Understanding the Difference Between Bits and Bytes
13:19 05 September 2019
There’s a lot of weird jargon on the internet. TLDR, stan, TBH, IDK, the list goes on and on, to the point where it feels like you need to learn an entirely new language. Then in some cases, you learn what the word or acronym means, and it’s still not quite clear. This is particularly true when it comes to bits and bytes.
Bits and bytes play a large role in everything from your internet speeds to your file sizes, so it’s often important that you understand how they work. If you’re struggling to understand the difference between bits and bytes, here’s what you need to know.
Definition of Bits and Bytes
A “bit” is short for “binary digit”. At their most basic level, computers operate by sending millions of yes or no signals at any given moment, represented by either a 1 or a 0. This code is called binary, and each signal is called a bit.
Typically, these bits are grouped together to form instructions or store data. A group of 8 bits is known as a byte, and it’s the most common size for bit groupings. Everything your computer does or is capable of doing, breaks down to a very long list of bytes. Since there are 256 possible combinations of bits that can make up a byte, this was sufficient to represent each letter of the alphabet, both capitalized and lowercase, along with all numbers and symbols in Western languages. As computers have expanded into other languages, the use of multiple bytes has become common to represent the required characters.
Why You Need to Know About Bits and Bytes
In your day to day life, you probably don’t need to worry too much about the inner workings of your computer. As long as it starts up and allows you to do work or connect online, you’re satisfied. However, knowing a little about bits and bytes can help you in two important areas.
The first is with file size. Your computer only has so much storage space available. By paying attention to the sizes of any files you download or add to your computer, you can keep better track of how much space it’s taking up. Knowing file sizes is also important if you want to share files online, as some places will limit the size of attachments that you can send.
The other important place that bits and bytes show up is with your internet speed. By now you’ve likely come across them, even if you didn’t quite understand what they represented. Data sizes are typically given in bytes, while broadband speeds are measured in bits. By knowing how these two work together, you can estimate things like your upload or download speeds.
For example, let’s say you have a file that is 20 megabytes (MBs) in size, and you want to download it with your 20 megabits per second internet connection. At first glance, this may seem like it would take one second, but that isn’t the case. Remember that each byte is 8 bits, so you need to multiply by 8. So for this example, in theory, your download would take 8 seconds.
Converting Bits to Bytes, and Bytes to Bits
If you don’t mind doing some math in your head, you can convert bytes to bits by multiplying by 8. To go the other way, from bits to bytes, you would simply divide by 8. Of course, the numbers won’t always be easy, so you may not want to do these calculations in your head. Luckily, there are some great tools online that you can use, or you can break out your calculate. Here’s one great source to convert bytes and bits to get you started.
Related Terms to Know
More often than not you won’t see things measured in simple bits and bytes. That’s because our computers are much more advanced now, and as such, they use thousands of bytes at a time just to perform simple actions. Instead, you’ll likely see terms such as:
- Kilobyte (KB) - 1,024 bytes
- Megabyte (MB) - 1,024 kilobytes
- Gigabyte (BG) - 1,024 megabytes
- Terabyte (TB) - 1,024 gigabytes
- Kilobit (kb) - 1,024 bits
- Megabit (Mb) - 1,024 kilobits
- Gigabit (Gb) - 1,024 megabits
As you can see, the number of bits and bytes can grow quite large. If you want to convert from similar types - for example, from a megabyte to a megabit - multiplying or dividing by 8 still works. However, going from different sizes can be a bit trickier, in which case you’ll want to take advantage of the internet conversion tools mentioned above. You should also take note of how bits and bytes are capitalized in their abbreviations to help you recognize which one is being discussed.
Using Your New Found Understanding of Bits and Bytes
Unless you work closely with computers every day, you probably won’t need a deep understanding of bits and bytes. But now that you know how the two interact with one another, and how to convert them, you may find a few things in your daily life that make a little more sense. And the next time you want to estimate how long it will take a file to download need help deciding on what broadband speed package to get, or how big of an external hard drive you need, you’ll have a better understanding of what to do.