Key features to look at when choosing a VPN
If you're reading this then you have likely already decided that you want a VPN. And if you already started looking at VPNs you might have been a bit overwhelmed at the sheer number of VPNs available. Even if you're just a casual user there are times where a VPN can add another level to your internet browsing.
Why use a VPN?
Students at school and those in an office setting can use VPNs to access resources while outside of the office and use the same service to prevent someone from snooping on them.
Those who download, even legally, use VPNs as a way to avoid being on the wrong end of a production company's witch hunt. Not to mention, using a VPN will also prevent your ISP (internet service provider) from throttling your connection for partaking in some BitTorent action.
If you're like me, the vast cabilities of agencies like the NSA and GCHQ worry you. It may have nothing to do with illegal activity, but some just want to keep prying eyes, whether it's the government or someone else, from seeing your personal data.
Being an expat myself, using a VPN has been a lifesaver. The ability to access Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, YouTube, and many other sites has kept me sane over the course of the past few years. Using a VPN allowed me to browse the internet as if I was still in the US.
No matter if your reason for wanting a VPN is one of these, a mixture of these, or something completely different you'll soon find there is a seemingly endless amount of available VPNs. Just like before you buy anything else you need to get acquainted with the key features so you can make an informed decision.
Servers: How many and where?
This is one of the most important features of the VPN you choose because it will dictate in which countries and cities you can browse in. For example, if you want to unblock content in Australia or the UK the VPN must have server locations available there.
The number of server locations is equally important. Ideally, there should be several locations in a given city or country so you can avoid congestion during peak usage. This also increases your chances of finding an IP address that is not blocked or blacklisted when trying to access content.
Some higher end services have multiple servers in 100+ countries. Before you sign up or pay up for a service you should scope out the VPN's full list of available servers.
VPN protocols: Which ones do they offer?
Getting familiar with VPN protocols is worthwhile so you can maximize your VPN experience regardless of which service you use. Luck for you, we already have a run down of the most popular protocols and their strengths and weaknesses.
OpenVPN is the preferred protocol for most devices as it is strong in both security and speed. In some cases, however, your device or VPN provider may not be compatible with OpenVPN. If you find you can't use OpenVPN for any reason don't worry because there are several others to choose from.
In short, TCP is best to use when you are streaming music or video and speed isn't an important factor.
UDP is fast, but some of the data may get lost during transmission. It's best to use UDP when playing games, using voice over IP (VOIP), and conference calls.
PPTP is the fastest protocol and can usually get around geoblocked content. L2TP protocols are easily blocked when trying to access geoblocked content but are ideal for working remotely. However, both of these are lacking in the security and privacy departments.
SSTP is the go to choice when you are concerned about security. It's considered the most secure of the protocols and is also the ideal protocol to choose when trying to bypass your school or office firewalls.
Logging: Zero-log or nah?
Depending on your purpose for getting into the VPN game this may actually be the most important factor to you. It's important to know exactly which information (if any) your VPN provider is keeping track of.
For a large percentage of users having a VPN that keeps logs of your browsing activities defeats the purpose of having a VPN in the first place. Having a VPN that keeps logs means that if they are presented with a court order they will be required by law to hand over your personal information and internet activity while connected to any of their servers.
Finding out the truth about a VPN provider's logging procedures may take some detective work. Do some digging, read reviews, and find out if they are required by law to keep logs. Just because a company says they don't keep logs (zero-log) doesn't mean they are.
Supported devices: Are mobile apps available?
If you want to use a VPN on your phone or tablet then you need to make sure that your chosen provider allows that capability. Most premium providers also have a range of apps for most mobile devices. This is especially important for those who travel a lot or find themselves using public WiFi.
In the same stroke it's always important to double check that their services are compatible on your operating system. If you have both a Mac and a Windows that you will want to use the service on then it's important to ensure the provider offers solutions for both operating systems.
The other stuff
There are free VPN providers but you get what you pay for, and with most free VPNs that isn't much. Expect to have your activity logged, slow connection, and limited servers and server locations with free VPNs.
Most VPNs offer several payment options depending on your usage plans: e.g. multiple devices. On average expect to pay anywhere from $5 – $20 per month for a reputable service
It's always a good idea to check out a company's reputation, especially if you're planning on getting a multi-month subscription. Check out forums and review sites to get a feel for what previous and current customers are saying about the provider you are looking at. Take special note of the key features listed above as well as customer service, ease of use, and compatibility with the websites and services you know you will definitely use.