To process information electronically, data are stored in a computer in the form of binary digits, or bits, each having two possible representations (0 or 1). If a second bit is added to a single bit of information, the number of representations is doubled, resulting in four possible combinations: 00, 01, 10, or 11. A third bit added to this two-bit representation again doubles the number of combinations, resulting in eight possibilities: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, or 111. Each time a bit is added, the number of possible patterns is doubled. Eight bits is called a byte; a byte has 256 possible combinations of 0s and 1s. See also Expanded Memory; Extended Memory.
A byte is a useful quantity in which to store information because it provides enough possible patterns to represent the entire alphabet, in lower and upper cases, as well as numeric digits, punctuation marks, and several character-sized graphics symbols, including non-English characters such as p. A byte also can be interpreted as a pattern that represents a number between 0 and 255. A kilobyte—1,024 bytes—can store about 1,000 characters; a megabyte can store about 1 million characters; a gigabyte can store about 1 billion characters; and a terabyte can store about 1 trillion characters. Computer programmers usually decide how a given byte should be interpreted—that is, as a single character, a character within a string of text, a single number, or part of a larger number. Numbers can represent anything from chemical bonds to dollar figures to colors to sounds.
The physical memory of a computer is either random access memory (RAM), which can be read or changed by the user or computer, or read-only memory (ROM), which can be read by the computer but not altered in any way. One way to store memory is within the circuitry of the computer, usually in tiny computer chips that hold millions of bytes of information. The memory within these computer chips is RAM. Memory also can be stored outside the circuitry of the computer on external storage devices, such as magnetic floppy disks, which can store about 2 megabytes of information; hard drives, which can store gigabytes of information; compact discs (CDs), which can store up to 680 megabytes of information; and digital video discs (DVDs), which can store 8.5 gigabytes of information. A single CD can store nearly as much information as several hundred floppy disks, and some DVDs can hold more than 12 times as much data as a CD.