VPN (Virtual Private Network) works by creating an encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN server from a service provider (there are dozens of them to choose from).
Anything you do online – sites you’re visiting, emails you send or receive, files you download, web forms you complete – passes through that secure tunnel and can’t be intercepted by anyone else (unless one of these servers – or your own computer – is compromised, but that’s another story).
How to choose a VPN: Here are 6 tips
There are several factors to consider when you’re choosing a paid VPN.
1. Does the plan have servers in every country and region you need? Having more than one server in a country can help spread the load, but doesn’t guarantee improved performance, so don’t assume a plan with 500 servers will automatically beat another with 100.
2. Check the number of simultaneous connections supported. Typically, this is 3-5, which allows you to have a PC, mobile and tablet connected at the same time. But beware, many companies say this is for a single user only, and they all have fair usage policies to prevent people hogging resources. If you let the entire family download and stream videos separately then you’ll run into trouble.
3. Some providers list the connection protocols they use. OpenVPN and IKeV2 are good choices, fast and secure. You might see SSTP and the older PPTP, as well as protocol options (TCP or UDP for OpenVPN). You don’t need to understand the low-level details, but having the extra choice can help the service make faster and/or more reliable connections.
5. It’s important to consider the client, the software which handles your connections. These all have a list of servers and a Connect/ Disconnect button, but could you use more? Some clients display server load and ping time in the interface, helping you choose the right server. Regular users might appreciate a “Favourites” system to save and recall specific servers. If you know what you’re doing, having access to low-level network settings will help you tune the whole system.
6. Finally, there’s the price. Beware of apparently cheap deals: these may have restricted features, exclude taxes, be discounted for the first billing period only, and renew automatically, so that apparent one-off £3.99 might become almost £10 next month. Look for a ‘Pricing’ link, read the small print, and if possible use something like PayPal where it’s easy to check and cancel a subscription yourself.
Once you’ve found what looks like a good VPN candidate, be sure to take it for a trial before you spend any big money. But a short trial can only tell you so much, so once that’s expired, pay for a month, run as many tests as you can, then upgrade to a better value plan (usually yearly) if you’re still happy.
How to test a VPN
Our comparisons started by looking at each provider’s range of plans. We were looking for features, value, and clear and honest pricing. Free ways to learn more about a service – free plans, trial periods, refund periods – were important, and we also looked for companies which maintained your privacy when you signed up (no email address required, trials available without credit cards, Bitcoin available as a payment option).
VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables, but we used multiple techniques to try and get a feel for each service’s abilities. We first used speedtest.net to measure the latency, upload and download speeds for a distant connection (typically UK to California), repeated the test immediately with the VPN turned off, and looked at any changes.
We followed this up with a much shorter connection (typically UK to Netherlands) to see a more typical peak performance, ran a second benchmark to confirm our results, and ran some general browsing tests – including streaming HD video – to look for other problems.
VPNs will always give you a new IP address, but some services may have DNS or other leaks which give clues about your identity. We visited IPLeak.net and other privacy sites to look for problems.
In terms of the client and interface, we were looking for good server selection tools (by country, region, server, speed, with filters, a Favourites system, perhaps with server load or ping time displayed), with plenty of configuration options, but also a client which stays out of the way until it’s needed.
Finally, we weighed up these individual factors, came up with an overall score, and narrowed these down to the 10 best VPNs around. All the software in the top five scored at least 70 points out of 100.