For other uses, see Digital (disambiguation)

A digital system is one that uses discrete values rather than a continuous spectrum of values: compare analog. The word comes from the same source as the word digit: the Latin word for finger (counting on the fingers) as these are used for discrete counting.

The distinction digital versus analog can refer to data storage and transfer, the internal working of an instrument, and the kind of display.

The word "digital" is commonly used in computing.


Digital vs analog

Digital noise

When data is transmitted using analog methods, a certain amount of noise enters into the signal. This can have a myriad of different causes: data transmitted by radio may be received badly, suffer interference from other radio sources, or pick up background radio noise from the rest of the universe. Electric pulses being sent down wires are attenuated by the resistance of the wire, and dispersed by its capacitance, and heat variations can increase or reduce these effects. While digital transmissions are also degraded, any slight variations can be safely ignored. Any variance could provide a great amount of distortion in an analog signal. In a digital signal, these variances can be overcome, as any signal close to a particular value will be interpreted as that value.

Analog versus digital display; ease of reading

For human readable information, both digital and analog display methods can be useful. Should an instant impression be required, analog meters often give information quickly. Many people glance quickly at their analog watch and know roughly what the time is. When accuracy is required, however, digital displays are preferred. Reading analog meters requires time and a little bit of skill, whereas writing down the value on a digital display is merely a case of copying down the numbers. In cases where both accuracy and quick reckoning are both required, dual displays are often used.

A needle (analog) just touching onto the bottom of an orange shaded area is much different to a needle almost touching into the red area, but an indicator lamp (digital) would just glow orange.

Systematic loss of data

When an analog source needs to be converted into a digital signal for processing by other digital systems, some data may be lost. The analog-to-digital converter only has a certain resolution: whereas the human eye may be able to detect tens of thousands of different intensities of pure green, the CCD (charge coupled device) or CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensor in a digital camera may only be capable of 256, and at a resolution of a megapixel or so. While this information will be preserved in future transmission, the data has been lost.

It should be noted that photographic film is not perfect, being subject to aberrations. Losses in analog systems are often modelled as a noise spectrum and modulation transfer function (MTF). The MTF of many analog systems, including film, typically "rolls off" with increasing frequency.

Historical digital systems

Although digital signals are generally associated with the binary electronic digital system used in modern electronics and computing, digital systems are actually ancient, and need not be binary nor electronic.

Non binary, non electronic

  • Smoke signals are one of the oldest examples of a digital signal, where an analog "carrier" (smoke) is modulated with a blanket to generate a digital signal (puffs) that conveys information.
  • DNA comprises a sequence of four digits usually called A, C, G, and T, effectively a base four number system. Each of these digits is an organic form, known as a nucleotide, and they pair up (A and T pair together, as do G and C) to form a double strand known as the double helix. One strand of the double helix could be viewed as a backup for the other. Although DNA is not the only system involved in propagating life it is the major system of information transfer from one generation to another and evolution has developed its digital properties into a robust method of communication. Errors in this system are considered to be a type of mutation in biology.

Non binary, possibly electronic

  • Morse code uses five digital states - dot, dash, short gap (between each letter), medium gap (between words) and long gap (between sentences) - to send messages via a variety of potential carriers such as electricity or light, for example using an electrical telegraph or a flashing light.

Binary, audio

  • More recently invented, a modem modulates an analog "carrier" signal (such as sound) to encode binary electrical digital information, as a series of binary digital sound pulses. A slightly earlier, surprisingly reliable version of the same concept was to bundle a sequence of audio digital "signal" and "no signal" information (i.e. "sound" and "silence") on magnetic cassette tape for use with early home computers.

Binary, visual

  • A beacon is perhaps the simplest non-electronic digital signal, with just two states. It's either illuminated, or not.

See also

de:Digital es:Sistema digital eo:Cifereca ko:디지털 id:Digital it:Digitale (informatica) nl:Digitaal ja:デジタル pt:Circuito digital fi:Digitaalinen sv:Digital tr:Dijital


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