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.
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.
CyberGhost is one of the better VPNs out there by virtue of having a number of helpful features, such as a killswitch, which will halt all traffic if the VPN tunnel is suspended for whatever reason, ad blockers and tracker blockers, and built-in shortcuts to sites and services which are either geo-locked or the likes of Twitter and Wikipedia, which are frequently censored by authoritarian goverments.
Protocol: When you’re researching a VPN, you’ll see terms like SSL/TLS (sometimes referred to as OpenVPN support,) PPTP, IPSec, L2TP, and other VPN types. We asked Samara Lynn, Lead Analyst for Networking and Small Business at PCMag, whether or not a user shopping for a VPN should shop for one over another. “SSL is what is commonly used these days. All of these protocols will provide a secure connection,” she explained, and pointed out that most solutions are invisible to the end-user anyway. Strictly, each protocol has its benefits and drawbacks, and if you’re concerned about this (specifically, PPTP vulnerabilities,) you’re probably already aware of them. Most users don’t need to be concerned about this—corporate users on the other hand, are probably all using IPSec or SSL clients anyway.
Another reason you might choose to use a VPN is if you have something to hide. This isn't just about folks doing things they shouldn't do. Sometimes people really need to hide information. Take, for example, the person who is worried he or she might be discriminated against by an employer because of a sexual preference or medical condition. Another example is a person who needs to go online but is concerned about revealing location information to a person in their life who might be a threat.
Some VPN services provide a free trial, so take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you signed up for, and take advantage of money-back guarantees if you're not. This is actually why we also recommend starting out with a short-term subscription—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a one-week Vacation subscription, for example. Yes, you may get a discount by signing up for a year, but that's more money at stake should you realize the service doesn't meet your performance needs.
This was technically #8 in the ranking, but after we saw it mentioned positively so many times in Reddit discussions, we decided to bump it up. Private Internet Access VPN, otherwise known as PIA, attempts to give off reliability vibes with its home page (children on bikes was an interesting choice), which some might feel conned by. However, we've gathered that Redditors believe that this wasn't a farce, and that it's actually a super trustworthy option. It was Mashable's top choice too, due to the fact that it comes with a ton of user-friendly features and doesn't kill your device to install. However, it's not the most aesthetically pleasing interface of the bunch, and some users mention that they had to switch VPNs simply because of that. But if you don't care about the looks so much as server reliability, variety of features, and speed, it's a good choice. Reddit user KaiForceOne writes:
The theme running throughout this service is personal security. From protected DNS queries to automatic kill switches, NordVPN wants you to know that your information won’t fall into the wrong hands. It makes sense, then, that the company also accepts Bitcoin for payments. The company has recently improved its platform support, adding in iOS and Android and thus overcoming its one weakness.
When we tested other aspects of IVPN’s performance, it also satisfied our requirements. On the default settings, our real IP address didn’t leak out via DNS requests or IPv6 routing, let alone a standard IP address checker. The DNS-requests check indicated that the app was using the company’s internal DNS servers and that they were correctly configured. None of the 12 services we tested disclosed our true IP address (though some showed mismatched IPs). Every VPN we considered had to operate its own DNS servers in-house and not rely on ISP servers or public options like Google’s, which give third parties a chance to log or analyze the sites you visit. IVPN currently disables all IPv6 connectivity, though the company is looking at solutions to securely support it soon. Most companies we considered do the same; OVPN was the only company to support IPv6 addresses at the time of our testing.
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.)
When we test VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag's publisher, Ziff Davis.) This test provides metrics for latency, download speeds, and upload speeds. Any one of these can be an important measurement depending on your needs, but we tend to view the download speed as the most important. After all, we live in an age of digital consumption.
If you’re going to use torrents, however, life is easier if you use a VPN—especially if the network you’re on blocks torrenting. There are many VPNs among our top picks that could be used for downloading torrents, but our preferred choice is Private Internet Access. This no-frills VPN has an absolute ton of servers, good speeds, and a nice amount of country locations to remain relatively anonymous. (Read our full review.) The price is right at less than $40 a year, and its privacy policies have been tested in court. Plus, advanced users can adjust their level of encryption for data encryption, data authentication, and handshake.
ExpressVPN’s “#1 Trusted Leader in VPN” claim may be a bit difficult to prove, but the service offers a compelling list of features nonetheless. It also constantly tries to make consistent improvements in speed and simultaneous streaming capabilities, and with support for all major platforms (Windows, MacOS, Android, etc.), you won’t need to worry about compatibility. ExpressVPN shows up on a number of “best VPN” lists, and so its relatively high prices are justified.
Most people leave their privacy and security vulnerable in ways that can be addressed with methods other than signing up for a VPN—methods that are potentially more effective. If you have a drafty house with paper-thin walls and halogen light bulbs, you’d get far more value out of every dollar by sealing up cracks, insulating, and switching to LEDs than you would by putting solar panels on your roof. Similarly, before you rush to sign up for a VPN subscription, you should consider these other ways to up your privacy game.
In addition to blocking malicious sites and ads, some VPNs also claim to block malware. We don't test the efficacy of these network-based protections, but most appear to be blacklists of sites known to host malicious software. That's great, but don't assume it's anywhere near as good as standalone antivirus. Use this feature to complement, not replace, your antivirus.
A P device operates inside the provider's core network and does not directly interface to any customer endpoint. It might, for example, provide routing for many provider-operated tunnels that belong to different customers' PPVPNs. While the P device is a key part of implementing PPVPNs, it is not itself VPN-aware and does not maintain VPN state. Its principal role is allowing the service provider to scale its PPVPN offerings, for example, by acting as an aggregation point for multiple PEs. P-to-P connections, in such a role, often are high-capacity optical links between major locations of providers.
Good VPN providers have outstanding characteristics to rely on while they are establishing their position in the free tech world to have a high general rating. Best virtual private network providers give outstanding services to their clients. Therefore, they go through a strict screening before making it to the rating table. All the methods used to evaluate the output characteristics are always getting improved. Top VPN apps are coming up with great strategies for making their customers feel safe and secure with their networks.
Don't mistake the cartoony layout of the TunnelBear VPN Android app — it's a simple-to-use app that offers serious VPN protection. You can create an account for free, which gives you 500MB of secure data a month but we'd recommend checking out a paid subscription that lets you connect up to five different devices at a time to servers in 20 different countries.
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.
Hands down, ExpressVPN is the number one most highly-acclaimed VPN service on the market, and it’s no secret why. With a massive amount of servers, great deals, and superior quality service, ExpressVPN blows the competition clear out of the water. In case you’re a see it to believe it kind of shopper, ExpressVPN lets you test drive the service with its 30-day money-back guarantee. Don’t like it? You’ll get your money back, no questions asked. For real.
Security is the main reason why corporations have used VPNs for years. There are increasingly simple methods to intercept data traveling to a network. WiFi spoofing and Firesheep are two easy ways to hack information. A useful analogy is that a firewall protects your data while on the computer and a VPN protects your data on the web. VPNs use advanced encryption protocols and secure tunneling techniques to encapsulate all online data transfers. Most savvy computer users wouldn't dream of connecting to the Internet without a firewall and up-to-date antivirus. Evolving security threats and ever increasing reliance on the Internet make a Virtual Private Network an essential part of well-rounded security. Integrity checks ensure that no data is lost and that the connection has not been hijacked. Since all traffic is protected, VPNs are preferred over proxies.
Trust and transparency issues are the foremost concerns in choosing a great VPN, and if a service doesn’t have enough locations to be useful to you, all the security features won’t make a difference. But after those concerns have been satisfied, we recommend that most people use connections based on the OpenVPN protocol, because of security flaws and disadvantages in the PPTP and L2TP/IPsec protocols. (Experienced users may consider IKEv2, but because it has its own debated pros and cons, we ruled it out.) Though AES 128-bit encryption is fine for most purposes, we prefer services that default to the more-secure 256-bit encryption and still offer good performance.
Early data networks allowed VPN-style connections to remote sites through dial-up modem or through leased line connections utilizing Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) virtual circuits, provided through networks owned and operated by telecommunication carriers. These networks are not considered true VPNs because they passively secure the data being transmitted by the creation of logical data streams. They have been replaced by VPNs based on IP and IP/Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) Networks, due to significant cost-reductions and increased bandwidth provided by new technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL) and fiber-optic networks.