Despite the amount of time they’ve been around, Usenet newsgroups remain relatively unknown to the majority of Internet users. There are plenty of reasons for this, such as the fact that people who know about Usenet generally try to keep it a secret, or if not a secret then not as well known as, say, BitTorrent. Another reason most people don’t bother looking into Usenet is that in order to get a decent, reliable service you generally have to pay a monthly subscription.
But if you’re willing to pay for the extra security, anonymity and speed then Usenet newsgroups can be both a fun place to discuss any topic under the sun and a repository of as many open source apps and Linux distributions that you can think of. Apparently, some people have even found movies, albums and HD-TV shows on them. OnSoftware doesn’t endorse or condone copyright infringement or piracy, though. OK?
Once you’ve set up an account with a reliable newsgroup provider (I use the Giganews Diamond service which offers unlimited downloads via a secure SSL connection), you’ll need some software. Until recently, this was my setup:
Newsgroups reader: Unison
Unison (full version $25) is a nicely designed native Mac newsgroups reader. In essence, it allows you to browse through the thousands of groups available on Usenet, read and participate in discussions and download binaries (files). Simply configure Unison with your account details (including how many simultaneous connections you want) and you’re away. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the wealth of information and groups just a little daunting. So…
NZB search engine: Newzleech
Binaries are broken up into lots of fragments and you’ll need to download all of them if you want to be able to reassemble them afterwards. For this reason, it’s a good idea to use a search engine to find all the constituent parts of a file before you start downloading them. I use Newzleech because it’s quick, easy to use and generally helps me find what I’m looking for. To use it, simply add your search term (I often stipulate a filesize range too) and select the binary that looks most complete. E.g: searching for Ubuntu Jaunty with a minimum filesize of 700MB, I find one binary that’s tweaked for netbooks. Perfect! I hit the Get NZB button and open the resulting file with Unison.
PAR utility: MacPAR deLuxe
Most binaries these days are provided with a PAR or PAR2 file that helps to make sure that you have all the bits you need to reassemble the file you’re after. When working with these files on Mac, nothing comes close to MacPAR deLuxe. Wait until Unison has finished downloading the parts of your binary and then locate the PAR file on your disk. Open it with MacPAR deLuxe and it’ll be checked and then automatically joined together. MacPAR deLuxe can also fix most common errors in the joining process.
Tip: If the entire process fails because of missing parts, make sure that before you start downloading again, you check your Downloads folder for extra subfolders containing the missing bits. For some reason, it seems that some NZBs trigger Unison to create multiple download folders.
All in one: SABnzbd
As I said, I used to use the above utilities but have recently discovered the incredible SABnzbd. I’ve only just started to work with it but it’s fast and has a much smaller footprint than either Unison or MacPAR deLuxe. And it does the work of both. And it’s free. What’s more, it’s jammed with features for automation (you can give it RSS feeds to download regular episodes of, say, podcasts or foreign TV shows you like) and it’ll get the NZB file automatically, download it, join up all the bits, file the resulting TV show correctly and empty the trash. You can even tell it to do this from your iPhone! That said, it’s not as user friendly as Unison so it’s probably not for complete beginners.
I have to tinker with SABnzbd a lot more but it looks like it’ll be my main Usenet utility from now on. Oh yeah, and the first rule about Usenet is….