VPNs Keep You Safe Online
Have you become so comfortable at the idea of transmitting your data via Wi-Fi that you no longer worry about the safety of that data—or about who else might be looking at it? You’re not alone. In fact, you’re undoubtedly in the majority. That attitude represents a huge privacy and security problem. Public Wi-Fi networks, which are commonplace and convenient, are unfortunately also highly convenient for attackers who are looking to compromise your personal information. When even your ISP is allowed to sell your browsing history it’s time to begin thinking about protecting your data. That’s where virtual private networks, or VPNs, come in.
These online services use simple software to protect your internet connection, and they give you greater control over how you appear online, too. While you might never have heard of VPN services, they are valuable tools that you should understand and use. So who needs a VPN? The short answer is that everyone does. Even Mac users can benefit from a VPN.
What Is a VPN?
In the simplest terms, a VPN is used to create a secure, encrypted connection—which can be thought of as a tunnel—between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service. In a professional setting, this tunnel makes you part of the company’s network, as if you were physically sitting in the office—hence the name.
While you’re connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
Think about it this way: If your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you are going, how long you are at your destination, and when you are coming back. They might even be able to peek inside your car and learn more about you. With a VPN service, you are essentially driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out, so that no one who was originally following you knows where you went.
Of course, it would be misleading to claim that any security product is a magic bullet. VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not foolproof. A determined adversary can almost always breach your defenses in one way or another. Using a VPN can’t help if you unwisely download ransomware on a visit to the Dark Web, or if you foolishly give up your data to a phishing attack. What a VPN can do is to protect you against mass data collection and the casual criminal vacuuming up user data for later use.
Who Needs a VPN?
The protection provided by a VPN offers users many advantages. First and foremost, it prevents anyone on the same network access point (or anywhere else) from intercepting your web traffic in a man-in-the-middle attack. This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks, such as web surfers at hotels, airports, and coffee shops. VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, making it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
Many VPN services also provide their own DNS resolution system. Think of DNS as a phone book that turns a text-based URL like “pcmag.com” into a numeric IP address that computers can understand. Savvy snoops can monitor DNS requests and track your movements online. Greedy attackers can also use DNS poisoning to direct you to bogus phishing pages designed to steal your data. When you use a VPN’s DNS system, it’s another layer of protection.
This is just common-sense security, but there are also people for whom a VPN is essential for personal and professional safety. Journalists and activists rely on VPN services to circumvent government censorship so they can safely communicate with the outside world. Of course, doing so may be against the law, depending on the country in which they’re located.
What about using a VPN for BitTorrent? Some services, such as TorGuard and NordVPN, allow peer-to-peer file sharing and the use of BitTorrent sharing. Others cancel your subscription if you use their servers for file sharing. Be smart: Learn the company’s terms of service—and the local laws on the subject. That way you can’t complain if you get caught.
It is also possible (emphasis on “possible”) that VPNs may be able to mitigate some of the effects of the net neutrality repeal. 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. That said, an obvious response would be to block or throttle all VPN traffic. We’ll have to see how this plays out.
How to Choose a VPN Service
The VPN services market has exploded in the past few years, and a small competition has turned into an all-out melee. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. In fact, since VPN services have become so popular in the wake of Congress killing ISP privacy rules, there have even been fake VPNs popping up, so be careful. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don’t just focus on price, though that is an important factor.
In fact, not all VPN services require that you pay. Several services we’ve listed here also have free VPN offerings. You tend to get what you pay for, as far as features and server locations go, but if your needs are basic, a free service can still keep you safe. TunnelBear, for example, offers a limited but serviceable free VPN.
Some VPN services provide a free trial, so take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you signed up for, and take advantage of money-back guarantees if you’re not. This is actually why we also recommend starting out with a short-term subscription—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a one-week Vacation subscription, for example. Yes, you may get a discount by signing up for a year, but that’s more money at stake should you realize the service doesn’t meet your performance needs.
Can You Trust Your VPN Service?
If you’re using a service to route all your internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. Established security companies, such as F-Secure, may have only recently come to the VPN market. It’s easier to trust companies that have been around a little longer, simply because their reputation is likely to be known. But companies and products can change quickly. Today’s slow VPN service that won’t let you cancel your subscription could be tomorrow’s poster child for excellence.
We’re not a cryptography experts, so we can’t verify all of the encryption claims providers make. we focus, instead, on the features provided. Bonus features like ad-blocking, firewalls, and kill switches that disconnect you from the web if your VPN connection drops, go a long way toward keeping you safe. We also prefer providers that use OpenVPN, since it’s a standard that’s superior to the older PPTP. It’s also, as the name implies, open source, meaning it benefits from many eyes looking for potential problems.
Most users want a full graphical user interface for managing their VPN connection and settings, though a few would rather download a configuration file and import it into the OpenVPN client. Most VPN companies we have reviewed support all levels of technological savvy, and the best have robust customer support for when things go sideways.
While a VPN can protect your privacy online, you might still want to take the additional step of avoiding paying for one using a credit card, for moral or security reasons. Several VPN services now accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and other alternate payment methods. In a few cases, VPN services may even accept retailer gift cards. That Starbucks gift card may be better spent on secure web browsing than a mediocre-at-best latte.
It’s also important to remember what a VPN can and cannot do. While it hides your IP address, it’s not a true anonymization service. For that, you’ll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers. IVPN offers a similar feature called multi-hop VPN, which lets you route your web traffic in tricky ways.
Lastly, keep in mind that some security conscious companies like banks may be confused by your VPN. If your bank sees you logging in from what appears to be another US state or even another country, it can raise red flags.
VPNs by the Numbers
Some important things to look for when shopping for a VPN are the number of licenses for simultaneous connections that come with your fee, the number of servers available, and the number of locations in which the company has servers. It all comes down to numbers.
Most VPN services allow you to connect up to five devices with a single account. Any service that offers fewer connections is outside the mainstream. Keep in mind that you’ll need to connect every device in your home individually to the VPN service, so just two or three licenses won’t be enough for the average cohabitating pair. Note that many VPN services offer native apps for both both Android and iOS, but that such devices count toward your total number of connections.
Of course, there are more than just phones and computers in a home. Game systems, tablets, and smart home devices such as light bulbs and fridges all need to connect to the internet. Many of these things can’t run VPN software on their own, nor can they be configured to connect to a VPN through their individual settings. In these cases, you may be better off configuring your router to connect with the VPN of your choice. By adding VPN protection to your router, you secure the traffic of every gadget connected to that router. And the router—and everything protected by it—uses just one of your licenses. Nearly all of the companies we have reviewed offer software for most consumer routers and even routers with preinstalled VPN software, making it even easier to add this level of protection.
When it comes to servers, more is always better. More servers mean that you’re less likely to be shunted into a VPN server that is already filled to the brim with other users. Private Internet Access currently leads the pack with well over 3,000 servers at its disposal. But the competition is beginning to heat up. Last year, only a handful of companies offered more than 500 servers, now it’s becoming unusual to find a company offering fewer than 1,000 servers.
The number and distribution of those servers is also important. The more places a VPN has to offer, the more options you have to spoof your location! More importantly, having numerous servers in diverse locales means that no matter where you go on Earth you’ll be able to find a nearby VPN server. The closer the VPN server, the better the speed and reliability of the connection it can offer you. Remember, you don’t need to connect to a far-flung VPN server in order to gain security benefits. For most purposes, a server down the street is as safe as one across the globe.
What’s the Fastest VPN?
We have often said that having to choose between security and convenience is a false dichotomy, but it is at least somewhat true in the case of VPN services. When a VPN is active, your web traffic is going through many more steps than normal and being bounced around in surprising ways. The end result is that your internet connection will likely be more sluggish than normal.
The good news is that using a VPN probably isn’t going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore. Most services provide perfectly adequate internet speed when in use, and can even handle streaming HD video. However, 4K video and other data-intensive tasks like gaming over a VPN are another story. Some VPN services, such as NordVPN, have started to roll out specialty servers for high-bandwidth activities. And nearly every service we have tested includes a tool to connect you with the fastest available network. Of course, you can always limit your VPN use to when you’re not on a trusted network.
In some very rare cases, VPN services can actually improve your internet performance. That was the case for PureVPN, IPVanish, and ExpressVPN in our testing. This is likely because these services have access to high-bandwidth infrastructure that your traffic is routed through when the service is active.
When we test VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.) This test provides metrics for latency, download speeds, and upload speeds. Any one of these can be an important measurement depending on your needs, but we tend to view the download speed as the most important. After all, we live in an age of digital consumption.
Using that measurement, PureVPN is the fastest VPN by far. It’s followed by the aptly named ExpressVPN and IPVanish VPN. But networks can be fickle things and your mileage may vary.
Can I Use a VPN for Netflix?
Borders still exist on the web. New, major-release films and television shows are often available on Netflix outside of the US yet only available for purchase via Amazon, iTunes, or on the Windows Store within the US. But if you were to select a VPN server in a country with rights to the show, your computer’s IP address would appear to be in that country, allowing you to view the content. Of course, you might find Netflix in other countries to be even more restrictive.
The trouble is that Netflix and similar streaming services are getting wise to the scam. In our testing, we found that Netflix blocks streaming more often than not when we were using a VPN. There are a few exceptions, but Netflix is actively working to protect its content deals. VPNs that work with Netflix today may not work tomorrow.
Netflix blocking paying customers might seem odd, but it’s all about regions and not people. Just because you paid for Netflix in one place does not mean you’re entitled to the content available on the same service but in a different location. Media distribution and rights are messy and complicated. You may or may not agree with the laws and terms of service surrounding media streaming, but you should definitely be aware that they exist and understand when you’re taking the risk of breaking them.
What’s the Best VPN For Kodi?
If you don’t know what Kodi is, you’re not alone. However, an analysis of searches leading to our site reveals that a surprising number of you are, in fact looking for VPN that works with the mysterious Kodi. Dictionary.com defines Kodi as a possible misspelling of “Jodi,” but PCMag analyst Ben Moore clarified for me that Kodi is “free, open-source software for managing your local collection of movies, television shows, music, and photos.”
With Kodi, you can access your media over a local connection (LAN) or from a remote media server, if that’s your thing. This is, presumably, where concerns about VPN enter the picture. A device using a VPN, for example, will have its connection encrypted on the local network. You might have trouble connecting to it. Using Chromecast on a VPN device just doesn’t work, for example. Kodi users might have the same issue.
For local VPN issues, you have a couple of options. First, consider installing VPN software on your router and not using a VPN on your local machines. Alternatively, many VPN services offer browser plug-ins that only encrypt your browser traffic. That’s not ideal from a security perspective, but it’s useful when all you need to secure is your browser information.
Some, but not all, VPN services will let you designate specific applications to be routed outside the encrypted tunnel. This means the traffic will be unencrypted, but also accessible locally.
If you’re trying to connect to a remote media source with Kodi, a VPN would likely play a different role. It might, for example, prevent your ISP from determining what you’re up to. It might also be useful if you’re connecting to a third-party service for Kodi that allows streaming of copyright infringing material. Keep in mind, however, that some VPN services specifically forbid the use of their services for copyright infringement.
VPN for Windows 10 and Beyond
When we test VPNs, we generally start with the Windows client. This is often the most complete review, covering several different platforms and the service’s features and pricing in depth. That’s purely out of necessity, since most of our readers use Windows. We currently use a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running the latest version of Windows 10. We periodically upgrade to a newer machine, in order to simulate what most users experience.
But as you can see from the chart at the top, however, Windows is not the only platform for VPNs. The Android mobile operating system, for example, is the most widely used OS on the planet. So it makes sense that we also test VPNs for Android.
That’s not to ignore Apple users. We also review VPN clients for macOS and iOS.
Using a VPN is a little trickier for ChromeOS users, however. While Google has worked to make it easier to use a VPN with a Chromebook or Chromebox, it’s not always a walk in the park. In these cases, you might find it easier to install a VPN plug-in for the Chrome browser. This will only secure some of your traffic, but it’s better than nothing.
Using a Mobile VPN
We used to advise people to do banking and other important business over their cellular connection when using a mobile device, since it is generally safer than connecting with a public Wi-Fi network. But even that isn’t always a safe bet. Researchers have demonstrated how a portable cell tower, such as a femtocell, can be used for malicious ends. The attack hinges on jamming the LTE and 3G bands, which are secured with strong encryption, and forcing devices to connect with a phony tower over the less-secure 2G band. Because the attacker controls the fake tower, he can carry out a man-in-the-middle attack.
Admittedly, this is an exotic attack, but it’s far from impossible. And Wi-Fi attacks are probably far more common than we’d like to believe. That’s why we recommend getting a VPN app for your mobile device to protect all your mobile communications. Even if you don’t have it on all the time, using a mobile VPN is a smart way to protect your personal information.
Most VPN services offer apps on both Android and iOS, saving you the trouble of configuring your phone’s VPN settings yourself. VPN providers typically allow up to five devices to be connected simultaneously under a single account. Also, while there are free VPN services available, many require that mobile users sign up for a paid subscription.
Not all mobile VPN apps are created equal. In fact, most VPN providers offer different services (and sometimes, different servers) for their mobile offerings than they do for their desktop counterparts. We’re pleased to see that NordVPN and Private Internet Access provide the same excellent selection of servers regardless of platform. These apps received an Editors’ Choice nod both for desktop VPN apps and Android VPN apps. KeepSolid and and NordVPN win when it comes to VPN apps for the iPhone.
One feature of note for Android users is that some VPN services also block online ads and trackers. While iPhone owners can use apps like 1Blocker to remove ads and trackers from Safari, ad blockers aren’t available on the Google Play store. But if you were to use Private Internet Access, ads would be a thing of the past.
If you’re of the iPhone persuasion, there are a few other caveats to consider for a mobile VPN. Some iPhone VPN apps don’t use OpenVPN, even if the VPN service that made the app supports the protocol. That’s because Apple requires additional vetting if a company wants to include OpenVPN with its app. VPN app developers have slowly started jumping through those extra hoops and are bringing support for protocols such as OpenVPN to iOS.
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.
Which VPN Is Right for You?
Computer and software providers work hard to make sure that the devices you buy are safe right out of the box. But they don’t provide everything you’ll need. Antivirus software, for example, consistently outperforms the built-in protections. In the same vein, VPN software lets you use the web and Wi-Fi with confidence that your information will remain secure. It’s critically important and often overlooked.
Even if you don’t use it every moment of every day, a VPN is a fundamental tool that everyone should have at their disposal—like a password manager or an online backup service. A VPN is also a service that will only become more important as our more of our devices become connected. So stay safe, and get a VPN.
Click through the review links of the best VPN services below for detailed analysis and performance results, and feel free to chime in on the comments section below them.