There’s a new phenomenon happening on the Internet called Broadcatching, which is the act of downloading TV to be viewed on your computer. Some call it the poor man’s Tivo, but whatever you call it, it’s becoming more and more popular. After having discussed this topic with several of my clients and friends, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief overview of just what Broadcatching is and how you too can enjoy this new technology. The best part is that it’s all free!
Disclaimer: Make sure you check with your local, state and countrys laws–In some cases you may be downloading (and uploading) copyrighted material. So far, there hasn’t been a legal case that we know of where broadcast TV networks have stopped or wanted to stop BitTorrent downloads of their shows, but we have heard that pay networks like Showtime, HBO, etc. have sent letters to some individuals for sharing recorded TV. This is all new territory for the most part, and it will be interesting to see what happens and if the TV networks realize that this could be their future distribution chain.
The disclaimer above came from an article from Engadget entitled How-To: Broadcatching using RSS + BitTorrent to automatically download TV shows. In the article, they go into great detail regarding using Azureus. Personally I find that client a bit too technical, so I’m going to discuss a much simpler method. That being said, I do recommend reading Engadget’s article because it is an excellent overview of Broadcatching as a whole.
Let’s Get Started – The Technologies
In order to enjoy Broadcatching there are three technologies that we’re going to use: BitTorrent, RSS and DiVX. So just what are these technologies? I’m glad you asked. 🙂
BitTorrent – The Download Tool
BitTorrent was created as a solution to the problem of sharing large files online. Originally it was intended to deal with the issue of scalablity whenever a new distribution of Linux was released. For example, let’s say that Debian releases a new distribution of Linux. The total file size might be 700+ MB and since it’s new there’s going to be a lot of people that would like to get a copy. In order to accommodate the large numbers of users that will be downloading the new distro at the same time costs a LOT of money in terms of bandwidth and hardware. BitTorrent helps alleviate that burden through peer-to-peer file sharing.
Instead of downloading an entire file from one source, each user downloading a file via BitTorrent is also sharing the file with every other user that is downloading at that moment in time. This is a real departure from previous download technologies, including other file sharing networks, such as the old Napster and Kazza. With most download methods, you’re downloading a unique file from a unique user. With BitTorrent you’re downloading smaller bits of the file from everyone that is part of the “torrent”.
The other thing that’s different with BitTorrent is that you don’t have to create an account, or use a proprietary network in order to download files. You simply browse the web and if you see a torrent, you simply select the link and then BitTorrent handles the rest. It’s much more integrated with the Web and your current browsing habits, which makes it very easy to use.
Additionally, it’s important to note that you’re only sharing a file as you’re downloading it. Once you end your BitTorrent session, you’re no longer sharing that file. From a security standpoint, this is great news because it means you’re not having to leave your computer open for file sharing 24/7. Oh and one more thing – you can start and stop a torrent at any time. So if you need to resume a torrent download later, it will pick up right where it left off as long as you save it in the same place.
For more information on BitTorrent, including answers to questions like “What is a seeder?” as well as links to the current popular torrent sites, please read Slyck’s Guide To BitTorrent.
RSS – The Update Tool
RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication” and is simply a small text file that web sites employ to keep their users updated on what’s happening with their site. Users simply “subscribe” to the RSS feed(s) offered on a web site and whenever new content is published, you’re notified. It’s a GREAT way to stay up-to-date with all of your favorite web sites without having to remember to go to each site every day.
To give a real world example, this weblog offers several RSS feeds. By using a News Aggregator, such as BlogLines, you can subscribe to the feeds and whenever I post a new entry, you’ll be notified in Bloglines. In regards to Broadcatching, RSS is what will allow us to download television shows as they become available automatically.
For a tutorial on RSS, please visit the LockerGnome RSS Tutorial for more information.
DiVX – The Viewing Tool
The last piece of the puzzle is DiVX, which is the technology that allows you to view the television program after you’ve downloaded it. DiVX is a codec (short for compression/decompression) and it’s what most people use to record the television into a digital file and share it with the rest of the world. You probably already have other codecs, such as QuickTime, Real and Windows Media already installed on your computer. DiVX is simply a different video format and you’ll need the free player in order to view what you’ve downloaded via BitTorrent.
Step 1: Download A BitTorrent Client
Now that we have all the background information out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff! The first step is to download a BitTorrent client so that you can begin downloading torrents. You can download the basic BitTorrent client from BitTorrent, but keep in mind that BitTorrent is primarily a underlying technology, so there are other clients available. Slyck has a complete list of BT clients at this link, so you can choose the appropriate client for your operating system there.
For Windows, the most popular clients seem to be BitTornado and Azureus. For Mac users, I’d suggest either Azureus, or Tomato Torrent. However, as of this writing, only Azureus with the RSS plugin will allow automatic downloads for Mac users as described in this article.
Personally, I use BitTornado, but there’s nothing wrong with the basic BitTorrent client, so if you’re unsure what to download, or are a little hesitant just install the basic client from BitTorrent.
Step 2: Open Ports On Your Firewall
If you’re behind a hardware firewall on your broadband connection, then you’re going to need to open up several ports in order to achieve high-speed downloads. When I first got into torrents, I forgot to open these ports and as a result my download speeds were quite slow. After opening the ports my download speeds increased ten fold.
Which ports to open with depend on the client that you’re using. The default BitTorrent client uses ports in the range of 6881-6889. The first port is 6881 and then it increases to the next number for each simultaneous download you initiate. So if you have 4 torrent happening at once, you’ll be using ports 6881-6884. BitTornado on the other hand uses random ports by default from 10000-60000. You can change this if you feel uncomfortable opening up so many ports on your firewall. A nice guide on how to do this can be found at this link.
Once you’ve figured out which ports you need to open up, actually opening the ports will depend largely on what hardware you have. There’s no way I could go through every configuration imaginable in this article, but as luck would have it, there is a whole web site dedicated to this subject at PortForward.com. Technically you don’t HAVE to open up any ports, but your download speeds will be so slow, I recommend that you take the time to do so.
Oh and if you’re not behind a hardware firewall, then you don’t have to worry about this step. Just make sure that your software firewall allows your BitTorrent client access to the Internet and you should be good to go.
Step 3: Install TVTad
If you’re a Mac user, and/or you’ve chosen Azureus as your BitTorrent client, then you need to follow the steps detailed in the Engadget article, since there’s a plugin that is specific for that client. Personally, I didn’t care for Azureus, and since I’m using a Windows machine, I opted to use a different piece of software called TVTad.
TVTad is an RSS reader specifically designed for the #TVTorrents web site. Whereas a traditional RSS News Aggregator is designed to work with any site using RSS, TVTad only works with the RSS feed on the TVTorrents web site. The reason behind this fact is because this RSS reader does more – it allows automatic downloading of your favorite TV shows.
Here’s how it works. Once you’ve installed the software, TVTad will monitor the TVTorrents web site every hour. Whenever one of your favorite programs becomes available in the format(s) you prefer, it automatically initiates a BitTorrent download of the file. It’s a thing of beauty to wake up in the morning to find that the latest episode of Law And Order has already been downloaded and is ready for viewing. 8)
To make all of this happen, all you have to set a few options within the program. Here’s a quick rundown of what to do:
3.1 Choose Download Method
In most cases you’re going to use the “SaveAs Method”. All you have to do is browse to where your BitTorrent client is installed and select OK. If you’re using Azureus, TorrentStorm, or ABC Torrent, then you can choose the “ShellExecute Method”. Just ignore the “Storage Method”.
Under the “Settings” tab, set the “Check for new list every” box to at least 60 minutes or more. Updates don’t occur all that frequently and setting a higher refresh rate will save on TVTorrents bandwidth, so be nice. 🙂
In the middle of the page, you’ll see a box entitled “Store files in:”. This is where your torrents will be saved automatically. For example, you might decide that you want all of your downloads to save to a big hard drive you have, or to you “My Videos” folder.
3.3 Choose Your Favorites
Now for the most important step – choosing your favorite shows! Under the “Favorites” tab simply use the pull down menu to select your favorite TV show. Select the format(s) that you’re interested in, such as HDTV, and then select the “Add” button.
Most shows are going to be in either HDTV or PDTV format. I wouldn’t recommend choosing “All” simply because there are other formats such as HRHD and if “All” were selected, then you could be downloading multiple copies of the same program (one in HDTV and another in HRHD).
Also, you may want to list your favorite show several times using different spellings. For example, if you like “Law and Order”, I’ve found that sometimes the show is posted as “Law And Order” and other times it’s listed as “Law & Order”. If you’ve chosen only one, then you might miss an episode.
3.4 Adding Favorites Later
If you’ve noticed that TVTad didn’t download one of your favorites because of a naming issue, or you simply forgot to add it earlier, there’s another cool and easy way to add a show. Once TVTad has an updated list, look under the “Shows” tab and you’ll see the current list of shows. Right click on a show and you’ll have the option to “Add to favorites”.
This right-click option is also handy should an error occurs with a download. Sometimes TVTad doesn’t start the download correctly. When that happens, you can simply choose “Download” from the “Shows” tab and start the download manually.
Step 4: Install DiVX
The only step left is to install DiVX and begin watching TV! Simply Download the free version and install it on your system. Once installed, Windows users can usually choose to view videos in either the DiVX player, or in Windows Media Player.
As you branch out into more and more content, you may come across a format that you’re not familiar with. I recommend using the utility GSpot Codec Information Appliance to figure out what codecs you need to view the file should you run into a file you can’t view.
“I Think We’re Going To Need A Bigger Boat”
Once you get hooked on Broadcatching, you’ll soon realize that these files can be quite large. An hour of TV typical runs around 350MB. Download 3 hour long shows and you’ve eaten up a Gig of hard drive space. Suddenly you might catch yourself saying “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat!”
There’s several options at your disposal:
1. You can simply delete what you’ve watched
2. You can burn your programs to DVD
3. Or you can buy a bigger hard drive.
If you opt for a bigger hard drive, the least expensive way to go with is with an internal drive, such as this SEAGATE 300GB Internal Drive for $192.99. Whereas this MAXTOR One Touch II External Hard Drive runs $250 for the same 300GB. Of course smaller capacity drives are less expensive and you may not have to worry about hard drive space initially. Just know that if you’re not quick to delete the videos after you’ve watched them, you’re going to quickly run out of space.
What About Older Shows?
With BitTorrent you’re only sharing a file as it’s being downloaded. Although that’s a huge plus in my book, it also means that there’s a downside – it’s best to download a file early in it’s posting. Need the latest Lost? No problem! Need the episode 1 of season 12 of NYPD Blue? Yeah, that’s not so easy.
As a torrent ages, fewer and fewer people who have the entire file (seeders) are still sharing it. If there is no seeder still sharing the file, then there is no way to get the entire file. Sometimes people will post a torrent of an entire season, but you’ll have to wait and hope that someone does this once the season is complete.
So if you’re just now getting into Broadcatching, you might want to actively attempt to download any past shows you’ve missed now, rather than waiting since it’ll be harder and harder to do so as time goes by.
Why Can’t I Find This Show Or That?
Since BitTorrents are a community effort, popularity rules supreme when it comes to Broadcatching. If you’re show isn’t popular, your downloads will take longer, or may not even available at all. For example, I really like the show Nigella Bites on the Style Network, but that show hasn’t made it into torrent form yet.
As Broadcatching becomes more and more popular, it’s possible that other niche web sites will appear that will cater to non-prime time networks such as The Learning Channel among others. For now though, if it’s on ABC, NBC, or CBS, chances are it’s online.
Everything discussed up to this point has dealt primarily using BitTorrents associated with only one web site, #TVTorrents. However there is a huge community that extend far beyond the scope of TVTorrents. Here’s a few handy links that you might find useful.
» DigitalDistractions – a small but growing site which hosts shows from Food Network, The Discovery Channel, and the BBC, among others.
»TVTome – The mother lode of information regarding your favorite programs. A great resource for finding how many episodes to expect in a given season and what the titles of each episode are.
» TorrentReactor – If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can wade into the deep end of torrenting and sample this site. You should be aware however that TorrentReactor has torrents for movies and software, both of which are undeniably illegal to download. So be careful what you download.
» PeerGuardian – If you want to add a layer of protection to your downloading, you can install PeefGuardian to block your IP from rogue (aka MPAA, RIAA, etc) connections. It’s not perfect, nor guaranteed, but it does offer some measure of protection and is better than nothing.
» For a more links, please visit this link.
Pass The Hat
As I stated at the beginning of this article, all of the software and networks are free to download and use, but if you find yourself being very active with any of the technologies, I would encourage you to give a donation. Most offer the ability to give a donation via PayPal. If you use any of the sites, or the software enough, please give a donation so that the developers can keep offering their technology for free.
The Next Step – Putting It On Your Handheld
So there you have it! Everything you need to know to begin enjoying your television on your computer. In a future article I plan to show you how you can take your Broadcatching to the next level and put movies on your handheld.