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The Best VPN Services of 2018
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. The solution for both problems is to move the security up a level by installing a VPN on your router. All external internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is secure from prying eyes. Minor misconfiguration of VPN connections can leave the network vulnerable. Many router manufacturers supply routers with built-in VPN clients.

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What Is a VPN, and Why You Need One

They also have to abide by the laws of the country in which they officially reside. This is why it's so important to read the privacy policy for VPN services, and to find out where a VPN company is headquartered.

NordVPN , for example, operates out of Panama, and is not subject to any laws that would require it to retain user data. Things can get tricky when it comes to trusting a VPN. Recently, PureVPN handed over log information the company had to federal investigators building a case against a cyberstalker and general dirtbag. Some were surprised that the company had any information to hand over, or that it did cooperated with investigators at all.

It seems to us that PureVPN stayed within the bounds of its stated privacy policy. But it's also true that other companies, such as Private Internet Access , aren't able to connect any of your personal information to your account information. It's easy to want to find the perfect, magical tool that will protect you from all possible threats.

But the honest truth is that if someone targets you specifically and is willing to put forward the effort, they will get to you. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer to activity on the VPN server. But using security tools like a VPN ensure that you won't be an easy target, or get scooped up in mass surveillance.

We heartily reject the idea that security and convenience are necessarily at odds. There are, however, some notable complications that arise from using a VPN. These aren't deal-breakers, but they warrant consideration. Chromecast and other streaming protocols send data over your local network, but that's a problem when you're using a VPN.

If you encrypt the data coming from your laptop, your Chromecast or AppleTV won't have a clue what to do with it. Likewise, smart home devices may be gathering lots of data about you and your home that you'd rather not have intercepted. Unfortunately, these devices simply cannot run VPNs.

The solution for both problems is to move the security up a level by installing a VPN on your router. This encrypts data as it leaves your safe home network for the wild web. Information sent within your network will be nicely unencrypted, and any smart devices connected to your network will enjoy a secured connection. Do you like Netflix? That's too bad, because Netflix hates VPNs. The problem is that Netflix in England is different from Netflix in the US, which is also different from Netflix in Australia, and so on.

Just because you can see your favorite in one country doesn't mean you can watch it in another. The company has a complex global web of regional licensing arrangements, and it has a very real interest in making sure people don't circumvent the resulting restrictions. In order to ensure that you can't access streaming content that is not licensed for your region, Netflix blocks most VPNs. Some VPN services, however, work hard to ensure their customers can still stream movies and TV shows. It's something of a cat-and-mouse game, and a VPN that works with Netflix today might not work tomorrow.

Similarly, many VPN companies would rather not have to deal with the legal implications of their services being used to download via BitTorrent. BitTorrent is, of course, not inherently illegal but it is often used to pirate copyrighted material. Several VPN companies outright ban BitTorrenting on their servers, while others restrict its use to specific servers.

Another major concern with VPNs is speed. After all, a VPN is making your internet connection jump through many more hoops than normal. In general, using a VPN is going to increase your latency or your "ping" , and decrease the speed at which you upload or download data. While download speeds are one thing, gamers have particular concerns when it comes to internet connections.

While there are some VPNs for gaming , they are few and far between. It's less secure, but also has less impact on latency. When the internet was first being pieced together, there wasn't much thought given to security or privacy. At first it was just a bunch of shared computers at research institutions, and computing power so limited that any encryption could have made things extremely difficult.

If anything, the focus was on openness, not defense. Today, most of have multiple devices that connect to the web that are vastly more powerful than the top computers of the early days. But the internet hasn't made a lot of fundamental improvements.

This means that, unfortunately, it is up to individuals to protect themselves. Antivirus apps and password managers go a long way toward keeping you safer, but a VPN is a uniquely powerful tool that you should definitely have in your personal security toolkit, especially in today's connected world.

Whether you opt for a free service or even go all-in with an encrypted router, having some way to encrypt your internet traffic is critically important. Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote This newsletter may contain advertising, deals, or affiliate links.

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Max Eddy Software Analyst. Get Our Best Stories! We don't test the efficacy of these network-based protections, but most appear to be blacklists of sites known to host malicious software. That's great, but don't assume it's anywhere near as good as standalone antivirus.

Use this feature to complement, not replace, your antivirus. Lastly, keep in mind that some security conscious companies like banks may be confused by your VPN. If your bank sees you logging in from what appears to be another US state or even another country, it can raise red flags.

Some important things to look for when shopping for a VPN are the number of licenses for simultaneous connections that come with your fee, the number of servers available, and the number of locations in which the company has servers. It all comes down to numbers. Most VPN services allow you to connect up to five devices with a single account. Any service that offers fewer connections is outside the mainstream.

Keep in mind that you'll need to connect every device in your home individually to the VPN service, so just two or three licenses won't be enough for the average nested pair. Note that many VPN services offer native apps for both Android and iOS, but that such devices count toward your total number of connections.

Of course, there are more than just phones and computers in a home. Game systems, tablets, and smart home devices such as light bulbs and fridges all need to connect to the internet. Many of these things can't run VPN software on their own, nor can they be configured to connect to a VPN through their individual settings.

In these cases, you may be better off configuring your router to connect with the VPN of your choice. By adding VPN protection to your router, you secure the traffic of every gadget connected to that router. And the router—and everything protected by it—uses just one of your licenses. Nearly all of the companies we have reviewed offer software for most consumer routers and even routers with preinstalled VPN software, making it even easier to add this level of protection.

When it comes to servers, more is always better. More servers mean that you're less likely to be shunted into a VPN server that is already filled to the brim with other users. But the competition is beginning to heat up. Last year, only a handful of companies offered more than servers, now it's becoming unusual to find a company offering fewer than 1, servers.

The number and distribution of those servers is also important. The more places a VPN has to offer, the more options you have to spoof your location! More importantly, having numerous servers in diverse locales means that no matter where you go on Earth you'll be able to find a nearby VPN server. The closer the VPN server, the better the speed and reliability of the connection it can offer you.

Remember, you don't need to connect to a far-flung VPN server in order to gain security benefits. For most purposes, a server down the street is as safe as one across the globe.

In the most recent round of testing, we've also looked at how many virtual servers a given VPN company uses. A virtual server is just what it sounds like—a software-defined server running on server hardware that might have several virtual servers onboard. The thing about virtual servers is that they can be configured to appear as if they are in one country when they are actually being hosted somewhere else. That's an issue if you're especially concerned about where you web traffic is traveling.

It's a bit worrisome to choose one location and discover you're actually connected somewhere else entirely. We have often said that having to choose between security and convenience is a false dichotomy, but it is at least somewhat true in the case of VPN services.

When a VPN is active, your web traffic is taking a more circuitous route than usual, often resulting in sluggish download and upload speeds as well as increased latency. The good news is that using a VPN probably isn't going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore. Most services provide perfectly adequate internet speed when in use, and can even handle streaming HD video. However, 4K video and other data-intensive tasks like gaming over a VPN are another story.

And nearly every service we have tested includes a tool to connect you with the fastest available network. Of course, you can always limit your VPN use to when you're not on a trusted network. When we test VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. This test provides metrics for latency, download speeds, and upload speeds. Any one of these can be an important measurement depending on your needs, but we tend to view the download speed as the most important. After all, we live in an age of digital consumption.

Our speed tests stress comparison and reproducibility. That means we stand by our work, but your individual results may vary. After all, perhaps you live on top of a VPN server, or just happen to have a super-high bandwidth connection. It doesn't take the top spot in all of our tests, but has remarkably low latency and had the best performance in the all-important download tests.

Fittingly, it offers many add-ons such as dedicated IP addresses that, along with its speed, will appeal to the BitTorrent users it is designed to protect. Borders still exist on the web, in the form of geographic restrictions for streaming content. The rest of the world, not so much. But if you were to select a VPN server in the UK, your computer's IP address would appear to be the same as the server, allowing you to view the content. The trouble is that Netflix and similar video streaming services are getting wise to the scam.

In our testing, we found that Netflix blocks streaming more often than not when we were using a VPN. There are a few exceptions, but Netflix is actively working to protect its content deals. VPNs that work with Netflix today may not work tomorrow. Netflix blocking paying customers might seem odd, but it's all about regions and not people.

Just because you paid for Netflix in one place does not mean you're entitled to the content available on the same service but in a different location. Media distribution and rights are messy and complicated. You may or may not agree with the laws and terms of service surrounding media streaming, but you should definitely be aware that they exist and understand when you're taking the risk of breaking them.

Netflix, for its part, lays out how that it will attempt to verify a user's location in order to provide content in section 6c of its Terms of Use document. If you don't know what Kodi is, you're not alone.

However, an analysis of searches leading to our site reveals that a surprising number of you are, in fact looking for VPN that works with the mysterious Kodi.

With Kodi, you can access your media over a local connection LAN or from a remote media server, if that's your thing. This is, presumably, where concerns about VPN enter the picture.

A device using a VPN, for example, will have its connection encrypted on the local network. You might have trouble connecting to it. Using Chromecast on a VPN device just doesn't work, for example. Kodi users might have the same issue. For local VPN issues, you have a couple of options. Alternatively, many VPN services offer browser plug-ins that only encrypt your browser traffic. That's not ideal from a security perspective, but it's useful when all you need to secure is your browser information.

Some, but not all, VPN services will let you designate specific applications to be routed outside the encrypted tunnel. This means the traffic will be unencrypted, but also accessible locally. If you're trying to connect to a remote media source with Kodi, a VPN would likely play a different role.

It might, for example, prevent your ISP from determining what you're up to. It might also be useful if you're connecting to a third-party service for Kodi that allows streaming of copyright-infringing material.

Keep in mind, however, that some VPN services specifically forbid the use of their services for copyright infringement. When we test VPNs, we generally start with the Windows client. This is often the most complete review, covering several different platforms as well as the service's features and pricing in depth. That's purely out of necessity, since most of our readers use Windows although this writer is currently using a MacBook Air.

We periodically upgrade to a newer machine, in order to simulate what most users experience. But as you can see from the chart at the top, however, Windows is not the only platform for VPNs. The Android mobile operating system, for example, is the most widely used OS on the planet.

So it makes sense that we also test VPNs for Android. That's not to ignore Apple users. While Google has worked to make it easier to use a VPN with a Chromebook or Chromebox, it's not always a walk in the park. Our guide to how to set up a VPN on a Chromebook can make the task a bit easier, however. In these cases, you might find it easier to install a VPN plug-in for the Chrome browser.

This will only secure some of your traffic, but it's better than nothing. Finally, we have lately begun to review the best Linux VPN apps , too. We used to advise people to do banking and other important business over their cellular connection when using a mobile device, since it is generally safer than connecting with a public Wi-Fi network.

But even that isn't always a safe bet. Researchers have demonstrated how a portable cell tower, such as a femtocell , can be used for malicious ends. The attack hinges on jamming the LTE and 3G bands, which are secured with strong encryption, and forcing devices to connect with a phony tower over the less-secure 2G band.

Because the attacker controls the fake tower, he can carry out a man-in-the-middle attack and see all the data passing over the cellular connection. Admittedly, this is an exotic attack, but it's far from impossible. Wi-Fi attacks, on the other hand, are probably far more common than we'd like to believe.

While attending the Black Hat convention, researchers saw thousands of devices connecting to a rogue access point. It had been configured to mimic networks that victim's devices had previously connected to, since many devices will automatically reconnect to a known network without checking with the user. That's why we recommend getting a VPN app for your mobile device to protect all your mobile communications. Even if you don't have it on all the time, using a mobile VPN is a smart way to protect your personal information.

VPN providers typically allow up to five devices to be connected simultaneously under a single account. Also, while there are free VPN services available, many require that mobile users sign up for a paid subscription.

Not all mobile VPN apps are created equal. In fact, most VPN providers offer different services and sometimes, different servers for their mobile offerings than they do for their desktop counterparts. One feature of note for Android users is that some VPN services also block online ads and trackers. While iPhone owners can use apps like 1Blocker to remove ads and trackers from Safari, ad blockers aren't available on the Google Play store.

If you're of the iPhone persuasion, there are a few other caveats to consider for a mobile VPN. Thankfully, there's a workaround for this problem. Open it, and you can enter your subscription information from the VPN company you've decided to work with. Computer and software providers work hard to make sure that the devices you buy are safe right out of the box. But they don't provide everything you'll need.

Antivirus software, for example, consistently outperforms the built-in protections. In the same vein, VPN software lets you use the web and Wi-Fi with confidence that your information will remain secure.

It's critically important and often overlooked. Even if you don't use it every moment of every day, a VPN is a fundamental tool that everyone should have at their disposal—like a password manager or an online backup service. A VPN is also a service that will only become more important as our more of our devices become connected. So stay safe, and get a VPN. Click through the review links of the best VPN services below for detailed analysis and performance results, and feel free to chime in on the comments section below them.

Once you've picked, be sure to read our feature on how to set up and use a VPN to get the most from your chosen service. More than 4, servers in diverse locations worldwide. Blocks ads, other web threats. Strong customer privacy stance. Earning a rare 5-star rating, it's our top pick for VPNs.

Browser extensions, including a stand-alone ad blocker. Uninspiring speed test results. Lack of geographic diversity in server locations. It's friendly when you need it to be, invisible when you don't, and it doesn't skimp on security.

Far above average number of available servers. Supports P2P file sharing and BitTorrent. Strong stance on customer privacy. Spartan interface may confuse new users.

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