Link Search Menu Expand Document

Bytes and Binary

When it comes to working with computers, one thing becomes very apparently: there’s a lot of data. Now naturally, when you have a lot of data you have to figure out how you want to store the data. Just like how leftover Christmas decorations are stored in bins inside of garages, data is stored inside of bytes inside of a file. So what is a byte?

Bytes are a term used to represent 8 bits, simply a 1 or a 0. So, a byte might look something like this: 00111010.


These ones and zeroes are used in something called binary. Now, in most of the world you count with a base-10 decimal number system. One is 1, two is 2, all the way up to 10 being 10, and so forth. The number system is based around 10 being the base.

Base Power Decimal
10 0 1
10 1 10
10 2 100
10 3 1,000

Now binary works the same way, except the base is actually 2, not 10.

Base Power Decimal Binary
2 0 1 0001
2 1 2 0010
2 2 4 0100
2 3 8 1000

With this simple example, you start to see a simple pattern emerge. The right-most bit (the 1 or 0) represents 2^0, left of that is 2^1, left of that is 2^2, etc. Using this simple system we can represent any number using 1s and 0s, which is precisely what a computer uses to store numbers.

Let’s take a look at a few more examples because unless you have a PhD in mathematics or computer science, the entire “different number base” thing might be still be a bit confusing.

So let’s take the binary number 0110010, and convert it to decimal so our human minds can understand what it means. Now remember, the right most bit (also known as the least significant bit) represents 2^0, which is 1. This means that if the right most bit is a 1, then we add 1 to the result, otherwise we add 0. The next bit to the left represents 2^1, which is 2, so if it’s a 1, then we add a 2, otherwise we add a 0. Hopefully the pattern is starting to become clear:

Binary 0 1 1 0 0 1 0
Decimal 64 32 16 8 4 2 1

Then we can add our decimal numbers together:

0*64 1*32 1*16 0*8 0*4 1*2 0*1  
0 + 32 + 16 + 0 + 0 + 2 + 0 = 50

And we get 50!

If it’s still a bit cloudy or you would just like some more practice, make sure to search online for information about “binary numbers”, or check out some of these great resources:

So now that you understand binary, where do they fit within bytes and how do they store text?


Bytes are the answer to storing text, and basically everything, on a computer. A byte is essentially a chunk of bits (1s and 0s), generally 8. Bytes are used nearly everywhere in a computer, they’re used to store variables in memory, to transfer data over wires or the internet, and most importantly to compression, to store data in files.

Every character in English is stored as a byte in a file. And as we know a byte is 8 bits. So, from our knowledge we know that the largest number an 8 bit binary number can store is 2^8, or 256. This means that a single byte can store exactly 256 different numbers, or in our case, 256 unique characters.

In 1960 computers are still brand new and largely used by English speaking countries, so there was a need for a system to represent English characters, without worrying about any other language. The answer to this is ASCII. While there’s a massive amount of history behind ASCII and all of the other computer history being created at the time, the basis is simple. The English alphabet, and generally every other special character English uses can be assigned a number from 0-255 (remember the largest 8 bit number is 11111111, which is only 255 in decimal, but 00000000 represents 0, so there are 256 possibilities).

Let’s take a look at the ASCII codes for capital A-F on the alphabet:

Letter ASCII Code Binary Code
A 65 01000001
B 66 01000010
C 67 01000011
D 68 01000100
E 69 01000101
F 70 01000110

For a complete table, check out the RapidTables ASCII Table.

These binary representations of each character would then be stored in a file. Later when you wanted to read the file again, your computer would take each chunk of 8 bits, lookup the letter it represents in an ASCII table, and output the represented character before moving on. This system worked perfectly for a while until more people started using computers.

Now as it turns out, there are a lot of people who want to use computers who don’t speak English and need to represent characters that we don’t have in English (Arabic, Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.). The solution to this is using a different type of encoding rather than ASCII, referred to as file encodings.

However, the most common encoding, UTF-8, simply extends ASCII to add extra characters because ASCII does not use all 256 numbers, it only uses around 127. So, in a modern day file, the word “Hello” would be represents as follows:

Text: Hello
UTF-8 Decimal: 72 101 108 108 111
UTF-8 Binary: 01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111

To try this out on your own, check out Online Utf8 Tools.


When working with bytes and storing them in memory you run into a problem. How do you store a sequency of bytes in memory? So, for example, let’s say we have the following bytes:

11110000 01011010

And let’s save we have some memory allocated for our 2 bytes that looks like this:

(empty byte) (empty byte)

How do you want to store the bytes in memory?

Looking at it like this, the simple solution is to just store them sequentially with the first byte being stored in the first byte of memory, and the second byte in the second byte of memory.

Our memory would then look like this:

11110000 01011010

This approach is called big endian ordering. The other approach is called little endian ordering which, you guessed it, is the opposite. If we were to store the same two bytes with little endian ordering in memory, it would look like this:

01011010 11110000

Now using big vs little endian ordering doesn’t make a large difference in practice, it’s just important that all of the software and hardware interacting with the memory knows which endian ordering it’s using. It’s also important to ensure that other computers receiving data know what endian ordering the data is being transmitted with so the other computer can correctly interpret the bytes.

If endianness still doesn’t make complete sense or you’re interested in learning more, you should check out Computerphile’s video about endianness or the article about it on Wikipedia.

Kilobytes, Megabytes, and Beyond

When dealing with data in the real world, you’ll often encounter files larger than a few hundreds bytes. Often these files can reach into the thousands, millions, and even billions of bytes. Luckily, rather than saying that a file of 1,000,000 bytes is 1,000,000 bytes, we can simply say it is 1 megabyte. This is the same reason we say the Moon is 384,400 km away from the Earth, not 384,400,000 meters. Bytes use standard metric prefixes, so any metric prefix means the same thing when talking about meters, bytes, or any other metric measurement.

Name Base 10 Decimal
Kilobyte $ 10 ^ 3 $ 1,000
Megabyte $ 10 ^ 6 $ 1,000,000
Gigabyte $ 10 ^ 9 $ 1,000,000,000
Terabyte $ 10 ^ {12} $ 1,000,000,000,000
Petabyte $ 10 ^ {15} $ 1,000,000,000,000,000

You can learn more about binary prefixes on Wikipedia.


If you want to learn more about bytes and binary in general, check out some of these great resources: