Ah, Usenet newsgroups… Online communication and file sharing for the masses, still equal today to what it was before the advent of blogs, instant messaging and P2P networks: a fascinating universe with its own culture, from emoticons to killfiles and Godwin's law.

Today video chats and social networking services get more press coverage, but the newsgroups community is still alive and very active. It also retains peculiar characteristics. A newsgroup can be anything from a simple message or discussion board left over from the 80s to a multimedia file repository or any combination of those services.

Consequently, in order to get the most from Usenet, you need a specialised program that must be (at least) a hybrid between an email client and a file download manager. A Usenet client also needs features that are unnecessary in the email world. Real Usenet geeks have to deal with multi-part articles; they want to read stuff from a newsgroup while also downloading files from several other newsgroups, on the same or on different servers.

On the Usenet, it's also common practice to send the same message to many different newsgroups. In such an environment, you need help from the software to be careful; otherwise, you'll spend most of your life in flame wars. In this Roundup we present six clients chosen according to two simple criteria. The programs must be developed mainly, if not exclusively, to deal with Usenet Newsgroups, and the application must be in active development, in order for it to run happily on a modern distro.

1. Gnus

There's no way to escape from Emacs. No matter what you want to do with a computer, the "operating system that also includes a half-decent editor", as somebody once called it, has a major or minor mode for it. When it comes to Usenet, Emacs has Gnus, the official GNU newsreader.

While Emacs isn't exactly the friendliest editor on Earth, Gnus itself is much easier to use. First of all, installation is not an issue. Emacs packages exist for all Linux distributions, and Gnus is included in most of them. Moreover, almost all Gnus functions are accessible with the mouse, so don't worry about shortcuts.

Gnus has many, many functions (it is Emacs, after all), from sophisticated scoring to sorting newsgroups by topic. You can define multiple servers, customise article formatting in many ways and use authenticated accounts. In that case, Gnus will prompt you for a username and password unless you write them in $HOME/.authinfo.

In spite of all these features, basic usage of Gnus is very quick and painless. Its minimal configuration is simple: you just need to remember to do it before you start using Gnus, to avoid confusing messages from Emacs.

Create the file $HOME/.gnus.el and add to it three lines like these:

(setq user-mail-address "you@your_ isp.com")
(setq user-full-name "Faithful LXF reader")
(setq gnus-select-method '(nntp "your.preferred.newsgroup.server"))

Save the file, type M-x gnus, press Return and lo!, Gnus will open the server specified in gnus-select-method.

To browse the list of newsgroups, type A A. To subscribe, type U and then the newsgroup name. For everything else, enter Ctrl-i gnus to open the manual. Documentation wise, Gnus wins this Roundup for completeness. Since the official manual is really thorough, however, you'd better start from the tutorial.

Verdict: Gnus is the newsreader of choice for people who already use Emacs.
Rating: 7/10

2. SLRN

SLRN is is a console program that will work even if you need to run it via SSH on some remote server where Emacs isn't available. It's the smallest and lightest client in this Roundup, but this doesn't mean that its functionality is limited.

You can add features to this program in several interesting ways, without ever touching its source code. The easiest tweak is to make SLRN use your favourite editor. The other is through macros, which in the case of SLRN are actually small S-Lang scripts: you could use or modify those distributed with SLRN itself or try to write your own, as explained here.

The final way to make cool things with SLRN, or at least with the articles you read with it, is to pipe those articles to any external program with just one keystroke (|). In general, the behaviour of SLRN is controlled by one or more options that are clearly explained in the resource configuration file (slrn.rc) distributed with the program.

As with Gnus, SLRN needs a bit of manual setup before it starts in order to be happy, but it's not a big deal. You can define as many servers as you like in the configuration file, but the default one should be written manually at the prompt or in the shell.rc file, in the environment variable NNTPSERVER.

Using predefined macros, you get: GnuPG signatures, one-key scoring, optional mouse support and basic support for binary postings. Using SLRN is easy: whenever you need help, type ? and the command list will appear. The only small issue is that when you hit Q after reading an article, SLRN closes the whole newsgroup, not just the article.

Verdict: A great compromise between features, resource usage and simplicity.
Rating: 6/10

3. Thunderbird

Thunderbird is so good and so fulfilling as an email client that we wouldn't be surprised to discover that many of its users never noticed that it can handle Usenet too. However, all you have to do to use Thunderbird as a newsreader is define a 'newsgroup' type account and associate to it a server name, port and email identity.

That's all it takes to make the new account appear in the left pane. After that, if you click on its name you'll open a configuration pane where you can manage your subscriptions, accounts parameters, message filters and offline settings.

As far as offline usage is concerned, what you can configure in Thunderbird is how long to keep old or read messages, if at all. You can even delete just the bodies to save disk space and keep the headers.

The filter interface is quite flexible, but not as much as that of Knode or Pan. Each filter applies to the newsgroup level and can contain as many conditions and actions as you like; you decide if the filter acts when any or all of the conditions match.

The choice of conditions, however, is smaller than with other clients: you can only check if subject, author or date of an article match a string or fall within a certain range. The actions include automatic copy to other folders, starring or tagging, and set priority. A Filter Log window shows how Thunderbird uses these filters to process articles.

The availability of the tagging system is probably the greatest advantage of using Thunderbird to browse newsgroups, as you get to keep all the visual presentation gadgets you may be already using for email. Of course, the same applies to many other features of Thunderbird, from the spellchecker to the quick print preview function or any Thunderbird add-on you may have installed.

Verdict: If your use of newsgroups is mild, Thunderbird is a good solution.
Rating: 8/10

4. XPN

The X Python Newsreader runs on every operating system where Python and its GTK bindings are available. On Linux, all you need to do is unpack the tar file, place its folder wherever you like on your system and launch the xpn.py script.

Of all the newsreaders with a graphical interface described in this roundup, XPN is probably the one that starts most quickly. By default it occupies the whole screen, which is a bit annoying, but really easy to correct: just resize the window to fit your taste. XPN will remember that size and use it in the future.

Unlike other newsreaders, in XPN you have to define at least one identity, even if you only want to read articles, before subscribing to any newsgroup. To set up an identity, click File > Preferences to open the configuration window. This interface has five tabs: Server, User, Display, Groups and Misc. In the last one you can tell XPN which web browser and external editor you want to use while reading or posting.

Article display is really flexible: you can independently colour the window background, headers, text and three levels of quotes. The panes layout is equally customisable. You get a matrix of 20 icons, each representing a different combination of the article, headers and groups list panes, and all you have to do is check one you like.

The scoring and filtering interface of XPN is as flexible as that of Thunderbird or Knode, but is organised in a different way. Scoring can depend on many fields, from From, Subject and Date to the number of newsgroups to which an article has been posted. Actions like marking an article as read, ignoring it and so on have their own panel and are always applied after scoring rules.

Verdict: A unique choice for people who need a simple, multiplatform newsreader.
Rating: 7/10