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How To Get Started With Usenet In Three Simple Steps

Usenet is a wonderful service for finding and downloading digital media, giving you speed and reliability you won’t find with other file-sharing options — like, say, BitTorrent. Here’s a quick guide on setting up and getting started with Usenet.

An Introduction To Usenet

What is Usenet?
Rather than dive into a full history of Usenet, let’s talk about how it’s relevant to you. Usenet was originally designed as a bulletin-board service, so there’s a ton of text content available on Usenet, but once binary newsgroups made their way into Usenet, it quickly became a popular place to find any sort of file that interests you. A site called Newzbin started indexing the binaries available on Usenet and creating the NZB file format. An NZB file is basically the Usenet equivalent of BitTorrent’s torrent file, in that when you download an NZB, you’re simply downloading a file that points to files available on Usenet. Applications supporting the NZB format can use them to make downloading Usenet binaries a piece of cake. In this guide, we’re going walk through how to set up Usenet access, configure a newsreader and then find NZB files so you can get the content you want.

Regarding the First Rule and Other Issues

There are two controversial issues attached to writing about Usenet: 1) the first rule of Usenet is that you don’t talk about Usenet and 2) it’s commonly used to download copyrighted material. Before getting into the how-to portion, we thought it important to address these topics.

People have kept quiet about Usenet to avoid bringing unwanted attention to it, hoping it doesn’t suffer the same fate as, say, Napster. Because Usenet hosts all kinds of files, including copyrighted works, it’s a potential target for the hammer of the MPA/MPAA, RIAA, etc. Back in October of 2007, the RIAA launched a copyright infringement lawsuit against Usenet.com, and more recently, the MPA won a case against Usenet binary search engine Newzbin. With these large content rights organisations abundantly aware of Usenet’s existence, it seems silly to pretend we’re still protecting it through silence.

In regards to the fact that Usenet can be used as a means of acquiring copyright works, we leave that up to the individual user. We’re going to look at how Usenet works and what you can do with it, leaving the choice of usage entirely up to you.

Step One: Choosing A Usenet Service Provider

Unlike most file-sharing services nowadays, Usenet is not peer-to-peer. While in rare cases you might get some poor level of access through your internet service provider, you’re going to want to pay for Usenet access that will actually prove useful. Currently I use Newshosting, several more (and potentially better) choices exist, such as GigaNews and Astraweb. These are all good options, but you can choose whatever Usenet provider you’d like. When comparing providers, here are a few things you’ll want to look at:

  • Days of Full Binary Retention – With massive amounts of data being added to Usenet servers every day, it can’t all be stored forever. Retention is the number of days you’re guaranteed to have access to a file after its original posting date. Most providers offer something around 200 days and in most cases that’s sufficient, but there will be circumstances in which you’ll want access to older data. A year is usually sufficient for most people, but some providers (like GigaNews) offer retention rates as high as two years. It’s important to check the type of retention advertised. Some providers will separate their binary retention from their text retention when their text retention number is significantly higher (for example, GigaNews retains binaries in full for 723 and text for 2595 days).
  • Monthly Transfer – Generally measured in GB, this is the the allotment of data you can download for the month. In most cases you’re going to want a plan that offers unlimited transfer, but most Usenet service providers offer plans with data caps generally ranging from 5GB to 50GB.
  • Connections – Every Usenet service provider caps the number of simultaneous connections you can make at a single time through your account. This is relevant for a couple of reasons. First, most of the files you’ll download are split into parts and you may want to download those parts concurrently, as this can often be faster than downloading one file at a time. The number of connections you pay for is directly related to the number of files you can download at a given time. Also, if you want to use your account from different locations at the same time or share your account with someone else, you can split up the number of connections between locations so only one account is needed. Personally, I use eight connections at a time, but my account includes 20. Generally, no matter what type of account you choose, you’ll end up with a sufficient number of connections — if not more than you’ll ever need.
  • Security – In most cases SSL and other security options cost extra but may be something you want to consider. If you want to take any extra measures to encrypt the data moving between your Usenet service provider and you, make sure you take a look at what each provider offers you, as various security options are available with most.
  • Support – While it’s unlikely you’re really ever going to need to contact support, it’s good to know it exists with a decent response time. Generally the contact method is only via email, but that should be good enough so long as they promise to get back to you within a day.
  • Cancellation and Trial Periods – When trying out a new provider for the first time, make sure you can easily cancel your account without incurring any fees. It’s best to not pre-pay for several months (or years) of service ahead of time until you’ve tested out the waters for a month or two to make sure the provider will work well for your needs.

Once you’ve chosen a provider and completed the signup process, there are a few pieces of information you’re going to need before moving on. First, get the server address (i.e. unlimited.newshosting.com) and port you’ll need to connect. This information should all be easy to find from your service provider. If your account includes SSL, make sure you get a port number for SSL and standard access. After that you’ll just need your username and password, which you’ll presumably know since in most cases you’ll have chosen them yourself.

Step Two: Settings Up Your Usenet Client

More Than Just Downloads

While this section is going to mainly cover using the free, open-source Usenet client SABnzbd+ to download binary content, if you plan to use Usenet for reading newsgroups as well, you’ll want a proper Usenet client. Unison is a great (but not free) option on the Mac. A free newsreader is The unPoster, plus many email clients can serve as newsreaders as well. On Windows you have several free choices, including The unPoster and Grabit. On Linux, two options are Pan and KLibido.

…Or Not
If you’re just in it for the binary downloads and couldn’t care less about the text-based Usenet content, SABnzbd+ (from here on, we’ll refer to it as SAB) is what we’d recommend you use. But SAB isn’t the only download helper out there. Ninan and URD are similar options and there are several platform-specific Usenet binary downloaders that help make the process easier. There are too many to cover, and since SAB is our favourite, that’s what we’re going to concentrate on here.

Setting Up SABnzbd+

SAB runs on Windows, Mac and Linux because it’s basically a collection of Python scripts. It runs as an application, but you control it from your web browser — either on your local computer or, if you’ve set it up, from any web browser via a remote connection. Before we go any further, you’ll want to download it.

Setting up SAB is really easy, especially now that SAB walks you through the process with its new setup wizard. SAB’s site has a great quick-setup guide but we’ll give you the short version (you can see more details in the video above):

  1. Launch SABnzbd+ and, if it doesn’t do it for you, go to http://localhost:8080 in your web browser.
  2. Select a language, then a theme. After that we’ll get to the important stuff.
  3. In the Access Options screen you’ll be asked if you want SAB to be remotely accessible or just accessible on your local network. Enabling remote access will give you some other neat options that we’ll discuss later. If you do, be sure to set a username and password for security purposes.
  4. Next is Server Setup, where you’ll need the server information you set aside from before. Here you’ll enter your Usenet service provider’s server address, the corresponding port, whether SSL is on or off, and your username and password. This is also where you set the number of connections you want to use. (Remember, when you signed up for Usenet service your provider gave you a finite number of connections to use — you can enter any number up to that maximum here.)
  5. Index Site Options is the final screen to fill out, but we haven’t discussed content yet so you can skip this for now.
  6. You’re done! Restart SAB and it’ll be ready to go.

Fine-tuning SABnzbd+

Once you’ve completed SAB’s basic setup, you’ve still got a few more things to do. SAB comes with a ton of settings and we’re going to explore some of the most useful ones. First, visit SAB at http://localhost:8080 (unless you set it up elsewhere) and click Config. Beneath Config, click General. First you’ll find the configuration for the SABnzbd web server. A little ways down, in that category, is the API key. It’ll be a long alphanumeric string and won’t be terribly useful to you at the moment, but copy it and put it aside. We’ll be using that later.

All the way at the bottom you’ll see a setting called Cleanup List with a couple of file extensions filled in. Much of what you download will come with superfluous files and SAB will automatically delete them during processing if their extensions are specific here. My list is .nfo, .sfv, .nzb and .srr. As you find files in your downloads that you don’t need, you can add their extensions here.

Moving on to the next Config sub-category, Folders, you’ll find options to set where your downloads go. SAB will default to a Downloads folder on your main hard drive, but you can set it to any path you want. If you set it to a path that in part doesn’t exist, SAB will create the necessary folders. When setting a custom download path, be sure to set the Temporary Download Folder and the Completed Download Folder. Generally these folders are called Incomplete and Complete (respectively) and reside in the same parent folder. You don’t have to do it this way, but that’s how it works by default. You’ll also find an option to set a Watched Folder. Although we’ll look at easier methods, one way to easily add downloads to SAB is by downloading NZB files (more on this in the next section, but basically NZB files are file pointers — the equivalent of torrent files for Usenet) to the Watched Folder and SAB will pick them up automatically. (Point this to, say, a folder within file-syncing app Dropbox, and you’ve got a really simple way to remotely download new files. Not bad, but we’ll detail a better option below.)

The next sub-category we want to look at is Switches. There may be several things you want to look at here, so check them all out. Whether or not you want to turn something on or off here is mainly going to be your personal preference.

We’ll skip the Servers sub-category as you’ve already set this up. We’ll also skip Scheduling, RSS and Email, but feel free to explore them on your own. Index Sites is basically what we skipped during the initial setup of SAB, and we’ll skip it again here, but make a note as we’ll be coming back later. In Categories there really isn’t much to do, but should you want to make a new category that SAB doesn’t cover you can do that here.

In the last config sub-category, Sorting, you can do some pretty neat things with the organisation of your downloads. There are a couple of sorting options, but the best is your option for television episodes. Tick the Enable TV Sorting box to get started and then fill out the sort string below. In most cases it’ll already be filled out for you, but you may want to change it. You can use this to sort episodes however you’d like. Here’s one example:

Sort string:
%sn – Episode %s%0e – %en.%ext

Output:
Show Name – Episode 105 – Episode Name.avi

You can also enable movie sorting and sort downloads by date. How you sort is entirely up to you and your personal preferences.

Step Three: Finding Content

Now that you’ve set up SAB, it’s time to give it something to download. SAB downloads and processes files via NZBs, which are pointers to binary content on Usenet. Because most binaries on Usenet are split into several pieces, NZBs allow you to download a single file that holds the location information for every piece. SAB takes this file, downloads all the pieces it points to, then assembles them into the file you want so you don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting. Finding NZBs isn’t hard to do, but there are a few things to understand before diving in.

Newzbin created the NZB format, but, as mentioned earlier, it lost in a trial against the MPA and no longer exists as it once was. Its current incarnation is limited to members of the previous site. The other popular Usenet binary search site is NZBMatrix, which some prefer to Newzbin anyway. Both sites require that you pay for the sort of premium access you’re going to want, but the cost is pretty minimal. Newzbin operated on a weekly credit model, where you’d pay very little (around $US0.50) per week to download NZBs. NZBMatrix will allow you to download a few NZB files for free with limitations, but for $US7, you get a premium NZBMatrix account that’s good for 10 years. This gives you access to an API key and will let you integrate more closely with SAB. (Note: you may also need your SABnzbd+ API key for better integration with NZB search sites.) If you sign up for either site, you’ll want to enter your credentials (and your API key in the case of NZBMatrix) in the Config – Index Sites section of SAB. If forking over any more cash for Usenet isn’t appealing to you, you can also try using free options like NZBs.org, Binsearch or Newzleech.

If you have access to Newzbin or have signed up for NZBMatrix, however, you have more options in how you acquire content. Rather than downloading NZBs, you can use SAB’s add-ons to facilitate downloads with less effort. For example, nzbstatus (Firefox) and SABconnect will both monitor your SAB queue and also add SAB download buttons to Newzbin and NZBMatrix, so all you have to do to add a download to SAB from one of these sites is click one button. Even better, if you’ve enabled remote access to SAB you can queue up downloads using this method regardless of whether you’re on your home network or not.

Another cool add-on that requires remote access is the myNZB iPhone App. For £1.79 ($US2.99), you can search Usenet index sites and add downloads to your SAB queue from your iPhone. NZBdroid and SABDroid+ are options for Android, but they’re not yet as mature in their development as myNZB.

With your search sites set up for easy use, you’re all set. Now you can take advantage of Usenet.

Extra Stuff

This guide just scratches the surface of what you can do with Usenet. There are other great projects like Sick Beard that add a lot of awesome new features to your setup. We’ll be covering more Usenet tools going forward, so stay tuned.

If you have any Usenet tools or suggestions, share ‘em in the comments!

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