Spend enough time on the Internet or around tech-savvy types, and you’re bound to hear about BitTorrent. Likely, if you’re new to the concept, you have a few questions, and probably some misconceptions on what exactly torrenting is.
What is a torrent file? How do you use it? Is it safe? Is it legal? Torrenting can be a complicated process, so before we get into the meat of how to download and use torrent files safely and legally, let’s cover some important terminology.
Updated 3-3-2016 by Brendan Hesse: This article received a massive overhaul to provide clearer, more detailed information regarding torrent files, how to download them, and how the process works.
What is a Torrent?
If you’ve dabbled at all in torrent downloading, you’ve almost certainly come across the terms “seed,” “peer,” and “leech.”
A seed (or seeder) is someone who is sharing the file; the more seeds, the more potential locations to download the file. Someone who is downloading the seeded file is a leech. The more leeches a file has versus seeds will make the file download slower, as there are more people accessing the file. Furthermore, if no one is seeding, then no one can download. The entire group of seeders and leeches are your peers — hence why BitTorrent is referred to as “peer-to-peer” file sharing. You collect a file directly through someone else, rather than downloading from a server. This cluster of peers is also referred to as a “swarm,” who are all uploading and downloading the same file.
How exactly does this work? Essentially, the file is broken up into pieces, with each piece being downloaded and compiled by the download program. After you’ve downloaded enough data, you will begin to simultaneously upload the parts of the file you’ve downloaded, thereby increasing the download speed for your other peers in the swarm. Download clients give preferential treatment to those who allocate more bandwidth to uploading, and who are seeding files. Basically, the more you share, the more you receive.
Another term you may have come across is “tracker.” A tracker is a server that keeps track (go figure) of all peers in a swarm, but does not host any part of the file. Instead, a tracker acts as something of a traffic cop, directing peers to available file locations. Your download client will connect to this server as instructed in the .torrent file. There is such a thing as “trackerless” downloading, which we will cover more in a moment.