BitTorrent's new downloads: Legit but lame

BitTorrent is going legit - with some of the most restrictive, illiberal policies out there

I'm sitting here doing something I haven't done in a long time--watch an episode of The Flintstones. But it's all in the interest of my readers, since I downloaded it onto my PC as a test of BitTorrent's new paid, copyright owner-approved TV and movie download service.

My tests began when I downloaded the new BitTorrent client, which still looks...well, like a BitTorrent client. It's Spartan in the extreme, and you better have at least some sense of how to use it--on my Windows Vista PC, at least, trying to use its help system spawns a browser window with an elegant-looking 404 "page not found error." Oops.

The BitTorrent client does sport a friendly-looking search window. I typed "24" into it, thinking I might buy an episode of the show by that name, and the client launched a browser window that took me to the BitTorrent online store. (In other words, you don't browse and buy stuff in the client--you do it on the Web.) The browser-based store isn't bad--stuff is neatly organized by genre, with decent information on each title.

I started rummaging around in the results of my search, and got distracted when I noticed a episode of the Flints, possibly because Betty Rubble's appearance in Apple's iPhone ad during the Oscars was still fresh in my mind. (The episode in my search results was the 24th one from the first season, which is why it was there.) I bought it (which required the usual account signup and credit-card info entry). My system wouldn't automatically start the Torrent downloading within the BitTorrent client (which might have been a Firefox or Vista quirk rather than a BitTorrent one), but once I got it downloading within BitTorrent, things went smoothly. And twenty minutes later, I had a high-quality Flintstones episode on my PC.

BitTorrent hands off the file to Windows Media Player (version 10 or above) for playback. Once I authorized my PC to play it--paid BitTorrent downloads will play on a maximum of two PCs, and don't support portable devices--it looked good, either in a little window or a big one. I felt like I'd gotten my US$1.99's worth, pretty much.

On the Internet, though, The Flintstones are a commodity--there are multiple places you can download them for the same price that BitTorrent charges. So I headed to Apple's iTunes Store and plunked an additional US$1.99 to buy the same epsiode there.

While BitTorrent downloads involve a piece of client software and a Web-based store, iTunes does it all in one application--a simpler and more seamless experience for sure. BitTorrent has previews for some titles, but didn't have one for this particular item; the iTunes store did let me see a few seconds of the credits before buying. Once I started the download, iTunes took 22 minutes to transfer it to my PC...longer than BitTorrent, but not by enough time that I would have noticed if I hadn't been keeping track.

With BitTorrent, watching the show involved a third interface (that of Windows Media Player); with iTunes, I stayed in the same application where I'd found, bought, and downloaded the episode. Otherwise, the viewing experience wasn't much different. Both of my $1.99 Flintstones shows looked fine and were, in my exhaustive humor benchmarks, equally amusing.

But Apple's episode gave me more Fred and Barney for my money: I could watch the episode on up to five computers--Windows or Mac--or download it to my iPod. BitTorrent's version is viewable on two Windows PCs. Period. And while the BitTorrent episode led off with a boilerplate warning about what the FBI would do to me if I copied the episode or showed it in public, the iTunes version didn't.

I know of at least two other purveyors of $1.99 Flintstones shows, Amazon's Unbox and CinemaNow. Both those services support portable devices that use Windows DRM, and each has some other advantages over BitTorrent. (Unbox lets you watch a show or movie before the download is complete; CinemaNow supports three PCs rather than two.)

In other words, I didn't come across any clear advantages that BitTorrent has over other downloading services that are already out there. Actually, in my little experiment, it seemed to lag behind existing options.

Oh yeah--BitTorrent does offer one meaningful feature that iTunes, Unbox, and Cinemanow don't. Namely, the ability to download any Torrent out there, be it authorized, questionable, or unquestionably unauthorized. The BitTorrent store has a "Web Search" feature which pulls up Torrents beyond what the store itself offers. As usual with Torrents, it wasn't always clear what was what, and some of what seemed to be available either wouldn't download or took so long it wasn't worth the effort.

I didn't run across any questionable Torrents of the Flintstones episode I'd bought from both BitTorrent and iTunes (which was, for the record, The Long, Long Weekend). That was OK--by that point, I'd decided that even if laws and/or ethics weren't factors, spending $1.99 to get a reasonably snappy and reliable download of a TV show is a good deal. I'd also come to the conclusion that for now, at least, BitTorrent isn't the best place to buy them.

I still think the idea of a service that melds legitimate downloads of big-name content with BitTorrent's sophisticated backend is a cool idea. But I also think it's ironic that a service that made its name with free, unlimited downloads of pirated stuff is going legit with some of the most restrictive, illiberal policies out there...

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Harry McCracken

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