Virtual Private Networks are one of the handiest bits of networking wizadry out there, allowing you to use public Wi-Fi with immunity, catch up on Call the Midwife whilst overseas, or even get around your work's anti-Giz filters. However, not all are created equal, so we've rounded up the best of the internet's many VPN offerings for your delectation.
To narrow down our five finalists (pre-selected on a mixture of peer reviews, price and availability), we compared services based on the following criteria:
- Speed: Since all your network traffic has to pass through the server of the VPN provider, your internet speed becomes entirely dependent on the VPN service once you're connected. Even in the best-case scenarios, you'll probably see a little slower download and upload speeds, and a slightly higher ping; worst-case, a VPN will slow your internet down to dial-up speeds.
To test this, we connected to our VPN competitors using Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections, on Mac and Windows PCs, using both a high-speed 100Mbps connection, and a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The average speed received from those tests was then calculated as a percentage of the non-VPN speed: the higher the percentage, the better. For example, getting 10Mbps when connected to the VPN over a 20Mbps connection would get a score of 50 per cent.
- Price: To get a true VPN service (rather than something like Hola Unblocker), with unlimited usage and a variety of geographical locations, you can expect to pay a tiny bit of cash. Our picks vary between £3 and £6 per month.
- Platforms: In our wonderful post-PC mobile-connected (insert further buzzwords here), much of your internet browsing's probably going to be done on something other than a laptop. As such, any VPN worth its salt should have availability on mobile devices, as well as PCs, Macs, and even game consoles.
- Locations: One of the more legally-dubious uses of VPNs is to get around geo-locked content: accessing iPlayer from outside the UK, for example, or getting your grubby mitts into the sweeter pickings of US Netflix. A good variety of servers is crucial here: UK and US locations are basically mandatory, and a side helping of other European and Asian locations is always handy.
- Ease of Set-Up: Finally, a good VPN is a silent VPN: it should be faster than a greased penguin on ice to set up, and more inconspicuous in use than Lady Chatterley's gamekeeper.
Private Internet Access gets solid peer reviews from around the internet, and for good reason: their service is fast, fairly cheap, and with an exhaustive list of compatible platforms.
However, set-up is a little fiddlier than it needs to be: the OS X client didn't work the first time around, and I had to contact customer support (*shiver*) to get things playing nice. Also, it would be nice if you could change the username and password from the default string of random characters to something actually-memorable.
- Price: £4.18
- Platforms: OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, DD-WRT, Tomato
- Speed: Average 51.66 per cent of non-VPN speed
- Locations: Multiple UK and US, and a handful of others, like Canada and Switzerland
A little more expensive than some of the other options, proXPN purports to offer a few fancy features, like the option to automatically close programs if the VPN connection drops, to ensure your privacy.
While the frills work (although I'm not convinced by how necessary they are), the set-up isn't the fastest or slickest around, and the speeds got through the VPN were quite variable -- sometimes, there would be barely any difference to the non-VPN speeds, other times iPlayer would slow to a crawl.
- Price: £6.01 per month
- Platforms: OS X, Windows, iOS, Android
- Speed: Average 54.31 per cent of non-VPN connection
- Locations: Multiple US and UK, other European and Asian
Boleh offers fantastic speed and a good array of options, but isn't quite as user-friendly as some other services. Although initial account creation and payment is straightforward, the Mac and PC clients come jammed full of configuration options -- not a bad thing, but one that might send a VPN newbie scurrying to the (pretty decent) help section of the website.
Mobile support is provided using the built-in iPhone or Android VPN options, rather than a dedicated app -- as such, the connection tends to be solid, but a little harder to set up. Also worth mentioning that mobile connections are basically limited to UK and US servers only.
Overall, a strong option if you like tinkering with network settings, or want stellar connection speed and are willing to pay towards the higher end for it.
- Price: £6.01
- Platforms: OS X, Windows, iOS, Android, DD-WRT routers
- Speed: 78.11 per cent of non-VPN connection
- Locations: Multiple US and UK (all platforms), other European and Asian (desktop only)
One of the biggest names in VPNs, Hotspot Shield's been around for absolutely yonks. Uniquely, it thrives mostly off its ad-supported VPN service; but for £3.00, you can get an ad-free version. That's cheaper than most other VPN services, but you don't lose too much: there's still Windows, OS X, iOS and Android apps, a choice of geographical locations, and decent speeds.
A few quibbles, however: HotSpot Shield, especially in free mode, is almost annoying enough to count and malware. During installation, if you're not paying attention, a bunch of browser add-ons will get installed, and your home page and search provider will almost definitely get changed under your nose. It's nothing that five minutes can't fix, but still irritating.
Overall, it's a good, simple, cheap option, but lacking a little in customisation, and certainly not with the sleekest or most un-intrusive user interface.
- Price: £3.00
- Platforms: OS X, Windows, iOS, Android
- Speed: 64.89 per cent of non-VPN connection
- Locations: US, UK and Australia
One final option, if you don't want to go with any commercial service, is to set up your own VPN. We've written a guide to doing this before; suffice to say it's not the simplest procedure in the world, but it's also probably not as hard as you think.
Advantages: the speed is generally better; you can tweak the settings to get around any work/university proxy servers or firewalls; and for the tinfoil-hatted among you, you can rest easy knowing that your VPN provider isn't spying on you.
Disadvantages: You only get a single geographical location, so you can't flip-flop between countries; you have to know your way around a Linux command line; and if things go wrong, you don't have a technical support desk to turn to.
- Price: £5.00
- Speed: 92.33 per cent of non-VPN speed
- Platforms: OS X, Windows, iOS, Android (via the OpenVPN app)
- Locations: Single server
(trial stats based off my own Virtual Private Server, hosted by UK2)
Truth be told, any of the above options work perfectly well, and as such, price is a pretty good separator. On that basis, Private Internet Access and HotSpot Shield are the cheapest services here. Personally, HotSpot Shield's in-your-face client (and incredibly intrusive ads, in the free version) put me off their service; but if all you're looking for is a quick, cheap fix of iPlayer from overseas, then HotSpot Shield's your best bet. Otherwise, Private Internet Access offers the full package for about a quid more.
If speed or customisation is your priority, though, I would still encourage looking at a DIY VPN server. Not only is it hands-down the fastest option here (as long as the server's quick enough), but you can endlessly customise the server to get around any and all firewalls. And, while it might be a little pricey on the surface, you can use your VPS for all manner of other stuff -- cloud backups or website hosting, for example.