From your geeky roommates who eat up your internet connection at all hours of the night to your luddite family members, nearly everyone knows what BitTorrent is nowadays. They might not be able to describe how it works, or even legal ways they can use it, but they know it exists. (If you’re a little geekier, you probably also know that peer-to-peer networking can even power processes like like Windows operating system updates, Chromebook updates, and Android app installations.)
Even if you don’t care about how BitTorrent works (you should!), there are plenty of tips we’re happy to share about how to maximise your experience when downloading and uploading files. (At the very least, we have lots of thoughts on which apps you should use to BitTorrent, and how you can stay safe doing it.)
First, let’s talk tech - briefly, we promise.
What is BitTorrent?
BitTorrent is not a program. It’s a method of downloading files using a distributed peer-to-peer file sharing system. The programs that you use to download files via the BitTorrent protocol are called BitTorrent clients.
What makes the BitTorrent protocol unique is that it distributes the sharing of files across all users who have downloaded or are in the process of downloading a file. Because BitTorrent breaks up and distributes files in hundreds of small chunks, you don’t even need to have downloaded the whole file before you start sharing. As soon as you have even a piece of the file, you can start sharing that piece with other users. That’s what makes BitTorrent so fast; users can share chunks of files with one another as soon as they’ve been downloaded (instead of waiting until the entire download has been completed).
If you’re still confused, let’s try a simpler approach. As Sampathkumar illustrates over on Medium, this is a simplified version of what it’s like to download a normal file from a website:
When you’re downloading something from BitTorrent, it looks a little something like this:
The benefit? If one system in the massive group of BitTorrenters is slow, that’s just fine—with luck, there will be other computers that can send you the chunks of the file you’re looking for at a much greater speeds. If you were just downloading a file from a single slow server, you’d be stuck; since BitTorrent attempts to piece the file together from (ideally) many people at once, you’ll have plenty of built-in alternatives and you, yourself, will help contribute to others’ requests.
How to find and download a file with BitTorrent
Now that you’ve got a better idea of the terminology and process behind BitTorrent, let’s jump right into using it.
First, you need to download a BitTorrent client
Without a BitTorrent client, you can’t partake in the peer-to-peer protocol. There are many BitTorrent clients to pick from - many. Our favourites include:
qBitTorrent — Windows/Mac (an open-source, free variant of uTorrent)
Transmission — mainly for Mac, but an “early preview” Windows version is available. (Incredibly popular client, and very easy to use.)
In order to download anything using a BitTorrent app, you first have to find and download a .torrent file and then open it with your BitTorrent client. The torrent file does not contain your files. Instead, it contains information which tells your BitTorrent client where it can find peers who are also sharing and downloading the file.
As the BitTorrent blog describes it:
“Inside a “.torrent” file is a set of information that helps your BitTorrent client find and download data. This information is a group of files that includes names, sizes, and folder structure. Along with information about files, a ‘.torrent’ file also contains a list of trackers.
A tracker can be thought of as a computer – or group of computers – that helps identify the location of specific data. When a request for content goes out, say the latest issue of The FADER 101 Bundle, a tracker helps connect the person seeking it to the location(s) where it can be found.”
You can also use what’s called a “magnet link” to kick off a BitTorrent download. The difference here is you aren’t downloading a .torrent file from a server directly. Instead, the magnet link contains all the information you need to find that .torrent file from other BitTorrent peers. It’s a decentralised approach that saves you from having to download a .torrent file to get started (and also helps websites out by only requiring them to publish magnet links, rather than hosting .torrent files themselves).
As the BitComent wiki describes:
“[Magnet links] can reduce the load on torrent index websites and also may offer a better chance of keeping a torrent alive, as once the .torrent file is on the DHT Network it theoretically doesn’t need to be available for download on a website anymore; all you need is just a Magnet Link. And in case the original site hosting the torrent goes down or doesn’t provide it anymore, links are more likely to have been propagated on the Internet than are .torrent files to be hosted for download on alternate sites.”
Where do you find torrents?
Here’s where we get into an ethical grey area. Let’s get real for a minute: Most people use BitTorrent to download copyright material. No matter how much we kid ourselves that we’re all downloading Linux distributions and screensavers, piracy and BitTorrent go hand-in-hand. (And, yes, we’re very aware that there are plenty of other places to download illegal things: Usenet, file-hosting sites like Mega, et cetera.)
Whatever content you’re looking for, we recommend not going the “Google the name of it plus the word ‘BitTorrent’” approach unless you’re honestly going for something like a regular Linux distribution. If you’re trying to grab the latest episode of your favourite TV show for free, you’re going to find a ton of listings - and a lot of spammy sites looking to take advantage of your interest in free content. You might ultimately end up BitTorrenting a file that isn’t what you expected in the slightest. Or, worse, malware.
It’s not that hard to find great websites that list all kinds of torrents you might be interested in. It’s also not very hard to find website that list these kinds of websites. Whatever your BitTorrent pleasure, I recommend you treat this with care. Stick with recommendations from those already in the community, who probably know a lot more about what’s legitimate (and what isn’t) than you, if you’re just taking your first steps in this big, wide universe of downloading.
Downloading the torrent
When you find a particular item to download via BitTorrent, you’ll want to check one statistic: how many seeders it has, or how many others have full copies of whatever it is you want to download. Don’t give up hope if this figure is zero. Let your torrent run for some time (a day, a week, whatever), and you might luck out and get some seeders to join the mix. Depending on the age and overall popularity of whatever it is you’re looking to acquire, you might also come up short. When in doubt, aim for torrents that have lots of seeders.
All you have to do to get going in your BitTorrent client is download and run a .torrent file or click on a magnet link and if the latter doesn’t work, you can likely import it manually and then set your BitTorrent client as the default app for handling these kinds of links going forward.
Easy enough, right? However, there are a few extra factors you’ll want to keep in mind as you begin your BitTorrent adventures:
How much bandwidth are you using? Every BitTorrent client that’s even half-good should come with some way to limit your download and upload speeds. If you’re sharing your internet connection with others in your hours, or you don’t want your file-sharing to impact your other activities, setting reasonable limits is critical. You’ll probably want to limit your upload speed more than your download speed; while this makes you a jerk, sharing-wise, your ISP likely supports much lower upload speeds than download speeds.
If you’re paying for “150Mbps internet,” for example, that could actually mean that you’re capped at a mere 5Mbps for uploads - not 150Mbps. Fill the pipe by tossing bits and pieces of files to eager BitTorrent clients, and there won’t be any room left for your other bandwidth-hungry activities.
Should you use a VPN? If everything you’re downloading is legal, you’re fine. If you’re downloading things that could potentially piss off the copyright holders, you’re only asking for a stern letter from your ISP, or worse, if you aren’t using a VPN to conceal what you’re up to. Do not use a free VPN. Pay for a great VPN that will hide whatever it is you’re doing.
How long are you seeding? While it’s noble and great for you to maintain a great BitTorrent ratio (the amount you downloaded vs. how much you uploaded to others), think back to the first bullet point. If you’re seeding files all the time, you could be impacting your own network performance. Consider whether you really want your BitTorrent client to launch when you start Windows (and start automatically seeding anything you’ve downloaded).
Otherwise, think about a length of time you’re comfortable with. And when you’ve hit that point for a torrent you’ve downloaded, delete it from your BitTorrent client. If you no longer need whatever it is you downloaded, don’t forget delete it from your hard drive, too. (Customising where your client’s downloads torrents makes it easier to not forget this step.)
This story was originally published on 8/3/07 and was updated on 7/11/19 to provide more thorough and current information.