Although they were once thought of as a tool that only those surfing the ‘dark web’ would have a use for, VPNs have firmly entered into the mainstream these days.
Regardless of whether you are trying to access vital digital services in a country with tight restrictions or want to access a better selection of movies on Netflix, millions of users across the world have used VPNs over the last year.
But what exactly is a VPN, and why do I need one?
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What is a VPN?
A ‘VPN’ or ‘Virtual Private Network’ is essentially a digital tool that allows you to mask the true identity of your computer by making it appear to be located in a different part of the world. This is accomplished by creating a ‘virtual’ network that re-routes any network traffic — be it from a phone or computer — through an encrypted network tunnel and out the other side.
This allows your device to appear as though it is accessing a particular web service from North America rather than Europe, where you are located. This can help to keep you anonymous online, as well as to bypass any geographic restrictions that you might run into.
Although once a relatively niche product for the technologically inclined, VPNs are now a fairly common tool. The rise of streaming services with strict geo-blockers has fuelled their popularity, with film and TV fans trying to access better content that would otherwise be region locked.
Similarly, fans of online casinos hoping to get access to the best casino bonuses have also used VPNs, either to get around pesky geo-blocking technology or to maintain anonymity.
People who regularly use public Wi-Fi networks — whether at a library or a café — have also found VPNs helpful. By rerouting your network traffic using a VPN, you can ensure that no one can spy on your traffic or access your personal information.
However, the rise in the popularity and accessibility of VPNs has created a new problem. With so many VPN services available, it has become increasingly difficult to choose which one to use.
In this short article, we will discuss some of the features to consider when choosing a new VPN service.
What Kind of Service Do You Need?
An important question to ask yourself before choosing a provider is what level of service you need.
Are you simply using it to protect yourself when casually browsing online? Or are you relying on it to do fieldwork in a heavily restricted digital environment?
If it is the former, most VPN services will do the job. However, for the latter, you might need something a bit more sophisticated.
Most consumer-level VPN services will probably suffice if you only need to use your VPN to access geo-restricted content and services. However, if you are after complete anonymity and privacy, you will probably need something more powerful.
Do You Travel a Lot? Where Do You Live?
The amount you travel might also impact what kind of VPN service you need. You don’t want to be caught short when you are in a foreign country only to find out that your VPN doesn’t cover that location.
Make sure to familiarize yourself with what regions of the world your VPN provider will cover before signing up for an account.
Similarly, if you live somewhere with numerous internet restrictions, you might need additional features such as more robust encryption, a kill-switch, and other evasion techniques such as deep pack inspection to mask the VPN itself.
VPN Features to Consider
With these initial considerations in mind, let’s look at some of the specific features you should consider when choosing a VPN.
- Encryption and protocols: VPNs work by encrypting your connection, but the strength of this encryption can vary. Consider what level of protection the VPN provider promises you before signing up. OpenVPN is generally considered the strongest, with PPTP thought to be the weakest.
- Speed: One of the biggest considerations in choosing a VPN will be speed. As VPNs work by re-routing your network traffic, this inevitably adds some latency to your internet speeds. With that said, the difference between a VPN that offers decent speeds and one that doesn’t can be significant. Save yourself the frustration and spring for a VPN that provides fast speeds. This is particularly important when you are using it to access streaming content.
- Global coverage: Given that for most people, the entire point of using a VPN is so you can re-route your location as necessary, an important consideration is what kind of global coverage they offer. Ensure you have a range of server locations to choose from.
- Cross-platform and device support: In times gone by, people predominantly used VPNs on their laptops or desktop PCs. Nowadays, however, people use VPNs on a range of devices, with smartphones proving to be a particularly popular platform from which to access VPN services. If you want to access your VPN provider from multiple devices, ensure that it provides support for more than one device.
- Customer support: Although this consideration is pretty much self-explanatory, it does not make it any less important. Make sure the provider you choose has a decent reputation before committing to a plan. When something goes wrong, you want to ensure that you have the best customer support team possible at your disposal.
- Cost: Although free VPNs might sound good on paper, they rarely work. They typically entice you into using them but then fail to deliver the service without upgrading for a fee. As such, avoid free VPNs like the plague. A VPN you have to pay for is usually a sign of its quality.