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BitTorrent & Magnets: How Do They Work? [Technology Explained]

Tim Brookes 16-03-2012

As we recently reported, The Pirate Bay has switched from using .torrent file downloads to magnet links with no opt-out policy. The tracker has offered magnet downloads for a good while now, but this is the first time we’ve seen such a large public tracker use embedded links exclusively.


So what does it mean for the army of BitTorrent The Torrent Guide for Everyone This beginner's guide is a great introduction to peer-to-peer file sharing with BitTorrent. Get started with torrent downloading in a safe and responsible way with our tips here. Read More junkies out there? Not an awful lot, it turns out. Magnets don’t operate in precisely the same way as standard .torrent files but it won’t take long for you to get your head around the new standard.

Magnets Explained

Magnets are not a particularly recent addition to the arsenal of filesharing technologies out there. Those of you who remember Freenet and eDonkey 2000 will recall similar methods being used as long ago as 2002. While the standard is still evolving, magnets use largely the same technology that these old P2P networks relied on.

BitTorrent & Magnets: How Do They Work? [Technology Explained] linux mint tpb

Unlike .torrent files, magnets can be embedded directly into a webpage as nothing more than a link. This link is made up of several parts and prefixed with the magnet: identifier. These links comprise of several identifiers (like the “exact topic” (xt) ?xt=urn:btih:<hash> prefixing the BitTorrent info hash), a hash value of the torrent file and sometimes other information like trackers (tr) and file name data (dn). The parts that make up a magnet link do not need to be presented in any particular order.

Here is the magnet link for Linux Mint listed on The Pirate Bay:


These links contain all necessary information to begin downloading files from other peers directly, either using tracker information stored in the link or distributed hash tables (DHT) and peer exchange (PEX).


These two aren’t particularly new either, and you’ve probably been using both for years without realising it. DHT was first demoed in 2005 and works by searching for peers who are downloading the same file without contacting any trackers. This essentially creates a “trackerless torrent” and is something TPB have been pushing for a while now.

BitTorrent & Magnets: How Do They Work? [Technology Explained] dht pex

If you click a magnet link that does not specify a tracker (tr) the first peer will be found using DHT. Once you’ve got a peer, peer exchange kicks in too.


PEX is a similar concept to DHT except there is no way of introducing a new peer to the swarm (users sharing a particular torrent) without first communicating via tracker or DHT. The method used in PEX involves your client asking all peers that you are connected to for the peers that they are connected to. PEX is no good from a cold start, but often provides better results than querying a tracker or swarm via DHT.

How Does This Affect Me?

Your world won’t be rocked by the switch from downloadable .torrent files to magnet links, though there are a few key differences. First up you’re going to need a magnet-compatible client, and there’s a very good chance you’re already using one. uTorrent Put uTorrent On Steroids By Installing Extensions On It [Windows] Read More , Vuze The 4+ Best BitTorrent Clients To Get The Most Out Of Your Downloads BitTorrent is still a reliable and pretty fast way to download large files. It might not be the best method out there, but sometimes it sure is the easiest. The clients are straightforward enough and... Read More , BitComet, Transmission How To Create Torrent Files & Share Them Using Transmission Read More , Deluge Deluge - An Awesome But Unappreciated Cross-Platform BitTorrent Client Read More and qBitTorrent qBittorrent - A Polished, Simple & Reliable Cross-Platform BitTorrent Client Read More all support magnet links, and most clients that are still being actively developed will probably add the functionality at some point.

The main complaint I see come up time and time again is the inability to select which files to download when adding a magnet link to your BitTorrent client. While this is true, it’s easy to change this once the torrent is on its way down.

BitTorrent & Magnets: How Do They Work? [Technology Explained] dont download


Perhaps the question should be “how does it affect the tracker?” then, as it makes quite a difference on that end. For starters the lack of downloadable .torrent files saves on bandwidth, as all magnet links are embedded directly into the webpage. From the tracker’s perspective this removes much of the paper trail – after all, magnet links can be shared anyway you see fit. Find them on trackers, stick them in an email, IM or print them and send them as postcards – it makes very little difference as no “download” took place between you and (in this instance) The Pirate Bay.

BitTorrent & Magnets: How Do They Work? [Technology Explained] tpb blog quote

A blog post from The Pirate Bay

Mirrors are also now a lot easier to organize, as the need to host downloadable files has been completely removed. This would in effect make it harder for copyright enforcers to curb piracy, even if the original web page with the magnet links is taken offline another is bound to spring up with the exact same content. Throw DHT into the mix and even if the tracking server is down people will still be able to share files.


What did we learn?

Magnet links mean more of a change for the trackers and index sites than they do for end users. The switch towards trackerless technology using existing foundations like DHT and PEX protects the trackers by eliminating that initial .torrent file download, being able to discover peers in a completely decentralised manner and of course making it very difficult to keep a site distributing magnet links down for long thanks to the easy mirroring procedure.

It seems that the cat-and-mouse game played between filesharing advocates and the copyright enforcers is far from over.

Have you switched to magnet links? Do you now avoid .torrent downloads? Any favorite trackers or clients? Have a shout about it in the comments, below.

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    August 14, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    There is also our free online magnet link to torrent file converter which will let you download the .torrent file to your PC or seedbox if anyone here is using a client that doesn't support magnet links.

  2. Maryline Latorre
    July 18, 2012 at 7:24 am

    What about Tixati??

    • Modestus
      August 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Tixati is a fabulous client. I've tried several, and Tixati is by far the best, IMO... Whether you're new to all this torrent stuff or been around for ages, Tixati will not disappoint...

  3. shaurya boogie
    June 23, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    So what 's better. magnet vs torrent.

    • Tim Brookes
      June 24, 2012 at 12:42 am

      Neither, they're virtually the same thing. Torrent files leave a trace, require uploading and use more bandwidth (for the host) but allow you to download what you want from the get go.

      Magnet files require no additional bandwidth, can be embedded into a page but you'll need to start the download to acquire torrent metadata before you can pick your files.

      Magnets are probably better from a tracker/indexer's point of view.

  4. Tulisa
    May 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I have just been banned by virgin from using bit torrent and pirate bay, when i go to the site it says, i am resticted die to a court order aimed at the pirate bay

    • Tim Brookes
      May 10, 2012 at 1:46 am

      Is that because Virgin are barring access to the website or you have received a nasty letter about downloading something you shouldn't?

      I assume this is Virgin UK?

    • James
      May 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm

      Get a VPN. I use ivacy and it's awesome.

  5. Chuck
    March 23, 2012 at 3:22 am

    You forgot to mention the best client that handles magnet links, Tixati. It hasn't been out as long as some of the others but it's way better then them and improving with every new release. It's even got chat channels that allow you to chat, search and share with others.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 23, 2012 at 4:34 am

      Thanks for letting us know, I will have a look at Tixati.

      • bill
        April 4, 2012 at 4:43 pm

        couldn't believe you missed it. Tixati Rules.

      • Modestus
        August 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm

        Glad to hear it...

    • marge
      April 11, 2012 at 3:18 am

      Those chat channels just got even better by the way because you can now stream audio and video into those channels. Go to to check them out.

    • Modestus
      August 20, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Chuck, sorry, you're wrong. Tixati is not the best client to handle magnet links...IT'S SIMPLY THE BEST CLIENT! They really keep up with all that's happening in the world of torrent & yes, are very responsive with improving every version... there's even an option to "append a magnet link to a (specified) text file when a new transfer starts" as well as allowing deselection of unwanted files... TIXATI is fast, smart, user friendly & veteran torrentors will not be disappointed..

  6. Thomas
    March 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    TPB hasn't been a tracker for years.

  7. Anthony
    March 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    I think I might have to compile Transmission for CLI to take BitTornado's place within TorrentFlux-b4rt.. The only tracker I use actively that uses magnets itself begins with a D and ends with a D, with a little green guy as their logo ;)

  8. Mulder
    March 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    "uTorrent, Vuze, BitComet, Transmission, Deluge and qBitTorrent all support magnet links"

    This is not true. Certain versions of these support magnet links, but if your computer or OS can't run that version, then magnet links are useless to you.

    You cannot make such broad statements unless you're willing to do the research to find out which versions of each OS support these torrent clients that use magnet links, and clearly state that in the article. That's just sloppy writing.

    • VC Nickels
      March 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm

      It is an accurate statement.

      With the staggering array of OS's that most people that engage in torrenting use it would be impossible for MakeUseOf to account for every fork, splinter, and custom version of every OS, let alone the homegrown versions of the clients themselves.

      If the version you use doesn't support Magent links, take it up with the people that make your client or switch clients.

  9. wyrwolf
    March 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

    The only gripe I have against magnet links (and it may just be due to my own ignorance) is I can't save them to my PC as links to use later instead of right away.

    • klyntone
      March 16, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Right click th magnet link, copy link location, paste to notepad for latter use. Open torrent client, file menu, choose open torrent from url, paste in url, works with utorrent should work with others.

    • darkfast
      March 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      you can also right click on a magnet link, and choose "bookmark this link", save it to a folder of magnet links. when you open the folder in your book marks and select one of the links it will open in your torrent program

    • wyrwolf
      March 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      I could also bookmark or save the page with the link, but just saving the torrent file is way more simple.

      • d0vr
        July 8, 2012 at 9:01 am

        Yes wyrwolf, you could just save .torrent files in the past, but as I encountered numerous times when doing that in the past, I might have come back to download a file using a .torrent and all the trackers had disappeared.

        That is less likely to happen with magnets. And saving one text file is pretty easy. You can even backup bookmarks to a text file and take them to a different computer.