I need to tread carefully in this introduction.
If you found this article by looking for a beginners guide to Usenet, chances are you already know what it can be used for.
In case you don’t, well: think of Usenet as a fast and reliable way of finding and downloading files from the internet. These files could include copyrighted movies, TV shows and music files…but of course, don’t necessarily.
If you know what BitTorrent is, the end result is very similar – even though the mechanics behind it are different.
The difficulty with Usenet is understanding how on earth to get set up in the first place. Most guides are written for people with a technical background, you need to combine at least three different tools, and the websites of the tools themselves look like they’re from another era.
So: In this article, I’ll give you a totally practical and non-technical guide to getting started with Usenet.
By the time you’re halfway through, you’ll have it all set up for what you want to do – but have no understanding of why it works or what’s going on. In the second half, I’ll give you that background and context in case you care.
Warning: This is totally non-technical, but you’ll still need to be a confident computer user. I’m not going to give you every last click-this-click-that, so you need to know how to install software and be able to Google anything that trips you up.
(Another warning: There are explanations here that I know to be technically wrong or incomplete, and there will be other parts that are wrong without me even knowing. The point here is to get it working, not to be strictly accurate or comprehensive.)
Putting together the three parts of your Usenet setup
What gives Usernet a bit of learning curve is it’s not a case of “download this and away you go”. You need to choose and combine three different services before you can do anything useful:
- A Provider
- An Indexer
- A Newsreader
Let’s go through each and find out what they are, and where to get them from.
1: A Provider
Your Provider owns the servers where the files you want are actually hosted.
All Providers require you to pay, because there’s a real cost to them in storing all the data. You can expect to pay somewhere from $10-20 per month, although many offer a free trial first. There are also lots of good annual deals available around Black Friday.
There are multiple different Providers, each owned by different companies, each with their own servers – and therefore each with a different set of files.
In theory, they all download each other’s files so every Provider will end up with the same set. In practice though, a particular file might get corrupted on one server or be taken down from another – so there are differences.
For this reason, many people recommend signing up with two Providers:
- Your “main” Provider, where you pay a monthly subscription for unlimited access (like with your broadband at home)
- Your “backup” Provider, where you buy a block of data to use just for grabbing any files that can’t be found on your main provider (like a pay-as-you-go phone plan)
To make life a bit more confusing, there are lots of different Providers — but many are just resellers (a bit like how Giffgaff ultimately runs off o2’s network, even though you seem to be dealing with a different company). If you’re not careful, this means you could sign up with two Providers that both actually access exactly the same underlying servers – which leaves you no further ahead.
This handy page has a list of all the actually different sets of servers (there are 13 at the time of writing), along with all their resellers. So just choose a different two from the 13, and you’re good to go.
2: An Indexer
The Provider hosts all the files…but they don’t give you an easy way of searching for the files you want. This is where the Indexer comes in.
Think of an Indexer as “Google for Usenet”. You type in what you’re looking for, and the Indexer gives you a list of results.
Just like there are multiple search engines that each return slightly different results, there are different Indexers too – although unlike Google, there’s no single dominant Indexer. For that reason, just like with Providers, it can be useful to have two or more Indexers to call on.
The best Indexers come at a cost. Very roughly speaking, they’ll charge an annual fee of $10-$20 or a lifetime fee of $30-$70.
There are also free Indexers, but these are sometimes closed for registration to control the number of users.
This page has a list of all the main Indexers, both free and paid.
3: A Newsreader
You have a Provider that has the files. You have an Indexer so you can find the files. Now we’re on the home straight: you just need to download those files.
(Their weird names will start making more sense in just a moment.)
The job of the Newsreader is to grab files from the Provider, so once you’ve downloaded the Newsreader you’ll need to plug in the details of the Providers you’ve decided to use. (You’ll also set an order of priority, so it’ll try your main Provider first and only try your “backup” provider if there’s something it can’t find.)
Putting it all together
So, the workflow is:
- Search the Indexer for whatever you want
- Once you’ve found it, grab something called an “NZB” file for that item (don’t worry about what this is for now)
- Give the NZB file to your Newsreader
- The Newsreader will download the file you wanted in the first place from the Provider to your computer
Once you’ve set this up, you’re good to go: you have all the pieces in place to find whatever you want and download it.
You can also take things to the next level and add an “automation” step…
Automating your Usenet downloads
If you were to use Usenet to download TV shows and movies, you could make life easier by automating the process of downloading new episodes – or in the case of movies, by downloading new ones from your “watchlist” when they become available.
To do this, you can use:
Taking Sonarr as an example, you basically just:
- Choose which TV shows you want to get all new episodes for
- Tell Sonarr which Indexers and Newsreader you use
Sonarr then regularly checks the Indexers to see if something new has become available. If it has, it automatically downloads the NZB file and passes it over to the Newsreader.
Radarr works the same way for movies. However, it’s earlier in development so you need to be a bit more technically confident to install it successfully.
The (semi)-technical bit
To have accomplished all this, you’ve not needed any technical understanding of what on earth is going on behind the scenes. However, having a basic knowledge of what’s really happening (which is all I have) will make certain things make more sense and will make it easier to troubleshoot when something goes wrong.
So feel free to stop reading here if you’ve got everything working and you don’t really care how. But if you do want to read on, I promise it won’t be too intimidating.
What is Usenet anyway?
Usenet actually predates the internet as we know it. Usenet hosts newsgroups, which were the original online forums – places where people could post messages to discuss shared topics of interest.
As well as posting text messages, people started using Usenet to post files called binaries as a way of sharing photos, videos and music rather than just text.
Binaries are files that are readable by computers rather than people. Binary files actually underlie everything we see online: for example, what we see as a photo of a puppy is actually a set of binary instructions that tell a computer how to display a photo of a puppy.
The technical challenge is that the complete set of binary instructions needed to display a photo is long – so the file needs to be very big. A movie is vastly bigger again, as it’s basically tens of thousands of images stitched together.
Big files are hard to upload and download because they can easily fail in the middle of the process or become corrupted. So to upload a photo or movie to Usenet, people would split it into lots of separate binaries.
To see it, you’d need to download each binary file separately – then use a special piece of software to stitch them all together again.
What is an NZB file?
An NZB file removes all the manual work of finding thousands of component binaries, downloading them all, and stitching them back together.
It’s this NZB file that you download from your Indexer and give to your Newsreader.
So an NZB file is not the movie, photo or whatever else you want. It’s more like a set of instructions for where to find the parts of that thing and put it together. It tells your Newsreader where it needs to go, and what it needs to do.
You could think an NZB file as being like a set of instructions for building a bookcase. It might say “go to this store and find two big planks of wood in this section, six smaller planks in that section, and sixteen screws from this other section – then put them together like this”.
So when you plug this analogy into our three components:
- The Provider is the hardware store
- The Indexer is where you get the set of instructions
- The Newsreader is the person who goes to the store, buys the component parts and puts them together for you
What can go wrong?
Now you know what’s actually going on behind the scenes, you’ll have a better understanding of the most common problem when using Usenet to grab big files: missing pieces.
Just like a store can be out of stock of certain pieces you need for your bookshelf, a Provider can be missing some pieces of a bigger file too – either because they’ve been taken down, or have become corrupted.
When this happens, your Newsreader will tell you that the download has failed. Which is annoying: the Indexer said it was there, most of the pieces are there, but because some are missing the end result is useless to you (like a bookcase with a frame but no shelves).
This is why I talked earlier about getting a backup Provider. This is basically like driving to a second store to see if they’ve got the pieces from the instructions that the first store was missing. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll get everything you need, but the chances are much higher.
The best source of information I’ve found on Usenet is the /r/usenet subreddit – in particular the wiki and FAQs.
Many of the posts go straight over my head, but now you’ve got a basic understanding of Usenet you should be able to do a search for a term of interest (like the name of a particular Provider) and have a fighting chance of understanding most of the messages about it.
They also list all the Black Friday deals of various services when that time of year comes around.