Best VPN services for 2017


Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are not at all a new trend, allowing you to access internet-connected services without revealing who you are or where you are.

Although there's a lot of controversy around using VPNs to connect to the internet, it is a valid way of accessing services if you don't want anyone tracing your activities online (particularly poignant if you're trying to get online in a country with a bad reputation when it comes to surveillance or you're a campaigner).

In January, China made it illegal to use a VPN that hasn't been pre-authorised by the government and although it's never likely to happen in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill (AKA Snooper's Charter) may well mean more people will be turning to VPNs to access the internet without being watched and the government could take action against using them in the future.

However, you may of course, want to use a VPN for legitimate reasons, because, for example, you need to view your company's website as if you're in another country, or you may want to watch your favourite US-based TV shows that aren't available in UK shores via services such as Netflix that won't otherwise allow you access the US service from our shores.

The world of VPNs can be complicated, so we've made light work of it for you, assessing eight of the leading services based on their features, effectiveness, pricing and performance.

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.

F-Secure Freedome VPN
Easy to use, effective and reasonably priced, but lacks advanced settings 
Pros: Effective privacy and security; Reasonably priced licences

Cons: Limited options for advanced users; Limited territorial options; Some P2P blocking

Full review

F-Secure's Freedome VPN is ideally suited to beating surveillance. It's based in Finland, so while it's subject to rigorous EU data protection laws, it's not a member of the 14-eyes surveillance consortium.

It's not designed to circumvent geoblocking, though, and territorial options are much more limited than other offerings with no locations in Central or South America. The upside is that it's blazing fast, with just 1% packet loss.

Summary

Rating: 5/5 - EDITOR'S CHOICE

Price: £40 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: www.f-secure.com/en_GB/web/home_gb/freedome

Buffered VPN
An effective and robust way of accessing websites when you away from home
Pros: Aims to sidestep Netflix issues; 30-day money back guarantee

Cons: Customer service may be slow for some

Full review

Buffered is primarily built to get around geoblocking, both on region-locked content and on censored social media platforms. Advanced options are a little thin on the ground, however, which may make it unsuitable for larger companies.


All data is encrypted via Blowfish CBC 128-bit and the company promises that it doesn't log individual activity, so it still has some utility as a VPN for privacy and security, although that's not the focus.

Summary

Rating: 4/5 - RECOMMENDED

Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux

Price: from $8.25 per month (based on annual subscription

Publisher site: www.buffered.com

AnchorFree Hotspot Shield 
A cheap and simple to use VPN that sidesteps geo-blocks, but it doesn't offer perfect anonymity 
Pros: Effective at defeating geo-blocking; Cheap

Cons: Limited advanced options; Imperfect anonymity

Full review

With a series of eight icons advertising various content services unblocked by Hotspot Shield, it's not hard to guess what the primary focus of this VPN is. There's a Chrome extension, 20 locations to choose from, and video streaming is smooth and high quality.

User anonymity is a slight problem though, so if you're after total privacy and security rather than just unlocking US Netflix, you may want to consider an alternative.

Summary

Rating: 4/5 - RECOMMENDED

Price: £19 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Windows Phone, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: www.hotspotshield.com

NordVPN
NordVPN is great value and offers high levels of security and privacy 
Pros: No logging; Broad geographical coverage; Good value

Cons: Features vary by server

Full review

If privacy is your motivation for using a VPN, then NordVPN is one of the most effective examples you're likely to find. There are numerous privacy-protection features in place, including a 'double VPN' setup that filters your traffic through two separate VPNs.


Unfortunately, it won't work for accessing US Netflix content, and there's some significant variations in features between different servers. On the whole, however, NordVPN is an excellent option for those looking to shield their surfing from prying eyes.

Summary

Rating: 5/5 - EDITOR'S CHOICE

Price: $69 (£49 approx)

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: https://nordvpn.com/

Conclusions
It's important to note that each VPN service's performance will vary over time and with the exit point in use. This is particularly true of geo-blocking, where we weren't able to test every content provider or server for each service – it’s here that we would expect constantly changing results as streaming providers will doubtless attempt to close down existing backdoors. With that in mind, it's hard for us to make a recommendation solely on performance.

We're confident that each of the services here provides additional security for anyone connecting over an unsecured or public network, but we saw significant variation in whether third parties could potentially log our DNS requests and in how well each service disguised the fact that we might be using a VPN. F-Secure's Freedome managed to combine stealth and privacy with good performance, so it's our recommendation for those who need neither P2P or router support. For those who do, we'd recommend NordVPN.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are not at all a new trend, allowing you to access internet-connected services without revealing who you are or where you are.