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Gigabytes vs. gibibytes class action suit nears end

Suit alleges companies misrepresent capacity of flash memory devices by using decimal definitions, thus overstating memory card sizes by 4 percent to 5 percent.

A long-running California lawsuit over whether all megabytes and gigabytes are created equal may have reached its end on Friday.

The class action lawsuit against Kodak, Sandisk, Lexar Media, and other memory card makers alleges that the defendants intentionally misrepresented the capacity of their flash memory devices by using decimal definitions, in which a megabyte is 1,000,000 bytes. The suit says a binary definition is appropriate, meaning that one megabyte equals 1,048,576 bytes and that the memory card sizes were overstated by 4 percent to 5 percent.

When memory capacity was smaller, the difference didn't mean much. A decimal kilobyte, at 10^3=1,000 wasn't very different from 2^10=1,024.

But as capacity grows, the differences become more significant (technically, the ratio between the decimal and binary representations increases). This explains why your new terabyte drive isn't as capacious as you hoped it might be. A 10^12=1,000,000,000,000 decimal terabyte is roughly 10 percent smaller than the binary equivalent of 2^40=1,099,511,627,776. Here's more background on why computers work this way.

So the class action lawyers sued five flash memory card makers, alleging breach of contract, fraud, and violations of California's unfair competition laws.

In a strict standards sense, the companies were probably right, the decimal metric prefixes were accurate when applied to removable storage, and customers shouldn't have grown used to the near-equivalence. But the attorneys decided to settle and reached an agreement: some customers would get a 5 percent refund, while all would get a 10 percent discount from the companies' online stores. Another part of the settlement was to disclose that decimal prefixes were being used. (The deadline to make claims was December 20, 2006.)

The class action lawyers at the Pasadena firm of Kendrick & Nutley and the San Diego firm of Kendrick, Bonas & Nutley got rich, or at least richer: they got a check for $2.38 million.

Four people objected to the settlement and filed appeals roughly a year ago. One claim was that the 5 percent refund amounts to only a few dollars and was insignificant. Another was that the fees handed to the class action lawyers were too high.

But a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal's First District rejected those arguments on Friday and upheld the settlement.

At this point it's reasonable to note that there actually are terms that avoid all this confusion, and those include IEEE 1541 terms gibibyte (2^30 bytes = 1,073,741,824 bytes) and tebibyte (2^40 bytes = 1,099,511,627,776 bytes, or 1,024 gibibytes).

Unfortunately--or, perhaps for hard drive and flash drive manufacturers, fortunately--gibibyte and tebibyte still sound a little too silly to be taken seriously.