Compiler vs. Interpreter (With Definitions and Differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 22 November 2022

Published 30 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Compilers and interpreters are computer programmes that transform programming instructions into code that computers can understand. Knowing more about compilers and interpreters will help you better decide which is more suitable for your programming needs. In this article, we explain the differences between compilers vs interpreters and describe the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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Compiler vs. interpreter

To understand the differences between a compiler and an interpreter, it's important to first examine their individual definitions. A compiler is a programme that transforms high-level programming code into machine code that computers can process.

An interpreter also translates lines of code into machine code but does this translation one at a time. This means that an interpreted code may run slower than a compiled code.

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How do compilers work?

Computer programmers write their programmes with words or phrases in common languages. But this language cannot be understood by computer processors, which can only process binary language or machine code. Compilers translate programming language into another language understood by computers.

Compilers are so named because of the way they work - they compile all lines of code together and transform them into machine code all at once. Compilers usually use programming languages such as C, C++ and Java.

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How do interpreters work?

Interpreters perform a similar function, translating lines of code into machine code. However, interpreters perform this translation one line at a time. As a result, interpreted code typically runs at a lower speed than compiled code.

Interpreters use programming languages such as JavaScript, Ruby and Python.

Differences between compilers vs interpreters

While they both translate code, there are differences in how compilers and interpreters achieve this goal. Here are some areas where compilers and interpreters differ:

Speed

Compilers can scan an entire programme and convert a large batch of code at once, which streamlines the translation process. Interpreters translate code line by line, which results in a slower process.

Memory

The term 'capacity' refers to the amount of computer memory programmes require in order to perform their roles. Compilers require a lower capacity as they analyse their source code in large batches. Interpreters usually require higher memory capacities to store large amounts of data.

Error rectification

If there are errors in the source code, compilers would generate an error message but continue translating the complete batch of code. After encountering the error message, programmers would have to sift through the entire batch of code to detect where the error lies.

Interpreters, on the other hand, stop working as soon as they detect an error, which makes it easier for programmers to identify where the error is.

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Advantages and disadvantages of compilers

Here are some benefits of using compilers:

  • Faster run speed: Compiling runs quickly, as it takes less time to execute the code.

  • Greater optimisation: When compilers optimise code more quickly and take up less memory space than interpreters. This means that they can increase the speed and efficiency of new programmes.

  • More robust: Compilers can detect more types of computer bugs than interpreters.

Here are some disadvantages of using compilers:

  • More tedious: It is harder to identify and rectify code errors with compilers as they translate code in large batches.

  • Less portability: When programmers compile source code there's limited portability, as the machine code is specific to the processor's architecture.

Advantages and disadvantages of interpreters

Here are some advantages of using interpreters:

  • Higher level of accuracy: Interpreters can spot errors quickly and alert programmers to their existence. This may increase programme accuracy by helping developers fine-tune their work.

  • More flexibility: Interpreted languages are usually flexible and programmers can easily edit them. Beginner developers may find it easier to work with interpreters.

  • Greater portability: Interpreted programmes can run on multiple platforms and can operate independently.

Here are some disadvantages of using interpreters:

  • Slower run speed: Interpreters have a slower run speed as they translate each line of code individually.

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Benefits of interpreters for beginners

If you're new to computer programming, it is probably better to start with an interpreter. Here are some reasons:

  • More user-friendly syntax: Interpreters produce language with more user-friendly syntax.

  • Greater room for exploration: As it's relatively easier to identify and rectify errors with interpreters, beginner developers can do more exploration without the burden of starting over from the beginning whenever errors occur.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organizations mentioned in this article is affiliated with Indeed.

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