Thursday, 5 January 2012

Which VPN?

It seems clear to me there is demand out there for VPN services. The reasons (previously discussed in detail here) are mostly to do with:

  • Internet security (e.g., privacy over unsecured networks), as well as
  • The ability to acquire otherwise blocked contents over the Internet. With us Australians having limited legal venues for contents at our disposal, we might seek to impersonate being an American in order to get that ebook that Amazon will only sell Yanks or in order to listen to Spotify’s music through a British account. Then there is the
  • Need to camouflage peer to peer activities from prying eyes.
As much as the need is obviously out there, confusion is also abundant as to which of the hundreds of VPN providers out there one should be using. Whenever the question of “which” is raised at any of the blogs or forums I read, there is an immediate flood of responses that make picking genuine winners almost impossible. Then there are reviews do not help users much in choosing one VPN provider over another (like this one).
I therefore thought I would try and remedy the situation, if only by a bit, by sharing my own experience of using VPN services with you. I am no expert, but I have been using numerous VPN providers over significant periods; more importantly, I have the cunning ability to compare VPN providers systematically, a factor that seems missing from other comparisons.

I will start be presenting you with some of the things you need to look for when shopping for VPN providers. By determining what your own needs are, and by comparing those to what the providers are offering, you should be able to find your ideal match:
  1. Cost: Cost can vary between $30 a year to $30 a month. Oh, and there are numerous free VPN providers out there, too.
  2. Platform support: Does the VPN support Windows (XP? 7?), Mac, Linux, Android and/or iOS?
  3. Anonymity: Does the VPN service keep records of you activities with them? If they do, and most of them do, then you are not truly anonymous when you’re using VPN. The trouble there is that it is often hard to find what a VPN provider’s true anonymity policy is; the only reliable input on this matter I can refer you to is this post from TorrentFreak.
  4. Server locations: One of the most common uses of VPN is to do with pretending to belong to another country. Say, being an American to watch Hulu videos, or being a Brit to watch BBC videos. In order to use VPN for that, your VPN provider will have to have servers in the country you want to belong to.
  5. Ease of switching servers: Some VPN providers restrict the amount of times and the ease with which you can move from one server to another (i.e., the ease with which you can pretend to be of different countries).
  6. Protocol: Different VPN providers offer different VPN protocols for their products. In my experience, protocols such as PPTP VPN are problematic because when they [occasionally] fail the connection is resumed without VPN (through "normal" Internet instead). This means anonymity is lost! On the other hand, an Open VPN protocol connection tries to re-establish connection over the protected VPN before resuming.
  7. Capacity: The cheaper the VPN provider, the more likely it is to impose limits on how much data you can download through.
  8. Bandwidth: How quick will your connection be, and what will its latency be like, when you’re connected to the VPN provider? The answer has a lot to do with where you are and where the VPN server is, as well as your own Internet connection. However, some homework might give you insight as to the performance of the VPN provider you might be eyeing.
Needless to say, there are other criteria for selecting a VPN provider. I chose to focus on those I deem relevant to the majority of users. However: One criteria that’s obviously missing from the above is to do with special VPN requirements for people living in repressing countries, where the use of better VPN services can mean whether they can access the Internet in the first place and whether they will live to tell the experience the day after. I simply have no experience in that regard.
With the above criteria established, here are my own personal recommendations. I suspect they would be fine for 90% of Aussies and Western country users with a need for VPN:
  1. Free VPN services cannot be relied upon for anything more than, say, the occasional purchase of a Kindle title through Amazon. They are slow, filled with ads to the point of being useless, and are often unreliable.
  2. For all VPN uses that do not require the utmost level of anonymity, I recommend Witopia’s VPN services. For $40 a year, Witopia offers decent speeds, multiple platform support, and easy to switch between servers spread all over the world.
  3. For VPN uses where anonymity is mandatory (e.g., bit-torrent), BTGuard is widely regarded as the top option. Note there are only a few VPN services out there that guarantee anonymity.
  4. For mixed use, that is – both being able to pretend to belong to different countries as well as remaining anonymous – I recommend signing up with both Witopia and BTGuard. Do note you won't be able to use the two simultaneously.
I hope you have found the above useful.

Image: BTGuard


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. About this comment "Note there are only a few VPN services out there that guarantee anonymity."
Any hints?

Moshe Reuveni said...

The quick answer: The most commonly cited VPN providers, when it comes to anonymity, are BTGuard and iPredator.
The longer answer: refer to the TorrentFreak link up in item #3 above for their thorough research on the matter.