I was a bit hesitant to write this article, as it’s (potentially) kind of a sketchy area. Yet, a few clients have asked me how torrenting works, so I thought I’d provide a basic overview that should be workable for most normal people. If you’re a serious tech person (e.g., if you even know what “using a Tor browser” means), this won’t be the write-up you’re looking for. Rather, it’s meant more for the casual PC or Mac user just looking to safely mess around with torrents.
Okay, let’s get started. First thing: What is torrenting? Well, I could get into all of the tech mumbo-jumbo (terms and explanations for P2P, seeding, leeching, etc.), but to be perfectly honest, when most people ask me what torrenting is, they really mean this: How do you download movies, music, software, etc. from the Internet?
Truly, torrenting is super-interesting and useful technology. And, I’m sure, in many ways, it’s also applicable to perfectly legal pursuits. But, a giant percentage of what it’s used for daily, frankly, is for downloading things illegally — movies, music, software, and other types of files (that one is not generally supposed to). I don’t recommend anyone do anything illegal. But, I also think more people should understand how this works, as there are many legitimate uses here. So, let’s get going!
Step One: Don’t do anything unless you have a VPN
VPNs basically take away the means by which any such activity can be traced back to you. You have an IP address, as you probably know. And any time you interact with another server, you can assume that your IP address is logged. It’s the same with torrenting. Whatever you’re downloading, there’s a record (perhaps multiple records) of your IP address having done that. So, you (probably) need or want to circumvent that. And, frankly, having a VPN in place is a handy thing for other practical and security reasons these days, as well. There’s nothing sketchy or red-flag-ish about having / using a VPN.
A company I like is called Private Internet Access. (I’m not affiliated with them. That’s just a normal link.) It’s ~$40/year, and well worth it. I like their site, too — which, atop each page, attempts to identify where you are and who your ISP is. For example, if I’m not signed in, it says:
So, without the VPN, it knows I’m at that IP and that it’s CenturyLink (my ISP). It also says, therefore, that I’m “not protected.” When you sign up and install the software, you get a little screen that pops up to turn it on or off:
The big yellow button indicates that I’m not connected. So, when I press the button, it connects, and then the screen changes:
So, now you see my IP, and the VPN’s IP. Which means that, when I go back to the page I showed before (that tries to identify me), it also changes:
So now anytime I do anything online, the world sees me as the VPN’s IP address and not my own. (Some readers may think: Well sure, but what if the VPN company logs my traffic? That’s a clever thought, and a valid concern! But, in short, they do not log your traffic.)
Other Popular VPN Providers
- This page lists about a dozen VPN providers, and has some useful background info as well.
Before I go on, I just want to reiterate that using a VPN is a smart and handy thing to do for many reasons beyond torrenting. It’s a great all-around security practice, for example — especially for those who work remotely from time to time. (I do quite a bit, and I always use my VPN for that reason!)
One other note is that some sites that you use regularly do not (or will not) like the fact that you’re using a VPN. Netflix, for example, often knows when I have it on, and refuses to show most content until I disable it. That’s because some companies track IPs associated with many VPNs. So, you have to kind of work with those situations. Hulu and other content-streaming sites also tend to dislike VPNs — likely because they’re bound by copyright laws that they do not want to run afoul of.
There are many setup configuration considerations with VPNs, but those are beyond the scope of this article. I’ll just say that, if you’re going to do any kind of torrenting (even just for educational purposes), make sure you have a VPN in place and that it is engaged before you do anything. If you’re not from the U.S., like I am, look into any applicable laws regarding VPN use, as it’s not legal everywhere.
The next thing you’ll need to do any torrenting is some software to handle it. I think the most reliable, standard client would be μTorrent. Don’t ever download it from anywhere but the official site: https://www.utorrent.com/.
It’s been a while since I’ve installed uTorrent. But, in general, anytime you’re installing software, pay special attention to the various options available upon install, as many companies like to bundle their core software with other junk that you simply don’t want — things like browsers, add-ins, anti-virus trials, etc. Decline all of that extra stuff when you’re installing and stick with the core, which is safe if you get the software from the official source linked to here. Once you have that running, it looks like this:
In fact, just in general: Don’t ever download software from anywhere but the official source. And that goes for torrenting, as well. You may want to find a “free” or “cracked” version of a piece of commercial software, but screwing around with software downloads is just too risky, in my opinion. Think of it this way: You definitely don’t want to download anything that you’ll need to install or run, or anything that can run scripts, even.
So, what types of files should you never download? Well, here’s a good article on that! (Remember that this link is here, as you’ll want to come back to it once you understand more about what you’ll be doing!)
Okay, so now you have your VPN engaged, and you have your uTorrent software installed. Now you need to find whatever it is you’re looking for. And, to be honest, this part feels kind of sketchy because you’re going to have to visit some sites that just don’t seem “normal.” You’ll know right away that you’re not reading Medium, at any rate — and so this is probably where you’ll start to feel in doubt, generally, about whatever it is you’re doing.
So, one quick note before you begin. I tend to prefer Chrome as my usual browser. If you really want to get serious about torrenting and all of the security concerns involved, you could do worse than to learn about the Tor browser. Here’s a link to get you started. That’s the “about” page on the official web site.
Tor aside, though… If you’re going to use Chrome (which is probably fine in most cases), you might want to consider at least doing your business in an “incognito” window. To do that, simply have Chrome open and click Control+Shift+N. This opens a new tab that won’t store your history or other data. Also, in this tab, you won’t be auto-signed-in to anything like Google or Medium or Facebook. It’s a completely blank slate! It should look like this:
Next up, you need to go to a site that allows you to search out torrents. Probably the most popular one is called The Pirate Bay. It’s at https://thepiratebay.org. You may find the site inaccessible from time to time, as I suspect they move operations around a good bit and/or they do maintenance. Nevertheless, they seem to be the leader. It looks like this:
There are, of course, tons of other torrent-search sites out there. I’ll leave that to you to research and try out, as you like.
A few words of caution on these sites: (1) They’re generally going to run all sorts of ads that won’t be suitable for kids or bosses to see; (2) They may well link directly to sites you don’t want to go to, for all sorts of reasons; (3) They often have pop-up ads and all kinds of other scripts running. So, using these sites can be challenging!
Okay, with our sample film selected, let’s search for “The Last Man on Earth.” That’ll bring you to the search results page, which looks like this:
Okay back to our results… Note that there are other results that came up here besides the public domain film we were seeking. Also sharing that title is a series from Fox TV. The fist link there seems to be for that series (which almost certainly IS under copyright and therefore illegal to download).
Let’s look at the listing for the one we want (the 1964 public domain movie):
There’s a bunch of stuff going on here:
- The first line with the title “The Last Man on Earth (1964) 1080p BrRip x264 — YIFY” indicates what the file *is*. In this case, we know it’s the 1964 public domain film we were after. The “1080p” tells us that it’s an HD rip of that movie. When you see things like “BrRip” and don’t know what they mean, just do a quick Google search and you’ll soon find out. In this case, “BrRip” means it was ripped from a Blu-Ray release. The “x264” part is a type of video encoding. And the “YIFY” part indicates it’s from a group of people known for distributing movies. Most of this is irrelevant to many users. Most simply want to know the title and quality of the file. You can also click the title to open a new page with the file info on it. For example, this movie’s standalone page looks like this:
- The second line, with the little “magnet” icon contains a lot of additional info. It’s good, for example, to look at the file size. This one is 1.23 gigs, which is a sizable file for a movie-length file. But, it makes sense because it’s ripped at 1080p. Sometimes, if you scroll around on the results, you can find other versions at lower resolutions like 720p. Those files will be smaller (and will download quicker, usually). If you’re watching on a normal computer monitor, 720p may be more than adequate. But, if you have a big TV and want the sharpest picture, then the 1080p will be better. (And, of course, there are other resolutions, bigger and smaller!) Anyway, the green skull is another positive sign on this site. I won’t go into that fully here, but here’s what it means. And finally the red magnet icon, which is what you’ll click to start the download. (But hold off on that for a minute, as there’s more to look at.)
- The far-right two columns of the original screen shot show “SE” and “LE.” That stands for “seeders” and “leechers.” It’s pretty self-explanatory: Seeders are the number of people hosting the file for download; leechers are the number of people downloading it. So, the more seeders, the better because the file will generally download faster. As much as those numbers are helpful and general indicators, I’m not so sure they’re 100% accurate at all times, as people come and go often. Don’t be surprised if a file with very few seeders doesn’t download at all.
Finally, the Download
Okay, so now it’s time to finally download the file! You’ve found the one you want (the legal one!), and you’ve got your VPN engaged. So, go ahead and click the magnet link! That’s going to probably lead to an alert popup saying “Open uTorrent?” Click yes, and it’ll get things started for you. Let’s now review that process. Initially, you’ll see two windows come up:
The topmost one is a little control panel about the file itself. On the left, you see it allows you to save it where ever you like, and whether to create a subfolder there for it (and, if so, the name of the subfolder). On the right side is a list of files included in that torrent. Let’s have a look here, as this is something I recommend always reviewing closely before launching it. That side of the screen looks like this:
You can see right away that there are just two here. One is the film itself, an MP4 file (which is nice and safe), and a standalone JPG file that the people who made this package threw in there as a promo. Cool as that is for them, you didn’t come here to download a bunch of JPGs. So, only check the movie file. (Uncheck the JPG!)
I mention this here because, often, you’ll be presented with a bunch of useless (and potentially dangerous) crap. Sometimes, you’ll see many folders listed. And, I can’t stress strongly enough: Review everything! If there are folders, open them all and look at every file. Only download any folders/files that you know to be safe — mp4, avi, mkv, etc. for movies; mp3, flac, etc. for music. Don’t download any JS files, EXE files, SCR files, or anything you don’t know or check out first. Even office files are not safe, as they may contain macros and/or other code that could be malicious. Remember the maxim: An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. So don’t ever just download everything without looking at what you’re doing.
So, I’ve unchecked the JPG (mainly b/c it’s junk, not because it’s dangerous), and only left the movie. Now, I click OK and it’ll start the torrent.
In no time, the torrent gets going, and you can see a progress bar showing the download completion percentage, download speed, and upload speed. (It shows download speed because you’re downloading it; it shows upload speed because you may now be sharing parts of the file with others who are getting it from you.)
The uTorrent client has informative help files, as well, that go into more detail. But, the above covers 99% of it. After your download completes, you would navigate to where ever you saved it to, double-click that MP4 file, and voila:
Don’t forget: Now that you’re done downloading that movie, you probably don’t want to leave the uTorrent client running. After all, you may disengage your VPN and then you’d be seeding (uploading content) via your own actual IP (which is technically okay if you’re torrenting public domain movies like we’ve done here). And, in the general spirit of Peer to Peer file sharing, it’s nice to seed and not always leech! But still, in order to maintain control over your practices and habits, I recommend you close uTorrent when you’re done.
So, go to File → Exit, and/or go to the bottom of your desktop, click the icons, and right-click/EXIT on the uTorrent one.
Before I Go:
- Read further on any topics, above, that I didn’t cover in-depth enough to make you comfortable. Don’t do anything until you’re confident!
- Stay safe always. Don’t download software and/or anything that might get you into trouble or contain viruses. Research torrent list/search sites before just Googling them and going there. (Reddit is a good place!)
- Use your VPN always!
Popcorn is optional.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!