A digital system is a data technology that uses discrete (discontinuous) values. By contrast, analog (non-digital) systems use a continuous range of values to represent information. Although digital representations are discrete, the information represented can be either discrete, such as numbers, letters or icons, or continuous, such as sounds, images, and other measurements of continuous systems.
The word digital comes from the same source as the word digit and digitus (the Latin word for finger), as fingers are used for discrete counting. It is most commonly used in computing and electronics, especially where real-world information is converted to a digital format as in digital audio and digital photography.
When data is transmitted, or indeed handled at all, a certain amount of noise enters into the signal. Noise can have several causes: data transmitted wirelessly, such as by radio, may be received inaccurately, suffer interference from other wireless sources, or pick up background noise from the rest of the universe. Microphones pick up both the intended signal as well as background noise without discriminating between signal and noise, so when audio is encoded digitally, it typically already includes noise.
Electric pulses transmitted via wires are typically attenuated by the resistance of the wire, and changed by its capacitance or inductance. Temperature variations can increase or reduce these effects. While digital transmissions are also degraded, slight variations do not matter since they are ignored when the signal is received. With an analog signal, variances cannot be distinguished from the signal and so provide a kind of distortion. In a digital signal, similar variances will not matter, as any signal close enough to a particular value will be interpreted as that value. Care must be taken to avoid noise and distortion when connecting digital and analog systems, but more when using analog systems.
Symbol to digital conversion
Since symbols (for example, alphanumeric characters) are not continuous, representing symbols digitally is rather simpler than conversion of continuous or analog information to digital. Instead of sampling and quantization as in analog-to-digital conversion, such techniques as polling and encoding are used.
A symbol input device usually consists of a number of switches that are polled at regular intervals to see which switches are pressed. Data will be lost if, within a single polling interval, two switches are pressed, or a switch is pressed, released, and pressed again. This polling can be done by a specialized processor in the device to prevent burdening the main CPU. When a new symbol has been entered, the device typically sends an interrupt to alert the CPU to read it.
For devices with only a few switches (such as the buttons on a joystick), the status of each can be encoded as bits (usually 0 for released and 1 for pressed) in a single word. This is useful when combinations of key presses are meaningful, and is sometimes used for passing the status of modifier keys on a keyboard (such as shift and control). But it does not scale to support more keys than the number of bits in a single byte or word.
Devices with many switches (such as a computer keyboard) usually arrange these switches in a scan matrix, with the individual switches on the intersections of x and y lines. When a switch is pressed, it connects the corresponding x and y lines together. Polling (often called scanning in this case) is done by activating each x line in sequence and detecting which y lines then have a signal, thus which keys are pressed. When the keyboard processor detects that a key has changed state, it sends a signal to the CPU indicating the scan code of the key and its new state. The symbol is then encoded, or converted into a number, based on the status of modifier keys and the desired character encoding.
A custom encoding can be used for a specific application with no loss of data. However, using a standard encoding such as ASCII is problematic if a symbol such as 'ß' needs to be converted but is not in the standard.
Properties of digital information
All digital information possesses common properties that distinguish it from analog communications methods:
- Synchronization: Since digital information is conveyed by the sequence in which symbols are ordered, all digital schemes have some method for determining the beginning of a sequence. In written or spoken human languages synchronization is typically provided by pauses (spaces), capitalization, and punctuation. Machine communications typically use special synchronization sequences.
- Language: All digital communications require a language, which in this context consists of all the information that the sender and receiver of the digital communication must both possess, in advance, in order for the communication to be successful. Languages are generally arbitrary and specify the meaning to be assigned to particular symbol sequences, the allowed range of values, methods to be used for synchronization, etc.
- Errors: Disturbances (noise) in analog communications invariably introduce some, generally small deviation or error between the intended and actual communication. Disturbances in a digital communication do not result in errors unless the disturbance is so large as to result in a symbol being misinterpreted as another symbol or disturb the sequence of symbols. It is therefore generally possible to have an entirely error-free digital communication. Further, techniques such as check codes may be used to detect errors and guarantee error-free communications through redundancy or retransmission. Errors in digital communications can take the form of substitution errors in which a symbol is replaced by another symbol, or insertion/deletion errors in which an extra incorrect symbol is inserted into or deleted from a digital message. Uncorrected errors in digital communications have unpredictable and generally large impact on the information content of the communication.
- Copying: Because of the inevitable presence of noise, making many successive copies of an analog communication is infeasible because each generation increases the noise. Because digital communications are generally error-free, copies of copies can be made indefinitely.
- Granularity: When a continuously variable analog value is represented in digital form there is always a decision as to the number of symbols to be assigned to that value. The number of symbols determines the precision or resolution of the resulting datum. The difference between the actual analog value and the digital representation is known as quantization error. Example: the actual temperature is 23.234456544453 degrees but if only two digits (23) are assigned to this parameter in a particular digital representation (e.g. digital thermometer or table in a printed report) the quantizing error is: 0.234456544453. This property of digital communication is known as granularity.
Historical digital systems
Although digital signals are generally associated with the binary electronic digital systems used in modern electronics and computing, digital systems are actually ancient, and need not be binary nor electronic.
- Written text in books (due to the limited character set and the use of discrete symbols - the alphabet in most cases)
- An abacus was created sometime between 1000 BC and 500 BC , it later become a form of calculation frequency, nowadays it can be used as a very advanced, yet basic digital calculator that uses beads on rows to represent numbers. Beads only have meaning in discrete up and down states, not in analog in-between states.
- A beacon is perhaps the simplest non-electronic digital signal, with just two states (on and off). In particular, 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.
- Morse code uses six digital states—dot, dash, intra-character gap (between each dot or 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.
- The Braille system was the first binary format for character encoding, using a six-bit code rendered as dot patterns.
- Flag semaphore uses rods or flags held in particular positions to send messages to the receiver watching them some distance away.
- International maritime signal flags have distinctive markings that represent letters of the alphabet to allow ships to send messages to each other.
- 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.