BitTorrent’s been around for a whopping ten years, but it continues to evolve and remains one of the best file-sharing tools available. If you really want to make your downloads soar—and keep Big Brother out of your business—this guide’s for you.
In fact, some of you may find BitTorrent a bit old school for your tastes. Sure, the ISPs are cracking down and throttling peer-to-peer users, and you have other greatfile-sharing alternatives like Usenet, but that doesn’t mean BitTorrent doesn’t still have a place in your routine. It’s pretty easy to ward off prying eyes with today’s BitTorrent clients, and while Usenet is certainly great, BitTorrent is still more widespread. As such, it tends to have a better selection on certain things, and is at the very least a good fallback method for when you don’t find what you’re looking for elsewhere. After all, there’s no reason you have to be loyal to only one file-sharing protocol.
This intermediate guide to BitTorrent is designed to help you do three things: jack up your speeds (without consuming your bandwidth) and keep unwanted snoopers from seeing what you’re doing. We’ve divided them up into three sections:
For the purposes of this guide, we’re focusing on two BitTorrent clients: uTorrent for Windows and Transmission for Mac OS X. That doesn’t mean you can’t use other clients like Vuze (or KTorrent and Transmission for Linux, if you are of the Linux persuasion), but there are just too many clients out there for us to give specific instructions for each. uTorrent and Transmission are some of the most popular clients out there, and they’re our favorite here at Lifehacker, so where appropriate, we’ll give you specific instructions for each client. Note that uTorrent for Mac is not nearly as mature as uTorrent for Windows, and may not have some of these features—so, in this particular case, when we reference uTorrent, we mean uTorrent for Windows.
Keep Your BitTorrent Speed and Privacy at the Max with a Few Simple Settings
BitTorrent clients have come a long way in the past few years, and where it used to be much more difficult to hide your BitTorrent activity, it’s now a matter of checking the right boxes. Here are a few settings every BitTorrent user should have enabled.
Randomize and Forward Your Router Ports
If you’re connected to your internet through a router, it’s likely that many of your ports are closed, meaning your speeds will be much slower than you’d like. You’ll need to let your router know which ones you want open for BitTorrent traffic, which is known as port forwarding. Furthermore, many ISPs or organizations (say, if your neighborhood or leasing company provides your internet) will block popular BitTorrent ports, so you’ll want to switch up the port you use every once in a while to keep them guessing.
Both of these are extremely simple in uTorrent and Transmission. In uTorrent, just to go Options > Preferences and hit the connection tab. Make sure all four boxes under the “Listening Port” section are checked—Enable UPnP Port Mapping, Enable NAT-PMP Port Mapping, Randomize Port Each Start, and Add Windows Firewall Exception.
In Transmission, open up the app’s preferences and head to the Network pane. Check both the Randomize Port on Launch and Automatically Map Port boxes. If you see that the light next to the port’s number goes from red to green, then you’ve successfully opened your current port to BitTorrent traffic, and you should notice a good increase in speed.
Note that for best results, you’ll want to make sure your router is UPnP capable and has UPnP enabled. Most routers are UPnP ready, but if you find that you’re having trouble, you may need to look at your router’s manual and settings page to enable its use.
Encrypt Your BitTorrent Traffic
Nowadays, many internet service providers will throttle your bandwidth, prevent you from seeding, or do any other number of annoying things to try and stop you from torrenting. Apart from randomizing your ports, another thing you can do to try and keep them out is encrypt your traffic. It won’t necessarily work on every client, but I’ve found that it nearly doubled my download speeds, so it’s certainly worth a shot.
In uTorrent, go back to the preferences and hit up the BitTorrent section in the left sidebar. Under Protocol Encryption, open the dropdown menu labeled Outgoing. You have three options: Disabled, Enabled, and Forced. Try Enabled for awhile, but if you don’t see a good speed increase, using the Forced setting might give you better results. Also note the Allow Incoming Legacy Connections checkbox—If you have a specific torrent that doesn’t have a lot of people seeding, you might want to check this box temporarily, though I try to keep it unchecked whenever I can. This ensures that any peers you connect to will use encryption and that your ISP will be less likely to throttle you.
In Transmission, head over to the Peers pane of the app’s preferences and check the Encryption section. Definitely check the “Prefer Encrypted Peers” box, and I’d highly recommend checking the “Ignore Unencrypted Peers” box, though again, if you are noticing that there aren’t a lot of peers connecting for a specific torrent, try unchecking it to see if that helps your speeds.
Block Peers that Might be Snooping
Even worse than throttling ISPs is the threat of the snooping RIAA, MPAA, or other organizations looking to take you down. Often, they’ll post fake torrents of copyrighted material (or just join in on real ones) and track those downloading, leading them right to an unprepared you. While there is no foolproof way to avoid them, a really great simple way is to use a peerblocker. Transmission has this feature built-in, while Windows users will need to use a separate program.
If you’re a Mac user, open up Transmission’s preferences and head back to the Peers pane. This time, check the box that reads “Prevent Known Bad Peers from Connecting” down under the Blocklist section. Hit the update button to make sure the list of bad peers is recent, and check the Automatically Update Weekly box to keep it up to date.
Windows users will need to download previously mentionedPeerBlock (an updated version of the seemingly defunct,previously mentionedPeer Guardian 2) to block the big boys from snooping. The first time you run it, it’ll take you through a setup wizard, in which you can decide who you want to blacklist. Check the box for anti-P2P organizations (as well as anything else you may want, though the P2P box is the only important one for BitTorrent) and schedule it to update as often as you want. You might as well update it every day; there’s no reason to be stingy with your privacy here. Then, just make sure it runs when you use your BitTorrent client—it’ll keep you safe from those bad peers.
Automate Your Client and Free Up Bandwidth
These are some tricks that have been around for awhile, and they won’t exactly keep Big Brother off your back, but they are useful for keeping BitTorrent from overtaking your internet connection, especially if you’ve experienced some heavy speed increases from the above tips. Here are a few ways to automatically manage BitTorrent’s use of your bandwidth.
Set Global Bandwidth Limits
BitTorrent downloads and uploads can hog a lot of your internet connection’s bandwidth, especially if you’re sharing popular content. The simplest way to keep BitTorrent from hogging your connection is to set global upload and download limits. In uTorrent, you can find them in the Connection section of the Preferences. The settings are fairly self-explanatory—just set your max upload and download rates (in kB/s), or choose 0 to keep the rates unlimited.
In Transmission, it’s under the Bandwidth pane of the app’s preferences—just check the “Download Rate” and “Upload Rate” boxes and set your speeds however you want. You can also set a “Speed Limit” mode, if you want to switch between two different bandwidth limits—say, give it more bandwidth when you’re just checking email and the like, and cut the limits down when you need that bandwidth for streaming video or online gaming.
Throttle Your BitTorrent Downloads on a Schedule
You could just quit your BitTorrent client (or manually turn on Speed Limit mode) whenever you want to conserve your bandwidth, but if you’re like me, you’ll forget to start it back up—meaning you’ll end up delaying your downloads (most likely until you want whatever was supposed to be downloading, at which point you will slap your forehead).
To remedy this situation, uTorrent and Transmission both come with simple Scheduler features that you can access through the Preferences. In uTorrent, go to Options > Preferences, then find Scheduler in the sidebar. Tick the box next to “Enable Scheduler” and you’ll see a grid of green boxes light up. The grid runs Monday through Sunday, midnight to midnight (or 0:00 to 23:59), one box per hour. Here’s how it works:
Dark green boxes indicate that uTorrent will download and upload at full speed (or whatever you’ve set as its full speed).
Light green boxes indicate limited download and upload rates.
White boxes indicate that uTorrent will not download or upload any content.
Pink boxes indicate that uTorrent will only seed, not download. I’m not exactly sure when one would be inclined to use this, but it’s there if you want it.
I’ve always got a little bandwidth to spare on my connection, but I certainly don’t want uTorrent hogging my bandwidth while I’m working, so I set the Scheduler to limit speeds from 8am to midnight every day. During the wee hours of the morning, when I’m very unlikely to be at my computer, I open the flood gates and give uTorrent unlimited upload/download speeds. Also, since I generally stay away from my computer on Saturday, I keep uTorrent at full throttle. See the screenshot above to see what this sort of schedule would look like. Like I said, my connection can handle a little bit of bandwidth bleeding all of the time, so when I’m running at limited rates, I set my upload speed to 5 kB/s and my download speed to 15. Handy, huh?
In Transmission, it’s a bit more basic. Just open up Transmission’s Preferences and to the Bandwidth tab. You only have two modes instead of three—your global bandwidth limits and Speed Limit mode. You can schedule the speed limit mode to turn on and off at a specific time either every day, on weekdays, weekends, or on a specific day of the week. It’s not quite as flexible as uTorrent’s scheduler, but works well enough—I’ll generally just limit its speed during the day, and let it tear up my connection when I’m sleeping.
Ensure a good share ratio without wasting extra bandwidth
As Adam mentioned in our beginner’s guide, an important part of BitTorrent is sharing, and a good member of the BitTorrent community gives as much as he/she takes. In fact, many sites, especially private trackers, keep a close eye on your share ratio and may even ban you if you don’t keep your ratio above a certain point (i.e., if you are a “leecher”). This isn’t as widespread as it used to be, but it does still happen—and besides, sharing is just a nice thing to do. I’m in total agreement of the whole share-and-share-alike attitude, but once I’ve shared an equal part of what I’ve downloaded, I don’t want to waste too much extra bandwidth on that torrent.
Rather than constantly checking your torrent ratios so you can remove them as soon as they cross the 1.0 barrier, go to the Queuing section of uTorrent and find the “Seed While” section. There you can set a goal ratio for a file you’re sharing, then set how much bandwidth uTorrent will allocate to the torrent once that goal is reached (in the screenshot, for example, uTorrent will stop sharing the file after its share ratio reaches 150%). If you prefer, you can just limit the upload rate when uTorrent reaches its goal by checking the corresponding box at the bottom of the window.
In Transmission, head to the Transfers pane of the preferences and click on the Management tab. Check the box that says Stop Seeding at Ratio and set the ratio to whatever you want, like 1.50 (meaning when your ratio reaches 150%).
External Solutions for Hiding Your Traffic
We won’t go into too much detail here (as these solutions could be posts of their own), but we thought some of the more extreme measures deserved mentions in this guide. Here are a few other ways to really keep others out of your business.
One of the other popular methods of obscuring yourself is using a proxy, which works similarly to a VPN. You could roll your own SSH proxy or use something a bit easier like BTGuard, which we’ve covered how to do before. You very well may see a speed drop when using this method, though, so if speed is more important to you than privacy, this may not be the best route to go.