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Binary file

Binary file definition

A binary file is a file with data not intended to be read by humans, often consisting of binary values (combinations of 0s and 1s). Binary files are vital components of many areas of computing, such as software applications, database management, and gaming. Examples of binary files include images, audio and video files, executable files, and data archives.

See also: binary format

How binary files work

  • Unlike text files that store data as readable characters, binary files store data in the same format the computer’s processor uses.
  • They can represent various data types — images, audio, video, executable programs, and more.
  • Only specialized software or programs can read or write to a binary file. A simple text editor won't interpret a binary file correctly.
  • Since they store data in a compact format, they can be more efficient with storage space and reading or writing speeds.
  • The content of a binary file can only be correctly interpreted when the format (or structure) of the file is known. For example, a .jpg and a .mp3 might be binary files, but their internal structures differ.

Who uses binary files?

  • Software developers. They deal with binary files when writing, compiling, and executing programs.
  • Web developers. While they often work with text files (like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), they also handle binary files (e.g., images) embedded into websites.
  • Graphic designers. They work with image formats like JPEG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF — all binary files.
  • System administrators. They often use binary files when managing system backups and software installations.
  • Database administrators. Databases, especially with large volumes of data, are often kept as binary files, so it’d be easier to retrieve.
  • Network engineers. Tools that capture network traffic save data in binary formats for analysis.
  • Forensic experts. When analyzing digital evidence, experts encounter binary files, which might contain crucial data.
  • End users. Even if they don't know it, computer and smartphone users interact with binary files. Opening a photo, listening to a song, watching a video, or even launching an app involves accessing binary files.