A Beginner's Guide to Computer Language: C/C++

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Ashley_Buckwell
edited August 2023 in PC Tech

Despite being two of the oldest programming languages, C and C++ are still used in system programming, embedded systems, and real-time apps due to their high performance and low-level control. This article will provide a simple introduction to these two programming languages, along with some basic codes and information on where to learn more.

What is the C programming language?

Developed in the early 1970s by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs, C began its journey by helping to develop the Unix operating system. Today, the C language is a general-purpose and low-level programming language that offers users fine-grained control over hardware and memory, making it popular for system-level programming. A key feature of the C language is that it is structured and modular. This allows users to divide larger programs into smaller, more manageable pieces. It provides users with several basic data types, such as integers, floats, and characters, and also allows users to define their own data types by using structures and unions.

Programs written in C are converted into machine code (i.e., compiled) by a compiler before being executed. Although this makes for fast and efficient programs, it also means that separate versions of C programs must be precompiled for each platform or operating system before being distributed to users. The C programming language profoundly affected the field of computing and influenced many other languages, including C++, Java, Python, and Ruby. With simplicity, power, and portability, C remains popular for developing operating systems (OS), device drivers, and more.

What is the C++ programming language?

C++ is a general-purpose programming language developed as an extension to the C language in the early 1980s by Bjarne Stroustrup at Bell Labs. Unlike C, C++ is an object-driven language, meaning it combines higher-level features of an object-oriented programming language with the low-level control and efficiency of C. C++ can be used with various programming styles, whether as an object-oriented programming language or with a procedural, generic, or functional approach, meaning it is versatile and usable for a range of applications. Like C, it also provides several basic data types, including integers, floats, and characters, and allows users to define custom data types by using classes. 

Just like C, C++ is a compiled language, meaning programs must be translated to machine code by a compiler before being executed. And again, just like C, this makes C++ programs fast and efficient but means they must be precompiled for specific platforms and operating systems.

Thanks to its speed, flexibility, and power, C++ is one of the world’s most popular programming languages and is used to develop operating systems, device drivers, video games, scientific simulations, financial applications, and more. Another benefit of C++ is its compatibility with other programming languages. C++ can be made to work with Python, Java, and Ruby by using language bindings or wrappers provided by certain libraries and frameworks.

C vs C++

What is the difference between C++ and C? The following are some of the key differences between these two languages:

  • Object-oriented programming: C++ integrates object-oriented programming features, while C follows a procedural approach. 
  • Memory management: C++ offers a more sophisticated approach to memory management, including constructors and destructors that are automatically called when objects are created or destroyed. C relies on manual memory management with functions like malloc() and free(). 
  • Containers: The C++ Standard Library includes a richer set of container classes than C, including vectors, lists, sets, maps, and more. 
  • Exception handling: The C++ Standard Library includes support for exceptions, whereas the C Standard Library does not. 
  • I/O Streams: The C++ Standard Library includes I/O stream classes to handle input and output, while the C Standard Library uses a simple file-based I/O approach. 
  • Performance: Generally, C is faster than C++ because it lacks some of the overhead from features like virtual functions and exception handling. 
  • Compatibility: C can be used in C++ programs, but the opposite is not always true, because C++ adds additional features and syntax that are not in C.

What is C++ used for?

C++ can create almost any kind of program. Here are some applications that commonly use the C++ programming language:

  • Operating Systems: Microsoft Windows, MacOS, and Linux are all programmed in C++.
  • Browsers: The rendering engines of various web browsers are programmed in C++ primarily because of the high speed of C++.
  • Libraries: Tensorflow, one of the most widely used machine learning libraries, uses C++ as its backend primarily because of the high performance of C++.
  • Graphics: All graphics applications require fast rendering, just like web browsers do. Programs that perform computer vision processes and high-end digital image processing all use C++ as their backend. Popular games that are heavy on graphics also use C++ as their primary language.
  • Banking applications: Banking applications, which process millions of transactions each day, require high-performance programming languages.
  • Cloud/distributed systems: Large organizations rely on C++ for in-house and cloud storage systems. C++ connects well with hardware and is compatible with a lot of machines.
  • Databases: MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, Oracle, and several other databases have components written in C++. The high performance and low-level memory management control offered by C++ make it ideal for databases.
  • Embedded systems: Medical machines, smartwatches, and IoT devices use C++ because it is close to the hardware level.
  • Compilers: The compilers of various programming languages use C and C++ because they are low-level languages. (C++ has both low-level and high-level functionality.)

Examples of C++ syntax and code

The following are some examples of C++ syntax:

  • #include <iostream>: This is the preprocessor directive to include a header file (in this case the iostream header file).
  • int main(): This marks the first function where the program execution begins.
  • { }: These are common to almost all programming languages and indicate the beginning and end of a function or a method. 
  • //comment: The text or information after the (//) command is not a part of the execution program. It is used before a comment the programmer writes to explain the code.

The following is an example of C++ code. This code prints a name as output:

#include <iostream> 
using namespace std;
// Generic comment: This code prompts the user to enter a name as input and then outputs the entered name. 
int main() 
{ 
 string name;   
 cout << "Enter the name: "; 
 cin >> name;
 cout << "Entered name is: " <<  
          name;  
   return 0; 
} 

C++ Environment Setup

To start coding a program in C++ language on your computer, you will need to have the following:

  • Text editor: Examples of a few text editors are Windows Notepad++, VS Code, Linux Vim, and Atom. Files created with the text editor are called source files, and for C++, they are typically given the extension .cpp
  • C++ compiler: The code written in the text editor (source code) is not machine-readable and needs to be compiled into a final executable program (machine code). The most frequently used and free available compiler is the GNU C/C++ compiler. If you use VS Code, you do not need to download a compiler separately. Visual Studio comes with Microsoft's Visual C++ compiler.

Where can you learn C++?

If you are interested in learning C or C++, check out the following few online coding courses to get started: 

edX: C Programming: Getting Started

This free course teaches the principles of C programming. Students just getting started with C will learn how to write their first programs, make simple computations, print results to the screen, store values in variables, and repeat instructions using loops. Beginners, even those without any programming experience, will be able to immediately start coding in C with the help of simple coding tools that can be accessed through the web browser. 

Coursera: Coding for Everyone: C and C++ Specialization

This free course teaches students how to Code in both C and in C++. Students will gain a deep understanding of computer programming by learning to code, debug, and solve complex problems. 

Udemy: Beginning C++ Programming—From Beginner to Beyond

This is one of the best paid courses for learning C++, object-oriented programming, and various other skills needed for gaming, system, and application development. Created by Tim Buchalka’s Learn Programming Academy and Frank J. Mitropoulos, the course is well-structured and teaches modern C++ features, such as lambda, threading, and templates. This course is worth the investment at $24.99, but beginners should start with one of the others, first, to get a head start before diving into this one. 

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.

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