Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have been a hot topic for some time. Rising rapidly from the realms of techie insider tip to mainstream online privacy tool, VPNs are now being adopted by everyone, from expats and students to concerned parents and businesspeople.
For the uninitiated, the key selling points of using a VPN are that it secures your online activities – acting as a shield against hackers and targeted ads – and that it allows you to browse the web as if you’re in another location. Hiding your device’s unique IP address, VPN services allow you to connect to websites and streaming services through their own server networks in other parts of the world.
As well as preventing activity tracking and covering your personal data with a layer of encryption, VPNs enable an increasingly mobile society to connect to geo-locked content regardless of where they might actually be. Naturally VPN services are keen to emphasise that their use should be defense against hackers and online identity theft first and foremost, but regardless of your particular priority, there are certain things to look for and things to avoid when you’re shopping for your first VPN.
A multi-purpose app
Realistically, your very first VPN is not going to be a custom-built network that you created yourself. There are plenty of choices when it comes to simply downloading a VPN app, and ideally you want one where a single subscription can be used across all of your devices. If you’re likely to log on via a smartphone, tablet and a computer for example, ensure you find an app that will work just as well on all three and which allows multiple connections to be made at once.
You should also be certain that any VPN you go for is compatible with your existing operating systems. Many VPNs support multiple platforms, but some are limited to iOS or Android only, meaning they won’t work with anything else.
Look for a kill switch
It sounds like something you might find in a sci-fi movie, but a kill switch feature is important both for the security-conscious and for users who are really only focused on their international streaming options.
When you’re using a VPN, your anonymity and your ability to connect through a server in the USA or Thailand are reliant on your IP address being masked, and replaced with that of one of the VPN provider’s servers. The security of your personal data is also only guaranteed when the VPN connection is active, putting in place a layer of end-to-end encryption. If your VPN connection cuts out for any reason, the encryption goes with it and your real IP address can be exposed.
A drop can be over so quickly that you might not even know it happened, but that’s still enough time to compromise your data. If you’re using streaming services, it’s also enough for the service provider to realise you aren’t located in the place that they thought you were.
The purpose of a kill switch is to ensure that if your VPN connection drops, your whole internet connection is taken offline. That means you might have to restart your TV show or re-enter your payment details, but in either case, your details haven’t been inadvertently exposed. Not all VPNs come with a kill switch function, but it’s worth shopping around for.
Consider the range of server locations
Some VPN apps offer hundreds of server locations that you can switch between, while others have only a few dozen. If you’re not too bothered about watching content from a lot of other countries or shopping around for region-restricted deals, that might not seem like a high priority. But the more servers that are available, the faster the connection you may be able to obtain.
Generally speaking, free apps and free versions of paid apps will give you access to fewer servers than a proper subscription service.
Fewer server locations means more people sharing each one, which can result in slow upload and download speeds. There’s also a higher risk that the connection will suffer drops. A wider choice of servers near to your real location is also useful, because using a nearby server also tends to speed up your browsing.
Check user reviews and logging policies
There is a risk that some apps you come across during your research are fraudulent or malicious, simply malware or spyware disguised as a legitimate service. ‘Free’ services can also be rife with data-logging concerns, and even genuine apps have been caught out storing detailed data on their users’ browsing habits and selling it to advertisers – precisely the sort of thing people use a VPN to avoid.
Before downloading a new app to your device, give the user reviews a thorough read-through and check the small print in their data logging policies. Does the app make it easy to contact customer support if you need assistance? Are people having good experiences? Most importantly, what kind of logging does the service carry out?
Most apps will log some kind of data, because they’re legally required to. Simple details like the amount of bandwidth you used or how long you were logged on for are not cause for alarm, but if you notice that a provider logs information on the websites you visit, you should think twice before downloading their service.
Whether you’re most keen to evade hackers or just want to stream your favourite TV shows while you’re on a trip, finding a good quality app with a range of server locations and a kill switch function is key.