How to Get Started With Usenet, the Best Alternative to Torrents
What would BitTorrent look like if it was lightning 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.
We’re not here to argue that you’ll never use a torrent again, of course. It’s just that almost nobody knows that Usenet even exists—mostly because there isn’t a good completely free option. But these days, you have to pay for a VPN to torrent safely anyway, right? Why not use a cheap unlimited service that doesn’t require a VPN and has blazing fast, consistent speeds. Every download will max out your bandwidth.
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, which in turn helps your BitTorrent client find all the other computers around the world sharing that file. Your ability to find and download files is dependent on other people sharing them, as well as the quality and speed of their connections to the internet. Torrents are not inherently private or secure 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, requiring a VPN to hide your location and identity.
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 active). Usenet, however, lives on thanks to binary groups and the introduction of the NZB file.
Binary groups are sub groups that specialize in the distribution of non-text files. These files are broken up into pieces and shared as text blocks in thousands of sequential Usenet messages. You can find virtually any type of file that you can imagine downloading in those groups—from tiny files to multi-gigabyte Blu-ray image files. Accessing the binary groups was an arcane art and required multiple steps as well as a lot of frustration when those multipart files didn’t download or unpack correctly. Eventually, people decided they’d had enough and the NZB file was born.
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), 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 much like Torrent files, except instead of pointing you to thousands of file sharers around the world, NZB files 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-to-one link with your Usenet provider—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 stuff, and we’re simply telling you how it works. The legality of certain material on Usenet is going to vary by country, but the biggest thing you need to know is that you should never upload any copyrighted material to Usenet. That’s generally illegal everywhere, so don’t do it.
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% chance 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, which makes them useless as a file sharing service. Not only that, but the speed is likely restricted, as well. This is not true of non-ISP providers.
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. 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 10 GB per 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. These days, however, with huge file sizes, you’re going to almost always want the unlimited plan.Server Connections: This is the number of concurrent connections you can have with the main servers. Some people overemphasize the importance of this number. Nearly every Usenet provider offers 10+ concurrent connections, and it’s easy to saturate even 100 MB broadband 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 two of the most popular providers here:NewsHosting: These guys are the best in the business. They offer 2536 days of retention, up to 60 connections at once, a free VPN included with your subscription, full encryption for all connections, and they are cheaper than most of the other tier-1 providers. They even have a free Usenet browser, so you can easily find things without having to use some clunky app. And, of course, they have a free trial period.UsenetServer: Yet another tier-1 provider with 2536 days of retention, full encryption for connections, and unlimited data transfer with their paid plans. They’ve got a search interface that you can use, and a free trial period for 14 days so you can try before you buy.
Once you’ve signed up for an account or free trial, it’s time to configure your Usenet client.
When you’re just getting started, the easiest thing to do is download the official client, and Newshosting provides a simple client that makes it easy to download, run, and get started. Just download it from your account page, and then sign in with your credentials.
You can use the Search box in the upper right-hand corner to look for stuff to download. You also can just open an NZB file directly, the Newshosting client immediately starts downloading it. You can scroll down further in this article for an explanation of how to find NZB files.
This is definitely the easiest way to get started with Usenet, but as you get more comfortable you’ll quickly find that it’s not the best solution for power users. It’s great for simple stuff, but most serious Usenet enthusiasts use SABnzbd or nzbGet—we prefer the former, so that’s what we’ll explain today.
SABnzbd is, by far, one of the best Usenet clients out there. It’s stable, integrates with so many helper apps, and offers such robust features we’re not even going to waste your time mentioning other Usenet apps. SABnzbd is written in Python and is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix, BSD (and any other OS you can compile and run a Python application in).
One of the most valuable things about SABnzbd is how lightweight it is. Many Usenet apps are sloppily coded and enormous resource hogs—we’ve tested quite a few over the years that would redline a processor while simply idling, let alone actually downloading and unpacking files.
Grab a copy of SABnzbd for your operating system here, and then run the installer (it’s largely a click-next kind of installation). The only thing you’ll want to do is check all the options on the Choose Components screen. You want SABnzbd to run at startup so it’s always working, and you want to associate NZB files with the app.
Note: if you’re using macOS, the installation is even simpler, just double-click on the installer and drag it to the Applications folder.
After the installation finishes, your default web browser will open up a connection to the local host on port 8080, where you’ll be greeted by the SABnzbd Quick-Start Wizard. Select your language, and then click the “Start Wizard” button. Add your details, which for Newshosting will be:Host: news.newshosting.comUsername: Password:
You can also click to set advanced options if you want to—SSL is enabled by default these days, and you’ll definitely want to make sure you’re using a secure channel. For reference, the SSL port is usually 563.
Once you’ve filled in everything, click the “Test Server” button, and once you’ve verified that it works, just click to finish the installation and get to the web interface.
You can use SABnzbd right out of the box by feeding it NZB files using the web interface, but there are ways to make that even easier.
Set Up Your Watched Folder to Make Downloading Easier
If you’re running SABnzbd on your desktop PC, the biggest change you’re going to want to make right away is to set the Watched Folder so that when you download an NZB file, it gets automatically picked up by SABnzbd and your download starts right away. Head into Config and then click the “Folders” option at the top. From there, change your Watched Folder to the same place you’ve set your browser to download—usually just the Downloads folder in your home directory.
If you’re going to run SABnzbd on a different PC on your network, you can set the Watched Folder to a new folder, maybe called NZB, and then share that folder on your network. Or you could use something like Dropbox to easily sync NZBs from your local PC to the server.
Accessing SABnzbd from Another Computer
If you want to access SABnzbd from another computer—maybe you’re installing this on your home server—you’ll need to go into Settings and then click the “General” tab at the top. By default, the server listens on the loopback 127.0.0.1 address rather than your actual IP address, so you’ll want to change that here. For reference, here’s how to find your IP address, and also how to set a static IP address.
From here, you can also change the Port number in case it conflicts with anything, and you can enable HTTPS. That’s not particularly useful on your desktop PC at home, but if you were running this on a server somewhere, it’s a good option.
At this point, you’re ready to go. You just need some NZB files.
At this point, you have a Usenet provider, and you have a properly configured Usenet client. All you need now are some NZB files to feed to your client. The following are popular NZB indexing sites. Most have free access with limited retention and require some sort of signup and or nominal payment for full access (i.e. $10 a year).
An important thing to consider here is whether the index is raw or hand indexed. Raw indexes are simply giant searchable databases of all the files on Usenet—powerful to use but a little tricky for new users to navigate successfully—whereas hand-indexed databases are sorted, categorized, and quality-vouched for you.NZBIndex: This site is free, doesn’t require registration, and the quality of the index isn’t great, but when you’re first starting out it’s not a bad place to try. There’s going to be a lot of garbage to sort through.NZBFinder: Registration is required for this NZB index, and you’re going to have to pay if you want to download anything. The good news is that it integrates with Sonarr, Radarr, Sickbeard, and all your favorite power user tools.NZBGeek: This site requires registration and payment—they do accept cryptocurrency—but they have a hand-tailored list of NZBs along with a forum in case you have questions.NZBPlanet: This site is paid only. It’s popular, but we’ve never tried it.
You can also search for “nzb indexer” to see the latest new sites out there—these sites tend to shut down randomly and new sites start all the time.
All you need to do to feed your client and get the downloads rolling is visit one of the above indexes, grab an NZB file or two (or two hundred), and then dump them into the Watch Folder. SABnzbd will grab the NZB files, start the download, unpack the files, and place them in your specified Finished Download directory. That’s it. Armed with a long-retention provider, SABnzbd, and a good index, you’ll never have to wait around on a slow, clunky, and public BitTorrent download again.
Have experience with Usenet providers, clients, or useful third-party applications? Let’s hear about it in the comments.
Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don’t have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he’s interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on Twitter if you’d like.