While the choice to use VPN is an easy one for anyone who values their on-line privacy, many many other people are also coming to the same conclusion, and a plethora of VPN providers have sprung up to meet this growing demand.
When reviewing these services, one thing becomes very quickly clear: they are not all created equal. Given that they are all offering what is basically a very similar service, we are constantly surprised by how much variation in terms of both features and services there are on offer.
While our reviews goes into quite some depth about the pros and cons of each VPN provider we have looked at, we thought it would be useful to consider the various factors you should be thinking about when choosing which one is right for you.
We have also put them into roughly the order that we feel is most important, although this will vary depending on your particular needs. If watching Hulu from outside the United States is a major priority for you for example, but you never download torrents then, then you adjust the list accordingly.
1. Keeping logs
Given that the primary purpose of VPN’s is to provide their users with anonymity on the internet, we consider that not keeping of logs of users online activities is an essential aspect of the service.
If logs are kept then any VPN provider in the world can be forced to hand them over to the local authorities (and many have been known to put up very little resistance in this regard). The only way that a VPN provider can in complete honesty guarantee its clients’ anonymity, is if no records are kept. In this way, in the event of receiving a subpoena or court order to hand over details, or even if its servers are confiscated (it has happened), the VPN provider will be unable to compromise its users.
2. Other Commitments to Users’ Privacy
While keeping no logs of users’ online activities is the most important security factor, it is worth paying attention to other areas regarding a VPN provider’s attitude to privacy.
- Ideally we like to see companies that accept anonymous Bitcoin payment and disposable email addresses. In this way, should they wish it, clients can remain as close to 100% anonymous as possible. Even if such measures seem too extreme for most users, we regard acceptance of them as a good indicator of the VPN’s commitment to privacy
- What happens to the details they do take? Some companies destroy payment and billing details as soon as the transaction is complete, assigning a random anonymous (and therefore untraceable) user ID for account management purposes. Others on the other hand keep all billing information on file, and may even use it for promotional purposes
- How much information is asked for during registration? Many VPNs are happy with an email address and basic payment details, while others ask for full address and telephone details. We think it goes without saying that we think the less information required and retained the better.
3. Is P2P torrent use permitted?
While this is not an important consideration for everyone, for many it is the main reason to use a VPN. Important factors here are both the country of origin of the VPN provider, and the location of its servers. Even if a VPN provider is based in a county that does not have mandatory data retention legislation (e.g. Canada), it is still likely to get into trouble if it allows copyright infringement on servers which are located in a country that does (e.g. most of the EU).
- Because the EU Data Retention Directive does not apply to VPN services in the Netherlands and Luxemburg, many providers permit P2P usage through servers located in those counties
- If P2P is your only reason for wanting to use VPN then you might want to consider using a SOCKS proxy service instead. A full discussion of this issue can be found here.
4. Server locations
In addition to P2P use, there are other considerations that apply to server locations:
- Users wanting to wanting to use geo-locked services (such as watch the BBC iPlayer outside the UK, or listen to Pandora outside the US) should choose a provider with servers in the country the desired service is located
- The further away geographically that a server is, the slower the internet connection will be. North American users for example should therefore probably avoid largely Europe based services and choose one closer to home
- Some VPN providers have servers in a great many countries (sometimes upwards of 50). This may be very useful to some, but is likely less so to many.
We understand that placing price in fifth place may appear a controversial decision, but given that the spread of prices is not large (ranging from a rock bottom $5 a month to a peak of about $15 a month, with most plans being somewhere in the middle), we feel that being able to deliver the service that users want is more important.
- Most VPN providers offer very big discounts for bulk (usually 3, 6 or 12 month) purchases. This can amount to substantial savings, but we strongly recommend trying the service out for at least a month before taking up the offer
- Some providers offer a commitment free trial of their services. This can range from a few hours to a full month (CyberGhost). Even using a service for a few hours can give you a good idea of how easy it is to use, and how well it performs
- Most VPN’s offer a money back guarantee of some kind. However, it is worth checking the small print here as for some it is a ‘no quibble’ offer, and can thus be effectively used as a free trial, while others will only refund the money if they fail to connect you during the trial period.
6. Ease of Setup & Use, & Support for your Device
Generally speaking, VPN services that provide their own client software are easier to set up than those who rely on third party solutions. This is especially true with the OpenVPN protocol, as the open source client requires setting up with extra configuration files which can be a little fiddly for the non tech savvy.
- Custom VPN clients often include extra functionality ,such as the ability to effortlessly change between servers and the VPN protocol used, provide server load and ping times, include internet ‘kill switches’ or auto-reconnect options, and more. While not essential, some of these features are handy (although we feel the ability to change protocols is of limited utility for most desktop users as there is little reason not to just stick with OpenVPN)
- PPTP and L2TP are built into just about every OS and device ,and are usually quite easy to configure
- While most devices can be in theory be configured manually on every OS and device, guides and support for this is not always available. OpenVPN on mobile devices in particular has only recently become available (usually through third party apps) so if this is important to you it is worth checking that guide is available (or that the customer support can help).
7. Customer Support
If things go wrong then customer support is there is help. All VPN providers have least a ticket based email support system, and most also have a web based Live Chat client. A few even offer telephone support and the ability to remote control your computer using software such as TeamViewer. Such companies are also more likely to offer 24/7 support, while smaller providers are usually only available during office hours in their country of origin. In our experience VPN companies are pretty on the ball when it comes to customer support, and most will answer queries within minutes during office hours, or as soon as office hours start if not.
- If customer support is important then try to ensure it is available at the times you will likely need it
- We have found that while it may convenient for some, multiple support options are of limited use as Live Chat generally usually brings a very fast response.
8. VPN Protocol and Encryption
Although these are often featured as being a big selling point, as we explain in this article, as long as PPTP is avoided the VPN protocol and encryption level should not be a major consideration, as both L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN are good options.
- OpenVPN has the edge for desktop use (it is slightly faster)
- L2TP/IPsec is easier to set up on mobile devices, although OpenVPN clients are now available for iOS and Android (there is no third party solution for Android versions below 4.0, but Kepard have a multi-protocol client that will work with all versions)
- Encryption key lengths over 128-bit are overkill for most users, and will slow down the service. Even the most paranoid user out there will never need more than 256-bit encryption keys
- Because it is pretty much limited to Windows only, and doesn’t offer any killer advantages over OpenVPN, we don’t think SSTP is very useful for most users.
Choosing a VPN is not as simple as it perhaps should be, and very few manage to get everything right (although some get very close). The best advice is to read reviews (such as our ones of course!) and to try out the services that seem most promising before settling on one that works for you.