Find the number of set bits in a given Integer N.


At the first look the problem looks like a simple AND & operation query. Check for each bit whether it is set or not, and then return the value back. For an 2-byte value, it would take 16 operations, and for a 4-byte value 32-operations to find the number of set bits. In other words for any given Integer N, the operation will be O(constant) in terms of time-complexity. Can this time complexity be reduced further?

The answer is YES. The bitwise boolean operations help us in checking if a certain bit is on or not. Say for a given binary number 0010 stored as n, we do n & (-n), it would return us a value of 2 indicating that the current least most bit that is set represents 2 in decimal. For a number like 0110, the first operation will bring us a value of 2. If we subtract 2 from the original number, we get 0100 and now running the same operation results in a value of 4 (the next least set bit).

We can use the same principle along with recursion to find out the number of set bits in a given number. Keep finding the least set bit, subtract from the original number (reducing it every time) and keep counting. This way if a 4-byte number has only 1 bit set, we take only 1 operation to find the same, rather than 32, reducing our time complexity drastically.

 * Copyright (C) 2011, Sandeep Gupta
 * The file is licensed under the the Apache License, Version 2.0
 * (the "License"); you may not use this file except in compliance with
 * the License.  You may obtain a copy of the License at
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public class Bits {
 public static void main(String[] args) {
 private static int bits(int n) {
  if(n == 0) {
   return 0;
  int sub = n & -n;
  return 1 + bits(n - sub);

Hope this helps.