UPDATED: May 3, 2017
In our increasingly interconnected modern world we leave behind an “electronic footprint” that can reveal a startling amount of information about or personal lives, and in recent years many governments have been trying to expand what parts of this footprint have to be saved and make it easier for themselves or corporations to take a look. The implications of these policies along with the rising threat of identity theft and other online crimes means people have been turning to technology companies to provide a way of keeping their private lives, well, private. At first the push was simply towards making all internet traffic encrypted making it impossible (or at least extraordinarily difficult) to snoop on who said what to whom, but it was still possible to know who spoke to whom even if you couldn’t tell what was said. After the revelations of Edward Snowden, John Tye, and others there is widespread concern about just how much our everyday lives can be prodded and pried into just through this “metadata” without our knowledge or consent. Short of moving into a cave and living on nuts and berries the only real solution on a technological level is to use a VPN.
What is a VPN?
A VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is a way of securing your internet access that not only allows you to conceal the data you’re sending and receiving from prying eyes. It also masks your geographical location and not only makes it very difficult for anyone to see the contents of anything you view on the internet. It also makes it difficult to know even vaguely what it was in the first place – via a VPN even the most dedicated observer won’t be able to tell whether you were catching up with friends on Facebook, doing online banking, or admiring the endless stream of cat GIFs the internet has blessed us with.
While businesses, governments, and other similar entities have been using them for years, it was often complex and expensive to implement and was of little interest to most people. Now, though, increasing concerns about privacy and security amongst individuals has led to a rise in commercial VPN providers. Companies that offer a simple and transparent way for anyone with internet access to take advantage of the added security. And (as is often the case) the more options you have the harder it is to make a decision, so I’ll be taking a look at a few and weighing up the pros and cons of each to hep you decide on the best VPN software for your needs.
How Does a VPN Work?
The technical details of VPN operation are highly complex and way beyond the scope of this article, but the basic principle can be reasonably well explained through a slightly tortured analogy:
Let’s imagine you have a friend in a foreign country to whom you want to send a letter; a simple enough task, just pop it in an envelope, put a return address on it so that you can be sure it gets there, and stick it in the post. Now let’s imagine that, instead of a friend, you’re writing to an aunt concerning a deeply embarrassing personal problem. It’s such an embarrassing problem that you don’t want the postman even to know who you’re writing to, and you don’t even want the recipient to know who it’s from, but how do you do that yet still be able to send it and get a reply?
The solution, of course, is to involve a middle-man, someone you trust to be discreet. They send you a padlock and a key, and whenever you want to send a letter, you simply put it in an envelope addressed to the agony aunt of your choice, lock the envelope in a box using the padlock, and send that to the third party. When they receive the box, they unlock it using their copy of your key, take out the envelope inside, write their return address on it, and then deliver it to the destination through the normal post. When the agony aunt replies they simply send it back to the third party who then pops it back in your box and returns it to you. The only people who knew you sent a message and who you sent it to are you and the third party – everybody else knows only that the message existed, but its contents, origin, and destination are a mystery.
This, in a convoluted way, is how a VPN operates. Instead of directly connecting with web servers or other internet services, all your communications are encrypted and sent via a third party. Anyone intercepting your data on the way to your VPN provider won’t be able to read the contents because it’s “locked in a box”, and anyone intercepting data at the web server end (and even the web server itself) won’t know who’s actually doing the communicating.
All this technological magic does come at a cost, of course. Because your connection is now being wrapped up in extra layers of encryption and taking a detour through a server potentially located on the other side of the world, it will impact your connection speed. Basic download rates will be slower but still well within acceptable range, but latency (the amount of time it takes for your request for a web page to reach its destination, and then the time taken for the response to start coming back) will suffer quite badly – online gaming, in particular, can be difficult through a VPN.
Why Should I Use a VPN? I’ve Got Nothing to Hide, and Everything is Encrypted Anyway!
While it’s true that most websites now routinely encrypt information that’s only part of the puzzle. By simply knowing what sites you visit, where you visit them from, and at what times, a malicious attacker can build up a remarkably accurate picture of your life. – Where you work, where you live, your daily routine, even how you commute and where friends and family live can be deduced. This can be done without being able to access the content of any of your communications. This is particularly true now everyone has an always-on internet connection in their pocket. All an attacker has to do is sniff out when and where you connect to any website to effectively track your movements.
Security and privacy aside, there are other benefits to making use of a VPN service. Perhaps one of the most popular is to gain access to streaming video services from around the world. We’ve all tried to watch a YouTube video only to be told it’s not available in our geographical location. And many of us look on with jealousy at the content available on services like Netflix in other countries. So being able to fool these services into thinking we’re somewhere we’re not is a blessing. Students who study abroad, people who fly for business, or even people on holiday can use this feature to keep up with events back home by accessing “local” TV streaming. In fact, even people who live in countries where governments keep a tight grip of what people are allowed to see or read can use them to bypass restrictions. The best VPN services will allow you to select not only which country you’re appearing in, but even regions within a country.
One further advantage of using a VPN is that some ISPs may choose to “throttle” your connection
for various types of content – it cuts into their profit margins if you’re streaming HD video all day long – but a VPN masks not only the content of your connection but also what type of connection it is, making it difficult for your ISP to slow you down.
How to Choose a VPN
Choosing the best VPN service can be overwhelming, so I’ve picked out five of the leading contenders. They all offer broadly similar services, have software available for most computing and mobile platforms (at a minimum they all have software for Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, and iOS). And provide unlimited usage for paying customers, but they all have their own quirks, and some are better suited to purposes that others struggle with.
My testing methodology was somewhat unscientific. I simply installed each one, did a bit of light web surfing, watched some videos, downloaded a few files, and generally did what I normally do – but in my experience, no amount of artificial test metrics can really tell you what a thing is actually like in practice.
So, in no particular order, here are my contenders:
Installation is a breeze, and once the software is installed and you’ve logged in that’s pretty much all you need to do. Its default settings provide a good balance between security and speed so most users can probably log in and forget, but power users will find a reasonable range of options to tweak. It’s not going to win any prizes for its aesthetics, but the interface is functional if a little sparse.
Despite the high claimed server count, speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the exit country. As a general rule the closer they were to me the better they got but there were a few exceptions, and I was definitely aware that my network connection was going through an extra hurdle. They were all good enough to stream HD video from Netflix and YouTube, but 4K content may be pushing it, and large downloads can be tiresome. BitTorrent downloads can really suffer; port forwarding is only available for a handful of exit locations, none of which gave particularly impressive speeds.
PIA includes its own adblocking service, MACE, but I’d recommend you disable it and instead use something like AdBlock Plus in your browser instead – one or two web pages refused to load with it enabled, and as it doesn’t provide any per-site whitelisting it feels like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
PIA also provides support for DD-WRT router-level VPN access, but the configuration has to be done manually so it can be a little cumbersome. It works, but it’s not the most elegant solution.
Not so much a feature of the software, but if you’re a real stickler for privacy PIA offer a plethora of anonymous payment methods adding an extra layer of privacy to proceedings which felt like a nice touch.
One of the cheapest offerings in the roundup, PIA provides a robust no-frills experience. If you just do a bit of web browsing and YouTubing and don’t need anything, fancy PIA is a good budget option, but power users should perhaps look elsewhere.
Installation is simple, and once it’s installed and you’ve logged in you’re good to go. But beyond that, the interface is crude and unresponsive. Options for encryption methods are tied to particular exit points rather than configured through the software, sometimes the UI can take several seconds to respond to input, and it looks hideous.
Neither the fastest nor the slowest in the roundup; some connections felt sluggish, and latency was poor, but it managed reasonably reliable 4K streaming.
This is the only service in this roundup that gives you virtually unlimited BitTorrent usage – there are BT-specific exit points in a range of locations, and performance is good (unsurprising given that the Tor in its name comes from “Torrent”).
DD-WRT support is semi-automated; a script is provided that you can upload to your router, so you don’t need to tweak individual settings, but it needs some work.
As one of the more expensive services the sloppy software and lack of configuration options is a bit disappointing, but as one of the few VPNs that focus on P2P traffic, it’s well suited to that particular niche.
Installation and setup are simple, and the UI is a thing of beauty. You can manually configure pretty much every aspect of the software. But it also offers a “by purpose” option – simply select what you’re going to be doing (watching streaming services from a particular country or service, file sharing, removing regional blocks on sites, just regular ol’ web browsing, etc.) And it will automatically pick the best options based on speed, location, and encryption overhead.
I noticed minimal degradation in performance whilst running the software, most likely due to the way it optimizes settings based on usage. Latency took slightly more of a hit than raw speed, so it’s probably unsuitable for online gaming, but aside form that you’ll likely never notice it’s running.
DD-WRT support is as elegant as the desktop UI – there’s a purpose built applet that will run directly on the router, so even novices should have no problem getting it up and running.
A very polished, slick, and professional feeling product.
Download, install, log in, and you’re done. The UI is clean and simple but provides almost no configuration options beyond exit country and very little feedback as to what’s happening.
The worst latency of the lot, but maintained a decent speed. You may notice downloads take a little longer than usual, but whilst browsing the web or streaming video you shouldn’t notice it.
None. This is very much a no-frills package.
About as simple as a VPN can get which may either be a great selling point or a huge disadvantage depending on which direction you approach it. At nearly twice the price of the next most expensive, it’s hard to justify, but they do offer a free and unlimited browser-based version that’s worth investigating if you only need to protect your browsing habits.
Installation and initial setup is simple, and the UI offers advanced options for anyone who wants to tinker. On the downside, it does trigger Windows User Account Control warnings whenever you deactivate and reactivate it which can be irritating (and potentially alarming to novices).
In terms of latency and raw throughput, this is the fastest of the five. Latency may just about be suitable for gaming, and download speeds will be almost unaffected.
DD-WRT support is achieved manually, and BitTorrent usage is limited to using the Netherlands as your exit country.
Technically solid, but may have minor privacy concerns. While they don’t log what sites you visit they do keep detailed records of when you connect. Including, for how long, how much data you use, what exit points you choose, incoming and outgoing IP address. And other bits of metadata, so may be unsuitable if you want to be truly anonymous.
Because no product comparison would be complete without a table or graph, I’ve listed the key features below so you can compare at a glance.
Cost: This one is obvious. While many VPN providers offer a free service, this is often restricted in some way – they’ll perhaps limit the amount of data you can send, or restrict your choice of virtual locations. While the free options may be sufficient for casual use or for evaluating a service, premium offerings provide much more flexibility, so finding one that fits within your budget is obviously key: it doesn’t matter how good they are if you can’t afford them!
Number of exit countries: All the services have exit points in the US, UK, and mainland Europe, so most mainstream users should have their needs met, but if you have a particular need to appear in a specific country, then some services provide more options than others.
Number of servers: As the services become more popular and gain more users their infrastructure needs to grow – the larger the number of servers, the less likely you are to suffer from a slow connection.
Logs: If you want to remain anonymous then you want your VPN provider to keep as little information about you as possible.
P2P: If (for whatever purpose) you use BitTorrent you may also want to pass all your uploads and downloads through the VPN, but due to potential legal issues as well as the amount of raw data the service can consume not all VPNs support it, or will place some restrictions on its usage.
Router support: If, like me, you have dozens of devices on your home network – computers, smart TVs, games consoles, phones, tablets. Heck, even my lights are internet enabled – configuring them all to use a VPN can be at best time-consuming. And at worst impossible, so some VPN services offer the ability to use your router as a VPN access point meaning all devices that connect through it will automatically be protected. You may need to purchase a new router to take advantage of this, but it can provide extra peace of mind knowing that all your devices are safe without any additional work.
Roundup of the Roundup
So, after all that, which would I recommend? For my own personal purposes, PureVPN is head and shoulders above the rest. While all the others offer something unique, PureVPN is by far the most polished and consistent of the bunch. The service seems robust, the software is perfectly suited for beginners but offers enough depth for anyone who wants to get stuck in to the nitty gritty. And the ability to optimize your connection based on what you’re doing rather than trying to work out the best settings yourself is simple, elegant, and works pretty much flawlessly.
If it weren’t for the outrageous price difference, I’d give an honorable mention to ZenMate as it also felt like a more professional product than the others, but as it is, second place has to go to TorGuard. Despite the primitive software and slightly inflated price, it’s the only one that offers full BitTorrent support, so if that’s something that’s important to you it’s worth taking a look at.