Benny Har-Even tests out 13 of the best VPN services to find out which is the best
Over the past few years public awareness of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) has grown, but for many they are still a mystery. Traditionally, they were used by businesses to enable their employees to access a company’s internal network securely. Nowadays people use them for two main things: watching TV and privacy.
We all view catch-up TV video. Unfortunately, a lot of this is intended only to be watched in home territories. The BBC iPlayer and Sky Go, for example, are only meant to be viewed in the UK, and while Netflix is accessible around the globe, the content available varies across countries due to licensing restrictions.
This creates a problem as it means you can’t watch Bake Off when you’re abroad or access the second season of your favourite programme that’s on in the US but isn’t available over here. That’s pretty annoying, but is where a VPN can help.
How it works
A Virtual Private Network creates a private tunnel over the internet to a server. This can be located in the same country as you or located somewhere else. This means that, in theory, you can watch your favourite US show because that’s where it thinks you are. Crucially, all data traffic sent over the VPN is encrypted, so it cannot be intercepted.
To get started you’ll need to install some software on your PC, Mac or mobile device. Once you’ve logged in, choose a server in the location where you’d like to ‘virtually’ appear. You then just carry on as normal, safe in the knowledge that your activities are protected from prying eyes.
Free and paid-for services
You don’t have to pay for a service either as some are freely available, though these can have their drawbacks. They may, for example, be slow, unreliable or collect information about your web browsing habits. Furthermore, Netflix is now actively clamping down on VPNs both free and paid, so there’s no guarantee that they will work.
While you can try out a free service, we’d recommend going for a reasonably priced, paid-for VPN. These should perform better, be properly supported and your privacy will be protected thanks to the added security of an encrypted connection.
Protect your privacy
The story of activists such as Edward Snowden and Apple’s battle with the US government to unlock an iPhone, have raised the profile of the need for privacy. Your ISP will have records of all the websites you visit and if so ordered by the government could be compelled to hand over that information.
While you can try out a free service, we’d recommend going for a reasonably priced, paid-for VPN. These should perform better, and your privacy will be better protected
If you don’t like the sound of that using a VPN all the time makes sense.
Even if you are not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on a public Wi-Fi, you are exposing your browsing habits to anyone that is so inclined to snoop. And if you have ever conducted online banking over a public Wi-Fi network, you are really asking for trouble if you’re not going through a VPN.
Another use for VPNs is to bypass ISP restrictions such as line throttling when using peer-to-peer (P2P). By going via a VPN your ISP can’t tell what you’re doing and the throttling won’t kick in.
Selecting a service
If you’re concerned about privacy, it’s important to know where your VPN is based. In recent years some countries have got together to agree to exchange information freely, nominally in a bid to enhance everyone’s security. However, many groups are critical of this behaviour believing that mass surveillance impinges on our freedoms.
The countries that have agreed to exchange information are known as the Five Eyes: USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. (Read more about the alliance at tinyurl.com/mn5nwbu.) The concern from privacy groups is that a government could compel a VPN provider to supply information on its users through a court order. To avoid this you should choose a VPN provider that is based outside of one of these countries.
Additionally, many VPN providers have different levels of logging. Some choose to log connection time stamps, IP address and bandwidth used, while others choose to log nothing at all. Needless to say you have to trust the VPN provider that it isn’t monitoring your traffic, otherwise you are heading right into a privacy breach, instead of protecting yourself from one.
Some will also store basic payment information, such as your name and address. However, those looking for complete anonymity can seek a provider that accepts payment in the form of gift cards or Bitcoin, which makes it near-impossible to trace back to an individual.
Naturally, the cost varies between providers and you should look for value for money. Keep an eye out for special offers that pop up after you’ve been on sites for a while.
Most VPNs support all the major platforms but some offer more unusual platforms such as Kindle or Google Chrome. Also look out for restrictions on usage – some ban P2P, while others are fine with it. Freeand trial versions normally have speed restrictions, while paid-for versions should have none. Note that encryption can slow down connections. OpenVPN provides more protection, while PPTP is faster but less secure. You should be able to switch between them depending on need.
Also if you’re connecting to a server that’s geographically far away, you are less likely to get the full speed that your ISP provides. Look out for server speed claims and make sure that you conduct tests to check whether you are happy early on, so you can get a refund within the time limit if you’re not.