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September 11, 2017

Worried about your online privacy? We tested the best VPN services

by John_A

Congress’ decision to repeal internet protections has many Americans worried about their digital privacy. A Virtual Private Network — or VPN for short — allows you to safely send information when using public networks via a group of networked computers and faraway servers. Not all VPNs are the same, however, so we took some time to find the best VPN services.

VPNs have seen hectic growth in the past years as many competitors have entered the market, and VPN services have begun to converge with general privacy and unblocking services. That’s good news for you because it means you get more features at lower prices. That being said, signing up for free VPN services — especially those dedicated to mobile apps — can be risky business. Know that all “free” services are making money off of you somehow, whether it be from advertisements or something less innocuous.

As you’re considering which VPN service is the best choice for you, there are a few characteristics that you’ll want to consider. Here’s a short list of the most important factors that can impact your VPN experience:

  • Cost: VPN services range from free and ad-supported, to very expensive.
  • Client support: VPN services use underlying technologies, such as VPN protocols, that exist on today’s computing platforms. Some VPN services require users to configure their PCs manually, while others provide configuration scripts. Some of the more established VPN services provide clients that not only configure a PC but also allow the VPN connection to be turned on an off. That’s a real convenience.
  • Number of servers: More servers is usually better, since it’s often a sign of a more reliable VPN, and it’s more likely you’ll find one with a fast connection.
  • Server locations: The more distributed a VPN service, the less likely it is to be affected by local issues, ranging from politics to natural catastrophes.
  • Number of simultaneous connections: If you use multiple systems at a time, you’ll want to make sure your VPN service supports enough simultaneous connections to handle them all.
  • Features: Finally, which features are supported varies from service to service, and you’ll want to make sure your most important features are covered.

We’ve scoured the web for reviews, testimonials, and statistics on which are the best VPN choices. Then, we tried out the services for ourselves, taking notes on ease-of-use and testing network speeds. Keeping all of these factors in mind, these are the services that stood out.

Private Internet Access ($7 a month, or $40 annually)

If the happy family on the homepage isn’t enough to convince you, maybe the fact that it’s one of the most reliable VPN services on the market is. Private Internet Access does everything you could want from a good VPN — hides your IP address, protects your information, and scrambles your browsing activity using a variety of encryption methods.

Moreover, the service makes use of built-in VPN technology on your PC, meaning you don’t have to install any apps to get started. You can quickly set up protection without taking up space on your hard drive, and the service is available on nearly every mobile device and desktop platform in your inventory.

The program creates a tunnel that works at the network interface level of your PC, filtering all of your information and browsing history through an encrypted space. The service is incredibly quick, regardless if you’re connecting to a server overseas or within your region, and the customer support and technical assistance is nigh unparalleled in the field.

We tested Private Internet Services using its Windows installer, which configures the VPN protocols and provides a simple utility in the task bar to turn the VPN connection on and off. While the interface was spartan, performance was excellent. Our test system consistently maintained over 110 Mb/s download and 19 Mb/s upload speeds with the VPN connection turned on, very close to our usual 125 Mb/s download and 20 Mb/s upload speeds.

On the downside, Netflix complained about a proxy and Amazon Prime Video wouldn’t play due to a geographical restriction. These errors occurred whether we used the automatic setting or selected a local U.S.-based server.

  • Cost: $6.95 on a monthly basis, $3.33/month with an annual subscription, $5.99/month with a six-month subscription
  • Number of servers: 3,272
  • Number of server locations: 25 countries
  • Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Unix/Linux, iOS, Android
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 5

Download now for:

Windows MacOS Linux iOS Android

TorGuard ($10 a month for VPN, varies for other plans)

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

With a name like TorGuard, the software better offer strong protection. The software’s hallmarks lie in its ability to connect to a melange of services for different activities, with four different packages available based on various needs. The VPN service will run you $10 each month, but there’s a cheaper proxy service if all you need to do is hide your IP address from the world.

Like most VPN services, the program will prevent websites from viewing your personal IP address, thus preventing others from identifying you or your geographic location. From offshore email to unlimited server switching between over 3,000 servers across the globe, TorGuard offers some pretty impressive scaling. Skilled geeks and professionals alike should take a look at the service, along with the discount bundles that come packaged with hardware.

The TorGuard Windows client was easy to install and made quick work of connecting to a VPN server, including the ability to choose a server location prior to connecting. The internet speed on our test system dropped from our usual 125 Mb/s download to 53 Mb/s, and our upload ran at 17 Mb/s compared to our usual 20 Mb/s. That’s not the best performance in our testing, but all internet services that we tested worked without a hitch, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

  • Cost: $5.95/month for anonymous proxy; $9.99/month for anonymous VPN; $6.95/month for anonymous email; $11.54/month for privacy bundle
  • Number of servers: 3,000+
  • Number of server locations: 50+ countries
  • Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 5

Download now for:

Windows MacOS Linux iOS Android

VyprVPN ($7 to $9 a month, or $60 to $80 annually)

VyprVPN offers a full-service solution that’s divided into basic and premier packages. The company’s Chameleon technology utilizes an unmodified, open VPN protocol to scramble your metadata, preventing VPN blocking and unwanted throttling known to slow your streaming speeds when using popular services like Netflix. VyprVPN was created by Golden Frog, which was founded in response to NSA surveillance of AT&T’s network from the “infamous Room 641a” in San Francisco.

Golden Frog even owns and manages its own VPN servers, instead of having a third-party host its servers, ensuring reliable speeds and quick maintenance should a server go down. This also means that your privacy is guaranteed, at least as far as Golden Frog is concerned.

You can have up to five simultaneous connections with VyprVPN, so it’s suitable for both families and small businesses. There are no price hikes based on data usage, and nearly every platform is supported, including routers, Blackberry devices, TVs, and Linux hardware. The service has been expanded in recent years, and now boasts more than 700 servers across 70 locations in six continents. There’s even a 3-day free trial so you can decide if Vypr works for you.

Installing the VyprVPN client is easy and straightforward, as is connecting to a VPN server. We found that our connection speed through the VyprVPN server dropped from our usual 125 Mb/s upload to around 85 Mb/s, and from 20 Mb/s download to 17 Mb/s. In practice, as with the other services, we could tell no difference when VyprVPN was enabled, and both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video played without issue in our testing.

  • Cost: $5.00/month billed annually ($10/month billed monthly) for basic service; $6.67/month billed annually ($12.95/month billed monthly) for premium service
  • Number of servers: 700+
  • Number of server locations: 70+ countries
  • Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Router, QNAP, Blackphone, TV
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 3 in the basic plan, up to 5 in the unlimited plan

Download now for:

Windows MacOS TV Blackphone

QNAP Router  iOS  Android

NordVPN ($6 to $8 a month)

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

With double, 2048-bit SSL encryption, it’s easy to see that NordVPN values your privacy. But the company has also worked hard to build up its server network to include 1089 server locations in 61 countries around the world. The service also comes with a variety of security tools for encrypted chat and proxy extensions, and you can use up to six devices simultaneously, which is higher than many companies are willing to go.

The theme running throughout this service is personal security. From protected DNS queries to automatic kill switches, NordVPN wants you to know that your information won’t fall into the wrong hands. It makes sense, then, that the company also accepts Bitcoin for payments. The company has recently improved its platform support, adding in iOS and Android and thus overcoming its one weakness.

The NordVPN client provided one of the most attractive interfaces, and connecting to a VPN server was straightforward and very quick. We found performance to be somewhat spotty, however, with our fastest connection running at 53 Mb/s down and 26 Mb/s up, compared to 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s with the VPN connection turned off. We did have an issue connecting to Netflix, but Amazon Prime Video ran without issue. Our other internet tests went without a hitch.

  • Cost: $3.29/month with a 2-year agreement; $11.95/month when billed monthly; $7/month when billed every six months; $5.57/month when billed annually
  • Number of servers: 1,089
  • Number of server locations: 61
  • Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 6

Download now for:

Windows MacOS iOS  Android

ExpressVPN ($13 a month, or $100 annually)

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

ExpressVPN’s “#1 Trusted Leader in VPN” claim may be a bit difficult to prove, but the service offers a compelling list of features nonetheless. It also constantly tries to make consistent improvements in speed and simultaneous streaming capabilities, and with support for all major platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, Android, etc.), you won’t need to worry about compatibility. ExpressVPN shows up on a number of “best VPN” lists, and so its relatively high prices are justified.

With a presence in 145 locations across 94 countries, you also won’t need to worry about international travel. Furthermore, the more than 1,000 servers are all well placed throughout common travel destinations and urban centers. Any package will land you unlimited bandwidth and speed, a guaranteed 99.9-percent uptime, and 24-hour customer service. With so many guaranteed features, it’s no wonder this vendor is considered among the best — although make note that ExpressVPN only support up to three simultaneous connections, which is the least of the services on our list.

Setting up ExpressVPN and connecting to a VPN server was easy enough. Performance, when connected to the VPN server, was average at 49 Mb/s down and 16 Mb/s up, compared to our usual speeds of 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up. Netflix complained about a proxy being in use when we used the automatic configuration option, but it worked fine when we manually selected a local U.S. server. Amazon Prime Video played just fine, and our other internet tests completed without issue.

  • Cost: $8.32/month when billed annually; $9.99/month when billed every six months; $12.95/month when billed monthly
  • Number of servers: 1,000
  • Number of server locations: 145 locations across 94 countries
  • Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Blackberry, router
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 3

Download now for:

Windows MacOS Linux Blackberry

Router iOS  Android

ProtonVPN (Limited free client, from $48 to $288 a year)

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

ProtonVPN is one of the newest VPN services, and it boasts some star-studded founding members. The company was founded at CERN, the birthplace of the internet, and grew out of the ProtonMAIL service that’s been protecting the email of activists and journalists for years. The service acts as a Swiss company and is thus free from the laws of the U.S. and the European Union and isn’t a member of the “fourteen eyes surveillance network,” and user traffic isn’t logged and passes through privacy-friendly countries and thus you needn’t worry about your true IP address being revealed.

At the same time, the service is still growing, and currently only boasts 112 servers in 14 countries and a 155 Gbps capacity. Therfore, ProtonVPN might not offer the same level of performance as some of the other VPN services on our list. The ProtonVPN team has constructed a very secure network with 2048-bit encryption and support for Perfect Forward Secrecy, which means that encrypted information will remain secure even if later sessions are compromised.

ProtonVPN is a bit pricey, but only the most expensive OpenVPN protocol is used, not the less costly to operate PPTP and L2TP/IPSec protocols. On the other hand, ProtonVPN has only managed to create a Windows client to this point. If you’re using a MacOS or Linux machine, or want to access ProtonVPN’s service on your iOS or Android device, then you’ll have to set things up manually. One benefit is that there’s a free plan that you can use to try out the service, which is limited to three countries, one device, and low speeds, and prices go up from there.

Installing and configuring ProtonVPN’s Windows client was simple enough and it provided some of the best in-use statistics. Performance was at the lower end of our comparison group at 39 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up, compared to our usual 125 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up. Netflix was blocked, but Amazon Prime Video and our other test services connected without a hitch.

  • Cost: $5/month when billed annually for the Basic plan (two devices and high speeds); $8/month when billed annually for the Plus plan (five devices and the highest speeds and access to Secure Core and Tor Servers); $25/month when billed annually for the Visionary plan (10 devices , the highest speeds, access to Secure Core and Tor Servers, and ProtonMail)
  • Number of servers: 112
  • Number of server locations: 14 countries
  • Clients supported: Windows
  • Number of simultaneous connections: Depends on plan

Download now for:

Windows




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