A byte is a unit of digital information used in computer processing and storage. A standard byte is made of eight binary digits, which are called bits. Originally, bytes could consist of any number of bits, such as six-bit bytes, but eventually, the standard byte was set at 8 bits.
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How much is a byte?
A byte is a measurement of data that contains eight bits, which is the smallest increment of data on a computer. It’s the smallest addressable unit of memory in most computer architectures, and network protocol documents such as the Internet Protocol refer to an 8-bit byte as an octet. A single byte can be used to represent 2 to the 8th or 256 different values.
Individually, bytes contain little storage. Therefore, the processing and storage capacities of computer hardware are expressed in powers of ten—the traditional kilo-, mega-, giga, tera…— or in powers of two typically in gigabytes (GB) and terabytes (TB).
When referring to file sizes, the prefixes preceding the word “byte” help identify much data is contained within. Commonly used prefixes include:
- Kilobyte (KB): A small email without images is approximately 2 KB.
- Megabyte (MB): A song is approximately 3-4 MB.
- Gigabyte (GB): A standard DVD may hold up to 4.7 GB of data.
- Terabyte (TB): 500 hours worth of movies or 310,000 pictures is a TB.
- Petabyte (PB): 500 billion pages of standard typed text is approximately 1 PB.
History of the byte
The term was first coined by German-American computer scientist Werner Buchholz in June 1956. At that time Buchholz was working on the design of the IBM Stretch computer. He purposely respelled bite to byte to avoid mutation of the word to bit. Early computers used four-bit and six-bit bytes, including computers used by the US Army and Navy.
The byte was originally created to store a single character, since 256 values is adequate enough to represent all lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols in Western languages. For example, a byte’s confoguration can represent the letter N, a comma, a percentage sign, or any number from 0 to 256.
As computer systems became more advanced, bytes were used to designate capacity in various computer storage formats including compact disk read-only memory (CD-ROM), solid-state-disc (SSD) modules, compact discs, flash storage, helium hard disk drive (HHDD), and more.
What is a Bit vs a Byte?
The two might sound familiar and both are types of computer memory units, but they represent different sizes and methods of measuring computer data.
The big difference between these two units is the size. A bit is the smallest unit of computer memory, while a byte consists of several bits.
Bits can only store binary numbers, which are 0 and 1, while bytes can be used to express 256 distinct values. Bytes can store special characters, numbers, alphabets, and more. Multiples of bits are measured with lowercase b, such as kb, Mb, Gb, and Tb, while bytes have uppercase B, such as KB, MB, GB, and TB.