How to: Get started with Usenet

What is it?

Usenet is one of the oldest computer network communication systems still in widespread use [1], think of it as a kind of bulletin board system (BBS) where users post articles which are organised into topical categories called Newsgroups. Many ISP’s operate News Servers which allow you to browse Newsgroups via a small application called a News Reader.

Usenet also hosts a plethora of files as binary content, which can be downloaded direct from the Usenet Provider (or News Server). The period in which the binary content is available from these servers is referred to as the retention period. Normally the longer the retention period the more likely you are to find what your looking for, and as you would expect the paid for or ‘Premium’ Usenet providers have the longest retention periods as well as the fastest speeds.

Why Usenet?

If you compare Usenet with P2P file sharing the benefits are clear,

– Download from a central server as fast as your internet connection will allow
– Content is ‘retained’ for extended periods and not dependant on the availability of ‘peers’ seeding content or popularity
– Communication between your client and the central server is encrypted (256-bit SSL being the most common)
– Your not required to share or seed content to other users, subsequently no upload bandwidth is required
– Greater variety of files, hence you are much more likely to find what your looking for

As i mentioned above Premium Usenet providers have the longest retention and the fastest speeds, so to get the real benefit from Usenet you will need to subscribe to one of them and pay a small monthly fee depending on the amount you want to download. It’s important to remember that it’s nothing like P2P and content is hosted centrally on servers which cost money to maintain, hence why you’re not going to get this kind of service for free.

What do i need?

You need three things:

1. NZB files

Your going to need a binary Usenet search engine, index or library to find .NZB files, which are effectively a header document containing references to a collection of .rar files which when downloaded, combined and extracted make up the file (or collection of files) you searched for. If your familiar with Bit-torrent they are effectively the equivalent to .torrent files. My preference is Binsearch[2] which is free to use.

2. News Reader

Once you have your .NZB file you need a News Reader to download, verify, repair (if necessary) and extract the content. There are plenty of very capable free News Readers to choose from, some News Server’s will recommend one to you or provide you with one as part of the subscription package. It is entirely up to you which one you use, and they all more or less do the same thing. I have been using ‘Sabnzbd’, which is a cross platform News Reader for Windows, Mac and Linux. I have it installed on my Synology NAS (separate post on this coming soon) and it runs happily in the background day and night without needing to leave my PC workstation powered on. Coincidently if you have a Synology NAS you can use download station to manage Usenet downloads but i wouldn’t recommend it as the download speed by comparison with Sabnzbd running on the same hardware was much slower.

3. News Server

Finally you need to subscribe to a News Server. There are a number of considerations before making a decision on which News Server to use.

– Subscription cost per month being the first, this generally boils down to how much do you think you are going to download in any given month (5GB, 10GB, 50GB, Unlimited).
– Retention period is the next consideration, generally the longer the retention period the more files available and the more likely you are to find whatever it is your looking for.
– Number of connections, more connections mean more files and faster downloads, generally 20 is good, but obviously speed will depend on how many concurrent downloads you have running.
– Completion rate, the higher the better, otherwise you may end up downloading files with parts missing that cannot be repaired.

Conclusion

I know many people are put off because of the cost and apparent complexity, but it’s really not that difficult to set-up and there are plenty of good tutorials and support available for those that are willing to give it a try. Many of the News Servers have free trial’s, which i would absolutely recommend to everyone as you can change you mind and it won’t cost you a thing.

1. Wikipedia – Usenet
2. Binsearch

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