There are hundreds of VPN providers vying for your business so follow this must-read guide to choose the one that's best for you.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were designed as a safe portal for remote users to access company and organisation networks. But the potential for this technology was boundless, and consumer VPNs that offer a variety of services soon followed. With so many out there, it’s not easy to choose, and you don’t want to get caught paying for something that doesn’t meet your needs.
So, what do you need to look out for when choosing the VPN provider that will suit you best?
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Things to look out for when choosing a VPN
No two people are going to go shopping for a VPN for exactly the same purpose. One might be a businesswoman who travels frequently and wants to work on the go, so she needs a VPN to guard her corporate information when she’s working at the airport or at a hotel. Meanwhile, her brother took a job overseas in Dubai, but still wants to keep up with his favourite footy team. He uses the VPN to access a server in Australia so he can connect to the website that broadcasts games. The important thing to understand is that what’s “best” for one user may not be for another, so it’s important to consider which features matter most to you.
Here’s a look at some of the most important characteristics to research when choosing a VPN:
- Number of servers/countries
- Simultaneous connections
- Free trials
- Cross-platform support
- Customer service
- Software usability
The heart of the matter for most VPN services is their ability to protect your data when you are accessing the Internet. Data that travels by VPN is encrypted to keep outsiders from being able to access it. The higher the number of levels of encryption, the less likely it is that encryption can be broken and the data within compromised.
VPN pricing ranges from free to around $10 per month, depending on what you need. If it’s security you’re after, then paying for the service is definitely the way to go – it’s rare that you can rely on a free service to provide the same amount and quality of security protocols that a paid service would. But, if you’re simply looking to access a video or website that’s not available in your country (eg, watching sports highlights while abroad), a free VPN service could get you around that firewall without any obligation to continue the service. Keep in mind, however, that circumventing geo-blocking is sometimes considered a shady practice, and while you’re not likely to land yourself in hot water right now, that could change down the line, and a free service may not have your back if you do get caught out.
Privacy is a big deal for an overwhelming number of Internet users. Where they go and what they view online is information they don’t want shared with other people. Many VPNs offer to conceal this information by not keeping records, or logs of these exact things for their customers. If a VPN does not mention it doesn’t keep logs as part of its package, that should start ringing alarm bells.
Speed often sets good and bad VPNs apart. Less developed VPNs have fewer resources to improve browsing speeds, and the more users online, the slower the connections will run. The more resources available, the faster the browsing speeds you can expect to have access to.
Number of servers/countries
The more servers a VPN has and the more countries it places servers in, the more efficiently it will run. When you travel, the aim is to connect to a reliable VPN server as close to your location as possible in order to keep the response time low. And more servers means more choices for users. Too many users on one server drains the bandwidth and slows the process for everyone.
Number of simultaneous connections
If you are running a small business, have a large household, or just want to be able to connect on your desktop and mobile at the same time, being able to use several simultaneous connections is key.
Free trials and money-back guarantees
Free trials and money-back guarantees are two of the best litmus tests of a good VPN. A company that offers one (or both) isn’t afraid to let its product speak for itself, and let you take a risk-free test drive before committing to anything.
Having more than one Internet-capable device is the standard rather than the exception these days and we’d like to be able to protect our Android with the same VPN that we use for our laptop or our Mac. There are a handful of VPNs that have the capability of providing their services for any device. If you use more than one operating system, this should be a priority.
Navigating the world of VPNs can be a tricky, especially when servers are continually up and down and companies like Netflix are constantly developing new ways to geo-block streamers. A good VPN has a dedicated customer support team dedicated to helping its users get help quickly.
Sometimes, the biggest determinant of which VPN to choose is simple: Is it easy to use? For people who are only using VPN software on occasion, being able to simply launch a program is far more important than the option to manually configure and customise settings. VPNs that offer a mobile app can also make things easier when on the go.
What will you be using your VPN for?
VPN software is a tool, and like any other tool, the one you choose should be determined by what you need to use it for. If you have to cut down a 5-foot tree once a year, you buy an axe. If you’re cutting down a 20-footer every week, you invest in a chainsaw.
Are you trying to watch globally-restricted content?
If you’re not a stickler for security (if you’re an Australian resident, you might want to reconsider that), and you simply want to watch content that isn’t available in your country, then a SmartDNS service might be for you. SmartDNS is similar to VPN in the sense that they both mask your Internet Protocol (IP) address, giving you unbridled access to the world wide web. However, because Smart DNS only reroutes certain portions of your traffic through its server, you’ll often find that streaming video through a SmartDNS is smoother and faster than when using a VPN.
Because Smart DNS providers offer a stripped back service, you will often find that this option is also cheaper than a VPN service. But, keep in mind that, while Smart DNS is often cheaper and faster than VPN, you are sacrificing significant improvements to your security, and many premium VPN services offer an included SmartDNS and widespread server locations that help speed up your connection.
Is using a VPN to access geographically restricted content legal?
There are many legitimate uses for a VPN. However, the legality of using one to access geographically restricted content is a bit of a grey area. While you're not likely to attract the attention of the Australian Government, you do run the risk of having your VPN or streaming subscription cancelled. There is also the chance that a copyright holder may want to pursue legal action if you're found to be accessing that content in an unlicensed region. Keep in mind that the very nature of a VPN masks your IP and prevents your online activity, so it's not for us to say if and how the copyright holders would be able to identify you if you do choose to access their content without the proper licensing. Here at finder.com.au, we do not encourage internet browsing activity outside the law, we only aim to compare the services available to Australians.
Will you be torrenting, P2P or file sharing?
If you plan to torrent using a VPN, you need to find out if it’s permitted by the VPN service you’re considering. Many VPNs will automatically detect when torrenting software is being used and block it, possibly even cancelling your membership or banning you from their tool in the process. Make sure and check the fine print of any VPN you buy or trial to determine its stance on file sharing, P2P or torrenting.