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A quick guide to bits and bytes

a whimsical illustration of a character pushing a speed bar on a screen with the word 'loading' showing.
Broadband connections are all about data. When we go online and use the internet, we’re constantly moving packets of data up and down that connection.

This data and the speed of its flow uses units of measurement to quantify or describe it.

If you’re not a tech expert, this article will break down and define some of the more complicated computer science terms to help you.

Bits and bytes: the key points

  • A bit is a single unit of information used in computer systems to represent numbers
  • One byte (B) is made up of a number of bits (b) so this difference in scale matters
  • Broadband speed is measured in bits (megabits, gigabits), as opposed to bytes
  • Broadband data download allowance or monthly limits are measured in bytes

Most generally, bits and bytes are used to describe file sizes, read/write rates for data storage and data transfer.

You may have traditionally seen them used to show the amount of computer storage or computer memory. We always tended to associate them with the storage capacity of devices like a hard drive or a flash drive, for example.

For broadband, these measurements are specific to data download amounts and connection speeds. As most home broadband packages now offer unlimited data, for the most part, you'll only need to worry about speed.

Take a glance at these broadband deals below. We've include two of the fastest packages currently available, and two of the slowest. Note how the speeds are measured:

Dynamic deal panel
Dynamic deal panel

What's bigger - a Gb or Kb?

It’s important to define the two properly. A ‘Kb’ refers to a kilobit, with ‘Gb’ referring to a gigabit (not kilobytes (KB) or gigabytes (GB)).

Either way, a ‘kilo’ is around a thousand in decimal terms. Meanwhile, a ‘mega’ is around a million and a ‘giga’ weighs in at around a billion.

By this scale, we can confidently say that one billion bits is bigger than one thousand bits:

1 Gigabit (1 Gb) > 1 Kilobit (1 kb)

Answer: a Gb is bigger than a Kb.

What is bigger - a MB or kB?

Whether we’re dealing with bits or bytes, the same scale can be applied. Once we know that ‘mega’ denotes million and ‘kilo’ represents a thousand, the answer is pretty simple.

One million bytes is certainly bigger than one thousand bytes...by a factor of 1000:

  • 1 Megabyte (MB) > 1 Kilobyte (kB)

Things start to get more complex when comparing amounts between bits and bytes. So for example, if the question compared megabytes with kilobits, some various answers could be:

  • 1 Megabyte (MB) > 1 Kilobit (kb)
  • 1 Megabyte (MB) = 8000 Kilobits (kb)
  • 1 Megabyte < 9000 Kilobits (kb)

The short answer? One Megabyte is larger than one Kilobyte.

What’s the difference between a bit and a byte?

Crucially, a bit is a smaller unit of data than a byte. A byte is a larger unit of digital information that’s made up of eight (x8) smaller bits.

A bit is the smallest unit of digital information and the smallest unit of memory that a computer can work with. It basically can hold just two states or binary digits, either 1 (on) or 0 (off) like a switch. These tiny bit values are then combined using the binary system of numbers to store and compute data.

Any units of measure that prefix bit or byte will naturally follow this rule of scale; a Kilobit (kb) is smaller than a Kilobyte (kB), for example.

As an extra fun fact, a ‘nibble’ is a term used to describe half of a byte or just four (x4) bits in length.

  • A round-up of other data sizes

    Rest assured, you only really need to know the basic measures we’ve already covered. Here are some other terms you may or may not have heard of:

    Terabyte (TB): One terabyte (TB) equates to around one trillion bytes or one thousand (1000) gigabytes.

    Petabyte (PT): A petabyte is equivalent to 1000 terabytes.

    Exabyte (EB): An exabyte is 1000 petabytes.

    Zettabyte (ZB): Equal to 1000 exabytes.

    Yottabyte (YB): Equal to 1000 zettabytes.

    Kibibyte (KiB): A binary prefix for describing 1024 bytes. If you’re scratching your head, just think of it as the binary equivalent of a kilobyte.

    Mebibyte (MiB): Binary prefix for 1,048,576 bytes.

    Gibibyte (GiB): Binary prefix for 1,073,741,824 bytes.

    It’s worth noting that none of these terms are ever used to describe broadband data or speeds. We have included them in case you're interested. It's just for fun! Don’t worry if you find them confusing!

Bits, bytes and broadband speeds

Broadband speed is really all about bits. What matters most is how many bits travel at speed down our connection. It’s this bandwidth rate that maximises performance.

This speed applies to our Wi-Fi network, the router, and the type of broadband connection being accessed.

Most fibre broadband packages quote megabits per second (Mbps) to rate average connection speed. Superfast full-fibre packages also use gigabits per second (Gbps) to stress the increased speeds.

At Broadband Genie, you’ll often find these speeds abbreviated to ‘Mb’ and ‘Gb’, with a lowercase ‘b’.

You can test your own broadband connection with our online speed test which reads download and upload rates in megabits per second. To use this calculator, you'll need to set your download speed to 'Mbit per second'. It means the same thing. Quite simply, the more Megabits here, the faster the speed.

If you need more advice on this, follow our more detailed guide to broadband speeds.

Expert Summary

For the average broadband customer and user, bits and bytes can be kept pretty simple.

By remembering that speed is measured in bits, you’re halfway there. Bytes are only used to measure downloads, which only matters if your package has a data limit, like mobile broadband.

How these things represent numbers and our data isn’t really a concern. For the most part, we just care about how many bits travel per second along our connection.

This rate will continue to be gauged in megabits (Mb) and gigabits (Gb) for the foreseeable future, with the latter always indicating superior, faster speeds.

Meet the author:

Contributor

After editing 80+ issues of Future Publishing's Web Designer magazine, Mark turned freelance in 2012. Since then he has contributed technology and consumer copy for clients including GetApp, Stackify, Totaljobs and FXhome.


Broadband specialist subject: Tips for broadband users

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