Bitfield widths in C/C++ structures

Recently, I learned about a feature in C and C++ that I hadn’t run into before: bit widths for fields in structures. The idea is that you can specify how many bits a particular field should have allocated to it. For example, you can have a field that is only 5 bits wide and therefore only takes values in [0, 32). You could then have a field that is 3 bits wide that is placed next to the first field in memory.

I decided to play around with them a bit, trying to create a packed RGB 565 structure using bitfield widths rather than doing the bitmasking and shifting by hand. I noticed a couple of interesting things in the process:

  1. It’s implementation dependent as to what order the fields show up; left-to-right or right-to-left in memory.
  2. It’s implementation dependent as to whether fields span across type size boundaries.

You can read more in depth details here on cppreference

An example

Here is the code I hacked together to see how it works. There are three versions of basically the same RGB565 structure, but with minor changes, first with field type, and then with order:

#include <cstdio>

struct rgb565_a {
    unsigned char r : 5;
    unsigned char g : 6;
    unsigned char b : 5;
};

struct rgb565_b {
    unsigned short r : 5;
    unsigned short g : 6;
    unsigned short b : 5;
};

struct rgb565_c {
    unsigned short b : 5;
    unsigned short g : 6;
    unsigned short r : 5;
};

template <typename T, typename RawVal>
void printStructInfo() {
    printf("-----------------------------\n");
    printf("sizeof %s = %lu\n", __PRETTY_FUNCTION__, sizeof(T));
    
    T val;
    val.r = 15;
    val.g = 63;
    val.b = 31;

    printf("packed struct contains: %d, %d, %d\n", val.r, val.g, val.b);

    RawVal rawVal = *(RawVal*)&val;
    printf("raw value is 0x%x\n\n\n", rawVal);
}

int main() {
    printStructInfo<rgb565_a, unsigned short>();
    printStructInfo<rgb565_b, unsigned short>();
    printStructInfo<rgb565_c, unsigned short>();
}

Running this with GCC 7.4.0 you get:

 $ g++ ./bitfield_tests.cpp 

 $ ./a.out
-----------------------------
sizeof void printStructInfo() [with T = rgb565_a; RawVal = short unsigned int] = 3
packed struct contains: 15, 63, 31
raw value is 0x3f6f


-----------------------------
sizeof void printStructInfo() [with T = rgb565_b; RawVal = short unsigned int] = 2
packed struct contains: 15, 63, 31
raw value is 0xffef


-----------------------------
sizeof void printStructInfo() [with T = rgb565_c; RawVal = short unsigned int] = 2
packed struct contains: 15, 63, 31
raw value is 0x7fff

What you see is that the first structure is having each field placed into its own byte, not spanning the g field across the first and second bytes.

The second structure shows that the structure is packed little endian on my machine, meaning r is in the lower bits, g in the middle, and b in the upper bits, so actually a BGR565 structure.

The last one is what I actually wanted: 16 bits packed tightly together, with red in the upper bits and blue in the bottom.

Summary

Letting the compiler do the bitmasking and shifting for you looks like a useful feature on the surface, but I’d be careful to have a unit test when using this in production. I’d want to make sure that on any particular architecture I build for, that I would get the raw values that I expect so I wouldn’t end up with red and blue switched around when changing compilers or targets.

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