Short for “binary digit,” a bit is the smallest unit of data a computer can handle. Bits are used in various combinations to represent different kinds of data. Each bit has a value of 0 or 1.
While a single bit can only represent one of two possible outcomes (0 or 1), by adding bits together in a string of 0s and 1s, computers are able to accomplish highly complex tasks. For instance, adding 7 bits together gives you 128 possible outcomes (27 = 128). That’s enough to represent the most commonly used letters, numbers, and special characters in English, which is how ASCII text works.
Also See: Byte
Frequently Asked Questions
Why 0 and 1?
Actually, a bit doesn’t have to be represented as a 0 or 1; that’s just the most common way of representing it. It can also be seen as a Boolean value, True or False. Or it can represent Off or On. Or even a – or +. In the days of punch cards, each bit on the card either had a hole or no hole. A bit is essentially just the option between two equally probable choices. But when you start string multiple bits together, 0s and 1s become much easier to work with than a million True/False combinations…and just imagine how big a punch card you would need to represent a billion bits!
How does a computer store all those 0s and 1s?
Actually, your computer probably doesn’t store them as numbers. Instead, it stores them as some type of physical either/or scenario. For instance, early computers used punch cards to represent each bit. Many modern computers contain magnetic hard drives, which are comprised of millions of tiny metal pieces, each of which is given either a negative or positive charge. Your computer reads the charge and interprets it as binary code (0 or 1).
How does a bit compare to a byte?
It takes 8 bits to create a byte. While a bit can only represent 2 values (0 or 1), a byte can represent 256 distinct values (28). Computers typically group data into bytes, because it improves storage efficiency and makes it easier to comprehend the information. Imagine trying to read millions of lines of binary code without a single break in the numbers? Adding a space after every 8 bits makes it much easier to read!