Thursday, December 01, 2005

MacOnMacs: Bittorrent Basics

I've been putting off writing about Bittorrent for a while, since I covered on one of our first episodes of commandN. However, having been asked directly to cover it here, I am happy (albeit somewhat belatedly) to oblige.

Bittorrent is essentially a way to download files over a network. The advantage Bittorrent has over other peer to peer (P2P) protocols is that Bittorrent inherently shares the files that users are downloading with other users while they are downloading. This aspect is makes it so, a little counterintuitively, Bittorrent files download faster the more people are downloading them (this is why Bittorrent isn't always the best choice for older files that may not have a lot of other downloaders).

There are two things you need in order to start using Bittorrent: a web browser to locate .torrent files and a Bittorrent client application to download the actual media files (I'll use that term for clarity, though it can be any type). In a nutshell, a .torrent file is just a pointer to, or gives the location where, the actual media file is located - the .torrent file is NOT the media file itself (which is obvious if you notice that a .torrent file is only around 20KB). So the first step is locating the .torrent file.

Using any browser, go to a website that identifies itself as a Bittorrent search engine (you can Google this term or just try the Pirate Bay, isoHunt, or Torrent Reactor). When you find a suitable site, you can (usually) either Browse or Search for torrents. When you find a torrent that you are interested in, simply download it as you would any other file from the web (typically just by clicking on it).

The next step is to take that file and open it in a Bittorrent client application (again, there are a lot of these: I use Azureus, which has a lot of controls that you may never need, or you can try the official Bittorrent client for Mac, or any other suitable application). When you open or drag and drop that .torrent file in the Bittorrent client, the client will use the directions given in the .torrent file to locate the media file you're looking for. It may take a few minutes (or longer) for a download to begin, so be patient.

A couple of rules of thumb: don't try to change your program's settings so that you aren't sharing (i.e. uploading as you're downloading) because if you don't share then you won't be able to download either - Bittorrent enforces this and is very tit-for-tat this way. Keep in mind that a seeder is someone who has a fully complete copy of the file that you're trying to download, so make sure you choose .torrent files that have numerous seeders (because if all the seeders stop seeding then you will never be able to get a whole copy of that file - this is why you should also seed any file you've completed for a bit, as this is a community effort). Peers are other downloaders who don't have a complete copy of the file - generally, the more of these there are (as long as there are also seeders), the faster the file will download.

Remember, Bittorrent has lots of legitimate uses (which is why I'm covering it here). For instance, it is a great benefit for people like me who do video casts, as it makes it so we don't have to maintain enormous amounts of bandwidth for downloads (as this bandwidth is distributed through all the downloaders with Bittorrent). Finally, be conscious of what you're downloading. If you would typically go out and buy something and can afford it then don't think of Bittorrent as a way you can spend that money somewhere else. If we stop paying (however ludicrous and nonsensical payments may be doled out in a given industry) then they will eventually stop producing. Remember: it was massive purchases of Family Guy DVDs, not the letter campaign, that motivated Fox to put that series back on the air!

NOTE: Downloading copyrighted material is illegal. The official Bittorrent site has recently stopped tracking torrents for copyrighted material, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has prosecuted a number of people for illegal downloads. Be forewarned.
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12/01/2005 05:32:00 p.m.  


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