What Is a Binary File?

February 28, 2024

A binary file contains data encoded in binary form. It comprises a sequence of bytes not intended for interpretation as text. Binary files are designed to be read by computers rather than humans and can represent images, audio, video, executable programs, and other types of data.

Binary files are essential for the efficient storage, processing, and transmission of large volumes of data. Because computer systems can easily process them, binary files accelerate the operation of applications that rely on rapid data access and manipulation, such as computer games, real-time systems, and high-performance computing tasks.

Binary File vs. Text File

Binary files store data in a compact, computer-readable format that can encode a wide variety of data types, enabling operational efficiency. Binary files are indispensable for high-performance applications, such as software programs, databases, and multimedia files. Due to their abstract nature, binary files require libraries or software tools that enable the correct reading and interpretation of the data. These tools are essential for translating the binary data into a format that can be understood and used by applications.  

Text files, on the other hand, are simpler and more accessible. They store data as a sequence of characters like ASCII or Unicode, which are human-readable and editable with basic text editing software. This straightforwardness allows for easy data exchange, scripting, and configuration tasks. Text files are best suited for storing source code, configuration files, and documentation. However, they are unsuitable for handling complex data structures or binary data, limiting their use cases.

How Do Binary Files Work?

Binary files store data in a format that is readable by computers using binary (base-2) number representation. Each piece of data in a binary file is encoded as a sequence of bits (binary digits), the smallest units of data in computing.

Bits represent a logical state with one of two possible values – 0 or 1. They are grouped into larger units called bytes (8 bits), which represent a wide array of data types, from simple numerical values to more complex data structures.

To create a binary, file data is converted from the original format into its binary representation. The conversion involves encoding data according to specific formats that dictate how the information is structured and stored in binary form. For example, an image converted into a binary file will contain the color and intensity of each pixel encoded in a specific image format such as JPEG or PNG. The binary file is then read by a software application or system component that interprets this specific structure and encoding. This interpretation is crucial for transforming binary data back into a usable form, such as displaying an image or playing an audio file.

Advantages of Using Binary Files

Binary files offer numerous advantages for a wide range of applications, from general software development to specialized fields requiring high precision, performance, and data complexity management:

  • Storage and processing efficiency. Binary files require less storage space than text files since they store information in a compact format that is close to the format used by computers. This also increases the processing speed since the files are interpreted by computers, which inherently work with binary data.
  • Direct representation of complex data. Binary files store complex data without encoding them into a text-readable format. This direct representation is crucial for the efficiency of multimedia applications, scientific computing, and processes requiring high data fidelity.
  • Compatibility with system and hardware operations. Because binary files operate in the computer’s native language, they can interact directly with the operating system and hardware devices. This enables more efficient software development, especially for applications such as device drivers and low-level system utilities that require close hardware integration.
  • Data integrity and precision. Binary formats represent data with greater precision and accuracy than text formats. The lower risk of conversion errors is critical in fields such as scientific computing, engineering simulations, and financial applications.
  • Random access support. Binary files support random access, allowing a program to jump to a specific data segment without needing to read the file from the beginning.
  • Security. Binary files are not human-readable, making them harder for unauthorized users to interpret and misuse them. While not a substitute for encryption, this characteristic adds another layer of security.
  • Customizability. Binary files can be customized to meet the requirements of applications in terms of performance, encryption, and compatibility with different systems or architectures.

Disadvantages of Binary Files

On the other hand, here are the disadvantages of binary files to look out for:

  • Lack of human readability. Binary files require specialized software for reading or editing, which complicates tasks such as debugging and making quick edits.
  • Software dependency. Reading and editing binary files requires specific software which might be proprietary, costly, or not widely available. This dependency can hinder accessibility and portability.
  • Compatibility issues. Binary files are dependent on the system architecture where they were created. As factors such as endianness (byte order) or data type sizes vary between systems, compatibility issues can arise when the files are shared between different systems and architectures.
  • Versioning and backward compatibility. As formats evolve, maintaining backward compatibility can become challenging. New format versions may introduce features that older software cannot understand, leading to interoperability issues.
  • Increased development complexity. Binary files create complexity for developers, who must have broad knowledge of the specific structure and format of the file.
  • Risk of corruption. Binary files are easily corrupted even if a single bit is altered, whether intentionally or not. Even a minor error makes the file unusable, while detection and recovery present challenges without the right tools.
  • Less flexibility. Operations such as editing, simple in a text file, require more specialized tools in the case of binary files.

Binary Files Use Cases

Here are the most common scenarios for binary file use:

  • Executable programs. Binary files contain executable code and resources that allow the operating system to load and execute the program directly.
  • Images, audio, and video. Multimedia content is stored in binary file formats such as JPEG for images, MP3 for audio, or MP4 for video. These formats minimize the file size by efficiently compressing data while preserving the quality.
  • Databases. Databases store data in binary files as they can efficiently represent a vast array of data types, from simple tables to complex indexes.
  • Computer-aided design (CAD). CAD uses binary files to store design information for engineering, architectural, and design projects, including 3D models and metadata. The binary format supports precise manipulation and rendering of designs.
  • Game files. Video games use binary files since they are optimized for fast loading and rendering by the game engine, contributing to better performance and visual quality.
  • Serialization of data. Binary files are used for serialization – converting data structures into a format that can be stored, transmitted, and reconstructed later. Binary serialization is more compact and faster to process than text-based serialization.
  • System and configuration files. Operating systems and applications use binary files to store settings and configuration data. This allows software to initialize or modify behavior without the overhead of parsing, necessary with text files.
  • Backup and archiving. Binary files are used for backup and archiving since they allow efficient storage for large data volumes.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.