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When you last downloaded a torrent file, you may have been offered a magnet link as an alternative. Magnet links are very different from torrent files and offer some advantages over them that all torrent users should be aware of.

How Traditional Torrent Files Work

We won’t go into all the details about how BitTorrent works here. But magnet links are an alternative to traditional torrent files. Here’s how traditional torrent files work:

  • Torrent files don’t contain any data of the files you want to download.
  • The file contains a list of torrent trackers (if any) that coordinate all the peers participating in the torrent.
  • It contains information about the files that are being shared, such as their names, sizes, and information needed to do integrity checks on the data.

Torrent files can also contain extended information, such as a DHA (Distributed Hash Table) which allows each peer to act as part of a decentralized tracker network. The DHA is an important concept to remember in the discussion about magnet links.

What Is a Magnet Link?

In essence, a magnet link is simply a string of text. However, there’s a lot of information packed into that string!

A magnet link contains a unique identifier, various parameters depending on the exact nature of the torrent, and, most importantly, a cryptographic hash of the torrent files.

A cryptographic hash is a mathematical algorithm applied to data that results in a short unique string that represents that data. This is useful for torrents because you can hash any two torrents and if they point to exactly the same files, they will have identical hashes.

So, for your torrent client to know who else is part of a given torrent, it simply has to compare the hash in the magnet link to the hashes of torrents that are being shared. Filtering out only those with matching hashes quickly reconstructs the swarm of peers on the network. This is the same method used by the Distributed Hash Table found within “trackerless” torrents. These are torrents that don’t make use of a central server to coordinate peers and keep track of peers.

A magnet link strips out only this essential information and does away with the rest of the torrent file, since the vast majority of participants in the torrent don’t need that information.

The Advantages of Magnet Links

Magnet links are becoming the norm and there are advantages to both torrent providers and torrent users driving this change.

The first big advantage of magnet links is that they are links and not files. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but files must be hosted and downloaded. Magnet links can be part of a web page just like any hyperlink. Users don’t have to go through the additional step of downloading and opening a file and providers don’t have to bother with a file hosting solution.

Any files downloaded from the internet come with the inherent risk malware, which does not apply to magnet links. Magnet links are also much easier to share. You can email them, send them as a text message or through any popular messaging app.

Magnet links also have a big advantage over the use of torrent trackers. A torrent based on a magnet link hash is incredibly robust. As long as a single seeder remains online, anyone else with the magnet link can find them. Even if none of the original contributors are there. As long as the hash can be made from the torrent files again, existing magnet links will still work.

How to Use a Magnet Link

Using a magnet link is as simple as clicking the link on a web page. If you have a magnet link capable BitTorrent client installed, your web browser should prompt you to open the magnet link in your torrent client. You can also copy and paste the link into BitTorrent clients that have an address bar for that purpose.

Once you’ve done that, everything else should happen automatically.

RELATED: The Best Alternatives to uTorrent on Windows

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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