Some of the first microprocessors had a 4-bit word length and were developed around 1970. The TMS 1000, the world's first single-chipmicroprocessor, was a 4-bit CPU; it had a Harvard architecture, with an on-chip instruction ROM, 8-bit-wide instructions and an on-chip data RAM with 4-bit words. The first commercial microprocessor was the binary-coded decimal (BCD-based) Intel 4004, developed for calculator applications in 1971; it had a 4-bit word length, but had 8-bit instructions and 12-bit addresses.
The HP Saturn processors, used in many Hewlett-Packard calculators between 1984 and 2003 (including the HP 48 series of scientific calculators) are "4-bit" (or hybrid 64-/4-bit) machines; as the Intel 4004 did, they string multiple 4-bit words together, e.g. to form a 20-bit memory address, and most of the registers are 64 bits wide, storing 16 4-bit digits.
The 4-bit processors were programmed in assembly language or Forth, e.g. "MARC4 Family of 4 bit Forth CPU" because of the extreme size constraint on programs and because common programming languages (for microcontrollers, 8-bit and larger), such as the C programming language, do not support 4-bit data types (C requires that the size of the char data type be at least 8 bits, and that all data types other than bitfields have a size that is a multiple of the character size). While larger than 4-bit values can be used by combining more than one manually, the language has to support the smaller values used in the combining. If not, assembly is the only option.[dubious – discuss]
The 1970s saw the emergence of 4-bit software applications for mass markets like pocket calculators. During the 1980s 4-bit microprocessor were used in handheld electronic games to keep costs low.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of research and commercial computers used bit slicing, in which the CPU's arithmetic logic unit (ALU) was built from multiple 4-bit-wide sections, each section including a chip such as an Am2901 or 74181 chip.
While 32- and 64-bit processors are more prominent in modern consumer electronics, 4-bit CPUs continue to be used (usually as part of a microcontroller) in cost-sensitive applications that require minimal computing power. For example, one bicycle computer specifies that it uses a "4-bit 1-chip microcomputer". Other typical uses include coffee makers, infrared remote controls, and security alarms.
Use of 4-bit processors has declined relative to 8-bit or even 32-bit processors, as they are hard to find cheaper in general computer suppliers' stores. The simplest kinds are not available in any of them, and others are "non-stock" and more expensive. (A few expensive ones can be found, as of 2014[update], on eBay.)
Electronics stores still carry, as of 2014[update], non-CPU/non-MCU 4-bit chips, such as counters.
With 4 bits, it is possible to create 16 different values. All single-digit hexadecimal numbers can be written with four bits. Binary-coded decimal is a digital encoding method for numbers using decimal notation, with each decimal digit represented by four bits.