Using a VPN is like wearing a virtual invisibility cloak that allows you to navigate the online world incognito and safeguard your privacy. For many, VPN selection boils down to donning said cloak and sneaking across borders to access their favourite international show.
However, choosing a VPN goes beyond that with the ever pressing need to maintain online safety and keep our personal information away from prying eyes and malicious threats.
You need to ensure that your VPN of choice provides the highest encryption levels and other essential security features, such as kill switches and split tunnelling.
When it comes to VPNs, there’s no universal fit. You need to carefully evaluate your VPN criteria and weigh them against the cost to find an option that strikes the right balance between security and affordability.
While this vetting process can be daunting even for tech savvy people, don’t worry, you’re in the right place.
Today, we’ll give you a better understanding of:
- Must-have VPN features for a safe and optimised browsing experience
- How to weigh the cost versus the benefits of each service
- Tips and tricks to help you get the best out of your VPN
What Features Should I Look For in a Good VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a secure connection that encrypts your online activity, making it virtually impossible for third parties to access your data. However, not all VPNs are created equal.
If you really want to get the best bang for your buck, here are key features that set apart good VPNs:
- Speed and performance: Ensure the VPN offers fast and reliable connection speeds for smooth browsing and streaming. 560 Mbps on a 1Gbps line is sufficient though the fastest VPNs top out at about 900 MBps.
- Simultaneous connections: Look for a VPN that allows you to connect multiple devices simultaneously, so you can protect all your devices with a single subscription.
- Multiple VPN protocol options: Choose a VPN that offers a range of protocols, such as OpenVPN, IKEv2, or WireGuard, to suit your specific needs.
- High-security data encryption: Prioritise a VPN that employs robust encryption methods like AES-256 to safeguard your online activities and is unhackable.
- Dedicated apps for all devices: Look for providers that offer native VPN support for all major platforms, including Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. This will help you avoid the risk of partial protection and a poor user experience.
- Independent privacy and security audits: Consider a VPN provider that undergoes regular audits by third-party organisations to verify their privacy and security claims.
- Use of open source software: Choose a VPN that utilises open source software, which allows for greater transparency and community-driven improvements.
- Clear vulnerability disclosure policy: Prioritise a VPN provider that has a transparent policy in place for promptly disclosing any security vulnerabilities and addressing them in a timely manner.
- Diverse VPN server locations: Having a wide range of server locations allows you to access geo-restricted content and ensures better connection options for optimal performance.
- Transparent VPN business model: Ensure your VPN provider clearly outlines how they generate revenue, such as through subscription fees or other sources, to understand their incentives and ensure they are not compromising your privacy or selling your data.
- Add-on security features: A top-tier VPN service will offer a scale of add-on features that improve your online safety, including a kill switch, cross-platform password manager or cloud storage.
Some of the major VPN features we’ve discussed above deserve extra attention, so let’s explore a few.
What Is Data Encryption and Why Is it Important?
You may have come across the pop-up message on WhatsApp stating, “Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted.”
Only the sender and receiver of the data can see it and that’s encryption in a nutshell.
Data encryption is transforming plain text, like a password, credit card information, or a search query into a scrambled ciphertext to protect it from unauthorised access.
Your Online Choices did a deep dive into how encryption thwarts VPN hackers, but we’ll summarise the main points below that affect your choice of VPN.
There are two types of encryption, which offer significantly more security than plain text.
- Symmetric encryption: Uses one key to both encrypt and decrypt data
- Asymmetric encryption: Uses two keys, one for encryption and one for decryption
You may find that a VPN uses symmetric encryption for the bulk of the data and asymmetric encryption to share the symmetric encryption keys. Either way, symmetric encryption is essential in your online safety arsenal.
AES-256 is an example of a symmetric block encryption. It’s also the industry standard for VPN providers because there’s no known way to brute-force hack this type of encryption. Any VPN provider worth their salt must use this encryption level.
What Is a Kill Switch and Do I Need It?
A kill switch is a VPN safety feature that automatically blocks your internet connection whenever your active VPN connection drops. This helps to protect your data from being exposed to outside sources by IP and DNS leaks.
If you need a VPN to keep your online activity private and secure (and we totally recommend this), then you absolutely need a VPN with a kill switch feature.
Similar to other internet connections, VPN connections periodically drop for several reasons:
- When there are spikes in network activity, your service provider may throttle your bandwidth, destabilising your VPN connection.
- Weak Wi-Fi signals, such as public Wi-Fi connections, often switch back and forth with your cellular data, thus interfering with your VPN connection.
- Failure to add an exception to your VPN when setting up a firewall can leave your device unprotected since the firewall will block the VPN.
A kill switch feature provides an extra level of reliability when using a VPN, as it will protect you from data leaks if your VPN connection fails.
It’s a must-have feature in whichever VPN you choose.
What Is Split Tunnelling and How Can I Use it?
Split tunnelling is a feature that allows you to choose which of your internet activities will be sent through your VPN, and which will remain on your regular connection.
With split tunnelling, you can benefit from the safety and anonymity of a VPN while still using your regular connection for activities that don’t require such protection.
You’re essentially maintaining two connections and IP addresses at the same time.
Setting up split tunnelling is easy and can be done in the VPN settings for both desktop and mobile devices.
This technology offers several benefits, including:
- Improved internet speeds since it reduces the VPN bottleneck
- Access to network devices, such as printers, while maintaining online privacy
- Keys to geo-restricted content without eliminating local search results
- Access to multiple networks at the same time, for example, local and corporate networks
- Ability to carry out large downloads without reducing your internet speeds
When deciding whether to use split tunnelling or a full tunnelling connection, consider what activities you need to protect.
If you’re mostly using the internet for general browsing and streaming, split tunnelling is a great choice. However, if you need to access sensitive information or use services that require your IP address, a full tunnelling connection is recommended.
What Is the Cost of Each Service?
When comparing service providers, VPN cost is an inescapable factor in determining which service is most suitable for your needs.
Most VPN services are subscription based and will set you back $5–$15 each month for an individual package. The cost compounds for multiple users, business packages, or different device types.
One tip you can leverage is to opt for an annual subscription, billed as a lump sum. Though the lump sum may seem hefty, the discounts attached to annual subscriptions can be as high as 70%.
Some providers offer a tiered pricing plan that allows you to opt into additional services, including server switching, unlimited bandwidth, cloud storage, and customer support.
Paradoxically, the most expensive VPN is a free VPN service.
Free VPN services are often free because they:
- Go cheap on security features, putting your data at risk
- Offer slow speeds and limited data, which is a time suck
- Flood your browsing experience with ads
- Track your online activity and sell it to third parties
Free VPNs must make their money somehow, and chances are your data is the product they’re selling.
Paid VPN services often offer better security and faster speeds, as well as additional features.
Some providers may even offer discounts, limited promotional offers and money-back guarantees. Keep an eye out for those, as they can be a great way to test out a service without any risk.
When it comes to cost, there is no universal “best” VPN that suits everyone. Do your research and compare different providers, taking advantage of limited offers to test out products.
You can also check out our online VPN reviews to help you narrow down the best service for your needs and budget.
To provide a comparative insight into the offerings of free versus paid VPN services, we’ve developed the table below.
|Feature||Free VPN||Paid VPN|
|Security Features||Often lacks robust security features, making your data potentially vulnerable||Comprehensive security features, offering superior data protection|
|Internet Speed||Generally offers slower internet speeds, affecting the overall user experience||Provides faster speeds, ensuring smooth browsing and streaming|
|Ads||Can inundate your browsing experience with intrusive ads||Typically ad-free, offering a cleaner, distraction-free experience|
|Data Usage and Tracking||May track your online activity and sell data to third parties||No tracking of online activity and no sale of user data to third parties|
|Bandwidth Limit||Often has limited data or bandwidth restrictions||Offers unlimited bandwidth and data, supporting seamless internet use|
How Do I Get the Most Out of My VPN?
We’ve discussed the key features and cost analysis that’ll help you figure out which VPN will give you the best value for money.
To top that off, here are a few VPN tips to help you get the most out of your service:
- Choose the right server location: Select a server location that is closest to your physical location for optimal speed and performance.
- If your primary goal is to access region-restricted content, connect to a server in the desired location. For general browsing or privacy, connect to a server with lower user load for better performance.
- Use the appropriate VPN protocol to find the one that offers the best balance between speed and security for your needs.
- Take advantage of simultaneous connections to secure all your devices, such as your computer, smartphone, and tablet, under a single subscription.
- Use split tunnelling, if supported by your VPN, to selectively route specific applications or websites through the VPN while allowing others to use your regular internet connection. This can optimise performance and maintain flexibility.
- Keep your VPN client and apps up to date to ensure you have the latest security patches and features.
- Test different server locations if you encounter slow speeds or connectivity issues to find the one that offers the best VPN performance.
- Explore advanced features offered by your VPN, such as ad-blockers, malware protection, or multi-hop connections, to enhance your online security and privacy.
- Read the VPN provider’s documentation to understand all the features and settings available, allowing you to make the most informed choices for your needs.
“You already have zero privacy. Get over it.“Scott McNealy, Co-Founder of Sun Microsystems
Get Started On Your VPN Quest
Choosing the right VPN is a Herculean quest because you’re attempting to protect the one thing that most businesses want to commodify, your data.
“Privacy is not an option, and it shouldn’t be the price we accept for just getting on the internet.“Gary Kovacs, Former CEO of Mozilla Corporation
The key features and cost analysis tips we’ve discussed give you a map to navigate the sea of options and choose the best VPN for your safety and budget.
To further guide you, our team at Your Online Choices has put together a variety of well-researched VPN reviews ranging from single product reviews to multi-product run-downs. Check them out and uncover the best VPN for you.
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