- Number of servers/countries
- Simultaneous connections
- Free trials
- Cross-platform support
- Customer service
- Software usability
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Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were designed as a safe portal for remote users to access company and organization 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, 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 a VPN provider?
No two people are going to go shopping for a VPN for exactly the same purpose. One VPN user 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 an airport or hotel. Meanwhile, her brother works overseas in Dubai, but still wants to keep up with his favorite baseball team. He uses the VPN to access a server in the US so he can connect to a 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:
The heart of the matter for most VPN services is their ability to protect your data when you’re 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 encryption can be broken and lead to the possibility of compromised data.
Depending on what you need, VPN prices range from free to around $10 per month. If it’s security you’re after, then paying for the service is definitely the way to go. But, if you’re simply looking to access a video or website that’s not available in your country, a free VPN service could get you around that firewall.
Some people consider getting around geo-blocking a shady practice. 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 get caught out.
Privacy is a big deal for an overwhelming number of Internet users. Many VPNs offer to conceal information by not keeping records of where customers go and what they view online. If a VPN logs customer information, that should start ringing alarm bells.
Speed often sets good and bad VPNs apart. Less developed VPNs have fewer resources to improve browsing speeds, meaning the more users online, the slower the connections will run. More available resources generally leads to faster browsing speeds.
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 — more servers means more choices for users. Too many users on one server drains the bandwidth and slows the process for everyone.
If you’re 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 a must.
Free trials and money-back guarantees are typically two features of a good VPN. A company that offers one (or both) isn’t afraid to let its product speak for itself. This lets you take a risk-free test drive before committing to anything.
Having more than one Internet-capable device is the standard these days and we’d like to be able to protect our Android with the same VPN that we use for our Mac laptop. 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.
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 customize settings. VPNs that offer a mobile app can also make things easier when on the go.
Two highly recommended VPN services are TunnelBear and NordVPN. If you’re thinking of signing up for either, check out the details for each provider in the table below:
TunnelBear is an easy-to use platform that would be ideal for a user who’s trying to stream content that’s blocked in their part of the world — it even offers a free plan. If you require a VPN with a higher level of security and a slew of different features, NordVPN may be more suited towards your needs.
VPN software is a tool, and 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.
If 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 uncontrolled 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’ll often find that this option is also cheaper than a VPN. Keep in mind that while Smart DNS is often cheaper and faster than VPN, you’re sacrificing your security — premium VPN services will include a SmartDNS.
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 government, you do run the risk of having your VPN or streaming subscription cancelled.
There’s a small 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 we can’t tell you if or 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, we do not encourage internet browsing activity outside the law, we only aim to compare the services .
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 service 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.
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