Let's talk about what happens when you use a VPN app on your computer or mobile device. Any VPN app will require an existing network connection to be able to connect to the VPN service provider. This means that even if you set your VPN app to automatically launch when your device boots, there will be a period of time when your computer is connected to the internet directly, not through your VPN.
In our review of IPVanish, I gave a four-star rating for its strong encryption, excellent performance, and a large set of servers. While it is based in the U.S., the company promises to keep no logs other than payment information, which you can also avoid by paying with Bitcoin. IPVanish has more than 40,000 unique IP addresses on more than 1,000 servers spread out over more than 60 countries, meaning you get some serious diversity. There's no limit to how many times you can switch servers, allowing you to move around until you find the absolute best. Toss in a kill switch, IPv6 and DNS leak protection, and manual port selection, and this becomes a very attractive option. Yearly plans start at about $6 per month, while monthly plans start at about $10.
OpenVPN: OpenVPN is very secure, open-source and widely used. Most VPN services support it, but except for Chrome OS and Linux, few operating systems do. This protocol can be used in either TCP (web) or UDP (streaming) mode; the latter is sloppier but faster. You'll need either the VPN service's client software or one of the many free alternatives. Either way, you'll still need to pay for the VPN service.
The NordVPN client provided one of the most attractive interfaces, and connecting to a VPN server was straightforward and very quick. We found performance to be somewhat spotty, however, with our fastest connection running at 53 Mb/s down and 26 Mb/s up, compared to 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s with the VPN connection turned off. We did have an issue connecting to Netflix, but Amazon Prime Video ran without issue. Our other internet tests went without a hitch.
Let's start with the basic idea of internet communication. Suppose you're at your desk and you want to access a website like ZDNet. To do this, your computer initiates a request by sending some packets. If you're in an office, those packets often travel through switches and routers on your LAN before they are transferred to the public internet through a router.
VPNs also cloak your computer's actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you're connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone's location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it's possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
Mullvad is not that easy to use, with a bare-bones desktop interface and, unlike every other VPN service we've reviewed, no mobile client apps. (You do get instructions on how to manually set up OpenVPN apps.) This service's network speeds were far from great in our tests, and it's fairly expensive, with no discount for paying yearly instead of monthly.
While you're connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
IVPN also performed well in our speed tests. Though it wasn’t always the fastest in the 54 measurements we took on each service, it ranked near the top on many servers at different times of the week—especially compared with the most trustworthy services. Private Internet Access, one of the most visible, privacy-focused VPNs, had slower speeds when connecting to most servers and less reliable connections than IVPN. For US servers (which we expected to be the fastest locations since we tested from California), IVPN ranked behind only OVPN and TorGuard. We liked OVPN—especially its speed results—but we thought that company’s small team and small selection of servers and locations were too limiting for some people. (Read more in the Competition section.) Though TorGuard edged out IVPN in this test, the difference wasn’t big enough to affect our everyday browsing. And because we tested each application at its default settings, TorGuard’s faster speeds were partially thanks to its default 128-bit encryption; IVPN offers only more secure, but often slower, 256-bit encryption.
One of the most common types of VPNs used by businesses is called a virtual private dial-up network (VPDN). A VPDN is a user-to-LAN connection, where remote users need to connect to the company LAN. Another type of VPN is commonly called a site-to-site VPN. Here the company would invest in dedicated hardware to connect multiple sites to their LAN though a public network, usually the Internet.
One of the most important factors when you’re choosing a VPN provider is also the hardest to quantify: trust. All your Internet activity will flow through this company’s servers, so you have to trust that company more than the network you’re trying to secure, be it a local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, your campus Internet connection, your corporate IT network, or your home ISP. In all our research, we came across a lot of gray areas when it came to trusting a VPN, and only two hard rules: Know who you’re trusting, and remember that security isn’t free.
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider the kind of security you want. If you want to use a VPN in order to send documents, emails, or browse the web more securely, then you’ll want to sign up with a host that offers an encryption method such as SSL (also called TLS) or IPsec. SSL is the most widely used form of security encryption. Encryption is a method of obscuring data from those who should not see it. Also, try to pick a host which uses OpenVPN rather than “point-to-point tunneling protocol” (PPTP) for encryption. PPTP has had several security vulnerabilities in recent years; whereas OpenVPN is commonly considered the more secure method of encryption.
All that being said, we currently name TorGuard as the fastest VPN service. It doesn't take the top spot in all of our tests, but has remarkably low latency and had the best performance in the all-important download tests. Fittingly, it offers many add-ons such as dedicated IP addresses that, along with its speed, will appeal to the BitTorrent users it is designed to protect.
An impressive and fast VPN service, Buffered VPN offers total online security and world-class customer support. The service boasts of providing access to content from any country in the world. This is achieved through the service’s server locations in 45 countries. It supports Windows, Linux and Mac platforms, but can also be set up on Android and iOS. The service offers excellent latencies and fast upload speeds, very good for browsing.
My rule of thumb is to use a domestic VPN and connect to servers as close to my location as possible. That said, I have had good nights and bad nights getting online. In my recent trip, I found most hotels' networks to become unusable after about 9pm. My theory is that many of the guests were watching Netflix at that time, completely clogging the hotels' pipes.
Israel-based Hola isn’t a traditional VPN in which customers connect to a network of centralized servers owned by the VPN company. Instead, Hola users connect to each other, using other users’ idle bandwidth as part of a large peer-to-peer network. Obviously, this comes with some pretty big security and legal concerns. Users could use each other’s internet for illegal activity, for example. In 2015, Hola used its user’s computers to create a botnet and perform a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. The abuse of customers’ trust happened entirely without their knowledge.
With Kodi, you can access your media over a local connection (LAN) or from a remote media server, if that's your thing. This is, presumably, where concerns about VPN enter the picture. A device using a VPN, for example, will have its connection encrypted on the local network. You might have trouble connecting to it. Using Chromecast on a VPN device just doesn't work, for example. Kodi users might have the same issue.
Most Secure (Double Encrypted Data): By using a map of the world to show VPN servers, NordVPN is among the easiest security apps to use: just pick a spot and click to connect. With more than 5,200 connection points, NordVPN has servers in 62 countries, in places like Egypt, Russia and Turkey. You can use NordVPN with Windows 7, 8 and 10, Mac OSX (10.10 or newer), Android, iOS, Chrome and Linux systems as well as some routers and smart TVs. While PIA and HMA go small, NordVPN’s app can run full screen with its connection map on the right and a server list on the left. You can pick a specific server or the area’s fastest. In addition to NordVPN’s Double VPN option that encrypts data twice, Cybersec can block annoying ads as well as prevent going to malicious and phishing sites. Unlike PIA, NordVPN lets you choose your user name. With headquarters in Panama, NordVPN is beyond the reach of American spy agencies and the company doesn’t keep a log to worry about. At $12 per month or $7 a month over a year, NordVPN is expensive compared to PIA, but allows 6, not 5, simultaneous users. With NordVPN, connecting is as simple as clicking on a map.
Norton WiFi Privacy is a VPN solution that is specifically designed for mobile devices. It is downloadable from the App Store or the Google Play Store. The software is capable of protecting users from the dangers associated with public Wi-Fi hotspots. It has the capability to block ads, which automatically hides advertisements while preventing sites from tracking user location.
It is possible for some background services to send information across that initial, unsecured connection before the VPN loads. To be fair, the risk is relatively minor for most usage profiles. If you're establishing a connection automatically to your corporate server, you will definitely want to check with your IT team about how they want you to set things up.
Some VPNs offer great service or pricing but little to no insight into who exactly is handling them. We considered feedback from security experts, including the information security team at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), about whether you could trust even the most appealing VPN if the company wasn’t willing to disclose who stood behind it. After careful consideration, we decided we’d rather give up other positives—like faster speeds or extra convenience features—if it meant knowing who led or owned the company providing our connections. Given the explosion of companies offering VPN services and the trivial nature of setting one up as a scam, having a public-facing leadership team—especially one with a long history of actively fighting for online privacy and security—is the most concrete way a company can build trust.
Cost: This VPN service comes in three plans: Basic, Pro, and Premier, any of which can be purchased on a six month, one year, two-year, or three-year basis. The premier plan is $5.83 /month if you pay all 36 months up front, the professional plan is $4.44/month if you buy all three years at once, and the basic plan is $3.06/month for three years. Basic also lets you pay monthly, for $5.99/month.
I was trying to torrent a UFC event that I happened to miss recently, 500+ seeders and 200+ leechers for a 720p recording. Not the best ratio, but certainly doable considering. The download wouldn't even start. CyberGhost does have an option for torrenting servers specifically, but they're always "busy" and they use the term "too popular" as if that's some sort of excuse. I've used the program for a few days and I'm going to get a refund as soon as humanly possible.
Even if none of the above really sound right to you, you can still benefit from using a VPN. You should definitely use one when you travel or work on an untrusted network (read: a network you don’t own, manage, or trust who manages.) That means opening your laptop at the coffee shop and logging in to Facebook or using your phone’s Wi-Fi to check your email at the airport can all potentially put you at risk.
Hotspot Shield VPN works in most countries, but that doesn’t mean it’s always legal to use a VPN in a specific country. If you have any doubts about the legality of using a VPN in a certain country, always consult a qualified lawyer because laws can change quickly. If you’re still unsure, then it’s best to play it safe and abide by the most conservative guidelines of a country.
Please be aware that some of the criteria for testing are based on objective raw data such as speed test results, while other testing criteria are based on subjective personal experience and interaction with the VPN software. Due to this, our findings may not reflect your personal view. As there is a money back guarantee after a certain number of days on all of the VPN products listed on this site you should make the most of this time and perform your own testing to see if a particular product caters to your needs. If you would like to know more on how we came to our findings then please click here.
HotSpot Shield is a product that has had some ups and downs in terms of our editorial coverage. Back in 2016, they picked up some very positive coverage based on founder David Gorodyansky comments about protecting user privacy. Then, in 2017, a privacy group accused the company of spying on user traffic, an accusation the company flatly denies. Finally, just this year, ZDNet uncovered a flaw in the company's software that exposed users. Fortunately, that was fixed immediately.