Since its inception, the World Wide Web has been many things to many people, but it’s hardly the place to expect privacy. After all, look for a new thingamajig once in your favorite search engine and, thanks to advertisers tracking that interest, the next day an assortment of thingamajig ads will show up in a banner, personalized just for you.
We fully understand that someone needs to pay for all that shiny new content everyday, and targeted advertising—getting your eyeballs to look at stuff you would potentially want to buy—is a profitable way to do that. However, there has been a recent nullification of the FCC’s broadband privacy protections, allowing ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to collect and sell your browsing data. With this change in the FCC’s policy, many folks are reasonably concerned with the potentially unrestricted sharing of their private information and are looking to be a bit more anonymous on the internet.
A Virtual Private Network, often referred to as a VPN, is a way to encrypt internet communication and make it not so easy to share your private info with your ISP. Many companies employ a corporate VPN to allow their employees to access company resources and data remotely, such as from home or while traveling, while maintaining the security and integrity of their network. Another type of VPN is a consumer VPN, where the individual sends their network traffic to a VPN service via a VPN tunnel. The idea is that data is sent via an encrypted protocol, keeping ISPs (and other three letter agencies) from intercepting the traffic to maintain privacy. It’s an effective strategy, though it’s getting increasingly unclear precisely how secure the data is, who can gain access to it, and if the VPN service is any less nefarious than your ISP.
SurfEasy VPN is a simple to set up VPN service, with software that ran just above the Windows 10 tray, and tracked usage on the free tier. It had some of the right ingredients, including a free tier of 600 MB monthly, and the availability of smartphone apps and browser extensions. There is also a SurfEasy Premium tier with unlimited bandwidth for $11.99 monthly, discounted by almost half annually to $77.88 ($6.49/mo) which can be used across five devices.
However, SurfEasy VPN has its limitations, including no support for VPN at the level of the router. Also, on our Speedtest done behind the VPN, SurfEasy had the second slowest speeds tested at 12.62 Mbps download and the slowest at a pokey 1.98 Mbps on the upload, with the second highest ping time of 160 milliseconds.
While SurfEasy VPN has one of the more generous free tier data allotments, the pricing is more expensive both for the monthly and annual costs. Additionally, the measured speeds are slow with a high ping time, making this service hard to recommend, other than occasional use of the free tier or as a backup to another service.
Hideman VPN is another entry into this crowded market segment. It features an initial free trial of 7 hours, a free tier of 1 hour daily, and an unlimited Ultimate plan at $9 monthly, or $69 annually for up to 4 clients. It supports Windows and Mac, as well as iOS and Android apps, in addition to a Chrome browser extension, although there is no router support. Another limitation is there is a limited number of regions to choose from. They claim to keep data for only 14 days, and then it is deleted.
Download speeds were the best at 41.67 Mbps, but unfortunately the upload speed of 7.8 Mbps and the ping time of 45 milliseconds were disappointing. Overall, despite the highest download speed, the Hideman VPN service does little to distinguish itself otherwise, and based on its non-bargain pricing, it did not make our recommendation.
We were not able to test the following services as there was no free tier or trial option:
- Express VPN
- IPVanish VPN
- Nord VPN
- Private Internet Access VPN
- Pure VPN
- Slick VPN
While these VPN services were recommended on other sites, at this time, we cannot comment either way on any of these providers, as we are not able to test them without a free trial (although they did offer money back guarantees), but until we get a “PC Gamer Corporate Platinum Card” we won’t be handing out our personal financial info to six VPN services (many based out of the country) just to take them for a test drive, especially when there are other options available.
Of note with another VPN service, Spotflux VPN: With their software downloaded to our test machine (a Lenovo S400 Windows 10 laptop connected to a cable broadband provider—Optimum 60, which is mildly overprovisioned to 65 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload speeds), this was the only VPN software that was unable to establish any connection. So while we have no other test results, we will not be recommending Spotflux VPN, and wanted to share our difficulty with setup.
How we test VPNs and future testing
There are several points of intervention that can encrypt VPN traffic. The most common way is to load VPN software from a provider onto your computer. While this used to be a complex task with configuration of multiple manual settings, most services are as simple as a download and account creation. This approach can not only be used on a computer, but also on the Android or iOS smartphone platforms via an app. The limitation of client software or a smartphone app is that only the client running the VPN software gets secured, and many users have other devices, such as a smart TV or an Amazon Alexa, that is transmitting unencrypted data.
As it’s impossible to secure each and every device via VPN software, the solution is to run the software at the router level, which can be set up to encrypt all the transmissions to the VPN provider. Finally, for those occasions when installing and running software may be less practical, a VPN tunnel can be created at the browser level.
The often-progressive Opera browser is offering this feature integrated into the browser—with no monthly data limit and no account creation via the SurfEasy VPN service. Other browsers offer an extension that can be added, such as the ZenMate and DotVPN extensions for Chrome. But be aware that back in 2015 the Hola browser extension for VPN sold users’ bandwidth for botnets, so any of these services may result in the user willingly consenting and installing more than they bargained for, and in extreme cases being even less secure than doing nothing.
Choosing a VPN service can be a daunting task. For this guide, we focused on the following items:
- The monthly data allotment, as some services limit the amount of data that can be sent, while others are unlimited.
- Pricing on a monthly and annual basis.
- A free trial so the service can be tested without commitment, as some only offer a time limited money back guarantee for their service.
- A free tier, for limited, lighter usage, for example when using public Wi-Fi at an airport, library, or internet cafe.
- The number of client devices per account, as most users have more than a single device.
- Availability of iOS and Android apps from the VPN in order to protect mobile device usage.
- The speeds obtained, as bouncing an internet connection through proxy servers has an overhead, with latency increasing and both download and upload speeds less than without a VPN service.
This is a highly dynamic area, with plenty of recent attention. We’ll be on the lookout for the introduction of new offerings among VPN services, and modified tiers among the current providers. For this guide, we focused on using the Windows software VPN extensions which encrypts the traffic from the entire machine, but there is also a need to test browser extensions for the various browsers, and how the VPN services work with open router firmware to encrypt the entire network.
Choosing a VPN is much like shopping for many other consumer purchases, such as a car or laptop—there are many choices because none are perfect, and definitely one-size-does-not-fit-all. For a good number of users, our overall recommendation of VyprVPN is an excellent choice, although users looking for more affordability, (or even free), or unlimited client support should check out our other recommendations. The offering of a free trial is compelling before committing, as YMMV depending on your internet connection, your geographic location, and networking equipment.
Finally, realize the limitations of a VPN, and while it can help to preserve the right to privacy from your ISP and from packet sniffing on public Wi-Fi spots, none of these services will provide complete anonymity as some data is collected by these VPN services, and kept, no matter how limited in scope and time.
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