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The ultimate guide to BitTorrent

How it works, how to avoid the pitfalls

BitTorrent has come a long way since its public release on July 2, 2001, but unless you're a regular media pirate, you probably haven't used it much. Read on to find out how it works and to clear up a few common misconceptions about it.

Downloading with BitTorrent

The first step in downloading something with BitTorrent is to find a torrent tracker site, which is a searchable index of .torrent files. Each .torrent file contains the 'metadata' for the file you're looking for; basically, the .torrent file tells your BitTorrent client how to identify the different chunks of each file and how they fit together.

The .torrent file isn't the actual movie, song, or other file you were looking to download. It's more like a decoder ring that sniffs out the different chunks of your file, then assembles them correctly once they're all downloaded.

If you're looking to download a Linux distribution, for example, you can just stop by LinuxTracker, find the torrent listing that matches what you're looking for, and download the corresponding .torrent file. Once the .torrent file is downloaded, you open it in a BitTorrent client such as Vuze or µTorrent (aka uTorrent), and you'll start connecting to everyone else who's uploading and downloading that file.

Just remember that if there are no 'seeders' for that particular file, you won't be able to complete the download, because no one will have a full copy of the file. This doesn't happen often with popular files, but if there's only one person seeding your file, you might find your download has stopped because the seeder's PC shut down for the night.

What's the best BitTorrent client?

The official BitTorrent client is called 'BitTorrent', the term 'BitTorrent' usually refers more generally to the protocol used to transfer files, not necessarily the particular client app you're using to download the those files.

Dozens of BitTorrent clients. You can download torrents straight from your browser if you use Opera, you can run BitTorrent from a Java app with BitLet, and a short-lived iPhone app called IS Drive even let you use BitTorrent from your phone. For use with a PC, however, a few apps stand out from the pack.

µTorrent - widely identified as 'uTorrent', though the character µ is a lowercase Greek mu (equivalent to an m in English), and not a lowercase Greek upsilon (equivalent to a u in English) - is a lightweight-yet-full-featured client app offered by BitTorrent Inc. itself. It's easy enough to use, very good for managing a library of torrents, and includes plenty of networking tweaks for advanced users. µTorrent doesn't manage your media library or include a built-in player, so it's great if you want to download media files but then use separate apps to organise and play them.

On the other hand, if you want to use the same app to download, organise, play back, and even share your media over the network, check out Vuze, an ad-supported BitTorrent client which handles all of the above functions in one app. The fee-based Vuze Plus service includes DVD burning and antivirus features for $25 (£16) per year.

Miro is an all-in-one client similar to Vuze, but it includes more-robust features for pulling audio and video from other sources besides torrents - podcasts, RSS feeds, YouTube subscriptions, and more. For micromanaging your downloads while you're on the go, both µTorrent and Vuze have remote-access options that, when activated, let you log in to your home PC and manage your downloads with a web app.

NEXT PAGE: NAS drives and other devices with BitTorrent

  1. We explain how it works
  2. Downloading with BitTorrent
  3. NAS drives and other devices with BitTorrent

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