When we want to know how much space a document will take up on a storage drive, like your hard drive, we measure it in bytes. Bytes are the standard measurement unit when it comes to sizes and capacity.
A byte is very small, and most files will be considerably larger. A single byte can only hold 8 bits of binary code. Binary code is just a string of 1s and 0s, so a single byte can hold 8 of these 1s and 0s, so for example 10011000 would be 1 byte of information.
The next step up is a kilobyte (KB) which colloquially is 1000 bytes, but to be exact, it is 1024 bytes. Even though this means a kilobyte can hold an impressive 8192 (1024×8) bits of information, it is still considered a very small size.
After that is probably the most well-known unit of megabytes (MB) which is 1000 (or 1024 to be exact) kilobytes. Going up again we have gigabytes (GB) which again is 1024 times larger than a megabyte. For the purposes of this article we will go up one more (there are bigger measurements) to a terabyte (TB) which is again 1024 times larger than a gigabyte.
To recap –
8 bits per 1 byte. 1024 bytes to a kilobyte. 1024 kilobytes to a megabyte. 1024 megabytes to a gigabyte. 1024 gigabytes to a terabyte.
Needless to say, that’s a lot of bits of information that can be held by a terabye. Well, 8,796,093,022,208 to be exact.
Terabytes haven’t been well known to the public for long, but over the last few years hard drives can regularly surpass 1 terabytes in capacity, meaning most people have now heard of it. Back when hard drives rarely surpassed 1 or 2 gigabytes in size, not many were probably familiar with terabytes. The same could be said about gigabytes when hard drives rarely surpassed a handful of megabytes in size, though that seems like so long ago now!
These days most music files can be anywhere between 5-15MB in size and modern video games often require over 1GB of your hard drive space to install correctly.
What about megabits?
It is important not to get megabytes mixed up with megabits. The same applies to kilobytes to kilobits and gigabytes to gigabits. They refer to different things.
As we mentioned above, 8 bits (i.e. 1s and 0s) is 1 byte. Meaning a bit is 8 times smaller than a byte. The same applies to megabits, which are 8 times smaller than megabytes. If you see something measured in megabits, if it most likely referring to speed, not a file size.
Megabits are usually affixed to the per/second measurement. So you may see a broadband company asserting their speeds are 16 megabits per second. This doesn’t mean it can download 16 megaBYTES per second!! It means it can – potentially – download 16 megaBITS per second. Now we know megabits are 8 times smaller than megabytes, so we can simply divide 16 by 8 to make 2 – meaning 16 megabits per second is 2 megabytes per second.
We hope you followed that. Give it another read if not. You’ll get it, we promise!
It would perhaps be easier if broadband companies measured speed in megabytes as well to make it clearer to those not technically inclined, but alas that is not the way it is done.