Soon, popular torrent site The Pirate Bay will no longer host torrent files. Instead, it will only offer magnet links. Magnet what now? You may have seen the term "magnet link" before, but if you haven't used one, here's the lowdown on what this change means for you as a BitTorrent user.
How Magnet Links Are Different From Torrent Files
When you download a torrent file, you're essentially downloading a small file that contains information on the larger files you want to download. The torrent file tells your torrent client the names of the files being shared, a URL for the tracker and more. Your torrent client then calculates a hash code, which is a unique code that only that torrent has -- kind of like an ISBN or catalogue number. From there, it can use that code to find others uploading those files, so you can download from them.
A magnet link does away with the middleman. A magnet link is essentially a hyperlink containing the hash code for that torrent, which your torrent client can immediately use to start finding people sharing those files. Magnet links don't require a tracker (since it uses DHT, which you can read more about here), nor does it require you to download a separate file before starting the download, which is convenient.
How To Use Magnet Links
Magnet links are dead simple to use. If you head to the Pirate Bay now, you'll notice that magnet links are now the default, with the "Get Torrent File" link in parentheses next to it (a link which will disappear in a month or so). Just click on the magnet link and your browser should automatically open up your default BitTorrent client and start downloading. It's that easy.
What This Ultimately Means For You
The short answer is nothing. In fact, it could mean that downloading torrents takes one or two fewer clicks, as all you have to do is click on the link to start the download. When magnet links first came out, not all torrent clients supported them, but now you can use magnet links with just about any semi-popular torrent client out there -- including our favourites uTorrent, Transmission and Deluge, among others, so you shouldn't notice a problem with that.
The main reason torrent sites are moving toward magnet links -- apart from convenience to the user -- is that these links (probably) free torrent sites like The Pirate Bay from the same legal troubles that torrent files cause; since The Pirate Bay isn't hosting files that link to copyrighted content, it's more difficult to claim the site is directly enabling the downloading of copyrighted material.
Whether this semantic leap actually protects torrent sites remains to be seen, but for now, you can sleep soundly knowing that the sites will stick around for awhile longer and that your torrents will take one less click to get started. Of course, if you're using a public site like The Pirate Bay, we highly recommend you set up a proxy and encryption service like BTGuard to protect your downloading from prying eyes. If you want to read more about magnet links, check out the Wikipedia page on the subject.