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The Bits and Bytes of Computers

Sun Advocate/Progress Webmaster

Once you delve into the computer realm, you quickly discover that it is riddled with complex terms and acronyms. Some have jokingly called the phenomenon another language, calling it "techno-speak" or "computer-eze." There's no doubt the jargon can be confusing. However, understanding some of the basics, like how computers measure the amount of information they process or store, can make the technological environment a little more bearable.

Fundamentally, computers are great information machines. They process information, generate information, and store information. This information is measured in various units, which tell us how "big" or "small" piece of information is, or how much information a particular device (like a hard drive, floppy, CD-ROM, etc) will hold.

Documents you create on your computer are just collections of related information. A digital camera photo, for example, is just a series of information that describes (pixel by pixel) what the photo looks like. A letter you typed in your word processing program is just a collection of information that describes what you typed, and how you want it displayed (styles, colors, etc). A game CD contains all kinds of information that tells the computer how the game operates and what it will look like when it is played.

In the computer world, the smallest unit of measure is a "bit." A bit is the most fundamental unit and can only assume two possible values: one (1) or zero (0). Why? The answer can't be summed up in a mere paragraph, but it essentially boils down to your computer's processor (the "heart" of the computer) and how it works. In all reality, every piece of information that ever traverses your PC eventually boils down to binary values... ones and zeroes.

Individually, a bit is worth very little. Rather, the combination of bits is what makes the whole thing worth while. In larger combinations, these bits can make up things like typed letters, emails, and photos.

Although the bits themselves are composed of only ones and zeroes, the measuring of bits is done entirely in decimal. As a general rule, eight bits make up a byte. Or, alternatively, a byte is a combination of eight (8) ones (1's) and/or zeroes (0's). A byte might look like this: 10100101, or even this: 00000111. A byte could represent the letter "J" in a saved letter, or a red pixel in a picture.

Common Units
Unit Abbreviation In bytes
Kilobyte KB 1,024
Megabyte MB 1,048,576
Gigabyte GB 1,073,741,824
Terabyte TB 1,099,511,627,776

A thousand and twenty-four (1,024) bytes combine to form a kilobyte. Although it sounds like a lot, a kilobyte is very small. Even several hundred kilobytes don't amount to much.

A thousand and twenty-four (1,024) kilobytes form a megabyte. A regular digital camera picture (saved in JPEG format) usually comprises a few megabytes. A 3�-inch floppy disc will hold nearly 1� megabytes (1.44, to be exact). For most users, the bulk of their saved documents are measured in kilobytes or megabytes.

A thousand and twenty-four (1,024) megabytes form a gigabyte. Today, nearly all computer hard drives measure their total storage capacity in gigabytes.

Interestingly, a thousand and twenty-four (1,024) gigabytes form a terabyte. A thousand and twenty-four (1,024) terabytes form a petabyte. And a thousand and twenty-four (1,024) petabytes form an exabyte.

You may have noticed that numbers like 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 and 1,024 show up a lot in the computer world. This is because these numbers are all multiples of 8 (divide evenly into eights), because of the 8-bit byte discussed earlier. This is also why 1,024 is often used between units instead of an even 1,000.

You may have also noticed that these units have metric-like names. However, although a kilometer is equal to a thousand meters, a kilobyte is not equal to a thousand bytes. Just remember, these units are NOT part of the metric system, even though they sound metric.

All-in-all, computers are amazing devices. They can process information faster and more accurately than we could ever imagine! When you realize a gigabyte contains well over 8 billion bits, its hard to imagine the number of bits in an exabyte! That's a whole lot of ones and zeroes!!!

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