Whether the VPNs you’re familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work or stay connected when you’re traveling or the ones you pay to get you watch your favorite shows in another country as they air, they’re all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they’re used, check out this How Stuff Works article.
Also important is the protocol the VPN service uses. Connecting to a VPN service using the OpenVPN protocol generally yields a faster, more reliable experience. Plus, OpenVPN is, as the name implies, open-source. That means it has been picked over for flaws and exploits by thousands of volunteers. If you're concerned about speed and security, selecting a service that supports OpenVPN and makes it available by default is important.
But for a company that bills itself as "the world's fastest VPN," Hide.me was kind of mediocre, with our download speeds dropping to a third of the non-VPN baseline. Free users are limited to 2GB of monthly data and can connect to servers in only three countries; either of those limitations would be more acceptable if the network speeds were faster.
We contacted each of our finalists with simple questions about its service and troubleshooting. Most VPN companies provide technical support through online ticketing systems, meaning you’ll need to wait for a response. This means that self-help support sites are even more important, since waiting for a reply while your connection is down can be frustrating. Response times to our support inquiries ranged from 20 minutes to a day.
After the tunnel is established, data can be sent. The tunnel client or server uses a tunnel data transfer protocol to prepare the data for transfer. For example, when the tunnel client sends a payload to the tunnel server, the tunnel client first appends a tunnel data transfer protocol header to the payload. The client then sends the resulting encapsulated payload across the network, which routes it to the tunnel server. The tunnel server accepts the packets, removes the tunnel data transfer protocol header, and forwards the payload to the target network. Information sent between the tunnel server and the tunnel client behaves similarly.
OpenVPN: OpenVPN is very secure, open-source and widely used. Most VPN services support it, but except for Chrome OS and Linux, few operating systems do. This protocol can be used in either TCP (web) or UDP (streaming) mode; the latter is sloppier but faster. You'll need either the VPN service's client software or one of the many free alternatives. Either way, you'll still need to pay for the VPN service.
Beyond those two factors, it’s difficult to make blanket statements about what makes a trustworthy VPN. At the bare minimum, a good VPN provider should not collect and keep any logs of its customers’ browsing history. If it does, that puts your privacy at risk should someone access (or even release) those logs without authorization. But deciding when to a trust a logging policy isn’t easy. As the EFF points out, “Some VPNs with exemplary privacy policies could be run by devious people.” You don’t need to have done anything illegal to prefer that law enforcement and criminals alike not have access to a browsing history that may include your bank, medical websites, or that one thing you looked at around 2 a.m. that one time.
ZenMate has a lightweight app that is really simple to use. It offers good security and connects with any server of your choice almost instantly. The speeds remain fairly stable across servers and is faster than dozens of other VPNs. I would recommend its free browser extensions, as there are better premium apps available for lower rates than ZenMate.
If you are depending on your VPN to keep your activities even mildly anonymous, you need some sense of security that the VPN isn’t just going to go down and dump all your traffic out into the regular internet. What you want is tool known as a “kill switch system”. Good VPN providers have a kill switch system in place such that if the VPN connection fails for any reason it automatically locks down the connection so that the computer doesn’t default to using the open and unsecured internet connection.
NordVPN is a popular no logs VPN service based in Panama. It performed well in testing for the latest update to the NordVPN review and offers very competitive prices. While the speeds can be somewhat variable, the latest speed test results were good with the servers I tested. To improve speeds, NordVPN has added hundreds of servers to their network, so there is more bandwidth for users.
Let's talk about what happens when you use a VPN app on your computer or mobile device. Any VPN app will require an existing network connection to be able to connect to the VPN service provider. This means that even if you set your VPN app to automatically launch when your device boots, there will be a period of time when your computer is connected to the internet directly, not through your VPN.
Server switching is a feature -- offered by most VPN service providers -- that allows you to change what region or country you're going to connect to. Most providers allow you to switch as often as you'd like (although you usually have to disconnect, then change your configuration, and reconnect). This may be useful if you're trying to hide your location, or if you're running into some communications glitches on the server you're currently using.
Tunnel endpoints must be authenticated before secure VPN tunnels can be established. User-created remote-access VPNs may use passwords, biometrics, two-factor authentication or other cryptographic methods. Network-to-network tunnels often use passwords or digital certificates. They permanently store the key to allow the tunnel to establish automatically, without intervention from the administrator.
You might be thinking: “I only need one connection, don’t I?” What if you want to set up VPN access on more than one device, for more than one family member, on your home router, or the like? You’ll need multiple concurrent connections to the service. Or, perhaps, if you’re particularly security oriented, you’d like to configure multiple devices to use multiple different exit nodes so your collective personal or household traffic isn’t all bundled together.
A firewall uses packet filtering to allow or disallow the flow of specific types of network traffic. IP packet filtering provides a way for administrators to define precisely what IP traffic is allowed to cross the firewall. IP packet filtering is important when private intranets are connected to public networks, such as the Internet. There are two approaches to using a firewall with a VPN server:
StrongVPN has exit nodes in 43 cities, 20 countries, and supports PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IPSec, and OpenVPN protocols–you’ll be hard pressed to find a device you can’t configure to use their service. There are no bandwidth caps, speed limits, or restrictions on protocols or services (torrenting, Netflix, you name it, they don’t care). Additionally, StrongVPN maintains no server logs.
Overplay is easy to install and even easier to use. Its simple user interface is suitable for those who do not want complex features. All one needs to do is run the app and choose the country you want to connect to. It offers a very good speed, with any speed reduction hardly noticeable. As the software has server locations in 48 countries and over 14,000 IP addresses, anonymity is assured.
IPVanish is a top pick, especially for Kodi and torrenting, due to excellent speeds, zero logging and extensive privacy tools. It’s ultra fast on local connections but less consistent internationally across a network that’s mid-sized for locations but super-sized for servers and IP addresses. Netflix is working but iPlayer is currently blocked, which is a shame as it’s otherwise fantastic for streaming.
This could be bad. I'm not terribly concerned if Comcast discovers my secret passion for muscle cars and I get more ads for car customizing kits. It might be annoying, but I'm not doing anything I really want to hide. Where the problem could occur is if ISPs start inserting their own ads in place of ads by, say, ZDNet. That could cut off the revenue that keeps websites alive, and that could have very serious repercussions.
PIA didn’t score super high. Total was really fast when I first tested it, probably because it had few customers and the servers weren’t congested, but since then the service has taken a nose dive both on the performance and the customer service front. We had a never-ending stream of comments on their review about poor billing practices and other major issues, so we can no longer recommend it.
It is also possible (emphasis on "possible") that VPNs may be able to save net neutrality repeal. Kind of. For those who are unaware, net neutrality is the much-discussed concept that ISPs treat web services and apps equally, and not create fast lanes for companies that pay more, or require consumers to sign up for specific plans in order to access services like Netflix or Twitter. Depending on how ISPs respond to a newly deregulated environment, a VPN could tunnel traffic past any choke points or blockades thrown up by ISPs. That said, an obvious response would be to block or throttle all VPN traffic. We'll have to see how this plays out.