BitTorrent and Usenet are among the most popular filesharing technologies around, even though they’re both relatively old at this point. In fact, Usenet predates the modern internet and was originally conceived in 1979.
Despite their age, both Usenet and BitTorrent are two of the most effective, useful and resilient ways to find and distribute large files.
But which is better?
As is often the case, each technology has its own pros and cons. That said, you will likely prefer one over the other (depending on your use case). And of course they aren’t mutually exclusive. Many users use both in order to maximize access to a larger universe of files and downloads.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into each of these technologies to see how they stack up.
What is Usenet?
Usenet is a bulletin board system that predates the modern internet and cannot be browsed with a standard web browser. Instead, Usenet is part of the so-called ‘deep web’.
Usenet’s original use was for forum-based discussions called newsgroups. However the technology has been repurposed in the 21st century as an efficient and relatively safe way to distribute large files by breaking them up into individual text files (messages).
These files are then pieced back together by your Usenet client to form the complete file.
How Does Usenet Work?
The magic of filesharing on Usenet is made possible through the coordination of 3 different tools:
- Usenet Provider – This is like your Internet Service Provider, but for Usenet. They store the Usenet files and give you access to their servers.
- Usenet Indexer – The indexer keeps track of all the published Usenet files (NZB’s) and automatically locates all the individual pieces (messages) that makeup a complete file.
- Usenet Client – The user interface that allows you to publish or download NZB’s. Your client accesses Usenet through your Provider and coordinates with the Indexer to find and download files. It also pieces the complete file back together from individual messages.
In some ways, Usenet is similar to BitTorrent.
For example, Usenet Indexers are similar to BitTorrent Trackers (responsible for keeping and index of available files). Also, Usenet ‘messages’ are analogous to ‘pieces’ of a torrent.
Of course there are significant differences as well, as we’ll discuss shortly.
Pros & Cons of Usenet
The pros and cons of Usenet are:
- Fast speeds
- Download activity isn’t public
- Good variety and quantity of files
- No seeding requirement
- Requires two paid subscriptions (provider & indexer)
- Steeper learning curve than torrents
- Older files may be harder to find
- Bandwidth & Download limitations
What is BitTorrent?
BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer filesharing protocol. Unlike the server-to-peer architecture of Usenet, BitTorrent is mostly decentralized.
Instead of downloading files from a specific server, BitTorrent participants host and distribute files themselves, sharing the bandwidth burden among themselves.
Centralized trackers are only used to coordinate peer communicatoins and maintain lists (indexes) of available files. However since the introduction of Magnet Links & DHT, trackers are no longer strictly necessary.
How does BitTorrent Work?
Downloading a file through BitTorrent usually requires two tools.
- Tracker / Indexer: Website where you browse & search files to download
- Client: Software that manages your BitTorrent downloads and constructs complete files from the individual ‘pieces’ of a torrent
Pros & Cons of BitTorrent
Like usenet, BitTorrent has its own unique advantages and disadvantages.
- Very fast downloads
- Good availability of files
- Easy to learn
- Activity is public
- Uploading/seeding is hard to avoid
- Requires a VPN for security
- Easier to track
- Monitored & throttled by ISPs
Usenet vs BitTorrent: Key Differences
Next, let’s look at some key differences (and similarities) between these two technologies. This is especially useful to help you decide which is a better fit for your use case.
BitTorrent is an open p2p Network
When using BitTorrent, every peer (BitTorrent user) is both server and client. When you download you also upload (seed). Files are distributed collectively and collaboratively by all network participants.
This is remarkably efficient but also has some privacy drawbacks (discussed below) since all BitTorrent activity is public by design.
Usenet is uses a centralized server architecture
In Usenet, you don’t connect directly to the other participants who post or share messages to a newsgroup. Instead, your Usenet provider is the gatekeeper. They are effectively the ‘service provider’ for Usenet, and they are the ones providing bandwidth to the network.
While this is somewhat less efficient than a distributed network like BitTorrent, it also means you only have to trust one participant (your Usenet provider).
BitTorrent Activity is Public by Design. Nearly every action you take on BitTorrent is publicly visible. Peers can see your IP address and monitoring agencies can track all activity in public torrent swarms.
BitTorrent is somewhat less public if you make use of Private Trackers, but you’re still forced to trust the honesty of tracker operators as well as the other members who are your peers.
Because of BitTorrent’s public nature, it’s recommended that you use a torrent-friendly VPN to protect your privacy and keep your real IP address out of public torrent swarms.
Usenet isn’t public, at that’s good for privacy. Your usenet search history and download activity are not public. Only your Usenet provider has this data, and many of them don’t log this type of invasive metadata.
Additionally, many Usenet providers offer built-in SSL encryption which prevents your actual internet provider (ISP) from snooping on your traffic.
This makes Usenet much more private than BitTorrent, and many users feel safe downloading all kinds of files, even without a VPN (though it’s still a good practice to use one).
Additionally, uploading on Usenet is completely optional, and 99% of users will never upload. This means you’re never expected to distribute or ‘seed’ files like you would be with BitTorrent.
This makes Usenet much less of a target for DMCA’s, lawsuits, and other enforcement actions.
Speed & Performance
Both BitTorrent and Usenet offer extremely fast speeds, with some caveats.
With BitTorrent, your speed is limited only by your internet connection and the available bandwidth in a specific torrent swarm. Quite often, you can max out your internet connection with a single popular torrent file.
Usenet can still be quite fast, but 100% of the bandwidth comes from your Usenet provider, which makes the data costs somewhat more than BitTorrent. As a result, some Usenet providers may charge per-GB or put caps on either bandwidth or transferred data.
In other words, performance is free with BitTorrent. Usenet makes you pay for it.
However the difference won’t be noticeable by most users unless:
- You have a very fast (200mbps+) internet connection
- You download large quantities of data each month
The types of content you’ll find on both networks is pretty similar and there is a lot of overlap, espcially for things like movies, music, books and software.
Note: I’m specifically talking about downloadable files, not newsgroup content. BitTorrent isn’t at all comparable to Usenet for discussion / newsgroup content.
However there are some differences in the type and age of content you’ll find on each of these networks. Here’s a quick summary:
- Usenet is good for newer files – Usenet is slightly better for recent content (created in the past 3-5 years). You’ll also find higher quality encodings and less malware than with torrents.
- BitTorrent has more variety of older content – With BitTorrent, content sticks around as long as there’s someone willing to seed it. Usenet, by contrast, only retains files for a specific amount of time (often only 3-5 years). So older content would need to be re-uploaded or disappear permanently.
Ease of Use
Even though BitTorrent can be a bit confusing for first-timers, it’s still significantly easier to get up and running than with Usenet.
In part, this is because everything with BitTorrent can be done for free. Just grab a good torrent client and a public tracker and you’re up and running.
Usenet, by contrast, requires a client, and Usenet provider, and and indexer. This is more complicated to setup and usually requires several paid subscriptions to even get started.
Add to that the lack of documentation and tutorials and you’ll start to understand why Usenet is substantially less popular and less well-known than BitTorrent.
However once you do get over that initial hump and learn to use Usenet, you’ll be filesharing to your heart’s content.
Reasons to choose BitTorrent?
Here are a couple reasons to consider BitTorrent over Usenet:
If you don’t have the budget to pay for a Usenet provider and indexer ($100/year tops) then BitTorrent is certainly a cheaper alternative.
However you’ll still want a quality VPN if you want to keep your torrent history private.
BitTorrent is super easy to learn. All you need is a client and quality tracker and you’re good to go. There’s no complicated settings to tweak or new lingo to learn. And if you do want to learn some torrent terms, check out our BitTorrent glossary.
Bittorrent is better for Streaming
BitTorrent works great to stream content on-demand, with minimal buffering or delay before the video starts. In fact, multiple popular streaming apps utilize BitTorrent to source files (as opposed to file-lockers or other video hosting platforms).
Torentio add-on for Stremio and Elementum (Kodi Addon) or two popular examples (though both allow unauthorized access to copyrighted works).
Availability of Older Content
BitTorrent is clearly superior to Usenet when it comes to finding older releases. Think books, media or software that come out more than a decade ago.
BitTorrent has no maximum retention limits so content can be seeded indefinitely. Usenet providers, by contrast, delete content after its been hosted for a specific time threshold, making it harder to find older content.
Reasons to choose Usenet
If you can get past the initial learning curve and cost, Usenet is significantly better than BitTorrent in a couple key areas.
Usenet has built-in privacy
Usenet isn’t public. It’s a server->client architecture that makes your download history much harder to monitor by 3rd-parties like your ISP or some other organization.
This means that other Usenet participants can’t directly monitor your download or reading history.
This means that regardless of what type of content you download, you’re less likely to face the type of demand letter or lawsuit threat that has become so common with BitTorrent users in certain countries.
Usenet is Curated
Usenet Indexers do much of the easy lifting, making it easier to search, browse, and locate the exact content you want. Better yet, malicious files are often flagged quickly by the community and removed, whereas malware can often be seeded on BitTorrent indefinitely.
Usenet is under the radar
Your mother or uncle may have heard about BitTorrent. It’s a lot less likely they know what Usenet is or how it works. Usenet is the best-kept secret of the filesharing community which makes it a great option for those who value privacy.
Usenet vs. Bittorrent: Summary
Whether you should choose BitTorrent or Usenet boils down to the type of content you’re looking for, how you want to consume it (e.g. streaming) and your risk tolerance.
Price is also a factor (Usenet is more expensive) but in my opinion, it should be less-important in your decision-making process because both are relatively affordable.
You should choose Usenet if:
- You’re mostly looking for recent files
- You don’t belong to (or can’t join) a good private torrent tracker
- You’re risk-averse
- You’re willing to pay a little more for added privacy and convenience
Choose BitTorrent if:
- You’re aware of the increased risks but want to save money
- Need the absolute fastest download speeds
- Aren’t downloading much software (high malware risk)
- Want an easier learning curve
- Can’t afford more to pay more than $5/month (price of a good VPN)
- You frequently stream videos while downloading