We also dove deeper into the desktop apps of the top-performing services. Great apps have automatic location selection, easy-to-use designs, and detailed but uncluttered settings panels. We set up each service’s Android app on a Samsung Galaxy S8 running Android 7.0 Nougat. We took into account how easy each one was to set up and connect, along with what options were available in the settings pane.
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.
The free version won’t give you much mileage for streaming mind, which is perhaps just as well. Frustratingly, both BBC iPlayer and U.S. Netflix clocked that we were using a VPN, and stopped us from getting the goods. But if streaming isn’t why you’re seeking out a VPN, and you mainly need one for anonymised web browsing and downloads, then Kaspersky Secure Connection is ideal.
Think about all the times you’ve been on the go, reading emails while in line at the coffee shop, or checking your bank account while waiting at the doctor’s office. Unless you were logged into a private Wi-Fi network that requires a password, any data transmitted during your online session could be vulnerable to eavesdropping by strangers using the same network.
Kaspersky Secure Connection is one of the fastest VPNs we’ve tested to date. We recorded UK speeds of 12.13MB/s (97.04Mb/s) via FTP and 10.27MB/s (82.16 Mb/s) via HTTP and 10.5MB/s (84Mb/s) and 9.39MB/s (75.12Mb/s) respectively for FTP and HTTP. The US VPN connection was so fast that we repeatedly re-tested it in case of errors or anomalies, because it more than tripled our non-VPN’d connection speed with 9.57MB/s (76.56Mb/s) downloads over both FTP and HTTP.
L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security): L2TP is not secure itself, so it's generally paired with the IPsec secure-networking standard. The combination of the two was once thought to be very secure when properly implemented, but some VPN services suggest that you use OpenVPN instead. L2TP/IPsec has native support in Windows, OS X/macOS, Android, Chrome OS and iOS. Most VPN services support it.
A VPN provides a great many privacy protections that we think everyone should take advantage of. This is especially true in Australia where a 2017 report found that in the previous 12 months, cybercrime rates had increased by 15% to 47,000 incidents. However, within the specific context of Australia’s 2015 data retention law, they won’t do much good.
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.
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.
Everything you do on the Internet has to pass through your own ISP before reaching the destination. So, when you request Google, for example, the information is sent, unencrypted, to your ISP and then passes through some other channels before reaching the server that holds Google’s website. Basically, VPN services privatize information that can be read by ISPs or any other agency that inspects your traffic.
It's also notable that ExpressVPN is able to gain access to Netflix, which some (like PureVPN) are not able to do. Like PureVPN, ExpressVPN is one of the best for getting around roadblocks in China (though there are only servers in 94 countries), and has up to 256 bit encryption. Get one month for $12.95, six months for $9.99/month, or a one-year subscription for $8.32/month. You would be paying around $10 more per month compared to any other VPN, but the quality is definitely there — and if you're really not happy, you can get your money back within the first 30 days. Another cool thing: You can pay with Bitcoin.
The solution is downloadable and supports platforms such as OS X, Windows and Linux. Mobile systems like Android and iOS are also supported. These capabilities enable users to use the product on desktops, laptops, smartphones or tablet computers. The software can also be downloaded onto network routers, ensuring that all devices connected to such routers enjoy the same level of protection.
Norton WiFi Privacy performed very well in our latest round of speed tests. In the UK, we got FTP and HTTP download speeds of around 9.5MB/s (76Mb/s). Using endpoints in the Netherlands, that HTTP speed went up to 10.1MB/s (81Mbit/s). U.S. speeds were also very good, exceeding our non-VPN reference download at 5.8MB/s (46.4Mbit/s) for FTP and 4.8MB/s (38.4Mbit/s) for HTTP downloads.
Trusting a VPN is a hard choice, but IVPN’s transparency goes a long way toward proving that its customers’ privacy is a priority. Founder and CEO Nick Pestell answered all our questions about the company’s internal security, and even described the tools the company used to limit and track access to secure servers. The top VPN services gave us a variety of answers to these questions, some of which were frustratingly vague. ExpressVPN was the only other company to outline these controls and assure us that these policies were well-documented and not half-practiced.
Tip for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera users: A feature called WebRTC can, in some Web browsers, inadvertently cause your true IP address to leak out even when you’re connected via a great VPN. WebRTC assists with peer-to-peer connections, such as for video chatting, but could be exploited in some cases. You can manually disable this function in Firefox, or use an extension to block most instances of it in Chrome or Opera. For more details and instructions, check out Restore Privacy.
However, you've got no choice but to run TunnelBear's client software (unless you use Linux), which may concern some privacy-minded users, and there's no option to set up TunnelBear connections on routers or other devices. Last but not least, this tiny Canadian firm is now owned by U.S. antivirus giant McAfee, which may mean TunnelBear is subject to U.S. search warrants.
Best for Frequent Flyers (VPN Anywhere): The name Hide My Ass (HMA) speaks for itself and can protect your data, identity and ultimately your derriere in a variety of far-flung places. Owned by security software company Avast, the HMA Pro VPN service has an extraordinary geographic scope with 900 servers in 190 countries, including Russia and Albania. The VPN service can obscure your location, protect data traffic and shuffle its IP addresses for greater anonymity. It lacks a firewall or ad blocker, though. There’s software for PCs (Vista, 7, 8, 10) and Macs (OSX 10.5), iOS and Android systems as well as some open-source routers. An HMA account supports up to five simultaneous users. Its blue and white interface is small and lets you choose among Instant Mode (one-click connect), Location Mode (pick your server) or Freedom Mode (the closest free-speech friendly country). Unlike PIA, you select a user name. At $12 a month, it’s more expensive than PIA but a full year costs $5 a month. Its UK headquarters means that HMA’s logs should be beyond the reach of American spy agencies.
What that means in practice is that VPNs are fine for bypassing geo-blocks, for protecting your online banking and for keeping business communications free from interception. However, if you’re using the internet to fight repressive regimes or to do anything else that could attract the attention of the authorities where you live, a VPN is not a magic wand that’ll make you invisible.
We like that the company offers a connection kill switch feature and, for those who need it, there's an option to get a dedicated IP address. VyprVPN is a standout in their effort to provide privacy, and thwart censorship. When China began its program of deep packet VPN inspection, Golden Frog's VyperVPN service added scrambled OpenVPN packets to keep the traffic flowing.