What is the Difference between a Bit and a Byte?

Modern computing uses different terms and definitions that don’t appear in other contexts. Some terms sound similar to the untrained ear, but they have very different meanings.

Their divergent meanings can result in confusion when they’re incorrectly used in news articles. One example is the difference between bit and byte.

Bits and bytes are units of computer memory, but they vary in different ways.

What is the difference between bits and bytes? Read on to find out how these units differ.

Bit and Byte Difference

Bytes vs. bits. To understand the differences, you should know how the two are similar.

Bits and bytes are both units of computer memory. A bit is the smallest unit of computer memory, while a byte is larger. A bit has the capacity to store a maximum of two different values. But a byte (composed of eight bits) can hold 256 different values.

What Is a Bit and a Byte?

Let’s take a look the two units and define what each means.

What is a Bit?

By definition, a bit is a smaller unit of information than a byte. It reflects the basic logical process of a transistor. This is a single unit of information reflecting a zero (no charge) or a one (a completed, charged circuit).

There are eight bits in one byte of information. Alternately, and more commonly in modern connotations, bits (and their successively larger relatives, such as kilobits, megabits and gigabits) are used to measure rates of data transfer. The abbreviation “Mbps” is one of the most commonly misinterpreted in all of modern computing: it refers to “megabits,” not “megabytes,” per second.

Related resource: 30 Most Affordable Online Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Science 2017

What is a Byte?

A byte represents eight bits, and is the most commonly used term relating to the amount of information stored within a computer’s memory. The term doesn’t refer to “eight bits” in a loose, simply mathematical sense, but to a specific set of eight bits which operate as a cohesive unit within a computer system. The byte was first named in 1956, during the design of the IBM Stretch computer. At the time, it was more closely related to “bit;” its name is a deliberate misspelling of “bite” in order to avoid accidental confusion. When abbreviated, the “B” is capitalized, so as to set it apart from its smaller relative; “Gb” is short for “gigabit,” and “GB” is short for “gigabyte.”

Larger Units of Computer Memory

There are a variety of standard prefixes used for bits and bytes, which is where much of the confusion lies, as efforts to make standardization uniform across the international computer industry have yet to be entirely successful. The prefixes “kilo,” “mega” and “giga” are metric prefixes which relate to multiples of one thousand each, but computer system memory is organized into a binary structure based on powers of 2. Within a computer system, a different set of prefixes refers to 1,024 of the preceding unit, instead of one thousand, but commercial-level production has normalized the use of metric measurements for these units, meaning that a “megabyte” may refer either to 1,000 or 1024 kilobytes, and a kilobyte may refer to 1,000 or 1,024 bytes. By the time we reach the highest named quantities of memory currently in use at the industrial or scientific level today, this confusion translates into a difference in capacity of up to 20%.

Generally speaking, most of the confusion in computer terminology is the concern of large-scale systems, and of individuals who work with computers and information technology professionally. As a general principle, the average computer and internet use can safely think of the difference between a bit and a byte as that of simple capacity: a byte is 8 bits, and bits (and their successively larger metric counterparts) are mostly used for measuring the speed of data transfer, not memory capacity.