What happened was, we got into the habit of watching episodic TV; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on. Both Lauren and I tend to work in the evenings, but a 40-minute video segment makes a pleasant break. The problem was, we got going on Lost without realizing it wasn’t done yet. Thus, we are faced with the dismal prospect, starting next month, of watching TV on TV; that is, whenever some network scheduler thinks we should, and with ads. Which is clearly unreasonable in 2010. Solving this problem is pretty easy for Americans but harder for the rest of the world.

Our situation is fairly typical: the house is well-wired and we have no objection to paying for the shows; so far we’ve been renting the discs for $4.50 a pop from the excellent local Black Dog video; seems fair to me for a couple of hours of entertainment, plus you get the bonus features and so on. We’re considerably more technical than your average couch potatoes, but I have a lot more interesting places to invest geek energy than TV.

There are two complicating factors, which I suspect we share with lots of other people. First, we’re not in the USA (Canada in our case). Second, we want to watch the shows, not on a computer, but sitting on our comfy sofa looking at our good but vintage-2004 widescreen TV, which is not driven well as an outboard screen by any of the Macs in the house.

Waiting · One option, obviously, is just to wait until the series is finished and they decide to release the DVDs, and then use Black Dog. In fact, we watched all of BSG while we were waiting for Season 5 of Lost. But Lost kinda gets under your skin, and I just know that if they really manage to ace the finale, there will be spoilers in the zeitgeist. So we’d sort of like to follow along with it.

Amazon · For Americans, Amazon Video looks like a good option; the prices are fair. You can watch on your computer, or if you’re like us, wanting to use an only-OK TV, you can get a Roku ($129) or something like that; it can talk straight to Amazon and just show you the show. But it doesn’t work up here in Canada.

Netflix doesn’t seem to do current TV shows (at least in Canada).

DVR · If you want to watch TV-on-TV without putting up with scheduling and ads, the conventional answer is a DVR. The only actual TV shows we watch are live sports and political debates and, while we have friends with DVRs and understand the appeal of starting-late-and-skipping-ads, or being your own video-replay judge, we’ve just never felt the need.

We get our TV via the Shaw Direct satellite service, which seems typical in its prices and choices. They sell a Motorola HD PVR, which gets very mixed reviews, has a 160G disc, and lists at $499 ($380 at Boxing-Day sales). The term “highway robbery” occurs to me.

Of course, we could get a TiVo, which seems like a whole lot more DVR for less money. We know someone who has an old-school TiVo working with a Shaw receiver, but I can’t find any evidence online that the latest HD version will Just Work.

And even if it does, the $200+ for the TiVo (and then I guess there are ongoing charges) seems kind of expensive to keep up with Lost.

Apple TV · What a weird product; Apple hardly markets it, the features are only moderately competitive, and when you ask about it in an Apple store you’re apt to get a blank stare and stammers. Probably due for a refresh soon, too.

If I’m reading things correctly, though, it’d work for us and Lost. Maybe I’m missing something, but $259 seems like a lot to pay for the privilege of shopping at the iTunes store.

Piracy · It goes like this. You look around and find a torrent farm that does TV shows (I asked at a geek friend’s Christmas social). Depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, you or your friends may have just broken the law by having this conversation. I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on downloaded pirated TV shows, but I’m pretty sure that there’s a good chance of breaking the local laws of wherever you are if you try this option. I have the impression that based on recent case-law, this approach may be (for the moment) at least partly legal in Canada; but don’t take my word for it.

The best places to get these torrents seem to be invitation-only, and invites aren’t all that easy to come by. However, there are other spots that are open to the public and seem to work.

The steps go like this. I’m not going to fill in the names of software components and data formats, because that stuff changes, and if you’re geeky enough to do this, it’s online and not that hard to find.

  1. Get a BitTorrent client working, which may require twiddling with your router/firewall settings.

  2. Pick which file to download; if you’ve got a big-screen TV you probably want to see “720p” in the filename.

  3. Fire up BitTorrent and get the data. Download speed is wildly variable, depending on Internet weather, how many other people are interested in what you’re after, and how hard the Swedish police are leaning on the Pirate Bay this week. So this could be an overnighter or worse.

  4. Once you’ve got your data, bear in mind that the VLC media player can handle any format in the known universe. If you’ve got a TV that does 720p, and a port on it that an appropriate computer can drive, and a way to route the audio out of the computer into the home theater, you’re about done at this point.

  5. Otherwise, you need to get your show onto a DVD, using iDVD or Toast or some such. Quite likely that software won’t import the file format you downloaded, so you’ll need a QuickTime plug-in or some other software widget for conversion. The cost of these things ranges from free to cheap.

    Doing the format conversion and burning is another major time sink; hours and hours, potentially, even on a big beefy computer. iDVD is irritating because it’s resolutely single-threaded, just dumb on a dual-quad-core like the Pro. And the DVDs it burns look a little washed-out and wavery to my eye.

Speaking of Quality · Maybe I’m being unfair to iDVD; I’d been looking at one particular 720p video artifact in MKV (Matroska) format with VLC, and on the big NEC 2690 monitor attached to the Mac Pro, the video quality is... words fail me. Mind-boggling. Ranging from silky/creamy to razor-sharp, as appropriate, colors blazing off the screen, no hint of a perceptible pixel no matter how close I looked. So much better than our 2004-vintage allegedly-HD TV. I suppose that this is what things will look like when I upgrade the TV to 1080p and the source to Blu-Ray. I hadn’t thought I cared enough about TV to go there yet, but maybe I’ve been wrong.

Conclusions · There’s no doubt that the piracy route is the cheapest. But I can’t see recommending it. To start with, it may well be illegal where you’re sitting, and there are costs to breaking laws. Not to mention the costs in time: waiting for the pirates to create the torrents, for the torrents to download, and the DVD to burn.

Also, it’s fragile. The torrents I looked at used trackers from The Pirate Bay; there are a whole lot of well-funded entertainment-biz and law-enforcement types who’d really like to knock those dudes off the air. So far they’ve failed, but in general, functioning legal markets are a more reliable way of doing business than piracy is.

Speaking of functioning markets, watching episodes of a TV series (in the case of Lost, the most expensive ever produced), with no ads, for a low single-digit number of dollars seems like a good deal to me, even though I have in principle bought the right to watch these shows via my monthly TV bill. So that’s my choice, given the choice.

But if there’s nobody who wants to take my money...



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: ramin (Jan 02 2010, at 01:57)

Our solution to this (in addition to having a DVR by the TV) is using a TV receiver hoooked up to a desktop computer as a DVR and then transferring the recorded shows via 1GB network to a MacBook that then drives the TV (via HDMI/DVI). Audio is currently routed to the TV, but could just as easily be routed to our home theater (cough - if it can be called that :).

This way we don't need to remember when a given show is on and the desktop generally has much more HD space than our DVR. Of course now with a FullHD TV I've been thinking of a Mac Mini with the TV receiver hooked to it sitting next to the TV.

Practically any solution that I've come up with is basically a hack of some kind and requires more cables and fiddling than should be necessary.

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From: Sean Callahan (Jan 02 2010, at 03:05)

I just got an EyeTV receiver (AU$129) for my 2005 Mac Mini. The included antenna works well where we are (Gold Coast, QLD) and I can record high def channels to an external hard drive. Obviously with satellite/cable, you'll need to use a cable to connect to the EyeTV receiver.

We were "gifted" a PS3 from Sony here in Australia when we finally bought a HD TV (because rather than lowering their prices to compensate for the strong AU dollar, manufacturers give things away and keep their prices high) and I've been able to watch the shows I've recorded on the 46" TV via WiFi and the PS3 using DLNA.

I ended up installing EyeConnect, but am not sure it was required (we'll see if my setup stops working once the trial period expires in 30 days). It's not painless, but it's not terrible either.

I have noticed that the videos can skip if I'm doing something (e.g., Time Machine backup) on the computer at the same time the video is playing, but I have a feeling that's due to the age of the Mini and/or the slowness of the external hard drive.

After a week, I'm convinced that this is the way to watch television and I can't wait for baseball season to start so I can actually watch some games at a reasonable hour in Australia (they play them live at 3AM or delayed at 10PM, neither of which works well with a 8-5 job)...

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From: Martin Probst (Jan 02 2010, at 03:45)

If you're really outside the US, like, e.g., in Germany, then as far as my market overview goes, breaking the law is actually the most convenient ways of getting content on your screen.

While there are rental services, they typically use some sort of Windows DRM "solution", which effectively means customers will have huge pain in watching what they just bought in the place where they want to watch it (hint: typically not on their PC).

I understand that the content industry is absolutely entitled to get paid for what they produce, and of course being the owners of the content, their are entitled to set the terms on which they sell it to you.

But if these people keep fighting against a new market, and making their products much less attractive than the whole piracy thing (that includes some hackery, lurking around in shady places on the internet, and of course breaking the law), I have very little sympathy with them.

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From: chris (Jan 02 2010, at 05:28)

If you fancy spending a weekend setting it up, then Mythtv is a pretty good PVR. Plus combined with a DVB-S tuner card and a cheap dish (perhaps even a US address for a subscription!) then there's a lot of channels to access. I'm not sure how far north you are, but I'm in the UK (fairly north) and I still see a lot of satelites (Check out http://en.kingofsat.net for available ones).

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From: James Abley (Jan 02 2010, at 05:44)

As a recent Mac owner, I have one significant beef with iDVD. This could very easily be some setting that I'm yet to discover, but I encode videos using my preferred tool to H.264 and AAC to a level of quality I deem OK, giving a 2GB file, then iDVD wants to re-encode that when it creates a DVD, requiring 8.45GB of space. Hello?!

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From: Chris Ferris (Jan 02 2010, at 05:45)

iTunes had (may still have) a special: $49.99 for the season. Not as cheap as piracy, but you won't get a visit from the mattress tag police.

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From: Michael Kozakewich (Jan 02 2010, at 05:52)

As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to spend any money on ad-funded programming. I'm just not the type who buys things because I saw an ad.

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From: Nathan (Jan 02 2010, at 07:18)

I don't know about the Amazon stuff. When I tried it I got some error about drm that I was unable to solve. All in all I wasted all my tv watching time fighting to get the software to work. I never have gotten it to work for me despite reboots, reinstalling, sacrificing a small animal, and endless googling.

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From: ludo (Jan 02 2010, at 07:41)

Modern DVD players usually sport DiVX codecs and a USB port, so that you can save downloaded video on a USB key and watch them without going through the whole DVD conversion/burning routine.

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From: Marc Hadley (Jan 02 2010, at 07:41)

AppleTV is actually pretty cool. Think of it as a remote-controllable iPod that is permanently connected to your TV/sound system. You can either sync music/movies/tv shows to its internal HD or stream them from iTunes on a connected computer. If you have an iPod Touch or iPhone there a nice remote application that lets you control an AppleTV headlessly if you just want to listen to some music. You can also use the AppleTV as a destination for air tunes so you can play music wirelessly from a laptop through whatever system the AppleTV is hooked up to. Its also handy for watching video pod casts on the TV.

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From: Bing (Jan 02 2010, at 07:57)

The torrent route, provided you know where to look, is easy and quick. I buy all my TV on DVD but that doesn't stop me craving new American shows. I'd pay for any service that was actually better than its piratey competition.

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From: Stefan Tilkov (Jan 02 2010, at 08:04)

I get to see Lost! without ads on a digital cable TV channel here in Germany (at least I did for the last season), which is close to perfect – except that because the German market (sadly) requires that everything must be dubbed, I have to wait for two weeks after it's been aired in the US. I'd happily pay something to get around this restriction, but as you say - nobody wants to take my money to give me a legal way to do this. Too stupid to be true.

I wonder whether anyone in the TV/movie industry actually believes geographical restrictions can be maintained in the long run. My bet is they'll be gone in five years, maximum.

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From: Carlos (Jan 02 2010, at 09:51)

To elaborate on ludo's comment, I use a Phillips DVDR3480 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Philips-DVDR3480-DVD-Player-Recorder/dp/B000NVUNUS).

Great DIVX support.

1. Download

2. Copy onto USB key/DVD/CD

3. Play on TV

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From: Mik Lernout (Jan 02 2010, at 09:52)

We just tried to solve the same problem: got an AppleTV, but were disappointed and returned it to purchase a PS3: $299 for a full media centre and Blu Ray player. The PS3 is hard wired to our Time Capsule and our laptops run Vuze, which supports torrent feeds and streams media to the console in all its 1080p glory.

Bliss.

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From: Mark Allerton (Jan 02 2010, at 09:57)

My solution: my old 2005 model Macbook driving my TV (and my stereo), and using the iTunes store for the most part. Obviously the same solution works for piracy too, but the convenience of iTunes is pretty great and I value my time. My disclaimer: I am driving a 5yo 26" LCD TV at 720p and perhaps this solution will break down if I buy a new TV - very tempting since they have become so cheap - and start trying to do 1080.

Funnily enough I have also been plowing through Lost. I, ummm... lost track during the break in Season 3 and decided to catch up...

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From: David (Jan 02 2010, at 10:21)

As an American who has been living in Europe for many years, I've tried many of these solutions for feeding my addiction to US television. The "arms race" that Bittorrent has turned into is tiresome, and potentially dangerous, so I have opted out of that scene. Currently my favorite solution is to pay for a VPN service that provides IP addresses in the countries I care about (especially the US). Then I can watch most of what I want via Hulu, Netflix, iPlayer, etc. I am annoyed that this solution is somewhat inconvenient -- since I can only watch while connected (since I'm streaming), and have sufficient bandwidth -- but the price and risk seem reasonable.

Another popular solution over here is the streaming sites, such as surfthechannel and megavideo.

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From: Patrick Gibson (Jan 02 2010, at 10:26)

"...$259 seems like a lot to pay for the privilege of shopping at the iTunes store."

With respect, I think that's a bit simplistic. I have yet to see any other product that delivers programming right to your TV with such ease. We only rent movies from Apple TV now. With a couple minutes, we are ready to start watching the show. No driving to the video store, no driving *back* to the video store to exchange the DVD that is so scratched it's unplayable, and no final trip to the video store to return the movie.

While the content of the Canadian iTunes Store pales to what the US store has, it's relatively trivial for a Canadian to get a US account. We buy tons of documentary series from BBC Earth that would otherwise not have access to (only a fraction of what BBC Earth produces is on DVD).

With the help of atv-usb (Google it), I've "jailbroken" my Apple TV so I can ssh and sftp into it. With the help of Perian and ATVFiles, my Apple TV also plays anything I *cough* download. The hardware is not quite powerful to play most 720p MKV files, but the standard 480p stuff still looks great on my HDTV.

Far from a perfect product, it is still definitely the center of our media center. To me, $259 is a small price to play for a device that provides us with so much entertainment.

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From: Joe (Jan 02 2010, at 10:55)

I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned Usenet as a more reliable alternative to BitTorrent. Just subscribe to a provider (Giganews, for instance), set up a client (I use hellanzb; many others are out there), and you are good to go.

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From: Patrick Gibson (Jan 02 2010, at 14:11)

I was giving some more thought to what the Apple TV brings over the alternatives. I think the key thing is integration -- particularly if you're on a Mac. I'm an avid photographer, and a father of a two year old. I have iTunes setup to automatically sync the last import of photos from iPhoto to the Apple TV, and my wife and I regularly enjoy a nice photo slideshow set to music from my iTunes library each time I do a big import from my camera.

When we have guests over, I stream music from my computer to the Apple TV which is connected to our big stereo system. Should we choose, I turn the TV on so that guests can see what's playing.

We no longer subscribe to cable, so for shorts bits of programming, we'll go into the podcasts section of the Apple TV and watch TEDtalks and other interesting (and free!) videos. And now that I'm not paying $42/month for cable anymore from Shaw, my Apple TV will essentially pay for itself in six months. (I've actually had it for about three years now.)

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From: Andrew (Jan 02 2010, at 14:33)

Seems to me that an Apple TV is exactly what you want. Your only substantive objection seems to be the $259 price of acquiring the hardware. You get real value for that hardware though as it allows you to watch what you want on the TV set of your choice.

The actual model for acquiring content meets your requirements perfectly. Usually the scales are completely tipped the other way, the up front investment is cheap but the ongoing costs are expensive (razors, cell phones, cable company DVR etc).

I suspect your real objection to Apple TV is the usual fear of investing in the closed Apple ecosystem. Nothing is perfect though. Apple by and large do a great job of making consumer electronics that just work and their stuff resells pretty well on eBay so why not try it out?

One thing is for sure, just because somebody won't sell you the thing you want at the price you would like doesn't give you the moral right to go down the piracy route.

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From: John Cowan (Jan 02 2010, at 18:31)

My solution: Don't watch things that get under my skin. My Real Life is filled with more than enough tension, so I watch things like Law and Order Classic, where you get a reliable experience and if you miss one, okay, you miss one -- there are 20+ years of it, for Ghu's sake.

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From: Andy Mckay (Jan 02 2010, at 18:40)

Zip.ca works well, but piracy is the only option if you want things fast or from other countries (eg the BBC's excellent output).

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From: Paul Robinson (Jan 02 2010, at 19:03)

You are really missing how great the Apple TV is by evaluating it without trying it.

Now that I have an Apple TV I never rent a movie on DVD and I get shows like LOST delivered straight to my TV, in HD, without commercials as soon as they are released.

It's an iPod for your TV - is an iPod overpriced since all it does is let you use iTunes away from your computer?

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From: Michael Zajac (Jan 02 2010, at 19:40)

Anyone know if the 2010 Olympics will be videocasted or available for download on iTunes, or elsewhere?

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From: Smokey Ardisson (Jan 03 2010, at 15:24)

I have no idea what sort of connections your Shaw satellite has (and, to be honest, whether it has connections at all), but if it has some sort of box and said box has Firewire and such, you might find http://blog.kenkeiter.com/2009/01/29/write-your-own-dvr-with-pyavc/ useful. (Even if not, you might still find it interesting. On the other hand, it also might still be more fiddling than you want to do, but the fiddling sounds like it can be automated.)

That said, I’ve not tried it, though our Comcast box has Firewire ports and presumably is compatible; lack of time and (most significantly) hard disk space and all that. Still, interesting idea, and I haven’t seen it get much notice on the web.

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From: Fabian Ritzmann (Jan 04 2010, at 11:53)

> Solving this problem is pretty easy for Americans but harder for the rest of the world.

I'm not clear what makes you say that? In my part of the world, you grab any ole DVB DVR off the shelf and hit the ground running. Even Pay TV isn't much off an issue. Certainly much easier than in the US, where you are locked into whatever proprietary devices your provider is forcing you to use.

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From: John Hart (Jan 04 2010, at 15:04)

For the US-only options, you could proxy through an EC2 instance. $0.085/hour plus 2*$0.17/GB.

1. Launch a small linux instance (eg, an Ubuntu AMI). These instances have sshd are open to the world on port 22.

2. On your client, setup a SOCKSv5 proxy using the "-D" switch of ssh.

3. Configure firefox to use the port rom step (2) as its proxy.

4. There is no 4.

For steps 2 & 3, see

http://embraceubuntu.com/2006/12/08/ssh-tunnel-socks-proxy-forwarding-secure-browsing/

I am not recommending violating anyone's TOS. I'm just noting that it seems quite easy to do.

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From: BrianW (Jan 04 2010, at 20:09)

We've used TiVo happily for the last 5 years or so (using Comcast cable). The past year we have used the HD version and it works great too. In the early days we used it with broadcast TV. Can't confirm it would work with Shaw though. We go for the lifetime subscription to avoid any ongoing (sic) costs.

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From: Pete (Jan 05 2010, at 06:46)

EyeTV for the Mac is awesome. I use it all the time. The DVR is much nicer than the one we get from comcast. You can also use it with an antenna to grab HD broadcasts from the airwaves.

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From: Mikek (Jan 05 2010, at 08:20)

From Japan I can see Amazon's videos via one of my U.S. servers, using FoxyProxy and Firefox. It also works with MP3 purchases from Amazon. Hulu requires more juju than I have.

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From: Ask Bjørn Hansen (Jan 09 2010, at 16:44)

We don't have a TV receiver, cable TV or a DVR.. When we can't find a way to pay money for a not-on-Netflix-yet show in good quality we might download it (between Hulu and being in the US with more purchase options it's pretty rare now though).

Originally we used a Mac Mini, but our aging model can't play many things without stuttering on our 1080p projector. Since then we got a Popcorn Hour to play files from our Samba server and more recently an LG 390 Blu-Ray player which is proving most excellent as a network player, too.

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From: Edward (Jan 11 2010, at 12:31)

I just ordered one of these:

http://www.amazon.com/ASUS-Play-Media-Player-Black/dp/B002MCZJ3C

I'll see how it works out. I'm not going to comment on the source of the videos I mostly watch.

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From: wolf550e (Jan 18 2010, at 15:43)

The video is not in MKV format, it's in H.264 format. MKV it just the tech that packs synchronized video and audio without the crazy overhead in AVI.

Re-encoding MPEG-4 Part-10 to MPEG-2 to watch on an old TV is sad. Avoid. Hook something up to the large screen. Maybe next gen's Android phones will have video out, since they'll have the storage and processing power to decode 1080p in real time, but no built-in projectors.

You don't need to fiddle with your router to use BT, because UPNP has been invented. Though enabling it may make your network less secure.

You don't really need a tracker because of Distributed Hash Table and peer exchange. You get just the hash of the content from the web and away you go.

Torrenting a recent (e.g. yesterday's) episode of a popular show like Lost should max out your broadband's bandwidth. Really. It's only slow when you're after esoteric/old stuff. The client finds local peers without relying on a tracker in Europe, making it fast and economical for your ISP.

BTW, Azureus (Vuze) is the only Desktop Java app regular people use. Seems like it and uTorrent (a 200k win32 app that works great under wine) are the best clients.

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January 01, 2010
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