Artist depiction of people downloading files on a computer

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 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:

“In this animation, the colored bars beneath all of the 7 clients in the upper region above represent the file, with each color representing an 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.”


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.


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.

List of downloads in progress

Seeders and Leechers

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.

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

a file being downloaded in uTorrent

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 toolbar during installation and offers to make your default search  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.

A torrent's download listing on a website

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 popup and you’ll get a dialog with option for the specific download.

Saving the torrent in uTorrent

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.

A torrent being downloaded in uTorrent

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!