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The Decimal structure is strictly geared to financial calculations requiring accuracy, which are relatively intolerant of rounding. Decimals are not adequate for scientific applications, however, for several reasons:

  • A certain loss of precision is acceptable in many scientific calculations because of the practical limits of the physical problem or artifact being measured. Loss of precision is not acceptable in finance.
  • Decimal is much (much) slower than float and double for most operations, primarily because floating point operations are done in binary, whereas Decimal stuff is done in base 10 (i.e. floats and doubles are handled by the FPU hardware, such as MMX/SSE, whereas decimals are calculated in software).
  • Decimal has an unacceptably smaller value range than double, despite the fact that it supports more digits of precision. Therefore, Decimal can't be used to represent many scientific values.
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Precision is the main difference.

Float - 7 digits (32 bit)

Double-15-16 digits (64 bit)

Decimal -28-29 significant digits (128 bit)

Decimals have much higher precision and are usually used within financial applications that require a high degree of accuracy. Decimals are much slower (up to 20X times in some tests) than a double/float.

Decimals and Floats/Doubles cannot be compared without a cast whereas Floats and Doubles can. Decimals also allow the encoding or trailing zeros.

float flt = 1F/3;
double dbl = 1D/3;
decimal dcm = 1M/3;
Console.WriteLine("float: {0} double: {1} decimal: {2}", flt, dbl, dcm);

Result :

float: 0.3333333  
double: 0.333333333333333  
decimal: 0.3333333333333333333333333333
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float and double are floating binary point types. In other words, they represent a number like this:

10001.10010110011

The binary number and the location of the binary point are both encoded within the value.

decimal is a floating decimal point type. In other words, they represent a number like this:

12345.65789

Again, the number and the location of the decimal point are both encoded within the value – that's what makes decimal still a floating point type instead of a fixed point type.

The important thing to note is that humans are used to representing non-integers in a decimal form, and expect exact results in decimal representations; not all decimal numbers are exactly representable in binary floating point – 0.1, for example – so if you use a binary floating point value you'll actually get an approximation to 0.1. You'll still get approximations when using a floating decimal point as well – the result of dividing 1 by 3 can't be exactly represented, for example.

As for what to use when:

  • For values which are "naturally exact decimals" it's good to use decimal. This is usually suitable for any concepts invented by humans: financial values are the most obvious example, but there are others too. Consider the score given to divers or ice skaters, for example.

  • For values which are more artefacts of nature which can't really be measured exactly anyway, float/double are more appropriate. For example, scientific data would usually be represented in this form. Here, the original values won't be "decimally accurate" to start with, so it's not important for the expected results to maintain the "decimal accuracy". Floating binary point types are much faster to work with than decimals.

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