Making Sense of Tech's Abbreviations
KB, MB, GB, TB? Mbps, Gbps? 4G, 5G, 5GHz? When someone in technology starts dishing out these abbreviations while giving directions or an explanation, many people's eyes glaze over–and for good reason. They are just letters swirling around in a bowl of alphabet soup, making a frustrating situation even more confusing. "I don't care what they mean, I just want my computer to work." Right? I totally get it. However, in the interest of clearing up a lot of the mystery, let me take a minute to define what they mean.
Taking a Byte: A Short History of Digital Units
Just like we use units to measure weight, temperature, and length, we also use units to quantify digital information. Let's start with something called a "bit" (represented by a small b). A bit is the smallest unit of data or digital memory in a computer. To encode a single character of text, it takes 8 bits. And we call 8 bits a "byte" (represented by the upper case letter B). So 8 bits = 1 byte = 1B
Similar to metric units of measurement, we add the letters K (kilo=thousand), M (mega=million), G (giga=billion), and T (tera=trillion). So a KB (kilobyte) is a thousand bytes. An MB (megabyte) is a million bytes or a thousand KBs, etc.
•Kilobyte: 1KB = 1000 Bytes
•Megabyte: 1MB = 1000 KBs
•Gigabyte: 1GB = 1000 MBs
•Terabyte: 1TB = 1000 GBs
What does this mean for...
•Computers: When someone asks you, "How much memory does your computer have?" or "How much RAM do you have?" you can understand what they're asking. In today's computers, we're usually dealing with GBs of memory. Many personal computers have 8-16 GBs of memory. (RAM is a technical name for type of memory here.) Hard drive space, or storage space, on your computer is measured this way, too. Typical storage capacities are 128 GB, 256 GB, 512GB, or 1TB.
•Backup Drives: backup drives often hold even more storage: 500 GB to 6TB of space.
•Phones: Most smartphones will have 128 GB, 256 GB, 512GB, or 1TB of storage space. (Your phone also has RAM, but it's generally not necessary to know how much.)
Why does it always seem that your old device never has enough memory or storage capacity? Tech manufacturers are constantly improving their products. Year after year, the operating systems and app capabilities grow, but they also require more and more memory and storage. In addition, consumers need more space as the amount of files they collect builds up with things like photos we take on our family vacations.
Internet Speeds: Same Thing, Only Different
When your internet speed is crawling along at an agonizingly slow pace, you may hear someone ask, "What's your download speed?" Similar to driving in a car and miles per hour, we measure the speed of our internet. With the internet, we use the term "megabits per second," or Mbps. Notice, however, that it's "megabits" and not "megabytes." Also, we're not using miles per hour, like a car, but rather a flow rate of bits of information (more like a hose or a pipe). Here's a little cheat sheet on internet download speeds to help keep your internet provider in check:
25 Mbps: a very basic speed
100 Mbps: getting better
500 Mbps: now we're talking
1000 Mbps or 1Gbps: stream all you want!
By the way, if you've ever seen me run a speed test at your home, you may remember me talking about "download" and "upload" speeds. Think of a Zoom call, where download is receiving other people's video and audio. Upload is you sending out your video and audio.
And Just to Make Things More Confusing
•Phones: If you own a smartphone, you've probably noticed the commercials for new 5G cell service from Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. In this case, the "G" in 5G stands for Generation. Therefore, 5G cell service is 5th Generation cell service–as opposed to 4G, or 4th Generation.
•Wifi & Routers: You may be wondering, "Don't I have 5G on my wifi router, too?" Actually, here, we're talking 5 GHz–not 5G. Most wifi routers in the home today will have two broadcast frequencies: 2.4 GigaHertz (2.4 GHz) and 5 GigaHertz (5 GHz). The 2.4 GHz band is the slow, but steady one. It travels longer distances and through walls better than the 5 GHz. On the other hand, the 5 GHz band is faster, but doesn't travel as far. A good router will automatically detect and switch to which frequency is best for your device, depending on where it is in the house. You don't need to do anything for this to happen.
And Now You Know
Hopefully, this explanation of our alphabet soup has been helpful. After all is said and done, though, it still boils down to, "I don't care what they mean, I just want my computer to work." However, now, you have a cheat sheet on the units of your technology, and what units you'll need to make your devices work best.