The problem is that as neat as services like Hulu and Netflix are, sometimes you just want to get the latest episode of a TV show or the latest movie immediately. Blame it on the digital age; we want what we want when we want it.
There are a number of ways to download content online, but before we get into them, we must stress that if you decide to sail the seas of piracy, you do so at your own risk. If you get served with a lawsuit, cut off from the Internet under a "six strikes" rule, or even end up in jail in extreme cases, well, that's your problem. You should be on the lookout for malware too, because it's a real risk when you download files from unknown sources. You've been warned. This article is for informational purposes only. (For some tips on how to get some of your favorite shows and movies legally, check out How to Cut the Cord on Cable TV - Legally.)
BitTorrentWith that out of the way, we have to highlight what is one of the most popular ways to send and receive large files, both legal and illegal: BitTorrent.
This P2P file sharing standard helps solve a major problem with traditional P2P networks: the free rider problem. Simply put, in the past, lots of users simply downloaded material without uploading in return. Of course, this makes actually downloading stuff that much harder.
BitTorrent solves the problem by making sure everyone uploads material. One major technical innovation is that it breaks files into multiple pieces. This allows anyone to upload a large video file even if they've only downloaded a part of it. As users upload more, the download rate gets even faster.
Yes, BitTorrent is used to download movies and music and other goodies that may be copyrighted, but it does have a number of legitimate uses, the most notable of which is sending out ISO images of Linux distributions that would overwhelm a Web server.
To get started with BitTorrent, there are a number of clients available. There's an official BitTorrent client, but others are also popular. TransmissIon is a good one on Mac and Linux. Vuze is also a popular multiplatform client.
Once you have a client, you'll have to find some content. We're not going to actually abet piracy more than we already are, so you're on your own.
Once you find what you want to watch, all you have to do is point the download link at your client and it will do its thing. If you're behind a Wi-Fi router, you might have to use NAT to open up a port to other torrenters, so you can get the optimum upload speed and not be considered a "leech" that just downloads without uploading in return.
UsenetThere's another option for people who don't want to get involved with BitTorrent. Usenet is one of the oldest computer networks in existence. It's been around since 1979. In its heyday, Usenet was a precursor to modern Internet forums, where users from around the world, mostly on college campuses, would get together to discuss various topics. Although it's still used for more technical discussion, the alt.binaries hierarchy has been the most active, with a lot of questionable content.
One advantage of Usenet is that it's relatively obscure, at least in the eyes of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other four-letter organizations. Its decentralized nature also makes it more difficult to track who's uploading and downloading what files.
There are a number of clients available, as this Wikipedia page shows. Most of them are geared toward text discussion, although you can download files.
For those who want to take advantage of Usenet, you'll have to find a provider. ISPs used to offer Usenet as a service, but have reduced or eliminated the service, possibly because of the liabilities and simply because the binary (in Usenet lingo, "binary" means anything other than text: pictures, video, etc.) groups had so much data that supporting them became a burden. If you do have Usenet available from your ISP, it's probably only going to give you access to text groups, most of which are laden with spam messages these days.
There are a number of providers out there. You'll have to pay for access, but fortunately it comes pretty cheap. You can either pay a monthly fee or buy a block of data that you can use anytime you wish.
If you're going to download files, SABnbzd is what you want. It's a cross-platform client that's designed specifically for files. You'll install a server on your computer that will download what you want, accessible through your Web browser.
Searching through Usenet can be daunting. Sickbeard is a program that functions as a "Usenet DVR." Just search for what you want and Sickbeard will find it. CouchPotato is a similar program.
YouTubeWhile it's certainly not illegal to watch YouTube videos, shows and movies that aren't on other services do manage to find their way there. If you see something you want, you have to act fast. The studios are pretty good about getting stuff taken down. There are various programs out there for downloading videos from YouTube.
There are relatively easy ways to get content without paying for it, even if there are some possible legal consequences. Of course, there are just as many legal ways to cut the cord. If you really want to soothe your guilty conscience, why not just sign up for Netflix? Piracy will only justify the cable and satellite status quo in the long run. Studios and network providers should know that there are paying customers who want legal alternatives to overpriced cable and satellite packages.