Trouble with torrents

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about my initial experiences of using a BitTorrent client for peer-to-peer file sharing, which, contrary to popular belief, is not only exclusively used for illegal content distribution. The trouble is, that I’ve found it difficult to get going with BitTorrent as a content distribution mechanism. My download speeds were very slow and certain clients seemed to prevent any of my computers from using my Internet connection. I tried a few clients (BitTorrent, Azureus and Xtorrent – all on the Mac, although BitTorrent and Azureus are available for other platforms too) and it looks as though I finally have a configuration that works.

My ISP does traffic shape to reduce the impact of P2P traffic but does not aggressively prohibit P2P traffic; having said that I moved away from the standard ports and picked something up high (above 10000) to avoid any issues.

Using BitTorrent, there was an element of doubt as to whether I had a working connection – peers seemed to be disconnecting me as though I was leeching (clearly I have to download something before I can make it available to upload) and I do use a NAT router (which can complicate things). One of the best features in the Azureus client is the traffic light system that it uses for various elements including share ratio and NAT traversal – I had a green light for NAT, but the share ratio was always red/amber so I struggled to get a decent download speed.

I heard on the Macbreak Weekly review of the Apple TV how Xtorrent is a very simple to use BitTorrent client for OS X and after trying it out I’m blown away with how simple it has been in comparison to the other clients that I tried. I’ve been trying to download a 1.3GB file for days now using Azureus and, because of the problem whereby it seems to hog my Internet connection (despite following advice for good connection parameters), I could only run it when I didn’t need to use the network (i.e. at night). Even so, after two nights, I had only managed to retrieve a measly 0.1% of the file. I’ve been using Xtorrent for a few hours now, have most of the file downloaded and have seen transfer speeds as high as 300Kbps (2.4Mbps), but there is a catch – after an hour, downloads are capped at 10Kbps (although the warning says 10kbps – i.e. 8 times slower) and search results are randomly disabled. I’ve also noticed (but cannot confirm) that connection speeds drop significantly if Xtorrent is not the active application.

The search is not such a big deal (all it seems to do is append “torrent” to the supplied query and submit that search to Google and Yahoo! using an embedded browser window) but the “all sales are final” notice at the bottom of the web page and the aggressive registration message when the application is running, combined with no mention of the free version’s limitations on the website do not exactly fill me with confidence about the product (the website encourages download of the $20 pro edition but does not mention that the standard version is limited – in reality there is a free, limited, trial and the full, registered, product is $20 with no “pro” features, it’s just an unlimited version). Xtorrent may well have been “hand-crafted with care” but it’s only just out of beta and there seem to be so many issues to consider with BitTorrent clients that I want to be 100% certain this is the right client for me before parting with cash.

As it happens, I probably will buy Xtorrent, as it seems incredibly simple to use, had no problem using the port I’d previously opened (and verified using Shields UP!) for Azureus, seems to work well, includes RSS integration, allows browsing of file content prior to download and lets me set bandwidth limits according to the time of day and how busy my computer is. All in all, the user experience is excellent – I just wish that the website was a little more upfront about the limitations of the free download.

Testing torrents

BitTorrent gets a lot of bad press. I’m a self-confessed geek and I’d been led to believe (largely by mainstream media it has to be said) that it was all about illegal downloads of copyrighted music and video and, to a large extent, that is the main use of the technology today; however it’s also potentially an immensely powerful medium for content distribution.

I’ve heard some great remixes recently of Snow Patrol’s Open Your Eyes. I waited for the single release (last Tuesday), went to iTunes and there was just a basic single with two tracks, just like the old days of buying 7″ vinyl (showing my age now). In the 90s I bought a lot of CD singles – with 3-6 tracks (mostly remixes) until the chart rules limited the number of tracks on a CD single (an anti-consumer practice if ever I saw one, as most record companies started releasing two versions of a CD single instead with different content, bringing in twice the revenue). Anyway, I digress – there was no sign of the Redanka remix that I wanted. A bit of googling turned up the track I wanted at AllOfMP3 for just $0.39 (but did I really want to hand over my credit card details to a website of dubious legality for such a small sum?) – googling also turned up versions on YouTube and various torrent sites but I was prepared to part with cash to buy this legally!

I went to the official website for the band and asked where I could get the tracks legally… no response. In fact my comment wasn’t even approved by the moderators!

It seems to me that record companies are not helping themselves here – but making different content available in different markets (as well as online/offline), they fragment the market and frustrate the consumer. Little wonder really that people turn to underground download sites…

Now, I’m not encouraging anything that might be illegal here but this blog has an international audience and not everywhere respects the UK’s copyright legislation. If one was to be driven down the torrent route then this is what they might find…

There are many torrent sites that offer content, both legal and illegal for download. I’m not going to link any here but they can be found by using your favourite search engine. If you want to know how to get started, then check out the TorrentSpy Forumsguide to BitTorrent for total newbies as well as how to use Torrents (a basic introduction to BitTorrent vocabulary may also be useful). There are also articles at TorrentFreak which look interesting including summaries of the popular BitTorrent clients for Mac OS X and Windows – many of these are also available for Linux.

There is one very important rule, if you download, then remember to leave your BitTorrent client running once the download is complete to seed the content for others (don’t be a leech). It’s this distributed distribution that’s the big advantage of the BitTorrent technology – leaving aside any illegal content, let’s imagine that I am a media producer trying to distribute content without any big business capital or sponsorship. Instead of running a website with potentially huge bandwidth costs, that cost is shared by those who download the content and make it available for others. Other examples of legal torrent use include distribution of certain software (e.g. Linux distributions) and podcasts and as people realise the potential of peer-to-peer technologies (of which BitTorrent is only one form), they will gain increased acceptance.

When Polydor/Universal Music release the track that I’m after as a download on iTunes, I’ll buy it and pay my dues.