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Difference between Magnet Links and Torrent Files

If you are someone who pays frequent visits to torrent search engines then you might have noticed that they offer two options to download the file you are looking for. One of them is by first downloading the traditional .torrent file and then let the BitTorrent client do the rest and another one is by clicking on a link called 'magnet link' which then directly fires up your BitTorrent client and starts the download.

To state the differences in simple terms:
.torrent files contain the metadata of the file you are looking to download and it directs the torrent client on how and where to find it and then download all the chunks of data from the peers. Once done, the client rebuilds the downloaded chunks into the desired file.
The magnet links accomplish the same task without requiring the user to download the .torrent file on their PC. The magnet link itself describes the methods and directs the torrent client on how to reach out to other users (peers) to grab the data needed and start the downloading process. They are just plain-text links and one can simply copy and paste them into say e-mails or instant messages and are good to go. Detailed info about the magnet link and its parameters can be found here.

So, why magnet links?
While .torrent files are files, it sits on the server somewhere and takes up space. Also, for sites to share files the server with the torrent files must be up and available to all parties thus leading to hardware infrastructure expenses. Doing away with it and replacing them with magnet links allows the users to get information from other users directly and takes the dependence on the server out of the equation.
Also, sharing magnet links are easy and fast as re just plain text links.

So, which method do you prefer while downloading from torrent websites? Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for the information. This clears up my doubt about the difference between torrent files and magnet links.

I did some digging into this and found an additional feature that needs to be enabled for magnet links. The magnet links work properly if you have switched on the DHT feature on your client. DHT or distributed sloppy hash table is used for storing peer information for trackerless torrents. DHT is used to find out other peers who might also be seeding or leeching the same torrent file. In the case of DHT, every peer who is downloading the file becomes a tracker itself finding out other peers sharing the same file and reporting them back to the tracker.

DHT is however a dicey proposition for torrent users. Certain private trackers ask you to switch off DHT before you can download their hosted torrents. They do this to avoid sharing the file outside of their members and safeguard against snooping from the anti-piracy authorities. But if you are using a public tracker then its fine to keep the DHT on as it will let you find peers who can seed your required file.

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