When we ran our recent Hive Five on VPN service providers, we heard from VPN providers begging to be included, angry CEOs who claimed their company was maliciously left out, and others accusing some of the contenders of illegal or unethical behavior. We took at look at the poll and the claims, and while there’s no definitive proof the poll was gamed, we decided to come up with our own top five, based on our own research rather than reader feedback, that are great whether you’re the privacy advocate, the student, or the downloader.
However, network performance is another thing entirely. First, keep in mind that if you're using a VPN, you're probably using it at a public location. That Wi-Fi service is likely to range in performance somewhere between "meh" and unusable. So, just the fact that you're remotely working on a mediocre network will reduce performance. But then, if you connect to a VPN in a different country, the connection between countries is also likely to degrade network performance.
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.
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider the kind of security you want. If you want to use a VPN in order to send documents, emails, or browse the web more securely, then you’ll want to sign up with a host that offers an encryption method such as SSL (also called TLS) or IPsec. SSL is the most widely used form of security encryption. Encryption is a method of obscuring data from those who should not see it. Also, try to pick a host which uses OpenVPN rather than “point-to-point tunneling protocol” (PPTP) for encryption. PPTP has had several security vulnerabilities in recent years; whereas OpenVPN is commonly considered the more secure method of encryption.
Avast SecureLine and Avira Phantom VPN are run by antivirus companies as complements to their primary businesses. These services are also limited to Windows, Mac, iOS and Android and don't work without client software. But they offer few features, have a couple of dozen servers at most and don't let you pay anonymously. However, the companies are known quantities, and the services are handy for occasional travelers.
If you’re going to bother with a VPN, you should spend money on a good one—don’t trust a free VPN. Security and privacy cost money, and if you aren’t paying for them, the provider has an incentive to make money from marketers at your privacy’s expense. Though price doesn’t always equal quality, a few dollars a month more for a better experience is worth it for something you’ll use on a regular basis.
NordVPN operates out of Panama, which means it has no legal obligation to record any of the activities of its users. You're free to connect to any of the 5,000+ VPN servers in 62 countries, and you can use NordVPN on up to six different devices at once. I awarded NordVPN a near-perfect score in my review, focusing on the large set of extra features, like double VPN, P2P-dedicated servers, a DNS leak resolver, and a dedicated single IP address. Grab a year subscription for about $7 a month, go short term with a $12 monthly plan, or choose one-year or six-month plans to best suit your needs.
Some VPN services will limit the total amount of data you can send and receive, either in one connection session or over the period of a month. Other VPN services will limit the speed of the data, effectively sharing less of their pipe with you than might be optimal. That could slow your browsing experience to a crawl or completely prevent you from watching streaming video.
HTTPS is a powerful tool that everyone should use because it helps keep sensitive browsing private at no extra cost to the people using it. But like most security standards, it has its own problems too. That little lock icon in your browser bar, which indicates the HTTPS connection, relies on a certificate “signed” by a recognized authority. But there are hundreds of such authorities, and as the EFF says, “the security of HTTPS is only as strong as the practices of the least trustworthy/competent CA [certificate authorities].” Plus, there have been plenty of news stories covering minor and even major vulnerabilities in the system. Some security professionals have worried about those least-competent authorities, spurring groups to improve on the certificate standards and prompting browsers to add warnings when you come across certificates and sites that don’t withstand scrutiny. So HTTPS is good—but like anything, it isn’t perfect.
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.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Australia is a market ripe for VPN providers. A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts a device’s internet traffic and routes it through an intermediary server in a location of the user’s choosing. This can allow Australians to access content that’s geolocked in their own country. It can also provide a private tunnel through which to use P2P filesharing applications.
IVPN goes further than the other leading candidates we considered by being transparent about who runs the service and is responsible for your privacy. The company lists its core team on its website, and its small team has an online presence on a variety of platforms. In contrast, only one employee at ExpressVPN has a public face: VP of marketing Harold Li gave us detailed answers to questions about policies and internal security, but couldn’t tell us much about who else worked there. (We discuss ExpressVPN in more detail in the Competition section—that company was almost our top pick but for this issue.)
In the past, some VPN services would offer different pricing tiers, each of which offered a different set of features. One way to separate these pricing tiers was to limit the bandwidth (how much data you can transfer). With premium services, this practice is now almost unheard of, and all of the services we have listed do not limit their users' bandwidth. Bandwidth limits live on, however, in free VPN services.
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Hide My Ass! is one of the more expensive VPN providers going. On a rolling monthly basis, you’ll be paying £7.99 a throw, while a £59.88 annual subscription is equivalent to paying £4.99 a month. As we said above, if you need a VPN service with a huge number of endpoints across the globe, then Hide My Ass! is the VPN for you. Otherwise, you might be better off looking elsewhere.
TorGuard also lacks extra features that are nice to have, like automatically connecting to the VPN when you’re on an unknown Wi-Fi network (which IVPN offers) or split-tunneling to choose which apps do and don’t route through the VPN (which ExpressVPN supports). And it offers no option to automatically connect to the fastest server, a feature our top pick lacks as well. But if you have above-average knowledge of networking, you’ll appreciate TorGuard’s more in-depth settings pane, which allows you to add scripts or kill specific processes when the VPN disconnects—neither our top pick nor popular services like Private Internet Access allow that kind of control.
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.
NordVPN operates servers in over 50 countries with 12 in Asia Pacific. Torrenting is allowed on all servers. It’s on par with ExpressVPN when it comes to unblocking streaming services. It can bypass the Netflix proxy firewall in the US and Australia alike. It keeps zero logs of any kind and is based in Panama, where it is not subject to any data retention laws. NordVPN also offers special servers optimized for privacy and high-speed downloads, such as ultra-fast streaming, double hop VPN, Tor over VPN, and anti-DDoS.
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.
Usually, the choice between getting a free product or buying one is obvious. Why pay for something you can get for free? It’s not so clear-cut when it comes to VPNs, though. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: you always end up paying somehow. With free VPNs, you could pay with crawling speeds, annoying ads, dangerous malware, or even having your data stolen.
When you're accessing the internet via Wi-Fi, do you worry about the safety of your data—and about who else might be spying on that data as it passes over the air, or even stealing it? If not, you're sadly in the high-risk majority. You really ought to be using a virtual private network, or VPN. In fact, however, when PCMag ran a survey on VPN usage, we found that a surprising 71 percent of our 1,000 respondents had never even used a VPN. Even among those who support net neutrality—who you might think would be better informed on security and privacy issues—55 percent had never used a VPN.
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.
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands which, although a British Overseas Territory, isn’t beholden to the strict data retention laws of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. If you’re after anonymous payment options, you can buy your subscription with bitcoin if you wish – and if you don’t want to, then ExpressVPN has a clearly stated no-logging policy. This has been put to the test by the Turkish authorities, who seized endpoint servers last December, and found no logs.
ExpressVPN scored well in our recent round of testing in terms of speed – we recorded around 8.5MB/s (68Mbit/s) via both FTP and HTTP in the UK, while Dutch endpoints gave us 6.3MB/s (50.4Mbit/s) via FTP and 7MB/s (56Mbit/s) via HTTP, more than enough for general browsing, streaming and downloading. US connection speeds, as you’d expect, were rather slower at 2.5MB/s (20Mbit/s) via FTP and a good 3.2MB/s (25.6Mbit/s) over HTTP.