A byte is a difficult thing to define in real terms

A couple of days ago, a 64GB flash drive arrived in my mailbox. Written on the packaging is something that’s very common to things like that: Various numbers trying to show how many pictures and how much audio the thing could hold. Such a measurement doesn’t really make much sense, simply because neither audio, video, or images have standard sizes. 64GB is 64GB, and could potentially hold hundreds of thousands of images, or a single one, depending on the size of that image file.

I’ve run into the problem of trying to explain a byte – or more often a megabyte or gigabyte – quite often. If you’ve used technology for a while, the terms tend to have associations for you based on what you normally do. Aside from knowing what a byte actually is, I know how much space my music, documents, photos, and videos take up on my computer, in my Dropbox, and so on. However, without these associations, how is anyone supposed to understand what it entails to buy a device or storage unit of a certain size?

Back in the old days, when I was writing about MP3 players on ABi, this problem was there- but to a lesser degree. When people ask what a certain capacity means for an MP3 player, the answer is still that it varies, but at least you can make certain approximations based on standard bitrates. These days, you have apps that are a few hundred kilobytes, and those that are several gigabytes. Mobile devices are capable of playing video files they never could before, so you suddenly have video files with the same duration ranging from 100 MB to 4-5 GB in size. Then you have streaming, which most certainly takes trying to explain how many X something can hold to a new level, even though it’s generally an easier thing to explain.

It’s a problem that I don’t think we”ll be getting rid of anytime soon. Generations that previously had little interest in technology are now getting into it, and explaining concepts like digital storage is going to be problematic until everyone has a sense of what it means. As much as I despise the inaccuracy of listing 64GB as “up to 1024h sound” on a flash drive’s packaging, I don’t quite see that there is any other way to do it as long as not everyone have an understanding of a byte. If anyone has any brilliant ways of explaining this concept, I’d sure love to hear about them.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.