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Notes from the Online Video Underground

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Though streaming online video is great for instant satisfaction (see "Best TV on the Web" and "Hotspots in the Online Video Underground"), there's nothing like having a video already downloaded and ready to watch. That's why services such as Apple's iTunes Store and Amazon Video on Demand are so appealing.

But some Internet users employ other means to download video, not all of which are necessarily legal. Here's a look at some of the barriers they encounter, and the tools and tricks they use to get around them.

Quick Links

  1. Download Caps: The State of Play as of May 2009
  2. Save Video Streams, Grab Hulu, and Beat Megavideo's 72-Minute Limit
  3. Automate Downloads of TV-Show Torrents
  4. Reduce Your Peer-to-Peer Risks
  5. Try Browser-Based Torrent Tools
  6. Convert Video for Your iPhone or Games Console
  7. Test Whether Your ISP Throttles BitTorrent Traffic

1. Download Caps: The State of Play as of May 2009

Here's an obvious but easily overlooked question: Does your Internet plan impose a cap on downloaded data? Bandwidth limits may make a comeback, and regional or local providers are the most likely to opt for stringent limits. It doesn't take many Netflix, iTunes, or Amazon Video on Demand movies (especially high-definition versions) for the gigabytes to quickly add up--especially when you combine that with some online gaming, peer-to-peer downloading, and Skype use.

In mid-April, Time Warner Cable (the nation's third-largest ISP, with 8.6 million subscribers) suspended trials testing limits of 10GB to 60GB for high-speed users in Rochester, New York; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; and Greensboro, North Carolina. Phillip Dampier, editor in chief of, points out that the first city to test the limits--Beaumont, Texas--was also the last to be rid of it when the trial ended there only last week. Users there had been capped at 40GB per month and charged $1 per gigabyte thereafter. Even with the test run over for now, Time Warner and other providers appear increasingly likely to introduce metered pricing more widely at some point.

Other national ISPs have a wide range of policies. For instance, AT&T is testing a 20GB cap on a light-user-tier/100GB standard service in Reno, Nevada, and Beaumont, Texas. For its part, Comcast sets a limit of 250GB per month, though it offers no tools for customers to check monthly usage. Comcast is said to call excessive users, and, says Dampier, "only seems to enforce [the cap] among the top 1 percent doing the most egregious violations." Dampier explains that "Time Warner Cable has been suspending accounts in Austin, Texas, when they exceed 40GB of usage in one week, but that policy doesn't get enforced in every market.... It's apparent to [us] that the standards used to define 'unacceptable use' varies between different cities."

If your carrier doesn't provide tools for you to track your usage, you can get your own. DU Meter 4.0 ($25) lets you self-impose a data limit and warns you as you approach it. Net Meter is a free alternative.

Next: Save Video Streams, Grab Hulu, and Beat Megavideo's 72-Minute Limit

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