The How-To Geek Guide to Getting Started with Usenet

What would BitTorrent look like if it was lightening fast, always available, completely private, and secure? It’d look a lot like Usenet. Read on to learn how to ditch Torrenting and enjoy super speeds and selection on Usenet.

What Is Usenet and Why Should I Care?

First, let’s talk about a system nearly everyone is familiar with, BitTorrent. Torrents are a form of distributed file sharing. You get a torrent file and that torrent file connects you to a tracker and in turn that tracker helps your BitTorrent client find all the other computer around the world sharing that file. Your ability to find and download files is dependent on other people sharing and the quality and speed of their connections to the internet. It’s also inherently not a private or secure activity because there is no way, even on the nicer private trackers, to engage in the entire process of torrenting without sharing your identity (or the identity of your proxy or seedbox at least). Torrenting is, even on a private tracker, a public activity.

By contrast Usenet is private, secure, and as fast as your broadband connection can handle. What exactly is Usenet and how does it provide these things? A bit of history is in order. Usenet is, by modern standards, an ancient internet system. Harking back to the early 1980s, Usenet was created to serve as a global distributed discussion system. Sub groups existed for everything from hardware hacking discussion to movie critiques to alternative lifestyles. The heyday of Usenet as a global discussion forum has long since passed (although some groups are still in use). Usenet, however, lives on thanks to the binary groups and the introduction of the NZB file.

For decades Usenet has had binary groups, sub groups that specialize in the distribution of non-text files that are broken up into pieces and shared as text blocks in thousands of sequential Usenet messages. Software, photos, music, movies, television shows, and more can be found in the binary groups. Accessing the binary groups was an arcane art and required multiple steps as well as a lot of frustration when files didn’t download or unpack correctly. Eventually people decided they’d had enough and the NZB file was created.

Although the origin of the NZB format is murky (some accounts claim it was created by Newzbin, others that it was first created by Dutch computer enthusiasts and lifted by Newzbin, etc.) the practical application of NZB files is perfectly clear. NZB files are XML indexes that make sharing and accessing files on Usenet extremely easy. Back in the olden days of binary sharing on Usenet you had to, by hand, find all the pieces of a shared file and reassemble them yourself using a variety of programs. In the early 90s, for example, doing something as simple as downloading a wallpaper pack was a multi-step and failure prone procedure.

NZB files did away with all that tedious hands-on activity and made it simple to retrieve the entire file set with nothing more than a single NZB file. To bring it back to the BitTorrent comparison, NZB files are just like Torrent files except instead of pointing you to all the thousands of file sharers around the world with the file, they point you to the thousands of pieces of the file on a high-speed Usenet server.

When you load an NZB file in a Usenet client you are establishing a direct one-on-one link with your Usenet provider. There’s no extra peers, outside access to your machine, or sharing of files from your collection back to the internet. It’s all the benefits of BitTorrent and none of the downsides.

All you need to get started with Usenet is a Usenet service provider, an NZB index, and a Usenet client. Let’s take a look these three things and get you up and running with Usenet.

One final note on Usenet before we continue: Usenet can be used to download all sorts of material ranging from open-source software distributions to television shows to movies. How you use Usenet is up to you. We’re in the business of creating and sharing useful and accurate how-to guides, not policing what you do with your free time and broadband connection. Keep your comments constructive and on-topic.

Selecting a Service Provider

Unlike BitTorrent, Usenet is going to cost you some money. It’s a small price to pay for blazing fast downloads and privacy, however. Your ISP likely has Usenet servers available but there’s a 99% they’re unsuitable our purposes. If your ISP is one of the remaining ISPs that offer Usenet access they most likely don’t provide access to the binary groups making them useless for using Usenet as a file sharing service. Not only that the speed is likely restricted so between the poor selection and the poor speed it’s necessary to go with a third party provider.

Before we start suggesting potential providers, let’s highlight some critical terms and what you should be looking for in a Usenet provider.

Retention: Retention is the length of time the Usenet server retains the binary files. The longer retention the better. If you’re paying for a premium server you should expect retention on the order of years. Top providers usually have a retention rate in excess of 1,000 days. This is one of the most important things to look at as a server with a low retention rate will be nothing but frustrating. At minimum you should accept nothing short of at least 800+ days of retention.

Quotas/Monthly Caps: Providers offer tiered service that can range anywhere from 10GB a month to unlimited access. We’d suggest taking the free 30 day trial nearly every Usenet provider offers and then at the end of the month checking your usage to determine what tier you’d like.

Server Connections: This is the number of concurrent connections you can have with the main servers. Some people over emphasize the importance of this number. Nearly every Usenet provider offers 10+ concurrent connections and it’s easy to saturate even a 100MB broadband connection with only 5-10. If a provider tries to wow you by saying they offer 20+ connections it’s more for show than for practical application unless you’re sitting on an fiber backbone.

Security Features: The big one here is SSL encryption for your connection. You want SSL. This ensures that nobody between your computer and your Usenet provider knows what’s going on with your connection. You’re taking the effort to set up a Usenet connection for fast, private, and secure downloading. Don’t skip on SSL! Some of the high end providers offer additional security features like VPN services (useful if you want to keep torrenting to access rare files) and secure file storage (encrypted Dropbox like arrangements). Those addons are nice but not critical for our purposes.

Armed with these terms, it’s time to start looking at popular Usenet providers. We’re going to highlight three of the most popular providers here:

Giganews: Currently, Giganews is the Cadillac of Usenet providers. They’ve been around for nearly 20 years, they offers 1113 days of binary retention (the longest in the industry right now), they control their entire operation from the front end right down to the server racks (they’re a tier-1 provider), and they offer lightening fast tech support (in the course of writing this article we contacted tech support and received a reply in 17 minutes). Plans range from $5 a month for 5GB to $35 for their ultra-premium package which includes VPN service and a custom Usenet client. If you’re just interested in unlimited access with SSL, $25 a month will make it happen. The free trial period is 14 days.

Astraweb: If you’re looking for a no-frills service that offers you cheap Usenet access, good retention, and SSL, Astraweb is where it’s at. Giganews beats Astraweb hands down when it comes to added services but for those on a budget Astraweb is the clear winner. For a mere $15 a month you can get an unlimited account with SSL (use this link here and get a lifetime promotional rate of $11 a month). It’s a barebones service but you’ll save $120+ a year compared to an equivalent Giganews plan. For the non-power users they do have an attractive pay-as-you-go option, 180GB of transfer for $25 (thanks aISeen!) Astraweb only offers a 24 free trial.

Newshosting: Newshosting is another tier-1 provider. They offer free SSL, 1103 day retention, and unlimited speed on all their plans. Newshosting recently introduced a custom Usenet browser with built-in search. Plans range from $10 a month for their 50GB plan to $15 a month for their unlimited plan (use this link here to get a lifetime promotional rate of $10 a month or $100 per year). The free trial period is 14 days or 30GB, which ever comes first.