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.
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.
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Thankfully, there's a workaround for this problem. Instead of using the VPN app from the company from which you've purchased a subscription, you can download the standalone OpenVPN app. Open it, and you can enter your subscription information from the VPN company you've decided to work with. The OpenVPN app will then connect to the VPN company's servers using our preferred protocol.
Latency normally results in a poor VPN connection. If you are connected to a VPN server that is far from your location, the chances are that your VPN speed will lag. An ideal way to turn your VPN account to a fast VPN connection is to choose your VPN location smartly. Your connections will become a high-speed VPN if you select a server that is near close to your original location, and it not overfilled.
The first runs in the VPN client app on your computer, so if the VPN connection fails while the VPN client app is running, that VPN client app can turn off the computer or mobile device's internet connection. However, if your VPN connection has failed because the VPN client app itself crashed, then the kill switch may not work, and your IP and data may leak onto the internet.
The bad news for anyone used to free services is that it pays to pay when it comes to a VPN. There are tons of free options from reputable companies, but these are usually a poor substitute for the paid options. Free services usually allow a limited amount of bandwidth usage per month or offer a slower service. Tunnel Bear, for example, offers just 500MB of free bandwidth per month, while CyberGhost offers a free service that is significantly slower than its paid service.
DNS servers are a bit like the phone books of the Internet: You can type in “thewirecutter.com,” for instance, and one of the many DNS servers behind the scenes can point you to the IP address of a server hosting the site. Most of the time, your DNS requests automatically route through your ISP, giving the ISP an easy way to monitor your traffic. Some VPN services rely on third-party DNS servers, but the best ones keep DNS servers in-house to prevent your browsing history, or your IP address, from getting out.
CyberGhost is transparent about its company structure, posting photos and bios on its website of everyone from the CEO to the cleaning lady, and privacy fanatics will like that the company is based in Romania rather than the U.S. But CyberGhost's full-service subscription price is among the most expensive, unless you pay for two or three years up front.
TunnelBear is designed for a very specific group of people: people who want a VPN service but don’t want to mess around with configuration or become IT experts to make their connections more secure. And it caters brilliantly for that market, with a very straightforward interface and jargon-free writing. In truth, all of the VPN services these days do this but TunnelBear tries very hard to stand out. It’s not for power users - there isn’t much you can change - but with up to five simultaneous connections, servers across 20 countries and decent performance on US and Canadian websites. Longer connections can be slower, though: it’s when the relatively small number of server locations makes itself obvious. There’s a free version that limits you to 500MB of monthly traffic, and if you pay annually the price of the full version drops from $9.99 to $4.99 per month.
That attitude to the safety and privacy of personal data creates an enormous online security risk. Public Wi-Fi networks, which are ubiquitous and convenient, are unfortunately also highly convenient for attackers looking to compromise your personal information. How do you know, for example, that "starbucks_wifi_real" is actually the Wi-Fi network for the coffee shop? Anyone could have created that network, and they may have done so in order to lure victims into disclosing personal information over it. In fact, a popular security researcher prank is to create a network with the same name as a free, popular service and see how many devices will automatically connect because it appears safe.