Video Rebel, Part 6: BitTorrent and the dark side of downloading

As we wrap up our ongoing series, we take you to the depths of video rebellion: using the legally gray peer-to-peer application BitTorrent. I’ve shown you how to go the legit route, downloading free HD videos over the Web, paying for titles using a variety of set-top boxes, getting your TV free over the air, and setting up a PC in your living room. Now it’s time for the dark side.

While I’m certainly not endorsing any violation of copyright law, I’m not going to bury my head in the sand and ignore the mother lode of movies that are a click or two away, either. So click Continue and follow me on a journey into the netherworld that is BitTorrent.

Here's a general outline of the process: There are numerous sites on the Web called BitTorrent trackers, some of which attract millions of page views each day. These sites allow you to download what’s known as “torrents,” and once you have these pointer files on your PC, you open them in a peer-to-peer application such as uTorrent that lets you both download files and share them with other users at the same time.


Boatloads of Movies and More

The remarkable aspect of this process is the sheer availability and variety of content. For instance, as soon as a title is available on DVD or Blu-ray (if not before), it shows up on BitTorrent trackers worldwide. A check today of many of the most popular trackers shows the just-debuted HBO movie Recount already available (in high-def), for example. There was also a standard-def copy of the final episode of Showtime’s The Tudors available for download just minutes after the program aired. High-res 1080p movie file sizes are usually around 7.5GB and might take you all night to download (even on a fast connection), while 720p movies are more in the 4GB range. Standard-def titles are around 700MB and download quickly. Or so we hear.

It just sounds too good to be true. Why doesn't everyone do this? Well, because it can get complicated. For example, the idea of setting up your network to download torrents by opening a port on your router seems like child's play to networking experts, but to the rest of us, we might as well be translating hieroglyphics. And once you've downloaded the files, many of them are compressed into formats (such as RAR) that are unfamiliar to novices.

Playback Pal
Beyond that, a PC or Mac is usually not configured to play the kinds of video files you'll find on BitTorrent. File formats such as the highly efficient H.264 or the open-source Matroska container are common. Even if you're not going to be BitTorrenting, to be sure you can play back anything the Internet tosses your way, download and install the comprehensive K-Lite Codec Pack, a free collection that suddenly turns your PC into a playback monster that fears no file. And having that PC in your home theater comes in handy if you want to watch your downloaded booty on a big screen.

Pir8s Beware
Then there's the biggest sticking point of all: If you’re going to engage in this gray-area activity, be aware that if you get caught you might suddenly be responsible for paying thousands of dollars in fines. While the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) seems more intent on stopping BitTorrent tracking websites than prosecuting individual users (like the RIAA does), you’re still breaking copyright law and are vulnerable to unpleasant consequences. That said, there’s safety in numbers, and BitTorrent usage has seen a dramatic surge recently. That's because even though BitTorrent can be unwieldy and risky, the selection (and price) can't be beat.

Of course, if movie studios would make flicks available for download at a reasonable price at the same time the titles are released on disc, it would go a long way toward curbing demand for BitTorrent files. Why does this scenario sound so familiar? Remember Napster? History repeats itself.

Video Rebel, Part 1: Cable TV, you’re fired! Netflix, you too
Video Rebel, Part 2: Free HD download guide
Video Rebel, Part 3: Kill your cable, get HD for free over the air
Video Rebel, Part 4: How to turn an old PC into a home theater monster
Video Rebel, Part 5: Download mania! Netflix, Apple TV, Xbox, Amazon Unbox and Vudu compared