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24th August, 2020

Bits and bytes explained

Max Beckett
Max Beckett

Broadband expert

What are bits and bytes? 

The internet is at the core of our daily lives – it’s how we communicate, entertain ourselves and gather information. However, slow internet speed can ruin the experience, making it all the more important to choose a provider with the best internet speed for your needs.

But how is broadband speed measured? It all comes down to bits and bytes. But what is a bit, and how does it differ from a byte?

Breaking down bits and bytes  

What is a megabit?

A megabit (Mb) is a unit of measurement for data size and is typically used to describe data transfer speed. All broadband speed is measured using megabits per second (Mbps) which refers to how quickly your internet connection can download and transfer data to a device. 

The higher the number of megabits per second, the quicker the speed is. So, the higher the Mbps speed, the faster the internet. That means less buffering videos, quicker downloads and higher-quality streaming.  

What is a megabyte?

A megabyte (MB) is one of the units used to measure the size of digital data and storage. If you were to download a file onto your computer, the size of the file will usually be displayed in megabytes (or for larger files, gigabytes, terabytes, etc) – the higher the number of megabytes, the bigger the file. Megabytes are also commonly used to describe how much storage space a device will have, such as a laptop, mobile phone or external hard drive.

Megabits and megabytes go hand-in-hand when it comes to understanding how fast your internet connection is. The larger the file is that you are trying to download, theoretically, the longer it will take. However, there are faster broadband speeds available, so you can download large files quickly. 

For example, based on varying ADSL speeds, if you were to download a 1,500MB (1.5GB) HD film with an internet speed of 8Mbps it would take approximately 50 minutes. However, with a speed of 100Mbps, the same film would only take two minutes to download – a huge time difference.

Find out more about calculating download speeds here

What is the difference between a megabit and megabyte?

Despite sounding similar, there is a huge difference between a megabit and megabyte and it’s important to differentiate the two terms. It is commonplace for some people to believe that Mbps indicates the number of bytes downloaded in a second. But, a byte is actually eight times bigger than a megabit. For example, an 80MB file actually consists of 640 megabits.

Both acronyms are also written differently – an uppercase B is used when referring to bytes (MB), whereas a lowercase is used for bits (Mb). 

Why do we measure in bits?

The internet distributes bytes of data in single bits at a time, which makes it more precise than measuring in bytes. By measuring in bits per second and not by what your connection is capable of transmitting, we calculate a more accurate figure.

How many bytes in a megabyte?

A kilobyte (KB) has 1,024 bytes and a megabyte has 1,024KB, which means there are over one million bytes of data in a megabyte. A gigabyte (GB) is even larger and is 1,000 times bigger than a megabyte. Simply put, each unit from kilobytes through to terabytes, is 1,000 times the size before it. This is the same rule for kilobits, terabits and so on.

How many bits in a megabit?

There are 1,000 bits in a single kilobit and 1,000 kilobits in one megabit. This means there are one million bits in a single megabit and 1,000 megabits in a gigabit. If we’re looking at gigabit to megabyte, for each gigabit there are 125 megabytes. 

How many megabits in a gigabyte?

As a gigabyte is 1,000 times bigger than a megabyte, which contains more than eight million bits, this means there are more than eight billion bits in a gigabyte. 

Why do bits and bytes matter?

From streaming TV and online gaming, to browsing the web and using smart home devices, everyone’s internet consumption varies. Different internet users require different speeds and data allowances.

It’s also important to note that some broadband providers may put a cap on the number of megabytes you are allowed to download in a specific time period. By knowing your bits from your bytes, you’re in a better place to find the right broadband package for your needs. However as broadband demand increases, limited broadband offers are becoming more rare, so you won’t need to worry about finding an unlimited broadband package.

Mbps – finding the right broadband speed 

With a better understanding now of how megabits and megabytes measure connection speeds, the next step is to determine the right broadband package based on your current internet activity and speed.

What can impact my broadband speed?

There are several different factors to consider if your current connection is slow, such as poor equipment or an unsuitable broadband package. Slow connectivity can be caused by: 

  • Your Wi-Fi router – both the condition and position of your router can affect your internet speed. If the Wi-Fi signal is being blocked by furniture or walls, this can decrease your speed. If your router is old or damaged this can also affect the signal you are receiving. 

  • Your area – if you are using ADSL broadband, which is a shared service amongst your neighbours, your internet may be slower when more people are connecting. You might notice your speed fluctuates at different times of the day.

  • Your broadband package – if your internet is struggling to keep up with the demand of your household’s everyday internet usage, it may be time to change to a broadband package offering a quicker speed.

What is a good internet speed?

Different internet speeds are suitable for different online activities. Typically, good and usable broadband speed is around 11Mbps for standard broadband. Broadband speeds vary depending on the package you sign up for and can exceed 100Mbps. 

What is my current broadband speed? 

The best way to find out how fast your internet connection is, is to run a speed test. There are a number of providers that offer this free-to-use service, which enables you to measure speeds on different broadband connections.

For example, the BroadbandDeals.com broadband speed test can check both the speed and reliability of your internet connection. If you find that your internet is slow, you may wish to boost your speed depending on your usage requirements.

Alternatively, you may find that you are not receiving the speed you initially signed up for. In this case, you should speak to your provider’s Customer Support team to try and resolve any issues you may have.

What broadband speed will meet my needs?

Figuring out what broadband speed you need can be confusing. Below is a rough guide to help you understand how different megabits per second (Mbps) affect your internet usage. 

Basic connectivity: 10-11Mbps

If there are only one or two people in your household, and you use the internet to carry out basic tasks such as emails, social networking and casual web browsing, a basic broadband speed of 11Mbps should be fine. This connection speed would allow you to regularly use social media, shop online and stream video content together with ease.

Bigger households: 34-108Mbps

For busier homes, your household will likely be using the internet separately from each other. This means that more devices may need to be connected to your broadband. Speeds between 35 and 108Mbps should be enough to allow you to stream your favourite programmes together as a family, while staying connected when you are apart. 

Gaming and streaming: 30-100+Mbps (depending on your household)

For the film buffs and online gaming community, who may frequently need to download and update games, or stream movies to their 4K TV, speed makes all the difference. As a rough rule of thumb, for each person in your home that downloads PC and console games, or streams TV and movies in 4K, you should add 30Mbps.

Finding the right broadband deal for your needs

It can be frustrating when you’re dealing with lagging online games, buffering TV content and web pages taking ages to load. It may be time for a change. Once you’ve determined what the right speed for your needs are, it may be time to start looking around for a package that better suits your broadband habits.

The Uswitch broadband comparison site allows you to find the best package based on what is in your area. Just simply enter your postcode and start searching for the package that will provide you with the right speed, at the right price.