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The Difference between Analog and Digital Electronics

All of electronics can be divided into two broad categories: analog and digital. One of the most common examples of the difference between analog and digital devices is a clock. On the analog clock, the time is represented by hands that spin around a dial and point to a location on the dial that represents the approximate time. On a digital clock, a numeric display indicates the exact time.

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Analog refers to circuits in which quantities such as voltage or current vary at a continuous rate. When you turn the dial of a potentiometer, for example, you change the resistance by a continuously varying rate. The resistance of the potentiometer can be any value between the minimum and maximum allowed by the pot.

If you create a voltage divider by placing a fixed resistor in series with a potentiometer, the voltage at the point between the fixed resistor and the potentiometer increases or decreases smoothly as you turn the knob on the potentiometer.

In digital electronics, quantities are counted rather than measured. There’s an important distinction between counting and measuring. When you count something, you get an exact result. When you measure something, you get an approximate result.

Consider a cake recipe that calls for 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of milk, and 2 eggs. To get 2 cups of flour, you scoop some flour into a 1-cup measuring cup, pour the flour into the bowl, and then do it again. To get a cup of milk, you pour milk into a liquid measuring cup until the top of the milk lines up with the 1-cup line printed on the measuring cup and then pour the milk into the mixing bowl. To get 2 eggs, you count out 2 eggs, crack them open, and add them to the mixing bowl.

The measurements for flour and milk in this recipe are approximate. A teaspoon too much or too little won’t affect the outcome. But the eggs are precisely counted: exactly 2. Not 3, not 1, not 11/2, but 2. You can’t have a teaspoon too many or too few eggs. There will be exactly 2 eggs, because you count them.

So which is more accurate — analog or digital? In one sense, digital circuits are more accurate because they count with complete precision. You can precisely count the number of jelly beans in a jar, for example.

But if you weigh the jar by putting it on an analog scale, your reading may be a bit imprecise because you can’t always judge the exact position of the needle. Say that the needle on the scale is about halfway between 4 pounds and 5 pounds. Does the jar weigh 4.5 pounds or 4.6 pounds? You can’t tell for sure, so you settle for approximately 4.5 pounds.

On the other hand, digital circuits are inherently limited in their precision because they must count in fixed units. Most digital thermometers, for example, have only one digit to the right of the decimal point. Thus, they can indicate a temperature of 98.6 or 98.7 but can’t indicate 98.65.

Here are a few other thoughts to ponder concerning the differences between digital and analog systems:

  • Saying that a system is digital isn’t the same as saying that it’s binary. Binary is a particular type of digital system in which the counting is all done with the binary number system. Nearly all digital systems are also binary systems, but the two words aren’t interchangeable.

  • Many systems are a combination of binary and analog systems. In a system that combines binary and analog values, special circuitry is required to convert from analog to digital, or vice versa. An input voltage (analog) might be converted to a sequence of pulses, one for each volt; then the pulses can be counted to determine the voltage.

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