Bits and Bytes, the difference


Have you wondered (or just forgotten) what a bit and a byte really are? Let’s take a look at each, and learn what the differences are, how they are used, what they can represent, and how they are prevalent within the wonderful world of technology.

Bits – where it starts

Bits are the smallest unit of data in computing. They are the basic building blocks of all digital data and are used to encode and manipulate data at the lowest, basic level. Just as you’re reading this article that is filled with words, a computer needs a way to “read” data that is sent to it. Instead of words, computers use only two “words”; 0’s which is considered off and 1’s which is on

Bytes – units of data

Bytes represent units of digital information that most commonly consist of eight bits. In other words, a common structure for data involves stringing 8 bits together to form a byte which is a unit of digital information. Remember that bits can be a 0 (off) and 1 (on). That means because one byte has 8 bits, a byte can represent 256 different values (2^8). In other words, 8 bits which can be either 0 or 1, make up one byte, which gives us a combination of 256 possible variations. Here’s an easier way to look at it:

Possible values; 0 or 122222222=256

Since there are a possible 256 combinations in every byte, it allows for a wide variety of letters, numbers or symbols. A byte is the standard unit for measuring digital data. For example, file sizes, memory capacity and data transfer rates are usually measured in bytes, or multiples thereof.


Kilobyte (KB)1024 bytes = 2^10
Megabyte (MB)1024 KB = 2^20
Gigabyte (GB)1024 MB = 2^30
Terabyte (TB)1024 GB = 2^40
Petabyte (PB)1024 TB = 2^50
Exabyte (EB)1024 PB = 2^60

Use cases and real world examples

When talking about data storage like hard drives (HDDs and SSDs) and RAM (random access memory), they are measured in bytes. For example, a 256GB SSD can store 256 billion bytes of data. Regarding RAM, we use bytes to describe its capacity, like 8GB of RAM.

Regarding data transfer rates, such as internet speeds or file transfer rates, we often use BITS per second. For example, 100Mbps (megaBITS per second connection) can transfer 100 million bits per second. You may be asking yourself why data transfer is done in bits. For multiple reasons that I won’t delve too deep into. In short, technical accuracy since not all data packets are the same size, marketing (bigger numbers are perceived as faster speeds), and old habits die hard – it’s how data was measured in the early days of telecommunications.

I’m going to forget….

If you’re worried you’re going to forget what a bit is and what a byte is, not to worry! You won’t forget because here are several mnemonic techniques.

  1. Think alphabetical order: bit comes before byte, start small and combine to get bigger. Bit comes before byte because you use bits to make bytes
  2. Binary basics: bi – means two, binary involves two states 0 (off) and 1 (on). Think of bits as the fundamental binary units
  3. Burgers! Think of bits as the individual sesame seeds on a hamburger bun. Bytes make up the entire burger. 


We’ve learned the differences between bits and bytes, what they are and how they work. Please leave a comment with your thoughts, any questions or helpful mnemonic techniques you have for memorizing bits vs bytes! As always, thank you for reading!

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