December 6, 2007

Watch some TV with TED

Author: Nathan Willis

Has the television writers' strike left you with hours of spare time and no way to fill it? Well, put down that book and put the running shoes back in the closet, because TED is here to help. TED is the torrent episode downloader, an open source, cross-platform tool that simplifies the tedious process of searching for torrent files.

TED is not a BitTorrent client itself; rather it is a search tool for torrents that can pass along its results to your preferred BitTorrent downloader. TED is geared toward retrieving episodic television shows; it lets you search for specific episodes by season and episode number. The app ships with a database of predefined shows and a manually selected set of feeds from torrent sites that frequently carry such content.

If inclement weather knocks out your local cable TV service right before the season finale of your favorite CSI spin-off, you can fire up TED and have it scour a set of known-good sites, looking for a watchable copy. TED does its searching in the background, and if you repeatedly miss a show, you can even have TED repeat its searches on a regular basis, without intervention from you.

Turner, Danson, Koppel: meet TED

TED is a small, self-contained Java application. You can grab the latest build from the project's site and unzip and extract the archive into any directory. Then, from the command line, launch the app with java -jar ./ted.jar.

The first time you launch TED, it will automatically open the Preferences window so you can configure some basic settings. The Preferences window has four tabs: General, Look and Feel, Advanced, and Software Updates.

In the General tab you specify the location in which TED should save torrents. This is probably the only truly critical preference; you should look at the other options, but if you do not give TED a directory in which to store its torrents, it won't function.

You also have the option of letting TED launch your default BitTorrent client to handle newly-found torrents, or leave them in place untouched. On Linux, this feature is not yet implemented, but if you have TED searching for a lot of files on a Mac or Windows box, be aware that automatically opening every torrent could saturate your bandwidth.

The Look and Feel tab lets you set TED's system tray behavior, including popping up alert messages on successful searches and errors. The Advanced tab currently provides just a few options, most importantly the option to suppress the fetching of torrents whose contents include compressed files like Zip or RAR archives. There is no real reason to avoid downloading these files on a Linux system; decompression utilities are now commonplace. The Software Updates tab allows you to configure when TED should check for updates to the app itself and to its show definition data.

With your preferences set, click the "Add show" button in the main TED window to get started. TED will bring up a list of all of its predefined shows; if one of these shows is the series you are looking for, just click on its name. TED will then fill the right-hand part of the window with a list of all of the episodes it knows about of the selected show. Select the one you are looking for, and click Add.

You can add shows not in TED's database by clicking the "Add a custom show" button below the list. You must enter the show's title in the pop-up window and select at least one RSS feed for TED to search.

At this point, you could let TED run, and it would scour its list of RSS feeds for torrents of the episode you selected. If you leave TED to its own devices, after it finds the episode you requested, it will increment its episode counter and begin looking for the next episode. If that is not the behavior that you want, you can suspend the search from the Edit menu.

Click on any show in the search list and hit the "Edit show" button to further tweak your search preferences. From the Edit show window you can adjust the filters that TED uses when searching, by keyword and by file size. You can also tell TED to look for new episodes on specific days of the week.

If your searches fail to produce satisfactory results, you can add new RSS feeds to the built-in list that TED uses by default. The supported torrent sites built in include several different levels of searchability; some permit accessing saved searches as RSS (the most useful option), some provide RSS feeds of categories (which is good), and some offer only a single feed containing all of their content (the least useful).

If you find a torrent source with an RSS feed not included in TED's prepackaged list, you can add the feed URL to the Feeds tab of the Edit show window. But if your source proves useful for multiple shows, the TED project asks you to share it with other users via the project's forums.

The bottom line

How good is TED? Well, it won't find anything that you can't find on your own; you are gaining convenience only. So, for example, if you are stuck on assignment in some locale to which refuses to stream free episodes of "Lost," TED will help ensure that you don't miss anything.

On the other hand, if you're a completist trying to watch every episode of every season of an older program like "The Larry Sanders Show," TED probably won't find anything new for you.

In my own tests, TED was reliable at finding torrents of current shows, regardless of whether the show comes from its built-in show database or a custom addition. Shows on the built-in list had more up-to-date information on season and episode number, but did not yield more hits than shows not on the list. I chalk this up to the reliability of the built-in RSS feeds more than any other factor.

I had far less success looking for older shows and, notably, shows that aren't easily identifiable by season numbers. Long-running programs like late night talk shows aren't released on DVD and pre-date BitTorrent, so few people are in the habit of referring to them by season and episode number.

It appears that TED's success rate depends more on the upkeep of the feed database than on the show database, but either way the responsibility rests on the project's active users. The forum and the wiki provide entrance points for volunteers to help expand the show and feed databases and keep them up-to-date.

Judging from the screenshots, TED looks considerably nicer on the Windows and Mac platforms -- an inequality I see all too often in Java apps on Linux. But you shouldn't let that scare you off if you are in need of a television episode.

Compared to searching for a torrent the old-fashioned way, TED is a big winner. But it feels odd to require a separate app solely for this purpose; I wonder if TED wouldn't gain wider popularity as a plug-in for a BitTorrent client like Azureus, or perhaps the theoretically BitTorrent-capable video search and playback tool Miro. Miro's video "subscription" model fits well with TED's series-based approach. And right now, Miro's underlying support of the BitTorrent protocol gets far less attention than its RSS and YouTube-searching features.

Regardless of where it goes from here, this app proves today that there is still room for one more Ted in the television business. Episode location and downloading is a niche problem, but when you find yourself faced with it, you will be glad someone else has thought about it, too.


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