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Bits and Bytes

Bits and Bytes

In a world of computers, everything is digital, and when you get down to it, that means everything is expressed in 1s and 0s.

In order for computers to keep track of all of the 1s and 0s, they group and organize information. They do this for calculating things on a computer, storing pictures on a flash drive, and even liking posts on social media. As for that grouping, it involves bits and bytes, so let’s take a minute to learn all about these important units.

Measuring Digital Information

Knowing how much data something needs or uses is important. For instance, the words you’re reading right now have to be stored somewhere. You also had to download them in order to see them.

Ultimately, they’re stored and transferred in a digital format, meaning they are reduced to a series of 1s and 0s. How many of those 1s and 0s do you need? How do you even measure something like that?

In the world of computers, it’s all done in bits and bytes.

Understanding the Prefixes

Before we get into the details of bits and bytes, we have to cover a little extra information. You’ve probably seen terms like megabyte and gigabit before. While bits and bytes are the base units, mega and giga are prefixes, and they mean something.

These prefixes are expressing very large numbers. In case you don’t remember this lesson from science class, here’s a quick breakdown.

Prefix Number
Kilo (k) 1,000 (thousand)
Mega (M) 1,000,000 (million)
Giga (G) 1,000,000,000 (billion)
Tera (T) 1,000,000,000,000 (trillion)
Peta (P) 10^15 (quadrillion)
Exa (E) 10^18 (quintillion)

What Is a Bit?

Now that the prefixes are out of the way, we can talk about the fundamental units. Bit is actually derived from the term “binary digit.” As such, a bit is the smallest unit of digital data that you can have. It’s just a single 1 or 0, representing a single piece of the information that you are storing or transmitting.

In other words, you have to string a whole bunch of bits together in order to describe anything meaningful in a digital system. That’s why these large prefixes show up so often. A single picture on your phone can be multiple megabits (Mb). It takes that many 1s and 0s to get the job done.

So, that’s what the bit is all about. It’s the smallest chunk of data you can have. And as a final note, a bit is usually represented by a lowercase “b.”

What Is a Byte?

A byte is similar in concept to a bit, but with a clear, fundamental difference. While a bit is a single unit of data, a byte is a single string of data. More precisely, a byte is a string of eight bits.

By grouping bits into bytes, you can organize data more efficiently. This is good for both storage and communication, making the digital handling of information much easier and faster.

Bytes are denoted by a capital “B,” so a megabyte is represented as MB.

Bits vs Bytes

That covers most of what you need to know. A byte is just a group of bits.

With that said, there is a bit of a convention that’s also worth learning. Typically, bits are used to describe data rates while bytes are used to describe storage capacity.

If you’re shopping for storage drives, you’ll usually see the amount of storage listed in bytes (and often terabytes at that). Meanwhile, if you’re checking download speeds from an internet service provider, the numbers are probably listed in bits.

You can always double-check by remembering that bytes use the capital B while bits keep it lowercase. It’s also important to remember that a byte is more than a bit. That also means that a download speed of one Gigabit per second is not as fast as one Gigabyte per second.

If you keep track of these few things, you can use bits and bytes easily and understand the specifications of the devices or services that you’re comparing.

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