How To: Use The Heck Out Of Usenet

Usenet: Everyone's heard of it, nobody uses it. This is ridiculous. Not only is Usenet a fantastic way to download—it's not that hard to use. Here's how to kick your torrent habit once and for all, with Usenet

This point of this guide is to get people acquainted with the basics of Usenet, but if any of you old timers (I'm looking at you, Jesus) have any tips, tricks, advice or teary memories to share about your decades on the 'Net, that parties in the comments. Anyway!

What is Usenet?

I'll spare you a deep historical and technical explanation, because it'd bore you to death, and I'm not expert (read: old and bearded) enough to give it, so here are the basics: Usenet has been around since the late 70s as a sort of sister tech to the early bulletin board systems that the first generation of true nerds cut their teeth on. It was designed for discussion and lived across tons of decentralised servers. For most intents and purposes, it's been replaced by the internet as we know it today, but it's still very much alive, albeit with a different face.

You see, somewhere back in the 80s, someone started uploading binary content—files, not words—to Usenet. This was an awkward fit, and it some ways it still is. But it quickly became one of the main uses for the service. Why? Because nobody seemed to care much about regulating it—they still don't, for whatever reason—and because, man, it was fast. Like, unbelievably connection-maxing fast. These factors made it a perfect refuge for for files of all types, and now the pure amount of stuff available on Usenet rivals—and in a lot of categories, exceeds—the best torrent trackers, many of which we don't even have anymore.

For download junkies, Usenet is a wonderland. But it's got a reputation for being a little tough to get into, so it's mostly been populated by, shall we say, the nerdier types. This isn't really fair, since Usenet isn't at all hard to use. Here's how to get started:

Hacking the Gibson (a.k.a. "Choosing a Usenet Service")

There was a time when ISPs weren't just cool with Usenet binaries—they actually hosted them. Some still do, but in those rare cases there are usually crippling bandwidth restrictions, throttling measures and all kind of missing content. To mine the Usenet gold you really care about—the alt.binaries content—you're going to need to buy access. Sorry! Usenet isn't a peer-to-peer service, so you've got to pay someone, somewhere for all that bandwidth and storage. The good news is, you can get away with spending about $US15 a month for unlimited, unthrottled access. If you're not comfortable with this, get your feet wet with a free trial, like GigaNews', or just buy a one-off download pass, good for a few gigabytes.

There are a couple things to look out for in a Usenet provider, but most major, reputable services are roughly comparable. Retention is a word you'll see a lot, and there's good reason for that: Usenet servers, given the pure volume of content they get loaded with, have to clear themselves out every once in a while, meaning that files have a limited lifespan. Retention is just a term to describe how long a provider can afford to keep uploads; the longer they can hold onto uploads, the more files they have. Most of us expect 365-day retention nowadays, so don't settle for much less.

You'll also see connection numbers advertised, which is how many parallel connections you can have to the servers during downloads. More=faster, but past about 10 concurrent downloads, the numbers really stop meaning anything, unless you're on some kind of insanely fast commercial connection, in which case WHAT ARE YOU DOING DOWNLOADING FILEZ, HMM?

Lastly, there are download limits. This should be more obvious, but just just in case, this represents how much you can download from your provider in a given month. This one's all you: If you really don't think you'll break 10GB a month, only buy 10GB a month. Once you really start to kick your torrent habit, though, you might be surprised at what you're capable of.

I've been using Astraweb for years—they're cheap and fast enough to saturate my connection—so the rest of the tutorial will assume you've chosen them. If you've gone with another provider, the only difference will be your server settings, which your provider will give you after you sign up. Remember: Usenet servers are all meshed together, so no matter who your provider is, the available downloads should be the same, at least for as long as your provider keeps them around.

Choosing a Client

As with torrents, there's some pretty weird stuff going on behind the scenes with Usenet. As I mentioned earlier, adding binary files to Usenet was kind of an afterthought, which can make the procedure for downloading them kind of complicated. For example: Usenet binaries have relatively low size limits, so any large files (movies, software, etc.) need to be split up into lots of small piece. You know how sometimes a torrent comes in about about 40 .RAR files that have to be rejoined once they're downloaded? That's because it came from Usenet, where files can't be much more than 20MB. So, your client's got to be able to handle all these group downloads and preferably join them together for you. It's complicated, but manageable, thanks to modern clients.

There a plenty of Usenet clients out there, but most of them are either don't support the kind of file downloading we want—your email client falls into this category—are command-line-based or, you know, cost money. I'm done spending your dollars for today, so I'll point everyone toward the only free, cross-platform Usenet binary client I know of, and one I've been using for quite a long time: It's called SABnzb. The guide will be based on this, though you can try to follow along with some other free apps if you like. Mac OSers may want to try Hellanzb (GUI version linked) and Windows folks could go with Alt.binz. But SABnzb is, to put it bluntly, pretty great.

SABnzb runs a local web interface, so it'll look the same no matter what OS you're on. Here's what you've got to do:

  1. Download and install the client (For Windows, it's an installer like any other app; for Mac OS, it's a DMG)
  2. Start it up. It should open a browser window with a control panel-esque page on it
  3. Navigate to the "Config" Page and click "Servers"
  4. Input the server settings your Usenet provider gave you after signup (Astraweb's at left)
  5. Staying in the "Config" page, click "Folders"
  6. Choose where you want downloaded files to go, and where you want the temporary files to live before they're finished downloading and joining together.
  7. Choose a "Watched" folder. This how SABnzb will know what you want it to download. Make it a place that's easy for you to save to, from a browser. Your default browser downloads folder is a safe bet here.
  8. That's it! Now just leave SABnzb running, and we'll start to explore Usenet. Feel free to play around with more of SABnzb's options, like the cool theme featured in the top image, but follow this general rule: if it's not totally obvious to you what an option changes, you should probably ignore it. The only thing you might have to worry about outwith this list is enabling an SSL connection, if your ISP is throttling your download speeds. More on that here.

    Finding Those Files

    Now that you've got access to Usenet, and the right tools to draw those sweet, sweet files from it, it's time to dive in. Since Usenet in the raw is an incomprehensible mess, something has emerged called the Newzbin, or NZB standard. NZBs are a lot like torrent files: They're little pointers that contain information about all the little scattered pieces of a given download, and which give clients like SABnzb everything they need to make the downloading experience seamless to users. To explore Usenet is to explore NZBs—and to do that, you need a good NZB search engine. The best is the original from Newzbin, the people who invented the NZB format. Unfortunately, it too is paid, and currently invite-only. Instead, you can use one of the decent free alternatives, like NZBs.org, Binsearch or Newszleech. Searching takes some practice, but once you get a sense of how people name stuff 'round these parts, it's a breeze.

    Once you find your NZB, download it to the directory you marked "Watch" in SABnzb. Alternately, you can just download it to wherever you want, and add it to SABnzb at the program's homepage, under "Add File". Now check on your SABnzb queue, where you should see something like this:

    It's working! And yes, it's really going that fast. If it's not downloading, you may need to check your server settings: Sometimes ISPs block the default port (119) meaning you'll have to use another one that your provider supports. A common one is 8080 and 1818.

    SABnzb takes care of all that nasty RAR rejoining and extracting for you, so once the download is done, your designated download folder should have a fully-cooked, ready-to-watch/listen/run file. So, that's Usenet!

    Odd and Ends

    As you've probably guessed by now, there are a lot of ways to make Usenet, and specifically SABnzb, more powerful. For that, have a look at this fantastic thread on SomethingAwful by one of the app's developers and the SABnzb wiki, which answer just about any support question you might have.

    Also, there's a big subject we didn't ever address here today, which is where all this content comes from. It comes from volunteer users like you and me, but the process can be a little involved, and hey, you're brand new to the world of Usenet—let the rest of us worry about uploading for now. That said, when you're finally ready, here's a primer.

    So that's about it! Please add in your experiences in the comments—your feedback is a huge benefit to our how-to guides. Happy torrenting Usenetting!

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