As overseas content services like Netflix and Hulu continue to gain traction, using a personal VPN (virtual private network) to access those services from outside of their intended regions has become quite common.
While VPNs are indeed a fantastic way to bypass geo-blocking and gain access to Netflix and other competing services, they have much more to offer. VPNs are generally used by businesses to protect their sensitive and confidential material by allowing employees to remotely connect to a company’s internal private network using a secure internet connection, but they can also give the average internet user a ‘permanent private mode’ for browsing and downloading.
With Malcolm Turnbull’s metadata retention scheme posing a genuine threat to the online privacy of millions of Australians, acquiring a personal VPN has never seemed like more of a necessity. Under the proposed federal scheme, the government would retain the right to hold on to your IP address for two years and keep a metadata log of everything you do on the internet.
This is where having a VPN comes in handy – all of the data you send or receive on the internet while using a VPN is encrypted and passes through a tunnel connecting you to a server in another part of the globe. Because of the server’s distant location, and the VPN’s ability to replace your IP address with one from another country, it becomes practically impossible for third parties to track where you actually are.
A VPN can be set up at a router level, covering every device that’s connected to your network, or across individual devices. Most VPN providers will offer a limited amount of simultaneous connections, though applying your VPN settings at a router level will only take up one connection, and will protect everything that’s connected to your network.
There is a catch, though – not all routers natively support VPN configuration without being flashed with custom firmware, and doing this might void your router’s warranty. We recommend doing some research and finding a router that comes pre-flashed. You could also opt for a dual router VPN setup, where your primary router is connected to your ISP for normal use, and another flashed router is dedicated to your VPN connection.
VPN apps can be applied to individual devices on your network. This works well across computers, tablets and smartphones, however not all devices support VPN protocols – if you’re planning on using your Smart TV, Xbox One or PS4 to watch Netflix, you’ll either have to setup your VPN at a router level, or use a VPN alternative, such as a Smart DNS proxy.
The trick is in choosing the right VPN service for you. There are countless services on the market, with some doing a better job than others at protecting your online anonymity. Security is of course the primary concern of most VPN users, though connection speed, client and server location, price and download restrictions are also of chief importance. We’ve taken the liberty of testing and rating eight of the top VPN services currently available to see which one reigns supreme.
Clean and simple, Buffered is completely straightforward in its approach. Its minimalistic software client is a breeze to use. Simply click on the flag of the country you want to connect to, and within seconds you’re ready to roll. It isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done.
Buffered takes your online security and privacy very seriously. Because of this, it solely uses the OpenVPN protocol and does not support other, less secure protocols such as PPTP and L2TP/IPsec.
The lack of protocol options is sure to annoy those who like to tinker with their VPN settings, but those who only want immediate access to fast servers with strong encryption will be more than satisfied.
While it does have a pricier monthly rate than many of its competitors, Buffered managed to outdo them all in in our US West Coast server speed tests. If your primary reason for getting a VPN is to access US services like Netflix, Hulu, ESPN and WWE Network, look no further.
Verdict: Buffered might be pricier than the rest, but it’s fastest where it counts.
Price: US$15.00 per month
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
ExpressVPN is a feature-packed VPN service that costs a little more than its competitors, but makes up for it with its stellar customer support and impressive number of server locations – 97 cities across 78 countries!
Its interface is streamlined across all of its platforms and is simple to navigate, though once you’ve connected to a server, you cannot veer away from the ‘connected’ screen to view other servers or options without disconnecting, which is somewhat of an annoyance. Another downside to using ExpressVPN is that the service limits you to two simultaneous connections.
Regardless, ExpressVPN delivers when it comes to speed and security. 256-bit encryption ensures that your data remains completely safe when using the OpenVPN protocol. Download speeds are quite good already, but you can opt to use one of the less secure VPN protocols to speed the service up a little bit.
And, If you encounter any problems while using ExpressVPN, live chat support can be reached 24/7 from the ExpressVPN website.
Verdict: Limited simultaneous connections, but it has a fantastic number of server locations and terrific customer service.
Price: US$12.95 per month
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Speaking of IP addresses, in-depth IP settings let you automatically change your IP every single minute for added security if you so desire. And if you have any problems, detailed in-app diagnostics let you find the cause and send support requests.
Drop down menus let you pick your VPN protocol and server location, with live ping times next to every available server. You can also see all of your available servers on a large world map, or select a server by use, such as media, gaming or just by fastest server.
In terms of security, IPVanish keeps zero logs of your activities online. IPVanish requires even less of your information than other VPNs ask of you. Just an email and password is needed to sign up, and you can avoid giving them your credit card information by using Bitcoin as payment.
Verdict: A great user interface is complemented by excellent security.
Price: US$10.00 per month
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Conveniently based out of Hong Kong (a place with very liberal internet laws), IronSocket is a no frills service that isn’t particularly user-friendly, but still provides everything you need in a VPN service.
Without any software to speak of, IronSocket runs off the open-source OpenVPN client and requires you to download individual server profiles from its site, which you then have to import into the OpenVPN client yourself. Compared to many other VPN services which come with easy to navigate apps and everything already provided for you, IronSocket’s approach can take some getting used to.
Thankfully, IronSocket’s servers deliver nice download speeds and some especially good upload speeds. It’s also quite inexpensive, so it really is hard to complain about the service’s lack of frills.
Bitcoins are also accepted as payment, giving you added anonymity while using the VPN. This should provide some comfort to those who want the service for P2P usage, which IronSocket does allow from certain servers.
Verdict: Great upload speeds, but the user experience is counterintuitive.
Price: US$6.99 per month
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Private Internet Access
Residing as an icon in the system tray, Private Internet Access’ ability to automatically connect you to the best available server in a chosen region is extremely handy. The icon is green when connected, red when disconnected, and grey when searching for a connection. However, those wanting more detailed information about their connection won’t find it.
Exiting the VPN can also have its problems. The lack of installed software means you’ll have to find and run its original executable file again to bring it back.
That said, Private Internet Access has got your back when it comes to staying off the grid. Like the name suggests, this VPN offers total privacy and allows multiple payment options if you don’t want to leave a paper trail. CashU, Bitcoins and even retail gift cards are accepted!
Verdict: Fast download speeds are let down by the lack of proper software or a real interface.
Price: US$6.95 per month
From: Private Internet Access
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Personalisation is what PureVPN is all about. With its user-friendly dashboard, PureVPN has different modes that allow you to choose speed over security, or vice-versa, or even the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, even with the speed option enabled, PureVPN underwhelmed in our speed tests.
Still, you can select servers by country or purpose – if you specifically want the best connection for streaming Netflix USA, or one of the many other country specific services listed, you can just pick it from the drop down menu.
Split Tunneling (still in beta) gives the user the power to choose the applications that go through the VPN. Add-ons for Smart DNS and Web Protection are also available.
A detailed traffic chart lets you see every kilobyte that goes in or out, and you also have the option to choose which protocol you use. But if you don’t care about that stuff, you can just set PureVPN to automatically select the protocol and the fastest server available.
Verdict: It has a great dashboard that’s easy to use, but the service’s download speeds leave a lot to be desired.
Price: US$7.95 per month
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
With its colourful software interface and easy to grasp layout, SaferVPN immediately feels approachable and simple without sacrificing the features we’ve come to expect from a VPN service. Even the most inexperienced VPN user should have no problem understanding how to use it within minutes, making it ideal for the casual Netflix viewer or person who just wants some privacy on the internet.
That said, options are available for users who want to change their VPN protocol settings, run speed tests and create support tickets.
Unfortunately, SaferVPN’s server numbers are paltry in comparison to some of the other VPN services on the market, with only 20 server locations to choose from at present. Add to that the middling speeds achieved in our speed tests, and it becomes hard to recommend SaferVPN to experienced VPN users.
Still, unlike most other VPN services, SaferVPN offers a completely free 24-hour trial period that does not require a credit card, so there’s no harm in testing it out for yourself.
Verdict: So easy, even a chimp could use it, though lack of servers and weak download speeds will turn off experienced users.
Price: US$7.99 per month
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
The anonymous use of BitTorrent is one of TorGuard’s major selling points, and the service wears this purpose like a badge of honour with its various VPN and BitTorrent Proxy packages. TorGuard advertises its effectiveness at masking your privacy while P2P downloading on selected servers that aren’t in high-risk countries.
TorGuard’s interface comes in two flavours: TorGuard Lite, which is small, simple and allows you to choose from a vast selection of servers in over 42 countries but gives you little else in terms of customisation, and a Viscosity Build OpenVPN client, which offers more options, server status information and detailed diagnostic statistics.
The Viscosity Build does require you to pay a couple more dollars for a license in order to connect, so if you aren’t interested in that stuff, the Lite version will give you everything you need.
You also get access to five simultaneous VPN connections with TorGuard, which is more generous than most other VPN providers on the market.
Verdict: A heavy focus on security, good speeds and a large number of simultaneous connections make TorGuard easy to recommend.
Price: US$9.99 per month
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Will a VPN slow my down?
In testing for this feature, we were especially interested in finding out whether VPN connections impacted overall speed. With pretty much every provider, the answer was a clear yes when testing with our 100Mbps NBN connection.
When testing, for each VPN we connected to the closest West Coast (US) server that we could — what you’d ideally be using to do things like stream Netflix — and then used SpeedTest.net to check ping times and download/upload speeds to different locales around the world. As with all internet speed testing, the results we saw were varied and occasionally erratic; we’ve reproduced them here for your perusal, but your own results will likely differ depending on your own ISP, the time of day, and other factors beyond your control. Speeds will also vary depending on the locale of the VPN server you’re connecting to; with most VPN providers offering half a dozen or more servers in different countries and locations, our limited results shouldn’t be taken as gospel. If you’re eyeing off a subscription to a particular service, it’s best to test with your own connection.