Mr. Modem: Bits, bytes, megabytes and more

Can you explain the difference between binary, bits and bytes? I hear these terms, but I don’t have a clue what they mean.

All information — words, images, numbers — are stored and manipulated by your computer in the form of binary numbers. In the binary numbering system, there are only two digits, the zero and the one (0 and 1). All numbers, words, and graphics are formed from different combinations of those digits.

Transistor switches (like tiny on-off power switches) manipulate binary numbers because there are only two possible states of a switch, on or off. An “off” or closed switch is represented by a 1, and an “on” or open switch is represented by a 0.

These little ones and zeros are referred to as binary digits. And if you squeeze the words “binary” and “digit” together, you get the word “bit.” When eight of these bits get together, they become one byte. So harkening back to our ones and zeros, “01101001” is a byte and is made up of eight digits.

Now, as if all these ones and zeros aren’t exciting enough, here’s where things really get crazy: A thousand (think “kilo”) bytes is a kilobyte, abbreviated KB. A million (mega) bytes is a megabyte or MB. A billion bytes (or a thousand megabytes) is called a gigabyte (GB). If you keep going, a thousand gigabytes is a terabyte; a thousand terabytes is a petabyte; a thousand petabytes is an exabyte; a thousand exabytes is a zettabyte; and a thousand zettabytes is a yottabyte, which rhymes with “lotta bytes,” which indeed, it is.

I know that Microsoft’s support for XP has now stopped, but I’m still angry about it. Why would they do that?

To ruin your day? There isn’t any reason to take Microsoft’s decision personally, but let’s see if we can put this topic to bed, once and for all.

Let’s begin by looking at this situation from another perspective: If you sold a product, would you be willing to extend a warranty on it beyond 13 years? It doesn’t happen with toasters, microwave ovens, or just about any other product, so the fact that XP has been supported (meaning updated) for 13 years is outstanding. Trying to keep a product as old as XP safe in today’s online world is a whole lot of work, with no guarantee of success.

In addition, Windows XP is a product that stopped generating revenue for Microsoft years ago, so it makes perfect sense to me that they needed to let it go, just as they did with Windows NT, 2000, 98 and Windows 3.11 before it. After 13 years of updates, continuing to update it would not contribute to purchases of their newer software or hardware.

It is simply a fact of life today that time and technology move ahead with us or without us, and like it or not, we’re either going to walk to the next generation of technology under our own power, or we’re going to be dragged into it, kicking and screaming. The choice is ours to make.

Mr. Modem publishes “Ask Mr. Modem!” each week, featuring PC tips, tricks and plain-English answers to your questions by e-mail. For more information, visit

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