Dear Geek: What’s with all the bytes?


I hear people talk about technology mentioning kilobytes, megabytes, and terabytes, and recently I’m seeing people mentioning an SSD. Sounds like they are mispronouncing a thing I was fortunate to avoid catching from someone during my wild nights in my college days! Can you tell me what these things are, and offer some perspective on them?

Thank you,

A Byte Confused

Dear Confused,

Thanks for writing in and for the chuckle — it’s always nice to hear from someone who can laugh at themselves.

A byte is simply a unit of memory, a tiny bit of memory. A kilobyte (KB) is 1,000 bytes, and was the common descriptor used when talking about memory capacity in the 1980s. As a teenage geek in the ’80s, I had an Apple IIc computer, and it was glorious. For storage, I used 140KB floppy disks to save documents and other data. My friends and I used to swap disks with games on them, maybe the original version of file sharing. The takeaway from that isn’t that I was a geeky teenage computer programmer not coming close to the fun times you mentioned, it’s that a computer with no internal storage, requiring these 140KB floppy disks to save data, was the norm.

After those days, personal computers with hard drives for internal storage of data became available. There are 1,000 kilobytes in a megabyte, so when a 20MB drive became a central component in a computer, it suddenly had internal storage that was equivalent to approximately 143 floppy drives, far more convenient than keeping track of and cataloging those disks.

After the megabyte comes the gigabyte (GB). This is 1,000 megabytes, and just one gigabyte could hold the equivalent of 7,142 of those floppy disks I used back in the day. Most computers today come with storage measured in gigabytes, and computers with 256, 500, or 750GB are quite common. The amazing thing is that cell phones now are readily available with 128GB of storage, which, if you think about it in terms of our baseline floppy disk, would be able to contain as much data as approximately 914,000 floppy disks.

Terabytes (TB) are the next unit of measure, and those are equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes. These are commonly used in network-attached storage devices, external hard drives, and are also becoming commonplace in personal computers. Our data storage capacity is keeping pace with our needs. Videos and high-resolution pictures take up quite a bit of space, and even drives with terabytes of space can begin to fill up.

Solid-state drives (SSD), in the most simple terms, are just hard drives with technology that uses no moving parts; the response time for the user is much faster than conventional hard drives. Technically, they store data differently than a conventional hard drive, but let’s keep it simple, since all the typical user cares about is that they are much faster than conventional hard drives and that their prices have been coming down. If you have the option to buy a computer with or without a SSD, I’d recommend getting one with it, as it will perform faster than a computer without one.

Spot quiz

Quiz time: A 7MB picture from a digital camera would take up the equivalent amount of space as how many 140KB floppy disks? Leave your answer in the comments for this article. The first correct answer will have praise showered upon them in my next article.

I hope I didn’t “geek out” too much in my answer to your question. Please feel free to write in again, anytime!

The Geek