It is possible for some background services to send information across that initial, unsecured connection before the VPN loads. To be fair, the risk is relatively minor for most usage profiles. If you're establishing a connection automatically to your corporate server, you will definitely want to check with your IT team about how they want you to set things up.
Take a step back and consider how much of your life is transmitted over the inherently insecure internet. Do you feel a creeping sense of dread? That's entirely reasonable, considering the forces arrayed against your privacy. One of the best ways to secure your data is to use a virtual private network (VPN), which also provides some control over how you're identified online.
Some VPNs are notoriously difficult to use — read our AirVPN review for an example — so those that offer a streamlined experience shouldn’t be overlooked. VPNs that exemplify good ease of use have a balance of power and usability, without sacrificing the core features that allow you to customize the experience. Read our TunnelBear review to see what oversimplified looks like.
Private Internet Access' client interfaces aren't as flashy or cutesy as some other services' software, but they're clear and simple enough for newbies to start right away. A toggle switch reveals all the settings a VPN expert would ever want to play with. You can also skip Private Internet Access' software and connect directly to the servers, or use a third-party OpenVPN client.
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Each internet request usually results in a whole series of communication events between multiple points. The way a VPN works is by encrypting those packets at the originating point, often hiding not only the data, but also the information about your originating IP address. The VPN software on your end then sends those packets to VPN server at some destination point, decrypting that information.
For the most part, VPN clients are the same for both Windows and macOS. But that's not always the case, and I have found marked performance differences depending on the platform. I have split out reviews of Mac VPN applications, in case you're more into fruit than windows. Note that you can skip client apps altogether and connect to the VPN service simply using your computer's network control panel. You'll still need to sign up with a VPN service, however.
Mullvad has a no-nonsense approach to pricing. Its service costs $5.60 per month and you can buy as much of it as you want at one time. There are no multi-year discounts or extras to add to your plan. The price is what it is. That makes Mullvad unusual among VPN providers and software companies in general, but what really sets it apart is its payment options.
Though Proxy.sh meets many of our basic requirements, in our tests the company’s Safejumper application had constant errors when trying to connect. Given that we were looking for a simple, reliable VPN, this was a dealbreaker. We also found a story from 2013 with bizarre statements from the company about monitoring traffic on a specific server due to concerns about unlawful behavior of a user on the network. Though the transparency is impressive, the decision to actively monitor traffic is disconcerting. In a response given to TorrentFreak at the time, the company stated, “The situation also shows that the only solution we have to help law enforcement agencies find problematic use across our network, is to clearly install a logging capacity on it. As a result, we are able to either comply or shut down the servers we have in a particular location (it happened to us in Czech Republic few months ago).”
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The main group of countries that can share information freely is called the Five Eyes. They come from the UKUSA agreement that, although began back in 1941, was only made public knowledge in 2005. The agreement is between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, hence the name Five Eyes. Those countries have agreed to collect, analyse and share information between each other, and much of this intelligence is believed to be related to internet activity these days.
In the UK, both HTTP and FTP downloads came in at around 9.5MB/s (76Mbit/s). Our FTP tests in the Netherlands were a zippy 10.6MB/s (84.8Mb/s) and HTTP downloads were a little slower, but still quick at 7.3MB/s (58.4Mb/s). Windscribe’s U.S. connection speeds were among the fastest we’ve seen at 6.9MB/s (55.2Mb/s) over FTP and 5.6MB/s (44.8Mb/s) via HTTP.
Websites using Google Analytics and various advertising networks can very well track and identify visitors based on a variety of different inputs with their browser (see browser fingerprinting). Therefore it’s best to use a VPN in conjunction with a secure browser configured for more privacy. See my guides: secure browser (an overview of different browsers) and also Firefox privacy, which deals with privacy configurations, tweaks, and add-ons.
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.
A recent FTC complaint alleges Hotspot Shield has been hijacking HTTP requests for e-commerce sites and directing users to affiliate sites instead. If true, that would be an unforgivable abuse of users’ trust. Hotspot Shield is already known for the shady practice of inserting tracking cookies and advertisements into users browsers whenever they use the service, which clearly defeats the purpose of using a VPN. Hotspot Shield is primarily a free service but also has a premium tier. We suggesting keeping your distance from both.
IVPN goes further than the other leading candidates we considered by being transparent about who runs the service and is responsible for your privacy. The company lists its core team on its website, and its small team has an online presence on a variety of platforms. In contrast, only one employee at ExpressVPN has a public face: VP of marketing Harold Li gave us detailed answers to questions about policies and internal security, but couldn’t tell us much about who else worked there. (We discuss ExpressVPN in more detail in the Competition section—that company was almost our top pick but for this issue.)
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote... See Full Bio
No one-size-fits-all VPN exists. Ambiguity in the standards and differences in feature sets from vendor to vendor make the decision process fairly complex. Several factors, including your organization size, privacy requirements, and user sophistication, determine which VPN solution might suit your needs. The right product and operational procedures can securely open your network borders, increasing worker productivity while still letting you sleep at night. If you keep in mind these considerations when purchasing a VPN solution and follow a few recommendations about how to securely run it, you can achieve the Private in your Virtual Private Network without pulling out your hair in the process.
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As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don't have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of "We don't keep any logs." It's also useful to know under what circumstances a VPN company will hand over information to law enforcement and what information it would have to provide if that should happen.
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 taking a more circuitous route than usual, often resulting in sluggish download and upload speeds as well as increased latency. The good news is that using a VPN probably isn't going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore.
Nokia, Cisco, Nortel, Lucent, and others offer dedicated VPN boxes, although standalone VPN concentrators are becoming less common. Most firewalls, routers, and network appliances—such as those by WatchGuard Technologies, SonicWALL, and NetScreen—provide some VPN functionality. For a good list of IPSec-certified VPN devices, go to http://www.icsalabs.com/html/communities/ipsec/certification/certified_products/index.shtml.
It's important to note that installing a VPN on one device will only protect that device. If you want your media streamer (say an Amazon Fire TV Stick) to use the VPN connection, you'll either need to try and install a VPN app on it, look for VPN settings where you can enter your account details, or install an app for your router that'll cover all devices connected to it. Find out more in our article on how to use a VPN with a Fire TV Stick.
The first runs in the VPN client app on your computer, so if the VPN connection fails while the VPN client app is running, that VPN client app can turn off the computer or mobile device's internet connection. However, if your VPN connection has failed because the VPN client app itself crashed, then the kill switch may not work, and your IP and data may leak onto the internet.
Natively on your operating system with the built-in VPN functionality (no apps required). Many operating systems natively support VPNs: Windows, Mac OS, Android, and iOS. To use this you will need to import your VPN’s configuration files onto your device. This will use the IPSec/IKEv2 or IPSec/L2TP protocols, rather than OpenVPN, since OpenVPN can only be used through apps. (PPTP is also sometimes supported, but this VPN protocol is not recommended due to security vulnerabilities.)
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.
Below we conducted a WebRTC Test from Browser Leaks on the provider. The process involved connecting to a server in the UK. PureVPN managed to cloak your identity quite successfully! As you can see, there are no signs of any leakages in the test. The VPN successfully manages to hide your local IP address and IPv6 address, revealing only the public IP address, which is that of a UK location.
Tip for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera users: A feature called WebRTC can, in some Web browsers, inadvertently cause your true IP address to leak out even when you’re connected via a great VPN. WebRTC assists with peer-to-peer connections, such as for video chatting, but could be exploited in some cases. You can manually disable this function in Firefox, or use an extension to block most instances of it in Chrome or Opera. For more details and instructions, check out Restore Privacy.
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.
Trusting a VPN is a hard choice, but IVPN’s transparency goes a long way toward proving that its customers’ privacy is a priority. Founder and CEO Nick Pestell answered all our questions about the company’s internal security, and even described the tools the company used to limit and track access to secure servers. The top VPN services gave us a variety of answers to these questions, some of which were frustratingly vague. ExpressVPN was the only other company to outline these controls and assure us that these policies were well-documented and not half-practiced.
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.
Since we're living in a connected world, security and privacy are critical to ensure our personal safety from nefarious hacks. From online banking to communicating with coworkers on a daily basis, we're now frequently transferring data on our computers and smartphones. It's extremely important to find ways of securing our digital life and for this reason, VPNs have become increasingly common.