Because binary numeration requires so many bits to represent relatively small numbers compared to the economy of the decimal system, analyzing the numerical states inside of digital electronic circuitry can be a tedious task. Computer programmers who design sequences of number codes instructing a computer what to do would have a very difficult task if they were forced to work with nothing but long strings of 1’s and 0’s, the “native language” of any digital circuit. To make it easier for human engineers, technicians, and programmers to “speak” this language of the digital world, other systems of place-weighted numeration have been made which are very easy to convert to and from binary.
One of those numeration systems is called octal, because it is a place-weighted system with a base of eight. Valid ciphers include the symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Each place weight differs from the one next to it by a factor of eight.
Another system is called hexadecimal, because it is a place-weighted system with a base of sixteen. Valid ciphers include the normal decimal symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, plus six alphabetical characters A, B, C, D, E, and F, to make a total of sixteen. As you might have guessed already, each place weight differs from the one before it by a factor of sixteen.
Let’s count again from zero to twenty using decimal, binary, octal, and hexadecimal to contrast these systems of numeration:
Octal and hexadecimal numeration systems would be pointless if not for their ability to be easily converted to and from binary notation. Their primary purpose in being is to serve as a “shorthand” method of denoting a number represented electronically in binary form. Because the bases of octal (eight) and hexadecimal (sixteen) are even multiples of binary’s base (two), binary bits can be grouped together and directly converted to or from their respective octal or hexadecimal digits. With octal, the binary bits are grouped in three’s (because 23 = 8), and with hexadecimal, the binary bits are grouped in four’s (because 24 = 16):
We had to group the bits in three’s, from the binary point left, and from the binary point right, adding (implied) zeros as necessary to make complete 3-bit groups. Each octal digit was translated from the 3-bit binary groups. Binary-to-Hexadecimal conversion is much the same:
Here we had to group the bits in four’s, from the binary point left, and from the binary point right, adding (implied) zeros as necessary to make complete 4-bit groups:
Likewise, the conversion from either octal or hexadecimal to binary is done by taking each octal or hexadecimal digit and converting it to its equivalent binary (3 or 4 bit) group, then putting all the binary bit groups together.
Incidentally, hexadecimal notation is more popular, because binary bit groupings in digital equipment are commonly multiples of eight (8, 16, 32, 64, and 128 bit), which are also multiples of 4. Octal, being based on binary bit groups of 3, doesn’t work out evenly with those common bit group sizings.