16-bit computing

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In computer architecture, 16-bit integers, memory addresses, or other data units are those that are 16 bits (2 octets) wide. Also, 16-bit CPU and ALU architectures are those that are based on registers, address buses, or data buses of that size. 16-bit microcomputers are computers in which 16-bit microprocessors were the norm.

A 16-bit register can store 216 different values. The range of integer values that can be stored in 16 bits depends on the integer representation used. With the two most common representations, the range is 0 through 65,535 (216 − 1) for representation as an (unsigned) binary number, and −32,768 (−1 × 215) through 32,767 (215 − 1) for representation as two's complement. Since 216 is 65,536, a processor with 16-bit memory addresses can directly access 64 KB (65,536 bytes) of byte-addressable memory. If a system uses segmentation with 16-bit segment offsets, more can be accessed.

16-bit architecture[edit]

The MIT Whirlwind (c. 1951)[1][2] was quite possibly the first-ever 16-bit computer. Other early 16-bit computers (c. 1965–70) include the IBM 1130,[3] the HP 2100,[4] the Data General Nova,[5] and the DEC PDP-11.[6]

Early multi-chip 16-bit microprocessors (c. 1973–76) include the five-chip National Semiconductor IMP-16 (1973),[7] the two-chip NEC μCOM-16 (1974),[8][7] the three-chip Western Digital MCP-1600 (1975), and the five-chip Toshiba T-3412 (1976).[7]

Early single-chip 16-bit microprocessors (c. 1975–76) include the Panafacom MN1610 (1975),[9][10][7] National Semiconductor PACE (1975), General Instrument CP1600 (1975), Texas Instruments TMS9900 (1976),[7] Ferranti F100-L, and the HP BPC. Other notable 16-bit processors include the Intel 8086, the Intel 80286, the WDC 65C816, and the Zilog Z8000. The Intel 8088 was binary compatible with the Intel 8086, and was 16-bit in that its registers were 16 bits wide, and arithmetic instructions could operate on 16-bit quantities, even though its external bus was 8 bits wide.

A 16-bit integer can store 216 (or 65,536) distinct values. In an unsigned representation, these values are the integers between 0 and 65,535; using two's complement, possible values range from −32,768 to 32,767. Hence, a processor with 16-bit memory addresses can directly access 64 KB of byte-addressable memory.

16-bit processors have been almost entirely supplanted in the personal computer industry, and are used less than 32-bit (or 8-bit) CPUs in embedded applications.

16/32-bit Motorola 68000 and Intel 386SX[edit]

The Motorola 68000 is sometimes called 16-bit because of the way it handled basic mathematics. The instruction set was based on 32-bit numbers and the internal registers were 32-bits wide, so by common definitions, the 68000 is a 32-bit design. Internally, basic 32-bit arithmetic is performed using two 16-bit operations, and this leads to some descriptions of the system as 16-bit, or "16/32". While this was not a common solution at the time, in the early 1980s, such solutions have a long history in the computer field, with various designs performing math even 1-bit at a time, known as "serial arithmetic", while most designs by the 1970s processed at least a few bits at a time.

A common example is the Data General Nova, which was a 16-bit design that performed math as four 4-bit operations, as that was the size of a common single-chip ALU of that era. Using the definition being applied to the 68000, the Nova would be a 4-bit computer, or 4/16. Not long after the introduction of the Nova a second version was introduced, the SuperNova, which included four of the 4-bit ALUs to perform math 16-bits at a time and therefore offer higher performance. This was, however, invisible to the user and the programs, which always used 16-bit instructions. In a similar fashion, later 68000-family members, like the Motorola 68020, had 32-bit ALUs.

One may also see references to systems being, or not being, 16-bit based on some other measure. One common one is when the address space is not the same size of bits as the internal registers. Most 8-bit CPUs of the 1970s fall into this category; the MOS 6502, Intel 8080, Zilog Z80 and most others had an address space of 16-bits, of 64 kB, meaning address manipulation required two instruction cycles. For this reason, most processors had special addressing modes with 8-bits, improving speed. This sort of difference between internal register size and external address size remained in the 1980s, although often reversed, as memory costs of the era made a machine with 32-bit addressing, 2 or 4 GB, a practical impossibility. For example, the 68000 exposed only 24 bits of addressing on the DIP, limiting it to a still huge (for the era) 16 MB.[11]

Similar analysis applies to Intel's 80286 CPU replacement, called the 386SX, which is a 32-bit processor with 32-bit ALU and internal 32-bit data paths with a 16-bit external bus and 24-bit addressing of the processor it replaced.

16-bit application[edit]

In the context of IBM PC compatible and Wintel platforms, a 16-bit application is any software written for MS-DOS, OS/2 1.x or early versions of Microsoft Windows which originally ran on the 16-bit Intel 8088 and Intel 80286 microprocessors. Such applications used a 20-bit or 24-bit segment or selector-offset address representation to extend the range of addressable memory locations beyond what was possible using only 16-bit addresses. Programs containing more than 216 bytes (65,536 bytes) of instructions and data therefore required special instructions to switch between their 64-kilobyte segments, increasing the complexity of programming 16-bit applications.

List of 16-bit CPUs[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Year 1951". Computer History Museum. (see also "Year 1943".).
  2. ^ Digital Press, Digital at Work Archived 2013-07-02 at the Wayback Machine, Pearson, 1992, ISBN 1-55558-092-0, pp. 4, 23.
  3. ^ "The IBM 1130 computing system". IBM Archives.
  4. ^ "HP 2116". Computer History Museum.
  5. ^ "Data General Nova minicomputer". Computer History Museum. Archived from the original on 2013-05-17. Retrieved 2012-06-11.
  6. ^ Pearson, Jamie Parker (September 1992). Digital at work: snapshots from the first thirty-five years. Digital Press. pp. 58–61. ISBN 978-1-55558-092-6.
  7. ^ a b c d e Belzer, Jack; Holzman, Albert G.; Kent, Allen (1978). Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology. Volume 10 - Linear and Matrix Algebra to Microorganisms: Computer-Assisted Identification. CRC Press. p. 402. ISBN 9780824722609. |volume= has extra text (help)
  8. ^ "1970s: Development and evolution of microprocessors" (PDF). Semiconductor History Museum of Japan. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-06-27. Retrieved 2019-06-27.
  9. ^ "16-bit Microprocessors". CPU Museum. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
  10. ^ "History". PFU. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
  11. ^ Motorola M68000 Family, Programmer's Reference Manual (PDF). Motorola, Inc. 1992. sec. 2.4, pp. 2–21.