Usenet – Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Usenet? How does the Usenet work?
Usenet is the name given to a global, non-centralised computer network, traditionally used for discussion and file-sharing purposes. It pre-dates the world wide web, having been established in 1980, but remains popular in some circles, especially as a means of securely uploading and downloading files. In many ways, Usenet can be seen to resemble a bulletin board system, but it also has similarities to both email and modern-day web forums.
The Usenet system works through posts (or ‘articles’), which are organised into categories (or ‘newsgroups’). Articles can be read and posted by anyone and users are able to subscribe to any individual newsgroups that they have an interest in. There are two types of posts on the Usenet – text and binary. Text posts are posts which can be read and they form the basis of discussion groups. Binary, meanwhile, relates to files, including software, video and audio.
Unlike modern file-sharing software, Usenet file transfers do not take place on a peer-to-peer basis. Files are uploaded to and stored on the thousands of different Usenet servers for long periods of time and downloads run at full speed. This means that, unlike with Torrents, downloading files is rapid. Users are also able to download files without seeding or uploading anything of their own.
Is the Usenet legal?
Accessing the Usenet system is completely legal and there are many perfectly legitimate uses for it, including discussion and the sharing of documents, free-ware software and other non-copyrighted or free-to-distribute content. However, due to its largely unregulated nature, one of the biggest reasons people access Usenet is to download music, films, videos and pirated software. Such files can be found in abundance, but are illegal to download.
Essentially, the legal status of the Usenet is roughly comparable to that of Torrent software or P2P networks. There are illegal uses for it, but the network itself is perfectly legal.
How to get access to the Usenet? What is a Usenet server?
In most instances, to access the Usenet, a user will need two key things: a service provider and client software.
A service provider will be able to offer access to a Usenet server and there are many different providers on the market. Indeed, some Internet Service Providers will include a free Usenet server as part of their service, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The vast majority of Usenet users will instead pay for a commercial service, with some of the most popular examples including: GigaNews, Astraweb, Newshosting and Red Orb News.
Within Usenet terminology, client software is usually referred to as either a ‘newsreader’ or a ‘news client’. In much the same way that you need a web browser to access the web, you need a newsreader to access Usenet content. Although Usenet sometimes has a reputation for being complicated, most modern newsreaders are easy to pick up and use, and they make the process of downloading binary files a lot more straightforward than it was in the past.
What is the text-based Usenet and how to use it?
The text-based Usenet refers to newsgroups which are comprised of text articles, rather than binary posts. In other words, it refers to articles which are supposed to be read, rather than files which are there to be downloaded.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Usenet system was primarily text-based and centred around discussion, with binaries proving to be quite rare. Yet, once people realised its full potential as a file-sharing platform, this trend reversed. Indeed, many modern-day newsreaders no longer offer support for the text-based Usenet at all, instead focusing all of their attention on the binary aspect.
Users are able to access the text-based Usenet via the same service providers they use to download files from it. However, the key difference is that they require a newsreader which allows them to browse text newsgroups and read or post to them easily. A perfectly adequate text-based newsreader is provided as part of the Windows Essentials pack, in the form of Windows Live Mail, although there are various specialist clients available as well.
What about anonymity on the Usenet?
One of the big advantages Usenet offers over P2P file-sharing is the level of anonymity it affords users. For example, with a P2P service, the identity of a downloader is on show to others via their network address, or at least the address of their proxy. This means that Torrenting can be considered a ‘public’ activity, even when steps are taken to enhance privacy, such as with the use of a private tracker.
By contrast, with Usenet, a downloader is connected to a server, rather than to other users, establishing a direct link between the user and the service provider. As a result, only that server knows the user’s identity. If the user subscribes to a service provider with a zero logs policy, this essentially makes them anonymous when downloading from the Usenet system, and protects them from third parties, such as the RIAA.
For maximum anonymity, users should ensure that the service provider they have chosen offers SSL encryption.
Which newsreaders are best?
In deciding which newsreader to utilise, it is important for users to give some consideration to what they actually want from Usenet. Most modern newsreaders are easy enough to learn and some of the most popular choices are Grabit, alt.Binz and SABnzbd+, but they each offer slightly different things.
alt.Binz is perhaps the easiest software client for newcomers to use and is great for downloading binary content. So is SABnzbd+, which is an open source web-based option, offering support for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. The main advantage of Grabit is its search function, which makes it significantly easier to find individual files.
However, if you want to actually read the newsgroups, rather than just download files, you will need to find a newsreader with text capabilities. Unison is often viewed as the ‘gold standard’ of Usenet readers, but unfortunately it is only available for Mac OS X users. For those using Windows and Linux, Pan is seen as a good choice, but other options include Forté Agent, slrn and even Windows Live Mail.
What are the benefits of paid Usenet providers?
Although some ISPs may provide access to a free Usenet server, it will almost certainly be unfit for modern day download purposes. This is because access to the binary newsgroups is usually restricted and there are also likely to be severe bandwidth limitations as well. For these reasons, users will need to invest in a premium Usenet service, which offers access to the full range of newsgroups and which will not throttle their connection.
Most premium Usenet providers will have a lengthy ‘retention time’, which refers to the amount of time the server retains binary files, keeping them available for download. The majority of paid services will retain files for years, but the longer the retention time, the better. Furthermore, many paid Usenet providers will allow for numerous concurrent connections, as well as offer additional security measures, including encryption.
Paid Usenet providers often include extra features, such as access to a VPN, as well as a free trial period as an incentive to sign up. Finally, a big plus point of paid services is the customer support available, which ensures that any issues can be resolved quickly.
How to upload files to the Usenet / to a Usenet server?
Uploading files to the Usenet – or posting binaries as it is sometimes known – is a reasonably simple process, but there are several steps to take, which can make it seem quite confusing at first glance. The good news is, once a user uploads a file to their Usenet server, it will be automatically propagated, making it available to other Usenet users around the world very quickly. Below is a brief step-by-step guide to uploading:
- If your file is large, it is important to split the file up using software like WinRAR. Generally, for files that are less than 2GB in size, it is best to divide them into RAR files of around 10-15 MB. Larger files can be divided into RAR files of 20-50 MB, depending on exactly how big they are.
- After splitting the file, the second step is to create Par2 files for your collection of RARs. The process of splitting files and uploading them to Usenet can sometimes affect their integrity and Par2 files effectively serve as an error correction system. An example of software that will create Par2 files is QuickPar. Once the files have been created, make sure they are put into the same folder as your RAR files.
- Next, you must create an SFV file from the RAR files. One example of software that will allow you to do this is QuickSFV. When selecting the source files for the SFV, make sure to include all of the RAR files created in step 1, but leave the original file out, as well as the Par2 files made in step 2. The SFV file you create should end up in the same folder as the other files.
- Finally, you must create a NFO file. NFO files are uploaded alongside any binary files, in order to give downloaders information about what the file is. A popular example of freeware software for creating NFO files is Cool Beans NFO Creator. Using the program, fill in as much information about the file as you can and then save the NFO file.
- You are now ready to upload the file to Usenet. Most modern newsreaders support the posting of binary files and it is usually a case of selecting the files you wish to upload, giving the post a ‘Subject Header’ or title, selecting which newsgroup you want to post to and then uploading the files. Crucially, you need to include all of the RAR files you created, as well as the NFO and SFV files. However, you must not include the original file. When prompted, you should select the option to create a NZB file.
- Your newsreader should keep you updated on the progress of your upload. Once the file has been successfully uploaded, it will start to propagate to other servers and the file will be available for other Usenet users to download. Please be aware that anything you upload can be accessed by any other user.
How to download files from the Usenet / from a Usenet server?
Much like with uploads, newcomers to Usenet can sometimes find the download process to be daunting. Yet, in reality, it is simple and all you need to do is follow some basic steps. These steps are outlined below:
- Find a file that you want to download. Instructions for efficient searching can be found below.
- Open the NZB file using a download tool. Most newsreaders have built-in download functions, including both Grabit and SABnzbd+. This should then begin the download process.
- Assuming the file comes with Par2 files, open them with a program like QuickPar to make sure there are no errors, damaged files or missing parts. If there are, the program should be able to fix these for you.
- Once the files are downloaded and any errors are fixed, open the RAR files with WinRAR and extract the contents to a folder of your choice.
- You have now successfully downloaded and extracted your file(s).
How to search correctly on the Usenet? How to find newsgroups?
Actually searching the Usenet system for files is incredibly simple. Some modern newsreaders allow for quick searching, but for most people, the best way to do it is to make use of a dedicated binary post search engine. Amongst the most commonly used search engines are NZBIndex, BinSearch and YabSearch. Usually, it is a simple case of entering a search query, browsing the results and selecting a file.
Finding newsgroups is also easy and most newsreaders will come with a search function for doing so. Once a user has found a group that interests them, in most cases, all they need to do is click on ‘subscribe’ to gain access.