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BitTorrent for Beginners: How To Get Started Downloading Torrents

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Image by jacobian

Heard of BitTorrent, but not quite sure how to use it, or wonder whether you should use it at all? Here’s a quick guide for newbies on how it works and how to get started downloading torrent files.

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent is an internet peer-to-peer file sharing protocol that works in a sort of decentralized fashion. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that as you download portions of your files from the the person who originally shared the file, you are also getting portions from fellow downloaders to maximize data exchange.

BitTorrent is one of the most commonly used protocols for transferring very large files because it doesn’t overload web servers that provide downloads—since everybody is both sending and receiving, it’s much more efficient than everybody downloading from a single server.

How BitTorrent Works

To better understand how this all works, take a look at this diagram from Wikipedia detailing the process:

Torrentcomp

“In this animation, the colored bars beneath all of the 7 clients in the upper region above represent the file, with each color representing a individual piece of the file. After the initial pieces transfer from the seed (large system at the bottom), the pieces are individually transferred from client to client. The original seeder only needs to send out one copy of the file for all the clients to receive a copy. To stop animation, click browser’s Stop or hit ESC key.”

Indexers

An “indexer” is a site that compiles a list of torrents and descriptions and is a place where users form a community (with rules!) around BitTorrent content.  When you want to share, download, or request files, the indexer’s community is where you go.  These usually take the form of a forum and/or an IRC channel.

Trackers

A “tracker” is a server that assists in directing peers, initiated downloads, and maintaining statistics. Since most indexers have their own private tracker, most people just refer to them both as trackers.  In this article, we’re going to use this more general definition to avoid confusion with whatever you may find yourself on the internet.

Trackers route little pieces of data, or packets, to downloaders and assist them in connecting to their fellow peers—as you download chunks of files, you also upload them to other people who have different chunks of the file, and because everybody’s sharing with each other while downloading, it tends to zip along quickly.

Seeders and Leechers

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Once you’re done downloading, you become a “seeder” and you continue to upload to other peers. If you disable uploading and you only download, you’re referred to as a “leecher,” and aside from its ethical misgivings it can lead to being banned from the tracker.  As such, it’s generally good practice to seed at least as much as you download.

Image by nrkbeta

Public vs Private Trackers

Another aspect of trackers are whether they are public or private—the “Private” trackers are based on membership, so only registered users can download, upload, and/or have access to perks like additional downloads. “Public” trackers usually don’t require registration, or if they do, it’s free and always open.  In general, the best experience comes from a private tracker with a strong community, so be sure to look around and see if you can’t find one that suits your tastes.

BitTorrent Clients

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The other side of the BitTorrent equation can be found on your local computer: a client.  The client’s job is to manage your torrents, actually connect to other peers, manage statistics on your end, and, of course, download and upload. While the tracker gives instructions on what to do and how to connect, it’s the client that actually does the heavy-lifting.  Because of this, it’s important that you choose a client you trust as well as a client that performs amiably.

There’s no lack of free, feature-packed BitTorrent clients, but we strongly recommend uTorrent (for Windows) and Transmission (for Mac OS and Linux).  uTorrent is a powerhouse of an app, and easily one of the lightest to run on Windows.  Transmission is installed by default on Ubuntu and many other Linux distributions, and the Mac version runs extremely well and has Growl support.  They are both novice and resource-friendly but don’t skip out on some of the more useful options for advanced users.

Note: uTorrent, by default, enables an Ask.com toolbar during installation and offers to make your default search Ask.com.  This can be turned off without any problems, but it bears mentioning.

Legality of BitTorrent

BitTorrent itself is a protocol, so it falls to individual trackers as to what’s legal and what’s not.  If a copyright violation occurs, it is the tracker that is primarily held responsible, and subsequently its users. You probably should avoid blindly downloading copyrighted works on public trackers, since your IP address can be easily tracked.

There are many legal uses for BitTorrent, however—for instance, most community-driven Linux distributions offer torrents for their ISOs. Phish fans often record live shows (so long as they comply with Phish’s policy on music trading) and share them online, as do many artists themselves.

There are plenty of legal trackers out there, as well as torrent aggregators that compile links to legal downloads hosted on other trackers. Here’s a couple of examples:

  • Jamendo is a free music tracker that distributes Creative Commons-licensed albums, and artists can contribute their own album if it’s licensed in the same way. 
  • Linux Tracker provides downloads to Linux distributions, both popular and low-key, and serves as a great alternative for downloading ISO files. 
  • Clear Bits offers “open licensed digital media” downloads for free, charging content providers instead.  And, as always, Google can be a powerful ally in finding legal torrents.

We here at How-To Geek do not condone piracy and we urge you to please download responsibly.

Downloading Torrents

Things are shared through “torrents,” small files containing text that act as instructions for the tracker.  In order to download files, you hop on your tracker’s website and download the torrent file, which is usually under 30 KB.  You then open that torrent in your chosen BitTorrent and you’ve started to download!  The process is that simple, although there is a lot you can do to make the most of your connection if you play around with your client.

Step by Step

First and foremost, download and install your chosen BitTorrent client.  Here, I’m using uTorrent as my chosen client on Windows.  If you’re using Mac or Linux, it won’t be too hard to follow along using Transmission.

Next, we need a torrent file.  I’ve got a torrent of Countdown’s album “Break Rise Blowing” from Jamendo.

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Once you have your torrent file in an easy-to-reach (or well-organized) location, all you have to do is double-click on the .torrent file to load it in your client.

You’ll see uTorrent pop up and you’ll get a dialog with option for the specific download.

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Here, you can choose where the torrent will download to, whether or not you want to add it to the top of your queue of torrents, and you can even unmark individual files from being downloaded.  Once you’ve settled on what you’d like, you can go ahead and click on OK.

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In the main uTorrent window you’ll see your queue.  From here you can manage your torrents:

  • The Pause button will pause downloading, but keep its connections open.
  • The Stop button will stop downloading and close its connections.
  • The Play button will start downloads once they’ve been paused or stopped.
  • The red X button will give you a prompt to delete your torrent (and files, if you choose).
  • The Up arrow will raise your torrent’s priority amongst all of the currently active torrents.
  • The Down arrow will lower its priority in the queue.

Getting started is just that easy.  The world of BitTorrent is vast, but hopefully this introduction will give you the incentive to take the plunge.  Happy torrenting!

Yatri Trivedi is a monk-like geek. When he's not overdosing on meditation and geek news of all kinds, he's hacking and tweaking something, often while mumbling in 4 or 5 other languages.

  • Published 10/21/10

Comments (24)

  1. Plett

    I’ve been waiting my whole life for this article =D. Thanks!

  2. Lloyd

    I welcome this info. All I need to get started and the whole legal and safety issues are cleared up somewhat due to this article.

  3. Kurt

    Interesting tidbit: press T while uTorrent is running and you can play a mini-version of Tetris that’s built right into the app!

    Linux users may wish to look into Deluge as an alternative to Transmission. It’s also free, and bears a stronger resemblance to uTorrent. It also seems more feature-packed than Transmission. Most *buntu based distributions make it pretty simple to add Deluge via their Software Center / Package Manager apps.

  4. ION

    Good article.

    So i was wondering if you could do another one about how to identify fake torrents
    that would be really useful.

  5. The Geek

    @ION

    Yeah, we’re actually working on a whole series of articles on torrents – Yatri is nearly done with the next one in the series.

  6. Grandpa

    Great how-to. First: download and install

    And that is where the problems start, with no help whatsoever. It’s the installation stupid!

  7. Ushindi

    Personally, I’m a fan of “Vuze”, as opposed to uTorrent, and was surprised not to see it mentioned here at all. Does H-T Geek know something I don’t, and should?

    And yes, be careful what you download – the MPAA and RIAA are not happy campers nowadays and have MUCH more money for legal fees than you do…

  8. robert

    I would like to try torrent but my concern is for security.

  9. GaGator

    Robert… probably best to dedicate an older/spare computer solely
    for P2P exchanges. When it occasionally catches the virus du jour,
    just reinstall the s/w and soldier-on.

  10. Robstar

    Not that anyone would be downloading anything they shouldn’t but…
    http://www.peerblock.com

  11. Miguel

    Perhaps is worth to have another two articles: medium and advanced level. There are so many topics to cover that we would like to hear about.

  12. tiktoff

    Thank you for dumbing down so that I can “get it” . I really love this site!

  13. Ray

    Yatri, thanks for that article; it helped clear up a lot of questions that I had about torrents. My concern, like some others have stated, is with downloading viruses. I’m not real computer-savvy, so forgive my ignorance, here, but I was wondering if there is a way to scan an incoming torrent for malware, to prevent getting viruses. Thanks for your time in preparing that article.

  14. robert

    http://www.peerblock.com looks promising but I think GaGator is correct in that if you do torrents you are eventually going to catch something due to the nature of the connection.

  15. Lucky Man

    @The Geek

    don’t forget about PeerBlock, how to be secure user without getting caught too so Newbies can learn from your tutorials.

  16. ArchK

    The torrent protocol is quite good in theory; in practice it’s another story. The whole idea of a merit-based P2P program is absolute tosh in reality, another one of those great theoretical/crap reality programs. There are any number of reasons why one wouldn’t be able to maintain a high ratio, as is required by all torrent apps, and as a result you can end up with very slow transfer speeds. Cohen created this cuz he was ticked he wasn’t getting the programs/files/etc he wanted from people who had them. This is his ultimate revenge. Now, take out that meritocratic BS, and you’ve got a fine program. It’s like an honor-based system that can’t take into account the reality of binary traffic and all the complications and general scenarios that arise from it.

  17. ArchK

    PS.– you’re also at the mercy of those from whom you’re leeching! If they don’t want to share, if their ISP throttles the Torrent protocol, if they have a crap computer, if they don’t know how to configure the prog correctly….the list goes on.

  18. Rodo420

    Could you possibly tell me the major differences between Vuze and uTorrent?

  19. sneha

    its a gud article n i am a beginner.i am going to read the whole series of it..

  20. Shayn

    i have been downloading stuff via torrents for a long time now without even realizing what is actually happening whenever i download stuff….
    this has been reallly enlightening and a great help

  21. Merz

    Great article. Very informative. I am a newbie, stumbled on this website 2 months ago and love it even more now. No matter how busy I am, I find myself opening your email and read those informative articles and reviews; whether I am inside a lift or even when I am relieving myself lol! Thanks and keep up the good work!

  22. poppahuddy

    very informative and concise article; it explained exactly what i needed & wanted to know in a direct concise clear manner;i now understand totally it’s popularity, pros and cons regarding the whole topic of P2P file sharing and bit torrents; my children have know about this option for years, for me it’s a brave new digital era and media world out there whoaaaa… me I’ll do my part… =0) both download, seed and buy… i truly believe that if you or i have brought Cd’s in the pass, and oh by the way having payed way too much for some let’s see i would say conservatively over 700cds not including VHS and DVD, movies. Or whatever and we want to share them with our cyberbuddies then it’s our right as consenting adults who have payed for them out right to be enjoy as we like commonly referred to as ownership $9.95 … just think of the possibilities its all truly amazing the internet and the enormity of information/media available at the click of a button globally WOW!

  23. Wesomatic

    Great article. Now that I am unemployed I spend a great deal of my spare time reading your articles. You are the best. Thanks!!!

  24. rodders

    Brilliant, been trying to work out how to use bit-torrents for ages-until today.
    Found this article so easy to follow.
    Thank you.

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