Unison: Making Sense of Usenet

Ever heard of Usenet? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. Even many people that have heard of it either don’t understand it or just can’t get into it because of the lack of modern clients.

Today we’re taking a look at Unison, an app that seeks to change the complicated and enigmatic nature of Usenet by providing you with a user friendly interface that makes it easy for even a complete beginner to dive right in.

What Is Usenet?

Last week in our Colloquy review we examined what IRC chat was and how, despite it’s age, it is still an active protocol with thousands and thousands of daily users. Today we’ll again turn back the clock to a web technology that dates all the way back to the 80s. Yep, in turns out they did in fact have networked computers even before Marty and Doc Brown took a spin in the DeLorian.

Usenet, not to be confused with Skynet, is a complicated network of “newsgroups” all devoted to specific topics in much the same way that chat rooms are in IRC. However, where IRC is a live discussion system, Usenet is a threaded messaging system in which users post and reply to different messages over an extended period of time. So where IRC was the predecessor to browser-based chat rooms, Usenet was the predecessor to web forums.

Accessing Usenet

In order to access Usenet you first need a newsreader client. This is where Unison comes in. The second thing you’ll need is a service provider. While many ISPs once provided free Usenet privileges to their customers, this trend is in rapid decline and the ISPs that still offer this service are rapidly decreasing.

Fortunately, the good folks at Panic (the creators of Unison) also provide a service plan for anyone that needs access.


Panic's Usenet Service

As you can see, for $9/month you get 300 days of binaries and unlimited transfers. Just in case you’re not sure whether it’s worth it, Unison comes with 24 hours of free access to Usenet.

Getting Started With Unison

Because it’s from the same people that make Transmit (an awesome FTP client), Unison is predictably one of the best Usenet clients available for the Mac. The Interface is so good that even someone who knows nothing of Usenet can get up and running in minutes.


The Unison Welcome Screen

When you open up Unison for the first time you are presented with a friendly welcome message and three simple options: use your existing server, sign up for service through Panic, or take Usenet for the 24 hour test drive that I mentioned above.

If you select the free preview option, all you need to provide is a username, password and email address. Once you click the link in the confirmation email, Usenet will automatically configure your free account with zero effort on your part. Keep in mind that it’ll take about five minutes or so for everything to activate and content to start loading.

Using The Directory

The most attractive feature of Unison is the Directory. Here the mass array of newsgroups are filtered into easy to understand topics. Whether you like gaming, music, Mac stuff or even animals, there’s a mess of newsgroups waiting for you.


The Directory

When you click on a topic, an extensive list of newsgroups pops up for you to browse. Some of the newsgroup names are descriptive of what you’ll find inside while others are a little more cryptic. At this point it’s basically a trial and error game; try a few out and see if you can find some you like!


A List of Newsgroups

Browsing All Groups

If you’re a bit more familiar with Usenet, the directory might not provide you with enough browsing flexibility. These users should check out the “All Groups” section where you can find a more exhaustive listing of all the groups available.

The groups are listed in a column view just like that of the Finder. Each category drills down to something more specific until you reach the newsgroup you’re looking for.


All Newsgroups

Interacting With A Newsgroup

Double clicking on a newsgroup from either of the views shown above will insert that group into your sidebar and open it up in the main panel (control click to delete it from your sidebar).

When you open up a newsgroup it’s a lot like viewing threaded messages in Mail.app. The main panel contains a list of posts that have been made. When you open the little arrow next to a post you can see all of the various replies.


A Message Thread Inside a Newsgroup

On the bottom there are options for sorting the results based on the post type. You can choose to see all posts, only written messages or only file uploads.

There are several email-like controls at the top of the window. From here you can refresh the listing, get more listings, reply to a post, create a new message, etc.


Unison Toolbar

When you reply or post a new message, again the email metaphor is strongly present. Panic isn’t seeking to ripoff Mail here, instead they’re presenting you with a familiar interface so you feel comfortable posting and replying in Unison right from the outset with zero learning curve.


Creating a New Message

As with online forums, the types of posts you’ll come across vary widely depending on the newsgroup you’re in. You’ll find everything from nerds providing tech support to adults engaging in the kind of activities they’re prone to engage in when anyone provides such a forum.

Wait, Files?

If you’ve never heard of Usenet until today, there’s a little devil sitting one your shoulder saying “I wonder what type of files people upload?” The kind that you’re thinking is exactly right.

Though there are legally legitimate file sharing activities happening here, Usenet is also home to a vast network of pirated content available freely to anyone willing to click the download button.


Mac Software Available for Download

As an example, the screenshot above shows one of the many groups dedicated to distributing Mac software. I can’t help but find it very amusing that it’s conceivably quite easy to use Unison to pirate Unison.

It’s not just software either. Pretty much any intellectual property that you’re in the mood to steal is easily obtainable with very little effort. This includes media files such as music and videos. You can even preview media files before you download.


Previewing MP3s

Since it can be tedious to locate specific items by searching individual newsgroups, there’s a built-in global search that helps you quickly find any application, song, video, or document you want.


Global Usenet Search

Is it Safe?

Can you start pirating content from Usenet without any moral or legal implications? Probably not. More important for many of you though is the question of whether or not you’ll get caught.

The popular arguments online currently suggest that Usenet is currently one of the safer havens for pirates. The advantages over torrents are numerous. Among these is the fact that it’s not a true P2P file sharing network. Users download files from a server and aren’t forced to become sharers themselves. The government “usually” spends their time tracking down the distributors of the content rather than individual downloaders scattered across the globe.

There’s actually a raging debate over whether or not it’s illegal to download pirated content. Since copyright laws clearly state that it’s illegal to “reproduce the copyrighted work” many claim that a loophole exists for those that merely download and use the content without themselves distributing it to others.

However, it’s interesting to consider that merely clicking the download link creates a digital reproduction of a copyrighted work that you haven’t paid for. Further there are laws in place against buying goods that you know are stolen. If we as a society have deemed “purchasing stolen goods” as unlawful, then it could be seen as hypocritical to deem downloading pirated software as a legally legitimate action.

However, morality and legality aside, the most interesting reason that Usenet is said to be relatively safe at the moment is simply because most politicians, lawmakers, media personnel and law enforcement employees either don’t know is exists or don’t understand it in the least. “Torrent” is a hot buzzword and so popular torrent sites are being shut down left and right, but Usenet is an obscure secret entirely off the radar of many people in power.

As an example, most of you knew what a torrent was long before today but a large chunk of you had no idea what Usenet was before reading this article. As further proof, run a Google News search for “bittorrent” and check out the tons of articles that show up and contrast that with the content that shows up when you search for “usenet.”

Unison: Closing Thoughts

Though a large portion of this article was dedicated to Usenet, the intended focus here is actually Unison. I’m admittedly no Usenet expert, but Unison is by far the best client I can find (most seem terribly outdated). Before coming across Unison, I didn’t really have a grasp of what Usenet was or how to get to it. Unison makes the whole process easy to understand and makes it really simple to jump in and get involved.

The Unison interface is excellent and the functionality is flawless. Whether you’re looking for a way to wrap your mind around Usenet for the first time or are a seasoned expert looking for a great Mac client, Unison is the way to go. Check out the free trial for both the app and the service if you’re not convinced.

If you’re looking for a few alternatives check out Nemo, MT-Newswatcher, SABnzbd, and Hogwasher.

Leave a comment below and let us know whether you had ever heard of Usenet before today, whether you or not you use it (and how) and what you favorite Mac client is.


Unison is hands down the best Usenet client available for the Mac. The attractive Directory feature makes finding newsgroups that interest you a breeze and the email-like interface for browsing newsgroups a completely familiar process. Further, Unison makes it simple to find the files you're looking for, preview them to make sure they're correct and manage your downloads. If you're a Usenet fan, stop looking, this is the client you've been waiting for.