You might think, given that most ISPs no longer provide direct access to it and the majority of the free providers online have disappeared, that the venerable Usenet service has died a death. But that's not entirely true; there are still many active discussion areas in the bigger groups.
But let's be realistic: the real reason to lean towards Usenet in the current age is for file sharing – the groups below alt.binaries.* are very active, carrying many downloadable files of all kinds. But to gain access to the large amount of Usenet bandwidth you'll need in order to collect these files, you'll have to pay.
The key if you're looking at binary newsgroups is, due to Usenet's distributed server architecture, in finding a provider whose servers are fast, and who retains copies of binary files uploaded to Usenet for as long as possible. Here's our breakdown of the best providers, and a couple of wildcards for those still interested in the talky side of Usenet.
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GigaNews is amongst the most expensive Usenet providers, but its price reflects the sum of its parts. Alongside access to newsgroups – naturally – a $24.99 (£19.30) per month Diamond subscription gets you the use of GigaNews' own Mimo Usenet browser and search engine, SSL access to its servers, and the pro version of Golden Frog's multi-faceted VyprVPN service. Whatever you're using it for – and even if you're doing something else online entirely – the extra layer of privacy offered by a quality VPN has to be reassuring.
GigaNews' server availability is another plus, with multiple redundancy on US and EU servers owned and run by the company itself, and over 2,350 days retention of files. The real question, however, is whether you plan to use all of the features GigaNews offers. If you're looking to Usenet access for the conversations this is absolutely overkill, and for binary downloads it's still rather expensive.
Price: From $4.99 (£3.85) per month
Now over 20 years old, Altopia is probably the longest-running uncensored Usenet provider in the world. That is, indeed, its main selling point: Altopia was created after its founder, working as a system administrator at a university, was ordered to prevent student access to groups of a controversial nature, a move he considered 'silly and unacademic'. With this in mind Seattle-based Altopia will do everything it can to keep your communications unmonitored and unaltered, though it does of course operate within the confines of the law.
While Altopia doesn't offer the deepest retention – at the time of writing it stores 550 days of text posts, single binaries and sub-15-part binaries, and just 9 days of binaries consisting of over 15 parts – it does offer the simplest subscription packages. Everyone gets unlimited speeds, unlimited transfers and SSL connectivity, the only variable is the number of simultaneous connections. $6 (£4.60) per month gets you two, and that rises to $18 (£13.90) for 20.
Price: From $6 (£4.60) per month
Astraweb is another of Usenet's big mainstays, having run since 1998. Sign up and you're actually gaining access to two distinct services – its download servers in the US and the Netherlands are run as separate companies, and one server may contain files that the other does not. Essentially Astraweb gives you a main server and a backup server for the price of one.
Users have reported that its quality has declined over the years. Whether or not you believe this is up to you, but Astraweb's longevity in the market does earn it some brownie points, and it does not resell its services meaning you should see a consistent download rate from its servers.
Retention is one of the highest we've seen at over 2,900 days, with a claimed 99% availability. Seeing as the 1% that's missing could be the one critical part of a binary you need, Astraweb – even with its dual servers – is probably best used with a block account on hand.
Price: From $10 (£7.70) per month
Block accounts are, depending on your Usenet provider, potentially something of a necessity. They're a lot like unlimited accounts, but instead offer limited transfer rates, meaning they're not supposed to be used as the primary method of downloading but as a backup.
Plug the credentials of your block account into your newsgroup download package as a backup and, if your main provider is missing a part of a binary file, it'll download it from there instead. Each provider tends to remove a different component of a binary when asked, so the chances are your download will complete.
BlockNews' promise to offer non-expiring accounts is a key selling point. You may never need to use its facilities, but small-volume accounts are cheap enough (from $2.75/£2.12 for 5GB) that they're a reasonable backup, and everything is SSL secured and there's a 2,600 day retention. You could, in theory, pick up a larger volume account and use it as your main download source, but if you tend to collect a lot of binaries the costs could add up fast.
Price: From $2.75 (£2.12) for 5GB
Resellers are quite common in the Usenet world, and for good reason: by purchasing a large amount of bandwidth from a major service provider, they can negotiate better terms and sell on that access to you for a vastly discounted rate. One of the biggest providers to resellers is HighWinds, which counts nearly 30 clients operating from its vast server backbone.
HighWinds reseller NewsDemon is our pick of the bunch, offering 50 simultaneous connections and unlimited SSL-secured transfers from European and US servers for an entirely reasonable £9.17 ($11.80) per month – or perhaps less, we've seen different prices listed during different visits. There are also block accounts available.
There's the bonus of a VPN connection if you're willing to spend a bit more, or transfer-capped block accounts for a little less. If you're employed in education, charitable work, or certain media outlets NewsDemon will even offer you free access – though in the interests of disclosure we should be clear that we've not taken advantage of this offer.
Price: From £1.80 ($2.30) for 10GB
Dutch company Usenet.Farm is a relative newcomer to the scene, but it's making waves with its structure and policies. On the first count, the company runs its own servers with around 60 days retention – not outrageously impressive, but if Usenet.Farm doesn't have the part of a file you're looking for it'll try to find it on Highwinds' backend, and then on the XSNews backend. This improves the possibility of getting a complete binary, particularly a recently uploaded one.
On the second count, you can sign up for a Usenet.Farm account giving no personal information other than your name, or even skip this step if you use Bitcoin to pay. It offers 50-connection unlimited accounts (€7.95/£6.85/$8.90 per month), block accounts, SSL connectivity, and the ability to upload your own Usenet posts on both types of account.
At the time of writing, there's even an innovative summer sale running, with a percentage discount based on the temperature in Amsterdam – sign up on a hot day and you could bag yourself a bargain.
Price: From €4.95 (£4.25, $5.50) per month
Highly recommended by much of the Usenet community, UsenetBucket is a reseller based off the XSNews backend running from the Netherlands. If offers around 1,100 days retention which, compared to some, sounds rather pathetic – but that's about three years' worth of files. We'd wager you'll be able to count the number of times you'll try to download something beyond a week old on one hand anyway.
There's SSL access, and a few options in terms of packages. The €12.95 (£11.20, $14.50) per month Ultimate Bucket account offers unlimited traffic and 50 simultaneous connections at a maximum speed of 400 Mbit/sec and is great to use as a primary account.
On the other hand, the 10 Mbit/sec, 25-connection Basic Bucket – which definitely isn't something you'd buy at KFC, and which still offers unlimited traffic – is perfect as a backup account at just €2.95 (£2.55, $3.30) per month.
Price: From €2.95 (£2.55, $3.30) per month
8. Google Groups
Best used for historical research more than anything else, Google Groups holds a vast, searchable archive of text posts from the early days of Usenet and what appears to be very little from the more recent past. Its retention seems to be rather variable, with huge gaps in certain groups but others are well-served.
Perhaps, though, an archive is where Google Groups is best placed anyway. The text portion of Usenet, marred by the obvious difficulty there is in now accessing it and the fact that more effective communication tech is now available for free on the web, sputtered to something of a halt around a decade ago.
Don't misunderstand: there are still active groups, particularly for niche subjects that have long stationed themselves there. But most are full of spam and trolls. Realistically you're better off heading to Reddit or similar sites if you're looking for likeminded, moderated discussion.
9. XS4All Newszilla
Another text-only provider, but one available for free and without subscription, Dutch provider XS4All – a name you may recognise from the web's early days – offers free connection to text based newsgroups for anyone with the appropriate software. Just plug in the server's address and port (newszilla.xs4all.nl, port 113) to a package like Opera Mail, and you can browse groups, download headers, and read and post messages.
If you want binaries you'll be out of luck here. There's no SSL so your traffic will be unencrypted, which means you'll need to be on your best behaviour. Retention is unstated, and there's no telling what will be done with your usage data. Paranoid individuals look elsewhere. But – for an experimental tool useful to browse text groups the way it's supposed to be done, XS4All has given us a great gift with Newszilla.
We're going to finish this list with a service-aggregator of sorts. If you're hunting for something on Usenet, the best way to find it – and pretty much the only way, to be realistic – is to make use of an NZB indexer. These scour the headers of Usenet posts to collect all necessary parts of the binary files you're looking for. They tend to exist rather fleetingly – they're so flimsy that we're not even going to recommend a particular search source in this article because it may already be gone by the time you read this.
While most NZB indexers make use of the same backend software, differing server sources and indexing protocols mean they can turn up some very different results. NZBMegasearcH (that capital H is a correct, if annoying, part of its name) is installable software, and it doesn't discriminate – if you have access to an NZB search engine you can add your credentials and search multiple sources for the files you need.