Speed-wise, Avast SecureLine did well in our European speed tests, with us recording over 9.83MB/s (78.64Mbit/s) in our file transfer tests to the Netherlands. Its US performance was a little below average but still decent at 3.22MB/s (25.76Mbit/s), although UK performance was a bit slower than in our last round of tests, at 6.5MB/s (52Mbit/s) via FTP and 5.8MB/s (46.4Mbit/s) for an HTTP download.
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IVPN also performed well in our speed tests. Though it wasn’t always the fastest in the 54 measurements we took on each service, it ranked near the top on many servers at different times of the week—especially compared with the most trustworthy services. Private Internet Access, one of the most visible, privacy-focused VPNs, had slower speeds when connecting to most servers and less reliable connections than IVPN. For US servers (which we expected to be the fastest locations since we tested from California), IVPN ranked behind only OVPN and TorGuard. We liked OVPN—especially its speed results—but we thought that company’s small team and small selection of servers and locations were too limiting for some people. (Read more in the Competition section.) Though TorGuard edged out IVPN in this test, the difference wasn’t big enough to affect our everyday browsing. And because we tested each application at its default settings, TorGuard’s faster speeds were partially thanks to its default 128-bit encryption; IVPN offers only more secure, but often slower, 256-bit encryption.
When we test VPNs, we generally start with the Windows client. This is often the most complete review, covering several different platforms as well as the service's features and pricing in depth. That's purely out of necessity, since most of our readers use Windows (although this writer is currently using a MacBook Air). 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.
The only downsides to Private Internet Access are that you can't select your own username — you've got to stick with an assigned random ID — and that you've occasionally got to reinstall a balky driver in Windows. (There's a button to do this.) Selecting Private Internet Access as our VPN service of choice was almost a no-brainer, but because it's based in the U.S., anyone wary of the FBI may want to consider another service.
If HTTP browsing is a postcard that anyone can read as it travels along, HTTPS (HTTP Secure) is a sealed letter that gives up only where it’s going. For example, before Wirecutter implemented HTTPS, your traffic could reveal the exact page you visited (such as https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-portable-vaporizer/) and its content to the owner of the Wi-Fi network, your network administrator, or your ISP. But if you visit that same page today—our website now uses HTTPS—those parties would see only the domain (https://thewirecutter.com). The downside is that HTTPS has to be implemented by the website operator. Sites that deal with banking or shopping have been using these types of secure connections for a long time to protect financial data, and in the past few years, many major news and information sites, including Wirecutter and the site of our parent company, The New York Times, have implemented it as well.
VPNs are completely legal, generally. However, different countries around the world may have exclusive laws which may place restrictions on using VPN service. For instance, those located in China, Russia, and Iran, Oman, can only use government-approved VPN services. In the UAE, anyone caught using a fraudulent IP address could face imprisonment or fines up to $400,000. Other countries were VPNs are completely banned include Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Belarus, and North Korea!
However, you've got no choice but to run TunnelBear's client software (unless you use Linux), which may concern some privacy-minded users, and there's no option to set up TunnelBear connections on routers or other devices. Last but not least, this tiny Canadian firm is now owned by U.S. antivirus giant McAfee, which may mean TunnelBear is subject to U.S. search warrants.
That attitude to the safety and privacy of personal data creates an enormous risk when it comes to online security. Public Wi-Fi networks, which are ubiquitous and convenient, are unfortunately also extremely convenient for attackers who are looking to compromise your personal information. How do you know, for example, that "starbucks_wifi_real" is actually the Wi-Fi network for the coffee shop? Anyone could have created that network, to lure victims into disclosing personal information. In fact, a popular security researcher prank is to create a network with the same name as a free, popular service and see how many devices will automatically connect because it appears safe.
If you’re just getting started with VPNs and want a basic VPN for using on public Wi-Fi hotspots or accessing region-restricted websites, there are a few good, simple options. We like ExpressVPN because they have great speeds and a lot more functionality than average including clients for almost any device—you can even get a router pre-installed with their VPN client.
The heart of the security a VPN provides is its encryption keys—the unique secret that all your VPN devices share. If the keys are too short, VPN data is susceptible to brute-force cracking. You can often choose the key length to use in your VPN implementation. The longer you make keys, the harder they are to break, but the trade-off is that longer keys also require more processor power for encryption and might slow packet throughput. The minimum recommended key length now is 64 bits (128 bits, if possible) for the symmetric ciphers that encrypt the data and 2048 bits for public key cryptography such as RSA. Modern desktop computers can often crack 40-bit and shorter keys, such as those that DES uses.
To be fair, not all pay VPN services are legitimate, either. It's important to be careful who you choose. Over on ZDNet's sister site, CNET, I've put together an always up-to-date directory of quality VPN providers. To be fair, some are better than others (and that's reflected in their ratings). But all are legitimate companies that provide quality service.
The testing/analyzing process for CyberGhost took us a good one and a half days. This made us realize the provider is a great choice for unblocking websites! Based in Romania, CyberGhost VPN offers great diversity to its user base. It recently introduced the new CyberGhost 6-user interface on its Mac and Windows dedicated apps. This grants for better user-friendliness, which works in favor of the provider.
NordVPN holds the number one spot considering all of its features combined in a VPN that works at an excellent level. Regarding security, NordVPN has a proven DNS leak protection, including the IPv4, IPv6 and WebRTC address protocols, as well as mobile protocols such as IKEv2. In addition, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec and OpenVPN are also used to ensure the most secure and up-to-date protection service. Double layer encryption is employed in the tunnels which NordVPN hosts, which is nearly impossible to break, even if super computers are working non-stop for years trying to decipher it. In the event that someone sniffs some of the traffic, it will still be encrypted, so NordVPN has set the bar high for the most secure VPN requirements.
My rule of thumb is to use a domestic VPN and connect to servers as close to my location as possible. That said, I have had good nights and bad nights getting online. In my recent trip, I found most hotels' networks to become unusable after about 9pm. My theory is that many of the guests were watching Netflix at that time, completely clogging the hotels' pipes.
Tunnel endpoints must be authenticated before secure VPN tunnels can be established. User-created remote-access VPNs may use passwords, biometrics, two-factor authentication or other cryptographic methods. Network-to-network tunnels often use passwords or digital certificates. They permanently store the key to allow the tunnel to establish automatically, without intervention from the administrator.