Invented back in 2001, BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocol that allows users to share large amounts of data over the internet directly, without the need for that data to be stored on centralized servers.
In this article I look at the practicalities of how to download via BitTorrent, starting with choosing the right software. Please be aware that there are loads of BitTorrent clients out there, so this list can in no way be considered exhaustive (and will almost certainly omit some reader’s beloved personal favorites.) C’est la vie.
- Open source
- Fully featured
- Built-in video player
- RSS subscription
- Built in search with multiple engines.
- Not much
This fast and resource-efficient BitTorrent client is an attempt to provide full uTorrent or Vuze functionality in a streamlined 100 percent open source package. It is not quite as fully featured (bloated?) as the aforementioned BitTorrent big boys, but qBittorrent features torrent prioritization, torrent querying, selective content download, torrent creation, remote access, and RSS subscription, and also includes a media player and built-in torrent search. Perhaps most importantly, this volunteer-developed software has no ads, and does not try to bundle crapware into the installation.
qBittorrent is available for Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux.
- Open source
- Tons of features
- Available natively on many obscure OSs
- Not much
Also lightweight, completely free, and open source, Transmission has long been a firm favorite among Mac and Linux users thanks to its beautiful interface (complete with Growl notifications in OSX) and powerful features, including, webseed support, watch directories, tracker editing, global and per-torrent speed limits, and more.) It also supports BitTorrent protocol encryption (although this provides nowhere near as much protection as using a VPN,) and functionality can be further extended using Add-ons, such as RSS tools and an XMBC plugin. After some debate with readers, I will note that individual files within a torrent can be downloaded by double-clicking the torrent -> Files.
Transmission is available for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux (many distros), FreeBSD, Gentoo, and more .
- Ridiculously fully featured
- Can bind downloads to VPN
- Lots of plugins available to increase functionality
- Built in video player
- RSS subscriptions
- Great Android apps
- Somewhat bulky and resource heavy
- Tries to install crapware
- Only partially open source
- Interface could be prettier and more intuitive
Once the world’s most popular BitTorrent client (under the name Azureus,) many now regard Vuze as a perfect example of bloatware – a situation made worse by the inclusion of ads that can only be removed by paying for “Vuze Plus” (which costs a whopping €28.90 EUR per year, but does add antivirus, a DVD burner, and play now support.)
Aside from being quite resource-heavy and featuring ads, Vuze looks and feels somewhat old and clumsy compared to much of its competition. It also wants to install crapware during installation, which is easily avoided if you are paying attention, but can be a pain for those who just click their way through.
On the other hand, all that “bloat” does mean a stack-load of features – basically everything including the kitchen sink, including a variety of statistics and visualisations, file conversion for different devices (with drag and drop functionality), content discovery through automated subscriptions, an integrated media player, remote management, and much more (in fact there are so many options available that most users are unlikely to explore them all).
Perhaps its best feature is the ability to bind Vuze to your VPN adapter, making kill switches and suchlike unnecessary for many, as Vuze will only download when your computer is connected to the internet using VPN (we have instructions for doing this available here).
Vuze is available for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, and Android.
- Instant streaming of high quality BitTorrent content!
- Open source
- Very smart interface
- Built-in VPN (not free)
- Chromecast support (maybe)
- Available on just about every platform
- Only for video content
Most BitTorrent clients basically do the same thing – they download files to your local disk. Popcorn Time first exploded on the scene over a year ago, and has since revolutionized the way in which many downloaders consume P2P content, allowing you to find movies and TV shows using a super-slick interface that gives commercial rivals such as Netflix a run for their money, and then stream this content in high (720p or 1080p) quality at even fairly modest connection speeds.
PopcornTime.se is the major PT fork still available, and sources content from different torrent sites, making it difficult to such down. Although ostensibly a streaming app, content is downloaded and stored on your local disk. In theory PT.se sports Chromecast support, but this appears to be very flaky (especially when using a VPN.) For instant video pleasure, Popcorn Time is a revelation.
Popcorn Time.se is open source, and is available for Windows, Mac OSX (10.7+), Linux, and Android (4.0+). iOS users should be particularly pleased to note that not only has Popcorn Time.se released an iOS app, but that it is now possible to install it without jailbreaking your device.
- Open source
- Lots of features
- Expandable via plugins (incl. RSS)
- Less fully featured than some other clients
Deluge is another 100 percent open source BitTorrent client, and in addition to a full version, a portable version is offered which does not require installation. It is very lightweight, and while it sports less bells and whistles than something like Vuze, it provides all the things needed for BitTorrenting (including remote web management and support for magnet links), and which can be further extended using a range of plugins (e.g. RSS support.)
I did carefully consider placing the very popular and more fully featured μTorrent in this spot, but the fact that μTorrent is closed source, and now supports itself with ads (which can be tuned off in the deep settings, but still…), without offering the wealth of features that Vuze offers, has led me to pick the lean but mean Deluge instead.
Deluge has no ads or crapware, and is available for Windows, OSX, Linux (various distros), and FreeBSD.
There are many legitimate uses of the BitTorrent protocol, thanks to the fact that it is a very efficient method of transporting data over the internet, but given its decentralized nature, it is hardly surprising that it has become the technology of choice for copyright piracy (to the point where it is often incorrectly and unfairly regarded as being synonymous with such activity.)
I make some observations about the legality and morality of piracy in this article, but it is important for downloaders who do engage in this practice to understand that thanks to its peer-to-peer nature, anyone file sharing (the clue is in the name!) using the BitTorrent protocol can see the IP address of anyone else who is sharing that file.
As laws get ever more restrictive, and copyright holders ever more litigious, it is therefore vital that downloaders protect themselves with a good VPN service. For some recommendations on good “P2P-friendly” services, check out 5 Best VPNs for torrents, P2P and filesharing.
How do I P2P download using BitTorrent?
- Download and install a BitTorrent client – see above for our pick of the best!
- Ensure that your VPN is running. This will allow you to access blocked torrent sites, will hide your real IP address from anyone watching, and will hide your download activity from your ISP.
- Visit a BitTorrent website – these provide searchable databases of available torrents, and often include user reviews etc. of the torrent files. When you find a file you want, click on the download via torrent link or magnet link (some sites offer both, and from an end-user perspective it doesn’t really matter which you chose). Decoding the jargon used on BitTorrent sites (especially the terminology to label files) can take while to pickup, but is handy for finding the right content.
- The torrent link or magnet link should open in your BitTorrent client, so just follow instructions (such as click OK to confirm).
Despite being almost 15 years old, and despite being partially eclipsed by the rise in popularity of streaming s (both legal and illegal), BitTorrent remains probably the best way to download large, high quality files of every type (although Usenet is a close competitor.) So pair one of the clients mentioned above with a good VPN service, and off you go!