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Gigabytes and Gibibytes

Gigabytes and Gibibytes

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You might have seen the terms GiB, MiB and KiB around HEXUS in recent months and elsewhere on the Internet, when talking about memory or data sizes. If you've hung around computing for any length of time, GB, MB and KB are what you'll have learned to use when talking about things like system memory, hard disks and processor caches, so why do we use anything different?

The answer lies in the correct representation of binary numbers. When talking about a binary number like computer memory or processor cache, where the memory is made up of a series of memory cells that hold single bits of information, the number of memory cells is always power of 2. For instance, 1024 bits of memory, what you'd likely usually call a kilobit, is 2^10 bits. However, kilo is a prefix for base-10 or decimal numbers, so it doesn't actually apply to that figure when it's a representation of a binary number. The correct prefix is instead kibi, so 1024 bits is really a kibibit.

That rule applies everywhere. So what you'd usually think of as 1GB, or 1 gigabyte, isn't 1,000,000,000 bytes. Giga is the decimal prefix, so when you say gigabyte it means 1,000,000 bytes, not the 1,073,741,824 bytes it actually is (1024 * 1024 * 1024, all binary representations). Gibibyte is the correct term, abbreviated as 1GiB. So you have 1GiB of system memory, not 1GB.

The most common exception, where it's very correct, is the hard disk, where 1GB of disk space does actually mean 1,000,000,000 bytes. That's why for every 1GB of hard disk space, you actually see around 950MiB of space in your operating system (regardless of whether the OS tells you that's MB, which it isn't!).

Apply the bit/byte difference with lowercase b for bit and uppercase B for byte, and you should be set for writing the correct numeric suffix depending on what you're talking about.

Just remember it's MiBs of memory, KiBs of cache but GBs of disk space and you'll be fine. For the full list of prefixes for binary multiples, check out this handy page. Just think hard about the number you're talking about, decide whether it's a binary or decimal representation of a number, then choose the right suffix when writing it down, or prefix when describing the units you're using. 10GiB is 10 gibibytes, as an example.

When talking about hardware, we strive to be as technically correct as we have the ability to be, so don't be confused when you see KiBs and MiBs. Just refer back to this article when you get in a muddle or aren't quite sure what's the correct suffix to use for the number you want to write.