What Is a Byte?

A byte is the basic unit of digital information used in computing and telecommunications to represent a single character or symbol, such as a letter, number, or punctuation mark. It plays a critical role in computer processing and programming, as bytes are used to store data, facilitate data transfer, and encode and decode information.

How Many Bits in a Byte?

A bit, short for binary digit, is the smallest unit of digital information, representing a single binary value of either 0 or 1. A byte consists of a group of bits, typically 8, which allows for the representation of up to 256 different values (2^8). The relationship between bits and bytes is essential for understanding how data is stored and processed in computing systems, with larger data quantities requiring more bytes and, consequently, more bits.

Bytes in Computer Processing and Programming

In computer processing and programming, bytes serve multiple purposes. They are used for memory storage and addressing, with each byte in memory having a unique address. This allows computers to quickly locate and retrieve data when needed. Additionally, bytes are utilized to measure data transfer rates, such as internet speed or file transfer rates, which are typically expressed in bytes per second (B/s) or one of its metric or binary derivatives.

Bytes are also essential in the encoding and decoding of information, as they define how data is represented in binary form. For example, the widely used ASCII character encoding scheme assigns a unique byte value to each character, enabling computers to interpret and display text.

History of the Byte

The term “byte” was first coined by Dr. Werner Buchholz in 1956 during the development of the IBM 7030 Stretch computer. It was derived from the word “bit” (short for binary digit), the smallest unit of digital information, and “bite” to avoid confusion with the former. Initially, the byte size varied across different computer systems. However, the standardization of the byte as an 8-bit unit was established with the advent of 8-bit microprocessors in the 1970s, and it remains the most widely used byte size today.

Types of Bytes

There are several types of bytes, each with its specific use and purpose in computing. Some of these include:

  • Signed and unsigned bytes: These bytes represent integer values, with signed bytes capable of representing both positive and negative numbers, while unsigned bytes can only represent positive numbers or zero. The most significant bit (MSB) in a signed byte is used to indicate the sign of the number, whereas, in an unsigned byte, all bits contribute to the value.
  • Little-endian and big-endian byte order: These terms refer to the order in which bytes are stored in memory or transmitted over a network. In little-endian systems, the least significant byte (LSB) is stored at the lowest memory address, while in big-endian systems, the most significant byte (MSB) is stored at the lowest address. Different computer architectures may use either byte order, which can lead to compatibility issues when exchanging data between systems.
  • Extended bytes and multibyte characters: With the advent of Unicode, an encoding standard that supports a wide range of characters and symbols from various languages and scripts, extended bytes and multibyte characters have become more prevalent. These character representations require more than one byte to accommodate the larger number of possible values.


To express larger quantities of bytes and convey the scale of digital information, metric and binary prefixes are used:

  • Metric prefixes: These prefixes are based on powers of 10 and are used to denote larger byte quantities. Common metric prefixes include:
    • Kilobyte (KB): 1,000 bytes
    • Megabyte (MB): 1,000,000 bytes
    • Gigabyte (GB): 1,000,000,000 bytes
    • Terabyte (TB): 1,000,000,000,000 bytes 
    • Petabyte (PB): 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes
  • Binary prefixes: These prefixes are based on powers of 2 and more accurately represent byte quantities in computing systems. Binary prefixes include: 
    • Kibibyte (KiB): 1,024 bytes
    • Mebibyte (MiB): 1,048,576 bytes 
    • Gibibyte (GiB): 1,073,741,824 bytes 
    • Tebibyte (TiB): 1,099,511,627,776 bytes 
    • Pebibyte (PiB): 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes

The usage of prefixes is essential in computing, as they help users and professionals grasp the scale of digital information and provide a standardized way to express data sizes and transfer rates.

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