One basic test for a VPN service is to check how long a VPN client takes to connect to a VPN server and get online. For our 2018 reviews, we installed each vendor's VPN client software on an HP EliteBook x360 1020 G2 laptop running Windows 10, an iPad mini and a Samsung Galaxy S8 Android phone. (In 2017, we used a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga notebook, an Apple MacBook Air, a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone and the iPad mini.) We used each device with each VPN service we tested.
Credit: Opera VPNAlso, although your data is encrypted as it travels between you and the far-off VPN server, it won't necessarily be encrypted once it leaves the VPN server to get to its final destination. If the data isn't encrypted — and that depends on the website you're connecting to — then the traffic might be intercepted and read. (One well-known VPN provider was recently accused of inserting ads in users' web browsers, which would violate users' security and privacy.)
Instead of logically tying the endpoint of the network tunnel to the physical IP address, each tunnel is bound to a permanently associated IP address at the device. The mobile VPN software handles the necessary network-authentication and maintains the network sessions in a manner transparent to the application and to the user. The Host Identity Protocol (HIP), under study by the Internet Engineering Task Force, is designed to support mobility of hosts by separating the role of IP addresses for host identification from their locator functionality in an IP network. With HIP a mobile host maintains its logical connections established via the host identity identifier while associating with different IP addresses when roaming between access networks.
Hotspot Shield depends on a custom VPN protocol that's not been publicly analyzed by independent experts. We don't know how private or secure it really is. The company has been accused of spying on users (it denies the allegations), and complaints abound online about Hotspot Shield software installing on PCs without users' permission. All this, and the company's U.S. location, may scare away customers who want to protect their privacy.
The second thing that happens is that the web application you're talking to does not get to see your IP address. Instead, it sees an IP address owned by the VPN service. This allows you some level of anonymous networking. This IP spoofing is also used to trick applications into thinking you're located in a different region, or even a different country than you really are located in. There are reasons (both illegal and legal) to do this. We'll discuss that in a bit.
IVPN excels at trust and transparency, the most important factors when you’re choosing a virtual private network. After interviewing IVPN’s CEO, we’re convinced that IVPN is dedicated to its promises not to monitor or log customer activity. But a trustworthy VPN is only as good as its connections, and in our tests IVPN was stable and fast. IVPN apps are easy to set up and use with secure OpenVPN connections on Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, plus a few other platforms. Extra features like automatic-connection rules and kill switches to block data on unsecured connections add protection and value that make it worth a slightly higher price than some competitors.
Many VPN services also provide their own DNS resolution system. Think of DNS as a phone book that turns a text-based URL like "pcmag.com" into a numeric IP address that computers can understand. Savvy snoops can monitor DNS requests and track your movements online. Greedy attackers can also use DNS poisoning to direct you to bogus phishing pages designed to steal your data. When you use a VPN's DNS system, it's another layer of protection.
A good VPN will have plenty of servers spread out over a large number of locations and countries, and you generally want a service that's based not in your own country or in a country that's good friends with the one you live in. Support for OpenVPN, the current standard for VPN protocols, is preferred, and you want to be able to connect multiple devices simultaneously.
Inside the Preferences pane, you can also tick boxes to automatically launch or connect the app when you boot your device. Anyone using the Windows or macOS app should tick the box to autoconnect “when joining insecure WiFi networks.” You can also tag individual Wi-Fi networks as trusted or untrusted, to make sure you’re always protected even if you forget to connect the app manually. These network rules—not offered on most apps, including IVPN’s mobile apps or any of TorGuard’s apps—will make sure you don’t forget your VPN when you need it the most.