BitTorrent for Beginners
What's the Best BitTorrent Client?
The official BitTorrent client is called "BitTorrent," the term "BitTorrent" usually refers more generally to the protocol used to transfer files, not necessarily the particular client app you're using to download the those files.
Dozens of BitTorrent clients exist. You can download torrents straight from your browser if you use Opera, you can run BitTorrent from a Java app with BitLet, and a short-lived iPhone app called IS Drive even let you use BitTorrent from your phone. For use with a PC, however, a few apps stand out from the pack.
µTorrent--widely identified as "uTorrent," though the character µ is a lowercase Greek mu (equivalent to an m in English), and not a lowercase Greek upsilon [?] (equivalent to a u in English)--is a lightweight-yet-full-featured client app offered by BitTorrent, Inc. itself. It's easy enough to use, very good for managing a library of torrents, and includes plenty of networking tweaks for advanced users. µTorrent doesn't manage your media library or include a built-in player, so it's great if you want to download media files but then use separate apps to organize and play them.
On the other hand, if you want to use the same app to download, organize, play back, and even share your media over the network, check out Vuze, an ad-supported BitTorrent client which handles all of the above functions in one app. The fee-based Vuze Plus service includes DVD burning and antivirus features for an $25/year.
Miro is an all-in-one client similar to Vuze, but it includes more-robust features for pulling audio and video from other sources besides torrents--podcasts, RSS feeds, YouTube subscriptions, and more.
For micromanaging your downloads while you're on the go, both µTorrent and Vuze have remote-access options that, when activated, let you log in to your home PC and manage your downloads with a Web app.
Why Does My NAS Drive/Wireless Router/Media Streaming Box Have BitTorrent?
Over the past two years, we've been seeing apps with BitTorrent embedded in them finding their way into a handful of devices, including NAS drives, media streamers, and wireless routers. It's a fairly natural fit: Many people use BitTorrent to download movies, music, and TV shows, so these devices can download, store, and stream to your PC or TV without your having to leave the PC on all the time.
The actual client software included differs from device to device, but most of them use a Web app nested within the device's management page. Buffalo, for example, has licensed the official BitTorrent app, so the Web app is essentially a modified version of the µTorrent Web client. Keep in mind that you still have to find the actual .torrent files yourself.
Is BitTorrent Safe?
Well, that depends.
In our article "The 17 Most Dangerous Places on the Web," we wrote that illegal file-sharing sites can leave you open to malware infection. Because so many people use BitTorrent for swapping copyrighted material, it also qualifies as a security risk.There's no guarantee that anyone has screened the files shared via BitTorrent, and some pirates might try to make money by hiding malware in your downloads and then selling access to your computer, or by adding your PC to a botnet of infected PCs.
Still, nothing about the file-sharing protocol itself makes BitTorrent more dangerous than any other method of transferring files. If your system gets infected with malware from a file downloaded via BitTorrent, the culprit is the tainted file, not the fact that you downloaded it via BitTorrent. Had you opened the same file as an e-mail attachment, it would have introduced the same infection.
Whether you use BitTorrent to download OpenOffice or each episode of The Office, there are a few things you can do to help yourself stay safe while using it:
- When you search a tracker site for a .torrent file, read the comments about a file before downloading it. If a popular file is infected with something, someone else has probably already downloaded it, found the malware, and posted a message warning others.
- Vet your torrent trackers thoroughly. Lots of Web sites contain fake torrent search listings. If it seems as though real people aren't posting on the site, don't use it.
- Don't use BitTorrent without some form of antivirus. Even a free antivirus app like Microsoft Security Essentials, if properly updated, can help keep you somewhat safe.
Have your own BitTorrent tips, tricks, or horror stories? Share them in the comments!