What are Torrents?
Torrents were developed in 2001 (yep, that long ago) but their importance and popularity as a way of sharing files on the Internet continue to grow. Before learning how to torrent you should know a little bit about what they are.
Torrents are small text files that contain just a few pieces of information on how its particular payload can be downloaded on the Internet. Put another way, a torrent file provides a means of where and how to download a torrent’s payload.
A torrent’s payload is a collection of one or more digital items ranging from full-length movies, music files, video clips, ebooks, documents, apps, software programs, images to basically any digital content that you can think of.
For example, a torrent’s payload could be a single item, such as an individual music file, or it could be a set of similar items like a collection of music files, numbering upwards of dozens to hundreds. But a torrent’s payload could also comprise any number of and different types of items, such as a full-length movie bundled together with a subtitles text file, soundtrack mp3 music file, a movie-themed game app and set of images from a behind-the-scenes photo shoot, all associated with a single torrent.
Top Tip – If how to torrent is a new concept to you, don’t worry. Although torrents and how to download and share them can seem a little complicated to the newcomer, once you get to understand the basic concepts, you will soon get the hang of them and be able to enjoy downloading torrents. And anonymously too! How to use a torrent app and find torrents are all explained in the pages ahead.
You download and share torrents with their own special kind of app, a torrent app. Even though torrents themselves are just small text files their payloads can be massive because the torrents do not actually contain the payload items; instead, the torrents merely enable your torrent app to locate and download the payload items over the Internet.
Furthermore, you can download a single torrent or have many torrents working at the same time. There is a wealth of torrents out there waiting for you to download and share, whether you are interested in movies, music, apps, video clips, games, books, erotica, images, or whole collections of these items. For example, if you find the right torrent you can download dozens or hundreds of items in one go or cherry-pick among the individual items associated with the torrent. This is one of the great things about the torrent format.
The collective group of people downloading and sharing a torrent at any one time is called a swarm. When you open a torrent, it informs your torrent app how to download the payload items from the torrent’s swarm. Of course, a swarm is always changing as more or fewer people share a specific torrent.
Torrent files usually end in the extension .torrent (download-me.torrent). The information in the small torrent files is used by torrent apps to find pieces of the payload items shared among an entire swarm.
How Torrents Work
In contrast to downloading from the web, torrent payloads are not downloaded from any one place. Instead they are downloaded from many other users, like you, who are online and sharing the same torrent. This is why the technology underpinning torrents is referred to as peer-to-peer networking or P2P for short.
A torrent network connects people who are downloading and sharing torrents on the Internet. As mentioned, people sharing the same torrent form a swarm and their torrent apps will exchange data until the torrent’s payload is downloaded by all members of the swarm. Once a particular member of the swarm has downloaded a torrent’s payload, the torrent continues to be shared for the benefit of the other members of the swarm.
This may sound complicated, but the matching and swarming is all done seamlessly in the background by your torrent app and with the help of some servers on the Internet known as torrent trackers (see the Top Tip box). All you need to do is find the torrents you want, download them (remember they are just small text files), open them in your torrent app, and then wait for your app to download the associated payloads. The more people that are sharing a particular torrent (the bigger the swarm), the faster you will be able to download its payload. This is why you can often download popular torrent payloads very quickly because their swarms are large.
Top Tip – The trackers mentioned above are servers on the Internet that coordinate the exchanges of data going on between users sharing torrents on the torrent network. Trackers can be public, sometimes called open trackers, which are available to all, whereas other trackers are private trackers often requiring registration or operating on an invitation-only basis to keep out unwanted snoops.
The transfer of data on the torrent network is actually very sophisticated because the network will match people based on the smallest chunks of information available. This means that as you download a torrent, you are actually simultaneously uploading it too, sharing your partially downloaded items with the swarm on the torrent network. As soon as they can be, even the smallest parts of an item are shared with other members of the swarm.
Each member of the swarm sharing a torrent is known as a peer. Peers sharing a fully downloaded torrent are called seeders. Peers sharing a partially downloaded (incomplete) torrent are called leechers. Remember, if you are downloading a torrent, this means that you are also automatically sharing it too. The more seeders a torrent has, the faster it should download. If a torrent has no seeders and too few leechers, it is possible that you may not be able to download the torrent in full. This can happen when the collective peers in the swarm do not possess a full torrent between them. Of course, at any one time seeders and leechers come and go in a swarm as its members stop sharing the torrent, go offline or close their torrent app.
This was a brief explanation of how torrents work. If you want to learn more, here is a good 3-minute video overview.
Also, this visualization is a cool way to interactively see how torrent downloading works with peers and seeds.
How to Download Torrents
The technical aspects behind how torrents work are fascinating. But let’s now turn to how it works in practice. Just as you use a web browsing app for browsing the web or a word processing app for opening documents, you will need a torrent app to open and share torrents, and to download their payloads to your device.
A good choice is µTorrent (free) at http://www.utorrent.com/. Please note that it is called “microtorrent”, not “you torrent”. Small, sleek and fast, this torrent app is as excellent as it is popular. µTorrent has tens of millions of active users, which helps to ensure that there are lots of people for you to share torrents with. The free version does display ads, but they are unobtrusive and can actually be used to your advantage (explained a bit later). It also has a handy boss key for quickly hiding the app should an unexpected visitor drop by.
Top Tip – Experience shows that, unless you are an advanced user, you should stick with the settings automatically determined by µTorrent as fiddling with them only seems to worsen download speeds.
If you prefer, you can use any torrent-compatible app that you want. Another popular choice of torrent app is Vuze (free) at http://www.vuze.com/.
When you find a torrent file that you want to download (don’t worry, I’ll soon tell you everything you need to know about finding torrents), you click on it just as you would for downloading a document from a website.
The screenshots below show me selecting a torrent file to download (using the Chrome web browser). Upon selecting the link, your web browser will prompt you to download the torrent file. Again, this is the same process as when selecting a document online to download.
Figure: Downloading a torrent file on the web is the same as downloading any other item, just select it …
Figure: …and save it on your device
As the torrent is just a tiny text file, it will download very quickly to your device. To open the torrent, you would just select it. Again, this is exactly the same process as when you successfully download a document from the web and then want to open it.
Now here is where things get a little different. When your torrent app opens the torrent that you just downloaded, you will be presented with some information and prompted to make some choices. Your torrent app will display information about the torrent you just downloaded, usually its name and the payload items associated with it. Remember, the payload could be a single item or could number in the dozens of items. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the payload items are actually inside the torrent file you just downloaded (in contrast to a ZIP file for example), because they aren’t.
You can also make some choices before you start downloading the torrent’s payload. Depending on the torrent app, you can select which of the payload items to download. This means that you can skip certain items, if you wish (see screenshot). For example, perhaps the torrent you downloaded is associated with a payload of 10 music files and you only want one of them. You can just download the one item you want and skip the rest, not wasting any time or extra bandwidth for the other items. Depending on the torrent app and the device (for example, desktop computer, tablet or smartphone) you may also be prompted for where on the device to save the payload items. Once you have finished making your choices, you can start the downloading process. Usually this happens when you select OK after making your choices.
Your torrent app will now show the torrent as an active torrent. This means that your torrent app (with the help of the trackers I talked about earlier) is looking to join the swarm, start communicating with other peers and begin the payload downloading process. Depending on the torrent’s popularity, you may quickly join a swarm and start downloading almost immediately or it might take hours or even days in the case of obscure torrents.
Your torrent app will display which torrents are active and the progress of your downloads. Once a torrent’s payload is 100% downloaded (or the subset of items that you selected from the available payload) your torrent app will show that you are now seeding the torrent. Once a torrent’s payload is completely downloaded you can stop sharing the torrent with the swarm, but good torrent etiquette dictates that you do some sharing too. After all, if no one seeded torrents, payloads would be much more difficult and slow to download.
And that’s it! The payload items will now be saved to your device for you to enjoy. Now that you know how to torrent, we can also describe in detail the extra steps needed about how to download torrents anonymously.