Given the large number of VPN services available, it can be challenging deciding which one to sign up for. While the websites of VPN providers are useful up to a point in terms of highlighting important features (and indeed limitations), sometimes more crucial info is buried deep in the site.
So to avoid any danger of you being razzle-dazzled by a VPN's fancy website, we've put together this article which looks at the truly important features to bear in mind when picking the best VPN service for you.
1. Plentiful server locations
A VPN hides a user's data by encrypting it with a tunnel created between the user's device and the VPN's web server. The user then takes on the IP address of the web server (rather than their true IP), and this leads to one advantage of a VPN, namely that a user can appear to be in a different geographic location than they are actually located in.
This can have many uses, such as being able to access streaming services or shopping sites specific to a certain country, bypassing what's known as geo-blocking.
The important point to bear in mind here is that any good provider will have a healthy spread of coverage across a wide range of countries, giving you more options overall. Furthermore, the more servers available in each location, the better (as they're less likely to be overloaded, so you'll get better performance levels).
2. Mobile apps
Any VPN will offer client software for a Windows PC. However, many of us now spend more time on our smartphones or tablets than on a traditional desktop computer or laptop. In fact, in many places (including the US) there are now ‘smartphone only' folks, who use their handsets as a primary method for online access, and this trend may be responsible for slowing fixed broadband growth.
Therefore, when choosing a VPN, make sure that it supports the platforms for the mobile devices that you use. Both iOS and Android support are quite common these days, but support for some rarer devices, such as a dinosaur BlackBerry, can be found among a few of the more robust VPN providers with truly wide-ranging device support.
3. Integrated kill switch
No VPN service is 100% secure, and they can be susceptible to IP leaks, which expose your true IP address when you are online. This can occur more frequently when the VPN service gets overloaded.
The solution is a VPN kill switch, that can monitor for the VPN connection failing -- when the connection drops, that's when your true IP will be exposed, and in this case, a kill switch shuts down the transfer of data.
In short, as the name suggests, it kills the connection, preventing unencrypted data from being transmitted (and your true IP from being leaked).
While not all VPN services offer a kill switch, some do, with the feature embedded in the client software. Look for an integrated VPN kill switch with the service, and be sure to turn it on in the VPN app''s settings; many are disabled by default.
4. Anonymous DNS servers
DNS (Domain Name System) resolution is the process that turns the address you type into your web browser's address bar, such as www.techradar.com, into the IP address that the worldwide web uses to direct traffic to the user. Most users perform the DNS translation, by default, through their ISP, although this can be easily changed.
Of course, when using a VPN the goal is privacy, and therefore we want the VPN to be set up to protect us in the DNS translation process as well (keeping data away from the potentially prying eyes of the ISP).
While the Google DNS translator is often used for its speed, this would be a lousy choice from a privacy perspective. Rather, there are DNS services that are designed for anonymity, such as FreeDNS or DNSWatch, and indeed, your VPN provider should be using its own anonymous DNS to better preserve your privacy.
5. No log policy
VPN services differ on their logging policies. Some VPNs may keep elements of browsing activity for months, for example -- potentially data that could be turned over to authorities, if requested.
6. Router support
Rather than installing the VPN on all your individual devices, an alternate strategy is to just install the VPN directly on the router of your home network, and then every device connected to the network will have the benefit of VPN protection.
While this is often a better plan, it requires two things: a compatible router, and a VPN service that supports this. Getting a VPN to work on a router is a good intermediate networking project, and for more details on how to do this, see our guide here.
7. Support for OpenVPN
While all VPNs keep your data private by creating an encrypted data tunnel between the client and the VPN server, there are multiple protocols for performing this data encryption.
The bigger the selection and more choice of protocols that a VPN offers, the better, but you particularly want a service which supports the OpenVPN protocol. This is the most modern protocol in mainstream use, and is considered highly secure -- preferably your VPN will allow you to choose between the two flavors of OpenVPN (TCP and UDP), which we discuss further in this feature.
8. Low price
Perhaps this seems like an obvious point to make, but we've included it because it's important to realize that there are a very wide variety of plans and pricing levels when it comes to VPNs.
Almost always, you'll get a much cheaper deal if you commit for at least a year's worth of service, and you can get some truly bargain-basement deals with some providers.
At the same time, bear in mind that sometimes the most basic plans won't have the full range of features, and you might be missing out on something good (say, for example, a proprietary protocol for avoiding being detected as a VPN connection, so you don't subsequently get blocked or throttled).