Dear Journalists: Bits and Bytes

Dear Journalist type person,

There's something we must discuss. You see, you've been making a very basic mistake in many of your articles when it comes to writing about the Internet, and specifically Internet speeds. Let's take a look at a small quote:

...unless you have an internet connection of impossible speeds. (Mine is nominally 10MB, by the way, which in practice means maximum download speeds of 1.4 megabytes per second).
(source: Rock-Paper-Shotgun).

Can you spot the problem here? Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second. The symbol for 'bits' is a lower-case 'b', so an Internet connection that's 10 Megabits per second could be written as "10 Mbps". I guess if you're feeling lazy you could leave off the "ps", and end up with "10 Mb" (although it's a really sloppy thing to do), but NEVER "10 MB" - that means something else entirely.

Modern PCs use bytes that contain 8 bits. The correct symbol for a byte is an upper-case 'B'. so "10 MB" means "ten mega-bytes", not mega-bits, which is probably what you meant when you were describing the speed of your Internet connection.
Back to our Internet connection that runs at 10Mbps. It's unfortunate that speeds are measured in bits, because a much more useful measure is bytes per second, since that's how we deal with data sizes. We know that a CD ISO image is likely to be around 700 MB, an MP3 file around 3 MB, and an image from a digital camera to be around 1 MB. To convert our 10Mbps connection speed to megabytes per second, we divide by 8, and get 1.25MBps. However, this is the theoretical maximum speed, and there's a lot of overhead in any network connection, so in practise it's unlikely you will experience anything close to this maximum speed.

If your eyes glazed over, or perheps you felt light-headed reading that, here are a few take-home points to make it easier for you:
  • Connection speeds are measured in megabits-per-second. The correct unit symbol for this is "Mbps".
  • Files are measured in Megabytes.
  • A Byte has 8 bits. So to turn your connection speed into something useful, divide the number by 8 and make the unit symbol "MBps".
I would be honoured if you'd consider this small point next time you go to write online. Some of us are acutely sensitive to these matters, and you really don't want to upset the geeks of this world.

Kind Regards,