Megabits vs. Megabytes: What’s the Difference?

As more and more of our daily entertainment comes from online sources, Internet speed has become a very important factor. In a world where people can legally download movies and stream television shows from their PCs, users don’t want to sit about and wait to watch their shows. Because of that, when buying a new broadband package, users are keen to know just how fast the connection will be. Unfortunately, this comes with its own little conundrum, which is the issue of megabits vs. megabytes.

Let’s say you’re interested in getting a new Internet service. You look at the speeds being offered spy a package that advertises speeds of “up to 50Mbps”. If you purchase this package, how fast do you think your download speeds would be?

megabytes-megabits-example

It’s easy to assume that “Mbps” stands for “megabytes per second” and that if you bought this package, you’d be able to download files at 50MB per second. However, take a close look at the advert above. You’ll notice it advertises the speed in “Mbps,” and the speed is “up to 50Mbper second.” Add this to the fact we write megabytes as “50MB.” The lower-case “b” in this example is very important, as it shows we’re not talking about 50 megabytes per second. This Internet speed is actually being advertised at 50 megabits per second, which is a lot different!

So if we’re not going to be downloading at 50 megabytes per second, what will 50Mbps get you?

In order to answer this, we need to look at megabits vs. megabytes. To do this, it’s easier if we cut off the “mega” from both sides and compare the difference between a bit and a byte. A byte is comprised of 8 bits, so we can say that a byte is 8 times larger than a bit, or mathematically, 1 byte = 8 bits. If we use this information on our megabits and megabytes problem, we can see that a megabyte is 8 times larger than a megabit, or 1 megabyte = 8 megabits.

megabytes-megabits-compare

Now that we know this, we can work out how fast 50 megabits per second will be in megabytes. Given how there’s 8 bits to a byte, we can take the 50Mbps value and divide it by eight. This gives us 6.25, which means we’ll be downloading at a speed of 6.25 megabytes per second. That’s a lot slower than we first assumed!

This is why it’s so important to understand the difference between megabits and megabytes. What looks like a fantastic deal suddenly becomes eight times worse after you’ve signed the contract. If you want to tell if a company is using megabits or megabytes, it’s easy to distinguish between the two. Just remember that megabits use a lowercase “b” (Mbps) while megabytes use an uppercase “B” (MBps).

But why are we using bits in the first place? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if companies just advertised their speeds as megabytes and stopped all this confusion?

As an explanation, there are quite a few out there, including megabits being more favourable from a marketing standpoint (50Mbps looks more impressive than 6.25MBps). However, the most reasonable explanation is that it’s just how network communications speeds have always been measured. Bytes are typically used when we’re calculating storage and size (500GB hard drive, 10MB file), while bits are used when we’re discussing how fast a connection is (50Mbps Internet).

In fact, we’ve been measuring network activity in bits since the first modems were invented over half a century ago! This was obviously at a time where people weren’t worried about streaming their favourite TV show on Netflix but simply cared about the speed at which one device could communicate with another. As such, when an Internet provider tells you a speed in Mbps, they may simply be using the standard that has been used since the invention of modems.

megabytes-megabits-up-to

Even after all this calculation and working out what your download speed will be, it might not be perfect. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that service providers advertise their connections as “up to” the figure they advertise. This is due to a wide range of variables, such as your distance from the ISP, the amount of people using the Internet at the time, and how well the ISP maintains their service.

In short, it means you’re not guaranteed to always get the speed you purchase. Be careful when buying a new Internet package, and be sure to read reviews to check if the company makes good on their promise of advertised speeds. For streaming online movies, such as on Netflix, it will help if you know how to improve the Internet speed, too.

When looking for a new Internet service, it can be hard to tell what the ISPs are selling you. While confusing on first sight, the issue of megabits vs. megabytes is very simple once broken down. Just remember that 1 megabyte equals 8 megabits, and you won’t get stuck on Internet speeds ever again.

Has the megabyte/megabit similarity caused problems for you or someone you know? Let us know your stories below.

4 comments

  1. Yes, there has always been confusion with Mb and MB but with my start of the Internet and then T1 lines, Mb has always been the norm for defining Internet connection speed and still is. It is kind of like we are used to F instead of C in measuring temperature and can identify in our minds what a temp is. Just like with Mb, it has been around for so long that when I do a speedtest for example, I relate to what is indicated. Your article was informative for the novice but could be confusing since Mb is the norm, at least it was before retiring, maybe things have changed.

  2. Thank you for the lesson on megabits to megabytes my eleven-year-old daughter ask the question what’s a gigabyte and for us to have a complete understanding you gave us a starting line with a very clear and knowledgeable understanding and are able to help others understand if perhaps they asked the same question. I know now my day is not wasted because I have already learned something new today. Thank you

  3. Go to Ookla
    Press Go
    Whatever you see on your download speed – *divide it by 8*

    *That’s your downloading speed*.
    Here I saved 10 minutes of your life or even more.

  4. Here’s the issue: ISPs promote their DOWNLOAD and UPLOAD speeds, not just their overall network speeds. Our download speed is measured in bytes, BECAUSE it’s the smallest addressable unit. Therefore there can NOT be a download speed of say 1bps or 7bps, as it must be in Bps to have actually acquired any data. Because the advertising is your download speed, not your ISP to modem speed, it is intentionally misleading.

    If they’d stop saying download speed and simply say transmission speed, it wouldn’t be an issue, but download speed is indeed what they market, and all our download speed is ever viewed or measured in, is Bytes. This is where consumers are all getting duped, and wondering why they don’t get anywhere near what they’re expecting if they’re not tech savvy. If A car was being marketed as able to get to 100mph in 2 minutes, and everyone in daily life sees mph in their car as MILES per hour, but the car company is measuring on meters per hour because hey, it’s the metric system and that makes you cool right, how is the typical consumer supposed to realize what’s really going on? No other unit of measures denoted differently by capital letters than lowercase than this. 3in and 3IN are both read as 3 inches. 3MM and 3mm as 3 millimeters. 2ft and 2FT. You get my drift.

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