What Is Bitrate & Why Is It Important? [MakeUseOf Explains]
With today’s technology, we can expect high amounts of speed and quality with everything that we do on our computers, our smartphones, and any other recent gadgets. However, while this increase in speed and quality has a number of factors, a lot of it relates to something called bitrate.
What bitrate means depends on the context in which you use it, but it’s very important to know what it is, and what benefits it could potentially bring you (or what you should instead be expecting).
What Is Bitrate?
Bitrate is a term used to describe the amount of data that is being passed within a given amount of time. Depending on the context, common measurements of bitrate includes kbit/s and Mbps, respectively meaning kilobits per second and megabits per second. No matter the units being used, a higher number is generally good, indicating high speed or high quality.
However, it’s also important to realize that lower numbers may put less strain on your hardware, which may become important for devices such as smartphones and netbooks.
When it comes to Internet speeds, a higher bitrate is always desirable – it doesn’t place your own hardware under any additional stress, and it simply sends you the content that you want faster. With higher bitrates, you can do more with your Internet connection — stream high-definition movies, play online games with minimal lag, and download large files in just a few seconds.
You can figure out what bitrates you’re getting by visiting a website such as speedtest.net and going through their test. The numbers are good to compare with others, but there generally isn’t a number you should be expecting (besides the number which your ISP advertised). Some parts of the world and Google Fiber users can get speeds as high as 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps), while regular cable broadband users in the US are lucky to get just 10 Mbps.
There’s been a lot of discussion in online communities such as Reddit about the high prices for Internet in the US considering how low the speeds are, and initiatives such as Google Fiber are starting to make a difference.
Audio & Video
When it comes to audio and video, bitrates acquire a different definition. In this context, bitrates refer to the amount of data stored for each second of media that is played. For example, a 320 kbps MP3 audio file has a higher quality than the same file at just 128 kbps, provided that both files were created from the same, ideal source. You will have to remember that you can’t make a crappy-sounding audio file get better by copying into an audio file with a higher bitrate, as the source was bad to begin with. Therefore, the higher bitrate is a general rule, but not 100% true.
The same applies to videos – a higher bitrate will have a higher quality when comparing the same video with the same resolution. Bitrates should be expected to go up whenever the resolution goes up, as more data is being processed. Therefore, high bitrates for audio and video may provide excellent quality, but it can also place a major strain on your hardware which can result in stutters.
Also be aware that different file formats use different compression algorithms, possibly resulting in lower bitrates for higher quality. The processing strain, however, tends to increase for these algorithms.
Hard Drives & SSDs
Last but not least, it’s also important to know the bitrate of your hard drive or SSD. The bitrate in this context determines the read and write speeds of the device, which heavily impacts the loading and saving times of large files, programs, or games. Traditional hard drives generally have roughly the same read and write speeds, so the only difference comes from their RPM: 5,400, 7,200, or 10,000. However, SSDs don’t rely on RPM speeds for read and write speeds – their flash-based storage uses controller chips for reading and writing data.
It’s important to know the bitrates for both read and write – mid-range SSDs tend to have read speeds of 500 Mbps and write speeds of 200 Mbps, while higher-end SSDs have roughly 500 Mbps both ways. Even if you have a great CPU, high-frequency RAM, and a fast graphics card, your system’s overall performance can still be affected by your hard drive’s speeds.
Hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of what bitrate even means and how it affects virtually everything you do on a computer or mobile device. While it is an afterthought for most people, it’s great to be able to compare bitrates for a more concrete comparison. You can even combine the above-mentioned concepts for an even better understanding of how data streaming works – if a video’s bitrate is higher than what your Internet connection can stream, be prepared to see lots of buffering on sites such as YouTube.
Are bitrates important to you? What are the best Internet connections, compression algorithms, and SSDs available? Let us know in the comments!