# Comparing Two Floating-Point Numbers

The mathematician Leopold Kronecker is believed to have said:

God made the integers, all else is the work of man.

And Kronecker didn’t even know the floating-point numbers “made” for computers. Comparing two numbers of type `float` or `double` in C++ and related languages is a source for regular errors. When are the if-conditions in the following code snippet true?

``````float actual = calculate(10.0f, 0.2f, 45); // 10 - 0.2 * 45 = 1
if (actual == 1.0f) {
// is this ever executed?
}
if (actual - 1.0f == 0.0f) {
// is this ever executed?
}``````

The function `calculate` produces the result 10 – 0.2 * 45 = 10 – 9 = 1 – at least for human beings. So, both conditions should be true. However, they are both false.

If we turn on the warning `-Wfloat-equal`, the compiler will warn us that comparing floating point with == or != is unsafe. The compiler tells us what is wrong, but not how to fix it. I’ll explain why the above “solution” is wrong, why another obvious “solution” is nearly as bad, and why even the Qt function `qFuzzyCompare` can still be improved.

## The Setup

The function `calculate` produces the result `start - decrement * count`. The important thing is that each of the subtractions may introduce a rounding error.

``````float calculate(float start, float decrement, int count)
{
for (int i = 0; i < count; ++i)
start -= decrement;
return start;
}``````

The function `testEquality` calls `calculate(x, 0.2f, 45)` for every value from 9.0 to 1009 in steps of 0.1 and produces `actual = x - 9` as the result. It counts how many times the if-condition is true. I’ll try different implementations for the `floatCompare` function in the next sections.

``````void testEquality()
{
const auto total = 10000;
auto count = 0;
for (auto i = 0; i < total; ++i)
{
auto expected = (i / 10.0f);
auto actual = calculate(9.0f + expected, 0.2f, 45);
if (floatCompare(actual, expected))
++count;
}
QCOMPARE(count, total);
}``````

## The Built-In Equality Operator

The first implementation of `floatCompare` is the built-in equality operator for `float`s.

``````bool floatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
return f1 == f2;
}``````

Running the test case yields a disastrous result. Only 0.09% of the comparisons yielded the correct result!

``````FAIL!  : TestCompareFloats::testEquality()
Compared values are not the same
Actual   (count): 9
Expected (10000): 10000``````

For the expected value 1.0, the situation looks as follows:

``expected = 1, actual = 1.000005007, error = 5.006790161e-06``

The actual value has its first non-zero digit in the 6th decimal place. The digits after the decimal point are the rounding error, which is in the order of 1e-06 (10 to the power of -6). The calculation of the actual value introduced some rounding error, whereas the expected value didn’t suffer from a rounding error.

Rounding errors occur, when a number cannot be represented in a finite way. For example, we can represent the fraction 1/5 as a finite decimal number 0.2, but wecannot represent 1/3 as a finite decimal number. It’s 0.3333… with infinitely many 3s after the decimal point.

In the binary system, only fractions with a power of 2 as their denominator like 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 have finite representations. Other fractions like 1/5 = 0.2 and 1/10 = 0.1 only have infinite binary representations. Computers must round these numbers to the next number with a finite representation. Hence, the binary representations of the actual value 1.000005007 and expected value 1 differ and the condition is false.

## Comparisons with Fixed Epsilons

At this point, we probably have some fond memories of our undergraduate course in numerical mathematics. When we check whether `actual` is equal to 1.0, we actually want to check whether `actual` is in a small range around 1.0. In general, we check whether `actual` is in the range from `expected - epsilon` to `expected + epsilon`. `epsilon` is the rounding error, which is a small number. What is a good value for `epsilon`?

The C++ header <limits> provides a constant std::numeric_limits<float>::epsilon() for this purpose. The “standard” epsilon has the value 1.192092896e-07. This is to small for the problem at hand, where the error is roughly 5.0e-06. Just do the simplest thing that could work and use 1.0e-05 for epsilon. The equality function looks like this.

``````bool floatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
return qAbs(f1 - f2) <= 1.0e-05;
}``````

Running the test case yields another surprising result.

``````FAIL!  : TestCompareFloats::testEquality()
Compared values are not the same
Actual   (count): 126
Expected (10000): 10000``````

A meagre 1.26% of all conditions produced the correct the result. That’s still bad, but a lot better than before. The obvious thing is to increase epsilon. Here are the results.

``````1.0-e06    1.0-e05    1.0-e04    1.0e-03
10        126        648      10000 ``````

For once, this worked as expected. But, it doesn’t help us to come up with an idea how to improve the comparison function. Let’s look at successful comparisons for epsilon 1.0-e05. All the comparison from 0.0 to 11.3 were successful. All the other comparisons except for the 14 comparisons from 56.3 to 57.3 and from 248.8 to 249.2 failed.

For epsilon 1.0-e04, the good range is from 0.0 to 62.2. We will see the same behaviour for epsilon 1.0-e03, if we set total to 100,000. Then, the condition will only be true 10,219 times (roughly 10.2%). If we compared numbers are greater than 16,777,216, we will have to use an epsilon greater than 1. It seems that we must choose a bigger epsilon the bigger the absolute values of the compared numbers are.

Let us look at small numbers closer and closer to 0. If the compared numbers are smaller than epsilon, say 1.0e-05, their difference must be smaller than epsilon as well. The comparison will always yield true. It seems that we must choose a smaller epsilon the smaller the absolute values of the compared numbers are.

We can summarise our observations as: Epsilon must adapt to the absolute values of the compared numbers. Using adaptive epsilons for comparing floats is the topic of the next section.

Using adaptive epsilons seems to be a good idea. Should epsilon change proportional to the absolute value of the bigger number or of the smaller number? We choose the bigger number. Then, the implementation of `floatCompare` looks like this:

``````bool floatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
return qAbs(f1 - f2) <= 1.0e-5f * qMax(qAbs(f1), qAbs(f2));
}``````

If we used `qMin` instead of `qMax`, epsilon would be smaller than for the other case. The function `floatCompare` would return true for a smaller range of numbers. The range for `qMin` would be included in the range of `qMax`.

The right-hand side of `operator<=` is the adaptive epsilon. The adaptive epsilon grows, if the maximum of the compared numbers grows. It shrinks, if the maximum shrinks. So, this version of `floatCompare` should do better than the previous versions. Running the test bears this out.

``````FAIL!  : TestCompareFloats::testEquality()
Compared values are not the same
Actual   (count): 9995
Expected (total): 10000``````

99.95% of the comparisons yield the correct result. The five wrong comparisons are:

``````expected          actual              error
0                 4.082918167e-06     4.082918167e-06
0.1000000015      0.1000044793        4.477798939e-06
0.200000003       0.2000040859        4.082918167e-06
0.3000000119      0.3000044823        4.470348358e-06
0.400000006       0.4000040889        4.082918167e-06``````

The Qt function qFuzzyCompare uses adaptive epsilons as well. It uses `qMin` instead of `qMax` and has mulitplied the inequation by the inverse of epsilon.

``````static inline bool qFuzzyCompare(float p1, float p2)
{
return (qAbs(p1 - p2) * 100000.f <=
qMin(qAbs(p1), qAbs(p2)));
}``````

Not surprisingly, `qFuzzyCompare` yields the same result as our latest version of `floatCompare` – with the same five wrong comparisons.

## Improving qFuzzyCompare

I am sure that the five wrong comparisons left over from the last section bother you as much as they bother me. If we used the fixed epsilon 1.0e-05 for the bad five, they would turn good. And, that’s the idea for a pragmatic solution. If two numbers are very close and, hence, the absolute value of their difference is smaller than epsilon, then these two numbers should be considered equal.

``````bool floatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
if (qAbs(f1 - f2) <= 1.0e-5f)
return true;
return qAbs(f1 - f2) <= 1.0e-5f * qMax(qAbs(f1), qAbs(f2));
}``````

Running the test case yields a 100% score! `floatCompare` computed all comparisons correctly – including a comparison with 0.

The documentation of `qFuzzyCompare` advises us to add to 1.0f to the compared numbers or to turn to `qFuzzyIsNull`, if one of the compared numbers may be 0 or . This is a bit tedious, often hard to apply and easy to forget. The next test confirms the behaviour of `floatCompare`, `qFuzzyIsNull` and `qFuzzyCompare`, if the expected value is 0.

``````void testIsZero()
{
auto actual = calculate(9.0f, 0.2f, 45);
QVERIFY(floatCompare(actual, 0.0f));  // PASS
QVERIFY(qFuzzyIsNull(actual));        // PASS
QVERIFY(qFuzzyCompare(actual, 0.0f)); // FAIL
}``````

We can implement `floatCompare` using `qFuzzyCompare` and `qFuzzyIsNull`.

``````bool qFloatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
if (qFuzzyIsNull(qAbs(f1 - f2)))
return true;
return qFuzzyCompare(f1, f2);
}``````

## Conclusion

Do not under any circumstances use `==` or `!=` to compare two `float` or `double` numbers. The comparison result will almost never be what you expect.

Do not use a fixed-epsilon check like qAbs(f1 – f2) <= 1.0e-05f. The results are only marginally better than with `==` or `!=`.

Use the adaptive-epsilon check of `qFuzzyCompare` with a lot of caution. We saw a very simple example, where `qFuzzyCompare` produced wrong comparison results – and not just comparisons with 0.

Use this more robust implementation for comparing floating-point numbers.

``````bool floatCompare(float f1, float f2) const
{
static constexpr auto epsilon = 1.0e-05f;
if (qAbs(f1 - f2) <= epsilon)
return true;
return qAbs(f1 - f2) <= epsilon * qMax(qAbs(f1), qAbs(f2));
}``````

It is not entirely fool-proof but it is much more reliable than `qFuzzyCompare`. We can improve its reliabilty even more, if we adapt epsilon to the accuracy requirements of our specific applications. If two decimal places are good enough, then we should change epsilon to 0.01.

The best solution is not to use floating-point numbers at all. Fixed-point numbers are an excellent alternative. A fixed-point number is roughly an integer with a scaling factor (e.g., 100 for 2 decimal places). Comparisons are integer comparisons. Interestingly, machines use fixed-point numbers to send their values over networks to other machines, display computers, the cloud or PCs. Unfortunately, the receiving code almost always converts them into `float` and `double`.

## References

I learned a lot from Bruce Dawson’s excellent post Comparing Floating Point Numbers, 2012 Edition. The post is a part of a series about floating-point numbers. The links to the other parts of the series are at the beginning of the post. If you want to know more about floating-point numbers, Bruce’s series is the right starting point.