VPN services tried and tested
Virtual Private Networks have been around for a long time and while they were initially popular for helping businesses link sites and users over unsecured networks, their use has become both more widespread and more varied.
One of the biggest drivers of VPN use now and the thing that has brought it into the public consciousness is privacy concerns. Typically this may have been associated with circumnavigating government restrictions, such as the so-called Great Firewall of China, in non-democratic nations. Increasingly, however, it's a consideration for those of us in the West, too.
The Investigatory Powers Act in the UK, which requires ISPs to monitor and keep records of every site a customer visits, has prompted some to start using a VPN. Meanwhile, in the US, protections against selling customer data withough their consent to advertising networks have been repealed.
There's now a proliferation of third-party services offering a secure connection to the internet via a remote server. The advantages include encryption - and therefore protection from hackers on the local network - and usually a greater degree of anonymity and privacy.
In many cases, wide geographical coverage means that a VPN user can appear to originate from a different country, potentially defeating geo-blocks such as those implemented by the major streaming content providers.
With so many services available, we've assessed eight on their features, effectiveness, pricing and performance to help you choose the right VPN.
How we tested
To assess each VPN's performance we installed its PC client within a Windows 10 virtual machine (VM), running on a Windows 10 host. Testing one service at a time, we connected to the nearest server location - usually London - and conducted a five-minute ping test in parallel on both the VM and host. In each case the host experienced no packet loss, allowing us to measure any losses through the VPN.
Within each VM we also used speedtest.net to compare broadband speeds before and after connection to the VPN. We should stress that the number of variables involved means that these tests can only provide an indication of how well each service might perform.
With each service connected in turn, we checked the DNS configuration using the extended test at DNSleaktest.com. Here it's ideal to see only servers owned by the VPN provider itself: the presence of any third-party server probably means that anonymised and aggregated DNS requests are being passed on by the service. A server belonging to your ISP is likely to mean that DNS traffic is leaking outside of the VPN altogether - a red-flag for anonymity.
To test the stealthiness of each service we conducted the extended test at Whoer.net, which would help reveal potential problems such as a blacklisted IP address, or other issues which might give away your use of a VPN. Typically these include mismatches between system and ISP time zones, or between ISP and DNS territories. Again, we should stress that many variables can affect the results we saw here: we experienced variations even between servers belonging to the same VPN service.
We tested how well each service could defeat geoblocks by connecting to a US server and attempting to view US content on Netflix. Where necessary we tried multiple servers and enabled any additional features that might help, such as Smart-Play in NordVPN. For each service we also tried to view iPlayer content when connected to a UK point of presence. Our results here confirm that content providers are successfully barring access from many known VPN servers. It's an ongoing battlefront, however: we'd be wary of assuming that a service we found to work will continue to do so, and vice-versa.