Today, you can’t be too careful online. Between hackers, cyber-criminals, and other bad actors, there are constant threats to your personal information and privacy. Add to that government and ISP monitoring, and you can feel like there’s no such thing as privacy or anonymity online. However, there are ways to restore a sense of security, and better protect your information, browsing privacy, and anonymity online. The most common tool to use is a VPN service provider. We’ll explain a bit more about what VPN services are, how to evaluate and compare one against the other, and highlight some of the best VPN providers available today.
What are VPN Services?
VPN services offer users security, privacy, and anonymity online, both in Internet browsing and via Internet services. Users sign up for an account, often for a subscription price (though sometimes for free), and gain access to clients and apps they can use on various operating systems. With the client installed and active, users can connect to a VPN server on the provider’s network. Then, they can go about accessing Internet content as normal, but with a great deal of protection and other benefits in place. For more detailed information on any of the listed providers, or VPNs in general, check out Best VPN 24.
By connecting to a VPN service, an encrypted tunnel is created between the user’s computer and the VPN server. This means that neither government nor ISP monitors (nor anyone else, for that matter) can intercept and decipher your network traffic. It’s decrypted at the VPN server, where the user’s true IP address is obscured. The IP address of the VPN server is appended to the traffic, and it is passed along to the destination server. Then, the process works in reverse when the destination server responds. This happens many times a second in practice.
In addition to the protection offered by the data encryption, anonymity and privacy are protected due to the obscuring of a user’s true IP address. The VPN server effectively serves as a cut-out, preventing destination servers from correlating user activity to their real IP address – their digital identity. At the same time, accessing the Internet through a VPN service provides other benefits. It allows users to bypass any kind of government or network censorship or bans on certain sites or content. This is possible because the outbound network connection runs to the VPN server, not a banned site or service. Additionally, because VPN services have servers operating in multiple countries, users can often connect to a server in another country than their true location, and gain access to geo-restricted content (such as Netflix catalogs for other countries).
How to Evaluate VPN Services
There are several criteria to keep in mind when evaluating a VPN service provider, and trying to find the right one to suit your needs. In brief, these criteria include:
- Company information, including where they are based, how long they have been in business, and their reputation.
- Basic specifications, including the number of servers the provider uses, how many countries they have servers in, basic service features, protocols, and compatibility.
- Privacy and encryption, including whether or not the company keeps logs that can track back to your true identity, what kind of encryption technologies they use, and so on.
- Interface, how easy their client or app is to use and configure.
- Performance, which includes speed. The encryption associated with VPN services adds a non-trivial amount of overhead to network communications. The encryption and decryption process can increase connection latency, and decrease overall max download speed. The best services only impact latency by about +30ms, and decrease download speed 10-20%.
- Customer support, including what kind of support options are available, how quick they are to respond to issues and problems, and so on.
- Subscription and pricing plan options, and how they stack up against the competition.
The Best VPN Providers
There are over 300 global VPN providers offering consumer services today. Each offers different pros and cons based on what, exactly, the user is looking for, where they live, and so on. Overall, there are some industry leaders who are widely seen as among the best VPN providers across the board, which we’ve highlighted briefly below.
ExpressVPN is considered one of the most reliable and fastest VPNs around. With over 2000 servers in 94 countries, industry-standard encryption, many protocols and features, and blazing fast speed, it offers everything you could want in a VPN provider. At the same time, the subscription prices are quite reasonable, with several different plans available.
NordVPN is the primary leading competition to ExpressVPN. They also offer amazing speed compared to most of the other VPN options available today. With upwards of 5,000 servers in over 60 countries, they have one of the largest server networks, too. It also offers a full range of VPN features, great customer service, and competitive pricing plans.
CyberGhost is mid-range VPN provider, with over 2500 servers in over 50 countries. Speeds are about average, and the service provides a good mix of features, including standard encryption and a simple interface. Customer service is a bit weak compared to the above two industry leaders, but pricing is quite reasonable.
IP Vanish is a mid-range provider based in the US, with over 1,000 servers in 60+ countries. They have reasonable customer service, a solid offering of VPN features, and a few bonus perks in their client/app that many other services don’t provide. Speed is average and acceptable in most locations, and pricing is very fair.
Unlike many other providers, HotSpot Shield offers both a paid and free account option. The free accounts obviously come with some limitations, including bandwidth caps. However, with over 2,000 servers in 25+ countries, the paid plans are comparable to many other mid-size providers. Customer service is a bit lacking, but the features are quite robust. Importantly, speed is on the higher-end of the mid-size providers, coming close to the top VPN services, at equally reasonable prices.