Have you ever thought about how numbers are represented in your computer? We all know that computers “talk” in binary, but how exactly does it work?

In this post, I will briefly introduce Two’s Complement, which is the way signed integer numbers are represented. Signed data type are data types that support representation of negative and positive values.

In the following examples, I will use Java 7 data types for explanations. Java 8 SE provides some differences in int types, that will not be considered.


Data structures must have limits. And this is not only an old requirement, given the old computers capacities. Nowadays, with the amount of data introduced by BigData and many other high data usage scenarios, thinking about representation is reasonable to achieve good performance and capability.

This is one of the main reasons of the existence of different data types. Even with the current technologies and computer’s capacities, resources are still not infinite. It’s very common to have limits in representation, what means that you must choose the appropriate data type according to the problem being solved.

In Java, for example, the primitive type:

C, however, has both signed and unsigned version of the above primitive types, and its long is 32 bits long.

Understanding Representation

By default, integers int are signed 32 bits long, represented in two’s complement, what means that it has the following limits:

All the other three primitives that use Two’s Complement work analogously.

The value 45, for example, may be represented in any of the mentioned types. However, in the background, the memory allocated for each data type will be considerably different, because it will store:


The left most bit (most significant bit) defines the signal. That is, it defines if the number is positive (0) or negative (1).

Considering int variables, the binary sum of 2,147,483,647 and 1 results -2,147,483,648. Considering byte variables, the binary sum of 127 and 1 results -128. Strange, nah?

Another inference that can be done is about mirroring. If you could fold the total length of the integer numbers in the middle, you would have:

Curiosity: Note that the individual sum of all mirrored values is -1.


The Java Tutorials - Primitive Data Type

Tutorials Point - C Data Type

Tags: java  core 
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