By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Want some new fonts? Log onto an Internet newsgroup.
Want images from around the world? Try a newsgroup.
How about some MPEG audio files or MIDI files? Same thing.
If you still think a "newsgroup" is a place where you get news, welcome to the wacky world of the Usenet, one of the oldest parts of the Internet. It's the home of thousands of message areas called newsgroups. A few of them have news of one kind or another, but most fall in one category or another -- places where messages are posted about any kind of subject and places where files are posted for anyone to download.
Messages on Usenet newsgroups are mostly just texts, and any old newsreader program will do if you just want to read messages. But the files posted on newsgroups aren't handled the way Web sites do it. The files in newsgroups are actually part of messages -- they are literally hidden inside strange-looking texts -- and you need a modern newsreader to decipher them.
My favorite newsreader for message-reading and message-posting is Agent, costing $29, from Forte (http://www.forteinc.com/forte/agent/). A no-cost version, Free Agent, is also available. And an excellent newsreader, free from Microsoft, is built into Outlook Express.
Both Agent and Outlook Express do a creditable job of deciphering files posted in newsgroups if you just want to grab one or two now and then. But if you want to download newsgroup files by the dozens -- or even by the thousands, if you have a high-speed connection -- you should use a robot.
A newsgroup robot scans all the messages posted in one or more newsgroups and decodes the files that are hidden (or "attached") to messages, following the rules you have given it. (You can tell it to ignore files you already have, or to skip all files, even new ones, from certain sources.)
For Windows PCs, my vote for the best of these automatic file-gathering programs is News Robot by Scott Baker, available from http://smbaker.simplenet.com/sbnews/sbnews.html. You can choose a version for the old Windows or for Windows 95 and 98, and you can try it for free before paying a $20 fee.
Even over a normal dialup connection, News Robot is very fast. Get it running before you go to bed, and News Robot can download and decode hundreds of files from newsgroups by the time you get up the next day. If you have an ISDN connection or a dedicated line -- or if you're even luckier and have an ultra-fast cable Internet connection -- News Robot can grab thousands of files overnight. In my tests, the program downloaded and decoded about 700 megabytes of MPEG audio files one Sunday morning a few weeks ago.
News Robot does a good job filtering out junk, too. One of the most vexing problems on Usenet newsgroups stems from cross-postings by spammers (people who send junk messages). A robot program that didn't know how to filter out spam messages would be overwhelmed by such junk. News Robot also lets you store the files it downloads in encrypted form so that you can keep your files private right from the start.
To clarify a point readers have brought up before, I should explain that News Robot does not replace your regular newsreader. It doesn't show you messages. All you see after News Robot has made one of its sorties through the newsgroups is a folder (or many folders) full of files. My usual technique is to let News Robot grab all but the dumbest of the spammed files. I then go through the downloads and delete whatever I don't want. (Get a bigger hard drive before you try this method. You'll need hundreds of megabytes of free space.)