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Units of Information

A bit is a binary digit, the smallest increment of data on a computer. A bit can hold only one of two values: 0 or 1, corresponding to the electrical values of off or on, respectively.

Because bits are so small, you rarely work with information one bit at a time. Bits are usually assembled into a group of eight to form a byte. A byte contains enough information to store a single ASCII character, like "h".

A kilobyte (KB) is 1,024 bytes, not one thousand bytes as might be expected, because computers use binary (base two) math, instead of a decimal (base ten) system.

Computer storage and memory is often measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB). A medium-sized novel contains about 1 MB of information. 1 MB is 1,024 kilobytes, or 1,048,576 (1024x1024) bytes, not one million bytes.

Similarly, one 1 GB is 1,024 MB, or 1,073,741,824 (1024x1024x1024) bytes. A terabyte (TB) is 1,024 GB; 1 TB is about the same amount of information as all of the books in a large library, or roughly 1,610 CDs worth of data. A petabyte (PB) is 1,024 TB. 1 PB of data, if written on DVDs, would create roughly 223,100 DVDs, i.e., a stack about 878 feet tall, or a stack of CDs a mile high. Indiana University is now building storage systems capable of holding petabytes of data. An exabyte (EB) is 1,024 PB. A zettabyte (ZB) is 1,024 EB. Finally, a yottabyte (YB) is 1,024 ZB.

TED Talk: How computer memory works