. Early binary systems tended to use word lengths that were some multiple of 6-bits, with the 36-bit word being especially common on mainframe computers. The introduction of ASCII led to the move to systems with word lengths that were a multiple of 8-bits, with 16-bit machines being popular in the 1970s before the move to modern processors with 32 or 64 bits. Special-purpose designs like digital signal processors, may have any word length from 4 to 80 bits.
The size of a word can sometimes differ from the expected due to backward compatibility with earlier computers. If multiple compatible variations or a family of processors share a common architecture and instruction set but differ in their word sizes, their documentation and software may become notationally complex to accommodate the difference (see Size families below).