You've heard the advice before: Whether you're in the office or on the road, a VPN is one of the best ways to protect yourself on the internet. But how effective are VPNs? What's the best one for you? What are the downsides? Our executive guide aims to answer all your VPN-related questions -- including a few you probably haven't thought about before.
In the most recent round of testing, we've also looked at how many virtual servers a given VPN company uses. A virtual server is just what it sounds like—a software-defined server running on server hardware that might have several virtual servers onboard. The thing about virtual servers is that they can be configured to appear as if they are in one country when they are actually being hosted somewhere else. That's an issue if you're especially concerned about where you web traffic is traveling. It's a bit worrisome to choose one location and discover you're actually connected somewhere else entirely.
Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you're online is becoming increasingly important these days. While the internet is a public space, a VPN acts like an invisibility cloak and makes your online activity virtually anonymous, making it hard for someone to track you when you're online — whether you're concerned about your internet service provider, the government, or malicious hackers.
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.
PureVPN has servers in more than 140 countries and can be very inexpensive if you pay for two years up front. It also lets you "split-tunnel" your service so that some data is encrypted and other data isn't. But PureVPN was at or near the back of the pack in almost all of our 2017 performance tests. In October 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed in a criminal complaint that PureVPN had given the FBI customer logs in reference to a cyberstalking case, which kind of negates the entire point of using a VPN.
When we test VPNs, we generally start with the Windows client. This is often the most complete review, covering several different platforms as well as the service's features and pricing in depth. That's purely out of necessity, since most of our readers use Windows (although this writer is currently using a MacBook Air). We currently use a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running the latest version of Windows 10. We periodically upgrade to a newer machine, in order to simulate what most users experience.
VPNs are necessary for improving individual privacy, but there are also people for whom a VPN is essential for personal and professional safety. Some journalists and political activists rely on VPN services to circumvent government censorship and safely communicate with the outside world. Check the local laws before using a VPN in China, Russia, Turkey, or any country with with repressive internet policies.
Yes! The fact that using a VPN will protect you when torrenting is one of the most popular reasons to use a VPN. Anyone monitoring a torrent will only see the IP address of the VPN server – not your real IP address. And your ISP cannot see what you are downloading or block you from accessing torrent sites. The only thing to be aware of is that some VPN services do not permit torrenting (or only permit legal torrenting). And you may get into trouble for doing so. So if you want to torrent, then make sure the provider you choose is happy about it. Most are, although many only permit torrenting on selected servers located in places where they are less likely to be hassled by copyright holders. For an in-depth discussion on this subject, please see our Best VPNs for Torrenting article.
Finding the best free VPN is an exercise in balancing those restrictions. TunnelBear, for example, lets you use any server on its network but limits you to 500MB-1GB per month. Avira Phantom VPN lets you use as many devices as you like and any server you like, but also restricts you to 500MB per month. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield also places no limits on the number of devices, but restricts you to 500MB per day and only US-based servers. Kaspersky Secure Connection also doesn't limit your devices but doesn't let you choose a VPN server—the app does it automatically.
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.
Prices are also pretty low. Expect to pay £63.58 for a year (equivalent to £5.29 a month), or £53.48 for a two year subscription (equivalent to £2.23 a month). Based on current rates, the standard monthly fee works out at £5.33, so if you want to save, the two year option is your best bet. Alternatively, you can pay using Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Zcash or gift cards.
ExpressVPN is also one of the best VPNs for streaming. Whether you are using a VPN with Kodi or streaming Netflix with a VPN, ExpressVPN offers great apps for streaming devices and high-capacity bandwidth for HD videos and downloads. Their customer service is also top-notch, with 24/7 live chat support and a 30 day money-back guarantee with all subscription plans. [Learn more >]
A VPN is created by establishing a virtual point-to-point connection through the use of dedicated connections, virtual tunneling protocols, or traffic encryption. A VPN available from the public Internet can provide some of the benefits of a wide area network (WAN). From a user perspective, the resources available within the private network can be accessed remotely.
The downloader. Whether they’re downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn’t want on some company’s witch-hunt list just because they have a torrenting app installed on their computer. VPNs are the only way to stay safe when using something like BitTorrent—everything else is just a false sense of security. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?
The best all-around VPN for streaming is ExpressVPN because it works with a wide range of streaming services, has excellent performance, and offers the best lineup of apps for all types of streaming devices – from Android TV boxes to tablets, computers, and phones. With ExpressVPN’s 24/7 live chat support, they can help you get everything setup correctly.
Hopefully, you’re not a candidate for government surveillance, but who knows. Remember, a VPN protects against your internet service provider seeing your browsing history. So you’re protected if a government agency asks your internet service provider to supply records of your internet activity. Assuming your VPN provider doesn’t log your browsing history (some VPN providers do), your VPN can help protect your internet freedom.
Whereas most providers say they log nothing, that’s not always the case. Some record very little data like the day you subscribed, the amount of data you’ve consumed, and delete those logs when you end the session. Other providers log your IP address, the servers you used, and store those logs. If they’re based in the US, UK or any other country with data retention laws, they can be compelled to hand over that data to law enforcement.
NordVPN may not have the number one spot, but it is a very close second. In fact, there are some areas that it might even pull ahead of its rival ExpressVPN for the coveted crown. For starters, it is super easy to use, allows torrenting, and ranks highly on all speed tests. That already makes NordVPN an attractive option, but its fabulously low monthly pricing plan really seals the deal for most people.
In 2011, a LulzSec hacker was arrested for his involvement with an attack on the Sony Pictures website. Cody Kretsinger used HideMyAss VPN to conceal his identity, but the company complied with a court order to hand over evidence that led to his arrest. This occurred in spite of the company’s pledge not to keep any logs of user activity. HMA says it does not log the contents of its users’ internet traffic, but it does keep detailed metadata logs that include users’ real IP addresses, which was enough to charge Kretsinger with a crime.
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That means fewer options and in some cases no options at all when Australians want to stream a TV show, play a video game, or listen to music. The lack of choice can lead to increased piracy of copyrighted material. In December 2016, a federal court in Australia ordered internet service providers to block BitTorrent tracker sites including ThePirateBay, Torrentz, TorrentHound, IsoHunt and SolarMovie.
Due to licensing restrictions, iOS developers previously couldn’t implement OpenVPN connections directly inside their applications. Since that changed in mid-2018, a few providers, including IVPN and PrivateInternetAccess, have added native OpenVPN support to their apps. This makes a secure connection on any Apple device much easier than the old method that required a clunky third-party application and complicated connection profiles. Though we haven’t done performance tests on any updated iOS apps yet, our limited use of the updated IVPN app worked without any problems. Going forward, we wouldn’t consider a VPN provider that doesn’t include native OpenVPN support on iOS.
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Mac's "Network Connection" tool has remained virtually unchanged in all Mac OS X versions. Thus, these directions should work when making basic VPN connections. However, it is best to keep your system upgraded to the latest version in order to address any security flaws and to be able to access more recent advanced options (such as using certificates) for configuring your VPN connection.
Logging: When you connect to a VPN, you’re trusting the VPN service provider with your data. Your communications may be secure from eavesdropping, but other systems on the same VPN—especially the operator—can log your data if they choose. If this bothers you (e.g., you’re the privacy/security advocate or the downloader), make absolutely sure you know your provider’s logging policies before signing up. This applies to location as well—if your company doesn’t keep logs, it may not matter as much where it’s located. (There’s a popular rumor that US-based VPN providers are required to log, in case the government wants them. This isn’t true, but the government can always request whatever data they have if they do log.) For a good list of VPN providers that don’t log your activities when connected (and many that do), check out this TorrentFreak article.
Of course, there are more than just phones and computers in a home. Game systems, tablets, and smart home devices such as light bulbs and fridges all need to connect to the internet. Many of these things can't run VPN software on their own, nor can they be configured to connect to a VPN through their individual settings. In these cases, you may be better off configuring your router to connect with the VPN of your choice. By adding VPN protection to your router, you secure the traffic of every gadget connected to that router. And the router—and everything protected by it—uses just one of your licenses. Nearly all of the companies we have reviewed offer software for most consumer routers and even routers with preinstalled VPN software, making it even easier to add this level of protection.
A lot of people started using a VPN to evade geo-restrictions. But despite its forbidden benefits to users outside the US, a VPN is a great tool that can protect you and enhance your online experience over the internet by providing you with sufficient security and privacy. When it comes to selecting the best VPN, you have plenty of choices. There are many cost-effective VPN options, and all of them will vary in monthly offerings. Choosing the best VPN is easier once you narrow down the competition. The best indication of a good VPN service provider is that they have the right security and the right support in place for you.