It sometimes feels like the Internet has become be a minefield of viruses, malware and adverts, which is why it’s more important than ever to think about how you use it to minimise risk.
One of the ways to browse safer and more securely is to use a Virtual Private Network or VPN, to ensure that your web browsing, banking and emails say private. A VPN is basically a secure private network, which encrypts your data thus making it hard for prying eyes to snoop on your online activities. Most VPNs also let you choose your virtual location, so you can appear to the websites you visit like you’re in another country – quite handy for accessing movies and videos that are blocked in your own country.
You might also wonder what’s the difference between a VPN and a proxy – a VPN typically encrypts all of your Internet data and sends it via their own server. On the other hand, a proxy is more like a web filter and works with applications like browsers to route traffic. In essence a VPN is more powerful and secure, but if all you want to achieve is the ability to watch content from another country, you can use free or paid-for proxy services instead of a VPN.
Choosing a VPN
There are dozens of companies out there that sell VPN products and services. Before you choose one however, think about some of the issues highlighted below. Do a little research and you should be able to find an VPN company that has everything you need. It’s also wise to look at how long the company has been established – a startup that’s been going for a few weeks may not be as good as one that has been around for years.
Also, bear in mind that there is some variation between VPN software for the Mac and PC. Typically, most VPN companies provide software to help you get setup on either, but you can also do it manually, which in my experience is slightly easier on a Mac.
So without further ado, here are some of the factors to consider when looking at VPN software.
Most VPN companies charge a fee per month. That’s obviously an important factor and you can easily compare the subscription charges, but what about convenient payment options such as monthly instalments versus a one-off payment for a whole year? And what about the cancellation policy. It’s always tempting to choose the least expensive, but the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best.
VPNs today are on the whole quite cheap – a few dollars a month or more, so it’s not as if you’ll break the bank anyway, but it’s certainly worth seeing what you get for your hard-earned cash…
When choosing a VPN check what security they provide, and more importantly what type of protocols they offer (such as PPTP or OpenVPN). The protocol defines the way your computer will talk to the VPN, and some are obviously better and more secure than others. Also, it depends whether you want to use a VPN on your Mac/PC, or whether it’s for mobile devices, games consoles and the like.
When you connect to a VPN, in most cases all your Internet traffic will be sent via the company’s own servers before being forwarded to their destination. Therefore it’s a good idea to check what they claim about speed and that users of their service haven’t complained about network performance. Search on Google for the VPN provider and try to find any user comments regarding speed and performance in general. And if there’s a free trial on offer, sign up first and try it out for a few days before you commit.
When choosing a VPN, find out how any countries they have servers in – that’s key because if you want to set your ‘virtual location’ to a particular country, they may or may not support it. For example, let’s say you wanted websites you visit think you’re in Brazil (for some bizarre reason), but the VPN company doesn’t have servers there, then you won’t be able to choose Brazil. The best VPN providers let you choose your location and change it as often as you want, giving maximum flexibility.
Ease of use
Most VPNs come with an installer that sets everything up and helps you get started. If they don’t have one, you should still be able to enter the details and passwords manually, but unless you’re comfortable playing around with VPN settings on your computer, a simple setup application is definitely much easier.
An obvious point to consider, but if you get stuck installing your VPN or you can’t connect for some reason, you’re better off with a company with 24-7 support, and one that has a decent support website with user forums and the like. That’s usually one of the best places to check when you run into technical difficulties.
Thai Tech team occasionally need to use VPNs from time to time, and we’ve tried a lot of them in our time on PCs and Macs. If you’ve read this far and decide you might want a VPN, you might want to consider StrongVPN, which is one of the most popular for good reasons.
StrongVPN is based in the US and has been around since 1994. They’re a trusted VPN company and have good customer support. There’s a lot of information on their website as well as useful forums and blog posts, which is great for getting started or solving problems. They also have round the clock customer support and their help pages are detailed with lots of useful information.
The StrongVPN website is the best we’ve found at explaining what the technologies and protocols mean in layman’s terms, as well as giving advice on which product you need e.g. for computers or mobile devices, as well as detailed information about security and encryption.
StrongVPN has an easy to understand pricing structure with “Lite”, “Special” and “Deluxe” tiers. Prices are very competitive and there’s also a 7 day money-back guarantee, so if you sign up and then decide it’s not right for you, you haven’t lost out.
They also have monthly and yearly payment options, and there are often discounts and special deals on offer.
StrongVPN has packages that offer both PPTP and OpenVPN protocols. OpenVPN typically provides the best security, and so are a little more expensive. If you want maximum protection you’re better off with the OpenVPN options.
You can read more about both options on their protocol comparison page.
StrongVPN network speeds are not restricted or throttled back, but it’s worth doing a speed test to check the actual real-world speeds that can be achieved. Some VPN providers do limit the speed, which is why StrongVPN scores in this category.
StrongVPN has a strong presence around the world, with lots of server locations and hundreds of servers in more than 20 countries. This depends largely on the package you choose however, but they should be sufficient for the majority of users.
Ease of use
StrongVPN has PC and Mac applications, allowing you to quickly switch between servers and locations, as well as choose the security protocol (PPTP or OpenVPN) if you’re on the right package. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, to coin a popular English phrase.