Obfuscation – Obfuscation is a key feature if you are using a VPN in China, schools, work networks, or anywhere that VPNs may be blocked. However, if you are not in a restricted network situation, obfuscation is generally not necessary and may impact performance. (See the best VPN for China guide for a great selection of VPNs with built-in obfuscation features.)
There’s no point to a VPN that interferes with or logs your traffic—your ISP already does that. Free VPNs, such as Facebook’s Onavo, explicitly gather traffic data to resell or use it for marketing. We looked carefully at the privacy policies and marketing claims for each company we considered. In some cases, companies we considered had sworn in court filings that requests for data were impossible to fulfill. In other cases, we asked companies about their internal security and privacy standards to gauge the trustworthiness of their statements on logging.
TorGuard’s signup and payment process is also fine but not stellar. Compared with that of IVPN, the checkout process is clunky, and using a credit or debit card requires entering more personal information than with our top pick. The easiest option for anonymous payments is a prepaid debit card bought locally. Otherwise, like most providers, TorGuard accepts a variety of cryptocurrencies, PayPal, and foreign payments through Paymentwall. That last service also allows you to submit payment through gift cards from other major retailers. We don’t think this method is worth the hassle for most people, but if you have some money on a fast-food gift card you don’t want, turning it into a VPN service is a nice option.
We considered native apps for Windows, Mac, and Android to be mandatory because they’re easier to use than open-source or third-party VPN apps like Tunnelblick; that in turn makes it easier to stay secure. For more-advanced users, adding VPN connections to Wi-Fi routers can help secure all connections on a home network without having to manage devices individually.
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.
The student/worker. This person has responsibilities to attend to, and uses a VPN provided by their school or company to access resources on their network when they’re at home or traveling. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they’re not exactly shopping around. Also, if they’re worried about security, they can always fire up their VPN when using airport or cafe WI-Fi to ensure no one’s snooping on their connection. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
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.
Providers can also log less-specific data about when or how often you connect to your VPN service. In some cases, these logs are a routine part of server or account management, and can be responsibly separated and scrubbed. In other cases, VPN providers take note of every connection and use that information to actively police individual customers. Though it’s reasonable for companies to protect their networks from abuse, it becomes a dealbreaker when companies keep extensive connection data for a longer period of time. Some VPN companies we spoke with explained how a log might note your current connection for authentication purposes, but that log is deleted as soon as you disconnect. This kind of “live log” isn’t a concern, and even those culled every few hours—or as long as the end of each day—shouldn’t be confused with logs of your traffic and online destinations.
For building applications for mobile macOS and Windows platforms, the OEM VPN Unlimited SDK allows users to build feature-packed custom apps or beef up their existing applications with new functionalities. Meanwhile, VPN Unlimited White Label allows for an easy VPN market entry, as KeepSolid will cover the infrastructure, development, and maintenance while supercharging your network security. Lastly, OEM VPN Unlimited Router API enhances network security by shielding your wireless network on an impregnable router, allowing you to save from purchasing multiple VPN subscriptions and giving your customers peace of mind when engaging with your business.
Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable. You should still make sure you’re using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers—especially mobile ones—bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you’re not downloading viruses or trojans. When you’re shopping, see if the providers you’re interested in offer anti-malware protection while you’re connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it’s always good to have someone watching your back.
Some combination of the above. Odds are, even if you’re not one of these people more often than not, you’re some mix of them depending on what you’re doing. In all of these cases, a VPN service can be helpful, whether it’s just a matter of protecting yourself when you’re out and about, whether you handle sensitive data for your job and don’t want to get fired, or you’re just covering your own ass from the MPAA.
Testing criteria: Each VPN service in this guide was tested for IP address leaks, DNS leaks, connection issues, reliability, speed, and whether the features work correctly. Additionally, I also examined company policies, jurisdiction, logging practices, as well as the history of each VPN provider. The rankings of this list were based on a combination of all these factors.
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.
We have often said that having to choose between security and convenience is a false dichotomy, but it is at least somewhat true in the case of VPN services. When a VPN is active, your web traffic is taking a more circuitous route than usual, often resulting in sluggish download and upload speeds as well as increased latency. The good news is that using a VPN probably isn't going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore.
Buffered VPN doesn't disclose much about the size of its network, but the 30-day money back guarantee means that you can take their service for a test drive and really get a feel for how well it performs for you. The company lost a few points from us because they do keep some connection information. They gained points for their client support, unlimited bandwidth, and generous number of simultaneous sessions allowed.