If you’ve spent any time on the internet since the early 2000s, you’ve probably heard of BitTorrent, the popular file-sharing tool used for movies, programs, and other large chunks of data. But BitTorrent is a bit more complex than the file-sharing tools that came before it, so it helps to acquaint yourself with its ins and outs before using it. Our guide can help you get started.
When you download a file from the internet, you’re typically downloading it directly from a server somewhere. How fast you download that file can vary depending on the server’s location, speed, and how many people are trying to download the file at the same time. So, while you might have a 200Mbps connection from your internet provider, you may download a file much slower than that if the server providing the file is slow or getting hammered with requests.
BitTorrent is an alternative way of downloading big files that doesn’t share the same weaknesses. BitTorrent isn’t just a program—it’s a peer-to-peer (p2p) protocol that any program can use (though there is a program called BitTorrent, owned by the company of the same name that develops and maintains the protocol itself).
Instead of downloading a file from a single server, with BitTorrent you download pieces of that file from other users across the globe who have the same file on their PC (hence peer-to-peer). The file or group of files you download is called a torrent, sharing those files is called seeding, and the group of people you download from is called a swarm. The more people connected to a given swarm, seeding a file, the faster you’ll be able to download that file.
BitTorrent is commonly known as a piracy tool, thanks to its efficiency in sharing large movie files, music albums, software, and porn. Using BitTorrent isn’t inherently illegal, and the protocol has seen many legitimate uses as well, including the sharing of open-source software like Linux, delivering updates for programs like World of Warcraft, syncing files between computers Dropbox-style, and sharing media released over BitTorrent by the artists themselves. Microsoft even uses similar tech to optimize Windows updates.
All that said, BitTorrent is often used for piracy, since its efficiency, decentralized nature, and popularity have produced a bustling community around sharing those files. If there’s something you want to download, there’s a good chance someone’s sharing it with BitTorrent, legally or not. To be clear, we at PCMag do not condone piracy. If you use our instructions for that purpose, you do so at your own risk.
Downloading files with BitTorrent is a bit more complicated than just clicking a link in your web browser. Most browsers don’t have built-in support for BitTorrent, so you need a specific program, called a BitTorrent client, that knows how to download and assemble the pieces of a file in a torrent.
I’m personally a fan of qBittorrent, a free open-source client that’s easy to use, available on multiple platforms, and provides a good amount of advanced features for those who like to dig in. Other popular programs include uTorrent, Transmission, and Deluge. We’ll discuss the differences between all these in a future article.
You can find torrents to download in a few different ways. If you’re downloading something that the creator has made available on BitTorrent, you’ll probably find a link to download the torrent somewhere on their site—for example, the Linux distribution Ubuntu offers torrents on its Alternative Downloads page. You can also visit a torrent search engine like the aptly named Pirate Bay to find things.
Once you find what you’re looking for, you’ll need to download the .torrent file—a tiny piece of data that points your BitTorrent client toward the swarm, so it can download the actual files you’re looking for. So, if you’re downloading a video, you’ll download the small .torrent file first, then double-click it to open it up in qBittorrent, where it’ll start downloading the actual video.
This may seem a bit roundabout—downloading a small file that points you to another file—but that’s the way BitTorrent works. Many BitTorrent sites and clients also support “magnet links,” which allow you to bypass the .torrent file and point your client to the swarm with a simple click of the mouse. You’ll find .torrent files and magnet links on the download page of the file you want (if the creator supports BitTorrent), or on a BitTorrent search engine like Pirate Bay.
You just double-click the Torrent and tell your OS to open it in the client software. From there, you will need to tell the software where to download your file and you may also be able to prioritize it among whatever other things you want to download at the same time. These are client-specific steps, however.
These are the absolute bare minimum basics you need to get started with BitTorrent, but they won’t likely give you an optimal experience. Below are a few things that can help you stay safe and keep your downloads moving fast.
Just like elsewhere on the internet, you need to be careful about what you download. While many, even most, torrent files contain what they purport to contain, some will trick you by promising one thing and offering malware instead—especially if you’re browsing shadier corners of the web for torrents.
Many torrent sites have comments on each page, which can help you determine a given torrent’s authenticity based on what other users have written. Some directories put badges next to the uploader’s username, denoting users with good track records of uploading safe files. And, of course, you should be running good antivirus software, which scans everything you download automatically.
Since you’re connecting directly to other users in order to download your torrent, you can see the IP address of every user in the swarm—and they can see yours. That IP is traceable to you, allowing anyone who joins the swarm to see what you’re downloading. Some ISPs, particularly those outside the US, may also throttle your speeds if they see you’re using BitTorrent. In order to prevent both of these issues, you should use a trustworthy VPN whenever torrenting—it’ll obscure your IP address from the swarm and encrypt your traffic so that your ISP doesn’t know what you’re doing.
BitTorrent allows you to download files faster and more efficiently than a direct connection to a server—as long as there’s a big enough swarm sharing the file. If a torrent only has a couple seeders, you’ll probably download the file very slowly, and if there aren’t any seeders, you won’t be able to get the file at all. When you download the torrent, make sure you download a recent one that has a lot of seeders to ensure the best speeds (many sites will list the number of seeders on the torrent’s download page).
These days, most torrent clients are set up optimally out of the box—they create a Windows firewall rule for themselves, and use UPnP or NAT-PMP to automatically open a port so that seeders can send you their pieces of the file. If a program has a lot of seeders and the file isn’t downloading, though, you may need to manually forward a port on your router, or go through other troubleshooting steps to ensure you’re connectable to peers in the swarm.
While this isn’t crucial to success, it’s generally considered nice to pay it forward and seed files after you download them, allowing others the opportunity to download the data themselves. After all, if there were no seeders, BitTorrent wouldn’t work very well, and we’d all be stuck downloading files at a snail’s pace. If you can’t seed the file forever, at least seed it until you’ve shared as much as you’ve downloaded (also known as having a 1:1 “ratio”) before deleting the torrent from your client.
There’s even more we could delve into here, as BitTorrent is a remarkably powerful tool if you’re willing to dig into your client’s settings. But for most beginners, this should get you started, keep you safe, and allow you to avoid the dreaded “slow download server” as much as possible.