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6 Things to consider choosing a VPN

 

Whether you want to protect your family’s devices from cyber-criminals, a business that wants to enhance the safety of remote working, or a traveller who wants to retain access to entertainment libraries back home, having a high-quality VPN is essential.

Virtual Private Networks have become an indispensable part of digital life for millions of people across the world, but which one should you go for? This isn’t actually an easy question to answer.

VPNs are highly technical products, which vary in quality. And if you choose poorly, your security can be placed at risk, so it makes sense to think about every important factor before making a decision. That’s why we’ve put together a guide to choosing your next provider.

Key considerations to bear in mind when choosing a VPN

By applying this checklist, and understanding the core features of Virtual Private Networks, picking a winner should be simple. So factor in all of these issues when making a selection.

1. Logging

The whole point of using a Virtual Private Network is to shield your online activity from prying eyes. If the company you choose actively retains information about your identity and the sites you visit, this totally compromises the product, putting you at risk from law enforcement investigations and cyber-criminals alike.

Each Virtual Private Network has a Privacy Policy (or at least, it should). If you want to be 100% conscientious, read through these documents before handing over a cent. Look for how the company defines “Personal Information”, what it does with it, and whether it shares that information with third parties.

Many popular providers are somewhat misleading when it comes to logs. Often, they will promise “Zero Logs”, while actually retaining your IP address, connection timestamps, and how much data you consume. Some go further than that, without being entirely transparent.

However, there are plenty of excellent providers that resist the urge to log user activity. Some of them are even free of charge. For a spread of reliable security options, read more here.

2. Encryption

In the world of VPNs, uncrackable encryption is not an optional extra. It’s an essential aspect of any provider worth using. That’s because encryption is what scrambles your data. It’s the technology which makes your online personal disappear, and your activity becomes completely private. So it really matters.

When you browse security options, you will come across a range of encryption standards. However, the gold standard is AES-256. AES stands for “Advanced Encryption Standard”, and the cipher used has a 256 character length. You might encounter AES-128 or providers which offer both.

AES-256 is recognized as the gold standard for a reason. Given current technology, experts calculate that brute forcing an AES-256 cipher would require 3.31 x 10^56 processing operations. Or, to put it in layman’s terms – millions of years of computation.

3. Protocols

Encryption isn’t the sole security consideration to factor in when picking a Virtual Private Network. Providers also offer a range of protocols, and this can have an effect on both speed and security.

Protocols are authentication tools used across networks, which allow computers to talk to each other. In the world of Virtual Private Networks, they “wrap” your data in a secure layer, creating the metaphorical “tunnel” between local systems and global servers.

When protocols are insecure, hackers can intercept traffic and trace your online movements. And the bad news is protocol security varies widely.

 

OpenVPN – Most security experts agree than OpenVPN-based providers offer the highest security level. OpenVPN is an open source protocol, which is maintained by a huge global community. It can run across multiple ports and confuses HTTP and SSL traffic – making it tough to identify data as it is beamed across VPN networks. It also works seamlessly with AES, resulting in a combination that even the NSA has failed to crack.

PPTP – Developed way back in the 1990s, and subject to numerous security flaws, the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol remains in use with some providers. While it’s fast, it’s not a reliable security option.

 

L2TP/IPsec – L2TP/IPSec is compatible with AES, but struggles to work behind firewalls, and may have been compromised by the NSA. So it’s generally seen as less dependable than OpenVPN. However, it is also compatible with the widest range of devices, which makes it a common feature of many VPNs.

 

IKEv2 – Developed by Microsoft, IKEv2 is reliable, can be secured with AES, and regarded as faster than OpenVPN or L2TP. But it’s also less common, and the Microsoft association can be a security worry.

While OpenVPN is secure, it’s not always the fastest option. That’s why you’ll find VPNs that offer OpenVPN alongside alternatives like IKEv2. This is often a good option for people who switch between data-intensive activities like Netflix streaming, and activities that require tight security, such as secure payments.

3. Unblocking

Unblocking streaming services like Netflix is one of the most important considerations for many VPN users and with good reason. When they are coded and maintained properly, the best Virtual Private Networks are easily able to vault over whatever barriers companies place in their way, vastly expanding the range of content available.

Many VPNs promise flawless unblocking, but this is often marketing speak rather than a cast-iron promise. All mass-market VPNs need to claim they can beat Hulu or Netflix – that’s just part of the rules of the game. Whether they actually can or not is another question.

Testing reveals that elite VPNs like NordVPN have an excellent hit rate when accessing global Netflix servers. But many VPNs are patchy, offering reliable connections to a few Netflix servers. And some fail completely.

Never be taken in by headline claims about unblocking. Always refer to the latest reviews or listings of services which work, and be ready to use the money back guarantees if your chosen provider doesn’t measure up.

As a side note, poor Netflix unblocking is often a sign that VPNs cannot be relied upon in other areas. That’s because Netflix uses IP address detection to ascertain whether users are legitimate. If your original IP address is available, but you think you are being routed through a foreign server, something is awry. IP leaks could be the culprit – one of the most unforgivable VPN flaws.

4. Speed

Encryption and flawless unblocking don’t really matter if a VPN suffers from serious slowdown, so before buying it makes sense to take speed into consideration. Again, this is an area where most providers make bold claims (how many “fastest” VPNs can there be in the world?). So looking at real-world performance is essential.

Speeds vary for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, the provider’s servers are inefficient. Improperly configured protocols can result in authentication issues, causing additional lag. And this can be compounded by slow encryption.

Generally speaking, providers with large server communities in multiple global locations will be better performers when it comes to speed. This isn’t an iron law, but with more choice usually comes more speed.

But here’s the thing. The speeds you experience can be heavily influenced by local factors. Some VPNs will work well in your area, while others may struggle – even if they are perfectly functional elsewhere. So again, be ready to try before you buy, and to take advantage of guarantees where available.

5. Ease of use and functionality

This is a broad category of things to consider, but it can make a huge difference in how effective VPNs are. Sometimes, it’s the additional features bundled in with clients that make them so appealing. So here are a few ease of use features that matter:

  • Device limits – Most VPNs will impose a limit on how many devices can be used with one account. If you have a family with multiple smartphones, consoles, or laptops, maximizing your device count is a good idea.
  • Bandwidth limits – Some providers ration the amount of data users can download and operate membership tiers. Try to avoid miserly companies that limit your downloads, especially if you intend to use VPNs for peer-to-peer downloads.
  • Clients – Most of the time, users will access Virtual Private Networks via standalone clients. These apps need to be clearly laid out and simple, while incorporating features like smart server selection and protocol selection. The option to install VPNs within browsers like Firefox or Chrome is a welcome addition and can reduce the risk of accidentally forgetting to engage your privacy protection.
  • Platforms – If you regularly use an Android smartphone and a Windows PC, make sure you choose a Virtual Private Network that offers clients for both platforms. The best providers offer services for Linux, Macs, iOS, games consoles, and even Kodi boxes. So don’t miss out on a platform that matters to you.

6. Customer support

VPNs can go down, run slowly, lose their ability to bypass Netflix blocks or conflict with firewalls for no apparent reason. When this happens, these issues can often be resolved via high-quality customer support. But in the world of digital security, that kind of assistance isn’t guaranteed.

Before buying anything, check which support options are available. At a bare minimum, look for extensive FAQs, a customer support forum, and an email submission form. But that’s not really enough. Good providers offer live chat as a standard service, as well as in-depth support for specific technical issues. In other words, they really care about the customer experience.

If you’re unsure about the level of support provided, feel free to make contact. High-quality VPNs will be happy to engage with your concerns and provide explanations about their services.

Use a systematic approach to choose your VPN solution

When you buy automobiles or computers, do you gravitate towards the glitziest marketing or the best looking products? Not if you value functionality and reliability. So why would you behave differently when sourcing digital privacy solutions?

Purchasing Virtual Private Network subscriptions requires consideration of multiple factors. It’s not a case of comparing marketing content and opting for the most persuasive company. As we’ve seen, customers need to weigh up security, speed, accessibility, and support.

Take some time to research your purchase. You won’t regret the investment. Checking out reviews, comparing speeds, trying services before finalizing purchases will all pay dividends when you find a provider which blends watertight security with impressive speeds.