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Beginner's Guide to BitTorrent

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent is the global standard for delivering high-quality files over the Internet. With an installed base of over 160 million clients worldwide, BitTorrent technology has turned conventional distribution economics on its head. The more popular a large video, audio or software file, the faster and cheaper it can be transferred with BitTorrent. The result is a better digital entertainment experience for everyone.

BitTorrent is a protocol (a set of rules and description of how to do things) allowing you to download files quickly by allowing people downloading the file to upload (distribute) parts of it at the same time. BitTorrent is often used for distribution of very large files, very popular files and files available for free, as it is a lot cheaper, faster and more efficient to distribute files using BitTorrent than a regular download.

BitTorrent Mainline is a client. A 'client' in this case is a computer program that follows the rules of a protocol. For example, HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) is the protocol used to download web pages and other content - like this page - and your HTTP client (or browser) is the program you use to get those web pages. Some popular browsers include Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Opera. To an extent, they all work the same way because they follow the same set of rules. The BitTorrent Mainline client will give you access to the world of content on the protocol in a lightweight, fast and reliable package.

How do I download files using BitTorrent?

Just like you need a URL like 'www.google.com' to go to a web site and download content, you need a 'torrent file', a small file that tells the BitTorrent client the necessary info to download the content you want. This is generally obtained from a torrent website. Many websites offer torrents as one method of downloading files. For example, OpenOffice.org, a free alternative to Microsoft Office, can be downloaded using BitTorrent. Other sites, like legaltorrents.com, offer torrents of all kinds of things - these sites are just repositories of torrents and usually don't actually create any of the content available. They're known as indexes or trackers - there is a subtle difference between the two. (The Wikipedia article on BitTorrent trackers explains the difference.)

Once you've obtained the torrent file from wherever, you simply need to import it into BitTorrent. There are several ways of doing this.

  • Click File then Add Torrent in BitTorrent (or press CTRL+O) and locate the torrent file.
  • Double-click the torrent file. (Only works if you've associated .torrent files with BitTorrent - BitTorrent asks you if it should do this the first time you run it. If you clicked 'No', you can do this by going to Options, then Preferences in BitTorrent, then clicking Associate with .torrent files under Windows Integration.)
  • (advanced) Click File then Add Torrent from URL in BitTorrent (or press CTRL+U), and enter a URL from which the .torrent file can be obtained.

But before you start downloading, make sure you've followed the BitTorrent Connection Guide. It doesn't take long and will help ensure that your torrent experience is faster and more consistent.

BitTorrent finished downloading, but now it says it's Seeding. What does that mean?

Seeding is where you leave your BitTorrent client open after you've finished your download to help distribute it (you distribute the file while downloading, but it's even more helpful if you continue to distribute the full file even after you have finished downloading). Chances are that most of the data you got was from seeds, so help give back to the community! It doesn't require much - BitTorrent will continue seeding until the torrent is removed (right click the torrent, then hit Remove). Proper practice is to seed until the ratio of upload:download is at least 1.00.

Can I really download anything?

BitTorrent is purely a content distribution method, just like a web browser, and similarly, does not incorporate any technology to monitor or restrict your activity. There is also nothing in BitTorrent that prevents anyone from seeing your IP address. Take care to follow your country's laws concerning copyrighted content.

How do I know that someone isn't sending out viruses on BitTorrent?

In short, you don't. You should treat something downloaded with BitTorrent just like any file downloaded from the internet - that is, if you don't trust the source of the file, then you should use caution when opening it. If the torrent site you obtained it from offers comments, be sure to read those first. But regardless of the comments, running a virus scan on the downloaded files is usually a good idea. BitTorrent guarantees that the content you download is not altered from when the torrent was originally created, but if the source files used to create the torrent were already infected, this will provide no protection!

Where can I find out more?

This guide and the User Manual is a good place to start. There is also a lot of BitTorrent reference information available on the internet, and searching for "bittorrent" on Google is a good start. The following sites are particularly useful:

  • Brian's BitTorrent FAQ and Guide - a great resource to all things BitTorrent, with far more info than this page, though some of it is a bit technical.
  • BitTorrent FAQ - Provides a list of common questions and answers and solutions to a number of common problems.
  • BitTorrent User Manual - The main documentation for BitTorrent. Explains everything related to the client. Press F1 while viewing the BitTorrent window, or go to Help -> BitTorrent Help.
  • The BitTorrent specification - Technical information on the way BitTorrent works.
  • BitTorrent.org - a forum for developers to exchange ideas about the direction of the BitTorrent protocol.
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