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What Are Bits and Bytes

Those who are fairly new to the world of computer technology are often overwhelmed by the talk of bits, bytes, megabytes and gigabytes etc. Bytes are a basic unit of measurement for a quantity of data and understanding these measurements is especially important when it comes to hardware specifications. Bytes are sometimes confused as bits, especially when it comes to discussion about Internet speeds which are measured in megabits per second rather than megabytes.

In the world of computing, a single byte consists of eight binary digits, known as "bits." Binary digits are zeros and ones. A single byte, consisting of eight bits can represent one of 256 different values (2 ^ 8.) A single byte is commonly referred to as representing a single letter or number. With 256 possible values, this is enough to cover every letter and number in the Latin alphabet as well as many additional symbols. Languages which have a great deal more symbols, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean need to use different character encoding methods which use two bytes to represent each character.

Bytes are loosely based on a metric system. You'll often hear the terms kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes. It's a common misconception, however, that a kilobyte is equal to 1,000 bytes and a megabyte is equal to 1,000,000 bytes etc. A kilobyte is actually 2 ^ 10 or 1,024 bytes while a megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes, a gigabyte is 1,024 megabytes and a terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes.

You'll not see bytes themselves referred to in computer and hardware specifications in most cases. Today, you'll most frequently hear the terms megabytes and gigabytes. Even megabytes are becoming a less commonly used term as computers start to use memory in the gigabytes instead. Disk capacities are generally measured in gigabytes, although today's hard disks are often one or two terabytes in size.

To give you an idea of bytes in everyday use, consider file size. The average MP3 audio file, for example, is around four megabytes in size or 4,194,304 bytes. Today's hard disks are enormous enough to store tens of thousands of tracks. Video files are much larger, weighing in at around 700 megabytes for a standard-definition movie and upwards of four gigabytes for a high-definition movie recorded at 1080p.


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