When discussing units of information — in other words, the units used to describe digital data storage — you really have two options. There’s the decimal system of notation, which deals with numbers zero through nine, and the binary system of notation, which deals with either zero or one.
No matter which system you ultimately use, the kilobyte (KB) and the megabyte (MB) remain two of the smallest on the scale. What’s the difference in size between the two, and how do they compare in decimal notation vs binary notation? Let’s break them down at length below.
Kilobyte (KB) vs Megabyte (MB): Side-by-Side Comparison
|Bytes||1,024 bytes||1,048,576 bytes|
|Gigabytes||0.00000095367432 gigabytes||0.0009765625 gigabytes|
|Symbols||KB, KiB||MB, MiB|
Kilobyte (KB) vs Megabyte (MB): What’s the Difference?
You might have noticed, based on the above chart, that the kilobyte and the megabyte are very closely related to one another. As a matter of fact, they’re just one step away from each other on the ladder of measurements.
All it takes is one step up to go from a kilobyte to a megabyte. Regardless, the two still have their own unique purposes and serve specific uses. Let’s explain further down below, as we give each unit its own space to elaborate.
The kilobyte (KB) is not the smallest unit of information, but it’s close. The only unit smaller is the byte — unless you count the bit, which is one single binary digit. A byte is the same as eight bits.
Looking at the prefix “kilo,” you might assume that one kilobyte is worth a thousand bytes. This would only be correct in decimal notation. In binary notation, a kilobyte is actually worth more: 1,024 bytes, to be exact. No matter which way you measure it, a kilobyte still holds a relatively small amount of space.
For this reason, you almost exclusively see kilobytes used for small amounts of storage or memory. In other words, you won’t see a contemporary cloud server or a video game console talking about storage space in terms of kilobytes.
This is because our modern technology needs tens or hundreds of gigabytes to function properly. We’re a long way off from the ways of the past, where kilobytes were more than enough to calculate the total amount of data or storage space on a device. For example, your average floppy disk held around 800 KB of data.
Despite their similar-sounding names, a kilobyte is not the same as a kilobit. The kilobit is slightly smaller and is used more for measuring speed than size. If you were to put them on the same playing field, a single kilobyte would come out to be around 8,000 bits.
But, when it comes to kilobits, this particular unit shakes out to around 1,000 bits. If you don’t want to count out bits to tell them apart, you can also look at the way they’re abbreviated. A kilobyte is abbreviated “KB,” whereas a kilobit is abbreviated “Kb.” Judging by this metric, one kilobyte is about the same as eight kilobits.
As we have noted above, the megabyte is a single step up from the kilobyte. While both units of information are significantly less than a gigabyte, the megabyte is still bigger than the kilobyte. If you were to arrange them from smallest to largest, it would go kilobyte, then megabyte, then gigabyte.
These come one after the other on a scale of units of information. With this in mind, a megabyte is around a thousand kilobytes, and a gigabyte is around a thousand megabytes. (To further elaborate, that means that a gigabyte is equivalent to around a million kilobytes.)
Interestingly enough, there’s a specific name for a megabyte in binary notation. This is what’s known as a “mebibyte.” You’ll see it abbreviated as “MiB.” (No, it doesn’t stand for Men in Black.) When this distinction between binary and decimal is made, you can assume that a “mebibyte” is equivalent to 1,000,000 bytes, while a “megabyte” is equivalent to 1,048,576 bytes.
These days, the mebibyte is preferred when working with computer science. This field is trying to promote an industry-wide shift toward binary notation over decimal notation. For the foreseeable future, megabytes and mebibytes will continue to be used interchangeably.
Two terms that shouldn’t be used interchangeably, however? “Megabit” and “megabyte.” (Step aside, kilobyte (KB) vs megabyte (MB) debate: the megabit vs megabyte debate is here to duke it out.)
Similarly to a kilobit (Kb), a megabit is abbreviated as “Mb.” Likewise, megabits (Mb) are used to calculate the speed at which digital information is traveling, not the actual size of the information itself. That’s the job of the megabyte (MB).
Kilobyte: Real-World Examples
Now that we have some specifications and some history on the kilobyte, it would be useful to examine some real-world examples of the kilobyte in action. How and when do you encounter the kilobyte in your daily life? It might be more often than you’d think.
In the simplest of terms, a kilobyte is equivalent to a small file on a computer or smartphone. If you go off the commonly held belief that each letter on a Word document weighs in at one byte each, then we can assume that several paragraphs of text on a blank Word document will likely shake out to be a kilobyte or two.
If you keep typing, eventually ending up with five typed pages on a Word document, that size will likely have grown to approximately 100 kilobytes or so. You probably won’t ever see high-quality images or videos stored in KB, as their size is more appropriately measured in megabytes.
Looking beyond small files, another everyday example of kilobytes in the wild would be a basic email. To be specific: a brief, truncated email reply tends to size up around a single kilobyte or two. Longer emails with more text will rack up an increasingly large amount of kilobytes, just like if you were typing on a word document.
If you go beyond basic text in your email and start including things like emojis and images and files, then you’ll once again encroach on megabyte territory. Simply put, kilobytes are almost exclusively used in relation to text.
Megabyte: Real-World Examples
With a better understanding of where kilobytes exist in our daily lives, let’s do the same for the megabyte. Where are you most likely to encounter megabytes in the wild, especially considering they’re so close in size to the kilobyte? Let’s explore.
Larger File Sizes
We now know that a simple text file is going to be measured in kilobytes. However, we also know that most of the files we encounter in our daily lives do not consist solely of a few paragraphs of text. No matter if you’re on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, a file sent to you (or by you) is probably going to be measured in megabytes instead of kilobytes.
Take a PDF, for instance. Even one covered with the most basic amount of text, one or two pages at most, will be sized around 1 to 3 MB. The same goes for audio files. As a rule of thumb, a minute of audio is probably around 1 MB.
Another common place to find the word “megabyte” being tossed around? In relation to your cell phone or mobile device’s cellular data. That’s right: cellular data, which allows us to be connected to the internet and send and receive calls and texts, is calculated in megabytes.
Streaming a playlist for an hour on your music streamer of choice? You can expect to use around 60 or 70 MB (give or take a couple dozen, depending on the album’s quality and length). Watching videos for an hour on YouTube or Netflix? That’ll cost you around 800 MB — maybe even more for higher-quality streams.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com.