digital circuit, electronic circuit that can take on only a finite number of states. That is contrasted with analog circuits, whose voltages or other quantities vary in a continuous manner. Binary (two-state) digital circuits are the most common. The two possible states of a binary circuit are represented by the binary digits, or bits, 0 and 1. The states are also commonly referred to as "on" and "off" or "high" and "low" (see information theory). The simplest forms of digital circuits are built from logic gates, the building blocks of the digital computer. Since most of the physical variables encountered in the real world, e.g., position and temperature, exist in analog form, they are represented electrically by continuously varying currents and voltages in analog circuits. To make digital and analog circuits compatible special converters are used—either analog-to-digital or digital-to-analog depending on the direction of information flow. Digital circuits simulate continuous functions with strings of bits; the more bits that are used, the more accurately the continuous signal can be represented. For example, if 16 bits are used to represent a varying voltage, the signal can be assigned one of more than 65,000 different values. Digital circuits are more immune to noise than analog circuits, and digital signals can be stored and duplicated without degradation (see compact disc). Digital circuits can often manipulate signals more effectively—and less expensively—than analog circuits. Those reasons helped digital systems to succeed over all analog contenders for proposed high-definition television in the United States.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.