This is a guide on where to look for different types of media (music, film, anime, manga) and what to look for (how to decode alphabet soup such as x264, Hi10p, Xvid, FLAC, etc.) I will try to simplify explanations through analogies but I will still introduce a lot of jargon so if you want to read more about a certain topic, please use Wikipedia instead. This is intended to give you background knowledge on various topics so you can easily acquire the highest quality material to satisfy your discriminating taste (and also acceptable quality for common people like me).
This tutorial will mostly be referring to public torrent indexers (sites such as TPB, isoHunt, KickAssTorrents, etc.) save for a some exceptions where DDL (direct download) is a better alternative. I personally prefer NyaaTorrents for anime, BakaBT for finished manga and TPB for everything else. This guide will be site-agnostic so I will not be forcing you to use a specific source. However, there will be no private torrent trackers since I am not a member of any. If you have invites for an anime/manga or music tracker, an invite would be very much appreciated.
There are three steps for acquiring high quality stuff:
- Investigation phase – This basically means knowing what you need. There are a lot of fake stuff out there so having background knowledge on certain details such as number of episodes, duration in minutes, etc. can help in ruling out bad shit.
- Search phase – Searching for the actual files to download. This requires knowledge on certain keywords in order to filter out legit stuff that looks/sounds awful.
- Download phase – Download using your favorite BitTorrent client (unless source is DDL or XDCC).
These steps apply to all types of media so I will be sharing sauce for steps 1 and 2 for each type. It might seem an awful lot of work at first but it actually saves you time if you can learn to filter bad stuff and it will be easy once you get used to it.
Phase 1: I usually use Wikipedia if I am looking for a specific song. If it is a well-known single, it probably has its own article (which also indicates which album it is released with). If you are looking for a specific album, Wikipedia might also have it in the artist’s page or its discography page. However, not all artists have extensive Wikipedia articles. In that case, I search for the artist/album in Discogs. Why is this step necessary? Sometimes, songs have different versions and knowing which version you want (by determining track length or album) can save you from downloading the wrong files. This happened to me a few times where I found out, sometimes weeks later after downloading, that I have downloaded a radio edit (which rarely sounds better). It also helps if you want each song on your playlist to have the right metadata. I have to admit that even my playlist have missing album entries and maybe mistakes in titles/artists that I have not caught yet. Someday, I will get it done (of course it will be automated).
Phase 2: Once you have determined what you intend to download, you can start searching for it on your desired indexer. I personally recommend downloading the album even if you only want to download a few songs. You can actually skip out files you don’t want to download but it might vary between different BitTorrent clients so just google how to do it. Once you get the search results, there will be various acronyms such as MP3, FLAC, 128 kbps. In order to decide which to choose, consider the following guidelines:
If storage space is not an issue, lossless formats would be the best files to download. If you have limited space but still want high quality audio, don’t fret. There’s this thing called transparency. Basically, a lossy file is transparent if the difference between the source and the compressed file is virtually imperceptible. The quality ranges from person to person and between formats also. For MP3: 192kbps should be acceptable, for Ogg Vorbis: 160kbps, while for AAC, it is 128kbps. This is just the lower bound but the higher bitrates are still recommended. Aside from bitrates, you should also consider whether it is encoded in VBR or CBR.
Conclusion: Lossless music is the best option, at the cost of large file size. If space is an issue, lossy compression can be chosen as long as the bitrate is equal to or greater than the threshold of transparency, which differs between codecs. It is very difficult to quantify which codec is superior but I usually choose AAC whenever possible. VBR is also recommended.
Phase 1: IMDb is the best resource for film- and TV series-related information. I also use Wikipedia for episode lists of TV series. Just like for audio, the information found in these sites can be used for determining which version of a movie you are getting. For example, runtime indicated in the torrent description can help you determine if you are getting a certain version (cut/uncut). An unusual length might even indicate that the credits are cut (Why would you do that? Please don’t do that.) Episode lists might also be helpful for determining watching order, which might differ from the airing order (e.g. Firefly). Of course, the data can also be used for metadata entries especially if your library is managed by software and you are anal about canonical names/titles.
Phase 2: Movies are the most popular downloads for torrent indexers and there are a huge plethora of choices and you might encounter even more terms: BDRip, DivX, x264, 1080p, AVI, etc. In order to determine the best quality, consider these guidelines:
The first thing you have to consider is the source material. For films, common examples are DVDRip (DVD Source) and BDRip/BRRip (Blu-ray source). Due to the limitations of DVDs, its maximum resolution can only be 576p at 25fps and 480p at 29.97fps. Blu-ray sources enable up to 1080p resolution at 60fps. This means that Blu-ray is a better source for video. You might also encounter BDMV, which refers to the actual Blu-ray data and is therefore a lossless version. For complete info on other types of sources, refer to this Wikipedia article.
The next thing to consider is the resolution of the actual video. This might be found at the torrent name or description. For BDRips, common resolutions are 1080p and 720p. Basically, the numerical value refers to the number of pixels on the vertical axis while the letter ‘p’ refers to progressive scan, which refers to a method of displaying video by drawing all horizontal lines of a frame in sequence. This is in contrast to an interlaced scan, which only draws odd lines first, and then even lines on the next in order to reduce bandwidth. If you watch old footage from television shows on YouTube, you might notice vertical lines on some movement. This is an artifact of interlaced scanning. You would have to keep in mind that both the source and resolution is important. For example, if the source is DVD, you can only have up to 480p. If for some reason, a DVDRip indicates 720p, it is either an upscale or the uploader is lying (I have seen cases where “720p” actually refers to 720 horizontal pixels).
The next thing to consider would be the codec used. In order to clear up some confusion, it is important to know the difference between container and codec.
The two dominant codecs you might encounter are Xvid and x264. Xvid is an implementation of the MPEG-4 Part 2 ASP (Advanced Simple Profile) while x264 is an implementation of the MPEG-4 Part 10 AVC (Advanced Video Coding). This means that x264 is more modern and should be chosen over Xvid whenever possible. Related keywords that can be considered equivalent to x264 are H.264 and H264, although they should not be used interchangeably.
The next indicator of quality is the filesize of the video. Technically, it should be the bitrate but it is not always explicitly indicated, unlike the filesize. Of course, this is not a very reliable measure but if there is a significant difference in size between two videos with the same resolution, it is safe to say that the bigger file has better quality. Keep in mind that video quality is not the only factor that affects the size of the file. The audio stream can also affect the size and is an indicator of quality. 5.1 (6-channel) audio results to a higher bitrate. I am personally not a fan of small filesize encoders such as YIFY, who aim for >1GB 720p and >3GB 1080p. These files usually suffer from evident compression artifacts which can be easily noticeable in larger screens such as on televisions.
Conclusion: H.264 is the best choice for now. For the same filesize, it offers better quality than Xvid. Choose MP4 if you will view it external hardware such as television, PS3, etc. and prioritize MKV for PC viewing. Always check the torrent details or download the accompanying .nfo or .txt and check the resolution to avoid fake ‘HD’ releases.
Phase 1: If you prefer online viewing, move on and skip this section (Not now. Please finish this paragraph). If you are one of the majority who reads manga online, please consider using Batoto. Unlike scumbag sites like Mangapanda, Mangareader and co., Batoto does not recompress images into lower quality JPEGs.
Batoto also does not stick a logo watermark on every page. Mangapanda, for example, puts watermarks on every fucking page, including those that they did not scanlate. Which leads me to the next point – Batoto respects the requests of scanlators. If scanlators don’t allow their releases to be re-hosted on other sites, Batoto will not re-host it. Mangapanda, on the other hand, will pretend that they did not hear anything and steal the releases and re-host them. Of course, Mangapanda also scanlates some series, but their releases are so low quality, you would doubt that they actually know anything about either Japanese or English. They even misspell (A LOT) the names of popular characters. The main point is, Mangapanda is made to make as much money as possible with minimal effort by shitting on the releases of reputable scanlators or by doing half-assed scanlations themselves. Batoto, on the other hand, serves high quality images (which means higher cost) while also serving less advertisements (which means less profit). [END RANT]
If you prefer offline viewing like me, the first step is to gather details from Baka-Updates Manga. Just search for the title, go to its info page and look for the releases section. This will indicate which scanlation group handled the title for a certain range of chapters/volumes.
Phase 2: Once you have identified the sources, there are two ways of downloading. The first one is through the scanlator’s site. Baka-Updates also have profile pages for scanlators, which usually include links to their sites/blogs or IRC channel. Most of the time, only one scanlation group handles a series for a given set of chapters. For example, Series A is handled by Group 1 for chapters 1-100 and Group 2 for Chapters 101 onwards. This way, you visit Group 1’s site and download their releases then head to Group 2’s site and download the rest. There is no standard way of hosting releases for scanlators. They might provide a DDL link, file host link (e.g. Medifire, Droplr, DepositFiles, MEGA, etc.) or IRC.
One major downside of this approach is that you may have to download chapters individually, in the worst case. There are also chances where the file host links they have provided are dead, which is common for old releases. I actually recommend this approach for downloading ongoing series. It’s just that there are cases where there are no ways to download via MangaTraders or BakaBT, which can happen when the releases are not popular enough.
The second way of downloading is what I have mentioned in the previous sentence. This is through manga download aggregators such as MangaTraders or BakaBT. MangaTraders is a DDL site while BakaBT is an anime and manga torrent tracker and indexer. If you are not a BakaBT member, you are not allowed to use their site search. In that case, just append ‘site:bakabt.me’ on your Google search query.
Conclusion: Collecting manga may look like it involves a lot of work but there are only a few resources to remember: scanlator’s site found via Baka-Updates, MangaTraders and BakaBT. In cases where there are two or more separate scanlation groups for a certain chapter, I usually choose the later release especially if it is a long time from the earlier version. This is because it might be from the tankobon, or tank scan. This means that it is scanned from a physical volume, which results to generally higher quality in terms of details. Authors may also re-work some parts of a chapter (fixing errors, adding details) for tankobon release. I am not sure if this is consistent for all releases but release info that indicates volume no. + chapter no. in Baka-Updates usually means that it is a tank scan.
Phase 1: Visit MyAnimeList (MAL) or AniDB. The anime entries there contains a list of the fansub groups who have released episodes of the show. There are also ratings for each fansubber. MAL provides a thumbs up/down system while AniDB uses a scale of 1-10. However, I cannot comment on the reliability of the fansub ratings since I know very little about Japanese language. AniDB also provides a more detailed graph of episodes released by fansubbers, and they actually indicate whether a group completed, dropped or is currently in progress on releasing subs of a series. For ongoing series, check AnimeCalendar to have an idea when an episode will be released. Depending on the fansubber, it might be released within a few hours but it might take up to several days.
Phase 2: Once you have chosen the desired fansubber, go to NyaaTorrents and search “[<insert fansub group codename (found via MAL)>] <title of the show>”. AnimeTosho is an alternative site which provides DDL mirrors in addition to torrents. However, this is useful only for ongoing shows. You might also want to check out the fansubber’s site or their IRC channel or the #news channel and refer to the IRC download guide I also linked earlier. The guidelines for quality should be the same with the ones discussed in Movies/TV Series section, except that you might encounter the keyword Hi10p or 10-bit being thrown around.
Blu-ray is also the best source in terms of visual quality. However, there are cases where the raws provided by the studio itself is so bad that even Blu-ray video looks bad. The first example that comes to mind is Steins;Gate (lots of banding). This is the reason why it is a good thing to check out the fansubber’s site to see if they actually recommend the 1080p version based on the source. In the case of Steins;Gate, 720p was the recommended release. It should also be noted that there are some groups which only release BD rips. They usually encode Blu-ray videos and do edits on the best translation available to provide the best release possible. Some examples that come to mind are Elysium Subs and Kira-Fansub. On the other side of the spectrum, there are groups that release re-encodes. Their 720p releases are usually less than 200 MB for a regular length episode but can reach even 100 MB or less. I checked screenshot previews and I recommend that you avoid them. No certain group comea to mind since I don’t encounter them often anymore on Nyaa.
Conclusion: Choose BD releases whenever possible (keywords: BD or Blu-ray). However, there are cases where files are very bloated. Filesize grows very rapidly while quality gains are hardly noticeable once a certain threshold is reached. If space is also somewhat an issue, choose 720p BD or an alternate group. Avoid low filesize re-encodes. If you prefer online streaming, this guide is not for you.
Source: Mostly Wikipedia. Some personal experience (and bias).
P.S.: If you want to gain a bit more technical background on digital media, check out Xiph.Org’s A Digital Media Primer For Geeks. Xiph is also maintaining codecs such as Theora, Vorbis and FLAC. A little backstory on how I discovered this resource: A few weeks after I started writing this, Xiph.Org released a new video codec named Daala, a next-generation codec that uses a different technique from MPEG’s H.265 and Google’s VP9. This news is actually old by the time I post this (due to laziness + being employed). A little lurking on proggit led me to that page and I found that it talked about some of the stuff I wanted to talk about here and also some that I have not considered writing about (because I don’t fully understand it). I decided to not include those stuff and just provide the link at the end for those who are truly interested.