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Bits vs. Bytes

One of the most frequent points of confusion brought about by this age of commonplace access to the Internet is also one of the most basic. Bits or Bytes? Each Byte is made of eight (8) basic units of information and each of those basic units is called a Bit. There are eight (8) bits in every byte.

Bits and Bytes

In common usage, bits are used to describe data in transit between two points on a network. Bytes are a completely different unit, used to describe the size of stored files on a disk. When you run an Internet speedtest, the results are usually bits per second (bps - little 'b'), quite different from Bytes per second (Bps - big 'B'). Modern connections to the Internet are much, much faster than they used to be and bandwidth is most often measure in thousands of bits per second, or kilobits per second (kbps).

It's easy to make the mistake. We may wrongly say: "The file is 5 MegaBytes (5 million bytes), and the connection I'm using should download at 500 kiloBytes (one half million bytes per second), so the math says that 5 MB should downloaded in 10 seconds." It doesn't. It takes 1.5 minutes and we wonder what's wrong. We should rightly say: "The file is 5 MegaBytes and the connection I'm using can download at 500 kilobits (sixty two thousand five hundred bytes per second), so the math says that 5 MB should be downloaded in 80 seconds.

Download progress from a web browser

Most web browsers like Firefox or Internet Explorer will display download speed in bytes - to get the bits per second, multiply by eight (8). The image above shows a download speed of 124 kBps, the equivalent of 992 kbps.

So why do we bother using using bits to describe speeds when most of the time when we download it shows up in bytes? Bits are used to describe the quality of the connection and it is appropriate to shop based on the quality. For example, the quality of a regular telephone call is 8 kbps (some modern technologies go up to 64 kbps) while the quality of the audio on a CD is 1.4 Mbps. It makes sense then that holding a telephone up to the CD player to share music with a friend results in the sound at the other end being much different than the sound from the stereo.

Thinking about the quality of connections in this way let's us determine what should easily work across certain connections. Our High Speed Plus Internet service is a great example, at download speeds of 1.5 Mbps you can stream CD quality audio (1.4Mbps) and listen in realtime. Happy streaming!

Comments Add your comments

Louise said…

Umm, are you really just ginvig this info out for nothing?

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