Why You Need a VPN
Security is too often thought of as a zero-sum game. You either make the effort to protect yourself and lose out on performance and shiny new toys, or you choose faster connections and an easier life with the understanding that you may end up making making ransomware payments or having your identity stolen. We argue that this mindset is long out of date, especially in the world of virtual private networks,or VPNs. These services protect your data within an encrypted tunnel, keeping bad guys, ISPs, and snooping spies at bay. Using such a service will certainly have an impact on your internet connection, but the good news is that it needn’t be a big one.
Using a VPN tends to slow down internet connections simply because it adds more steps to the process of transferring data over the web. When you browse without a VPN, your web browser sends a request through your local network, out onto the public internet, and to a web server that responds with the requested information. This is what happens every time you click a link or enter a URL. It’s how the internet works. But you still need a VPN. Why? We’ll explain.
When you activate a VPN, your web traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel. It travels through this secret tunnel to a server operated by the VPN company. It then exits its encrypted tunnel and enters the public internet.
These extra steps generally degrade your internet connection speeds, simply by adding more fiber, more computers, and more physical distance to the equation. But, in exchange, using a VPN helps protect your data and personal security.
Routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel means it is much harder for people on the same network as you, or whoever manages that network, to snoop on your activities. This protects against a lot of scary scenarios, particularly man-in-the-middle attacks. That’s when a bad guy intercepts and copies all the information you send and receive through the internet, by putting himself between you and the rest of the internet.
Recent legislation allows your ISP to sell anonymized metadata about your activities online. That’s unfortunate, for a number of reasons. Fortunately, a VPN makes it much harder for even your ISP to monitor your activity, and helps keep your privacy in your hands.
Additionally, moves from the FCC to remove rules regarding net neutrality have raised questions about VPNs. Without net neutrality rules, it’s possible that ISPs could charge consumers or companies in order to access online services like Twitter or Netflix. ISPs might even create fast and slow lanes, and put a price on speedy access. A VPN might be able to restore net neutrality, somewhat, by tunneling past ISP restrictions. Unfortunately, we’ll have to see how all this plays out before we can say for certain how much a VPN would help.
Spies—and, more frequently, advertisers—can correlate your movements across the web by capturing identifying information. There may be, for example, a tracker inside an ad on website A and another tracker from the same company on website B. The same company captures some piece of identifying information and notes that you appeared at one site and then the other.
Because your web traffic appears to be coming from the VPN’s server and not your computer or mobile device (yes, there are Android VPN apps and iPhone VPN apps), any observer will see the VPN server’s IP address and not your own. That makes it much harder to correlate your movements across the web.
You can also use a remote VPN server to spoof your location. For example, you could be sitting in Chicago and select a VPN server in Australia. Your traffic would then make a trip down under before continuing as normal. To people trying to track you, you’d appear to be surfing from Australia. This is especially useful if you’re keen to access region-locked streaming content. If you connect to a server within the UK, free BBC TV streaming is suddenly available to you in the United States. It’s also a useful tool for when you are connecting in countries that have strict or repressive internet regulations.
VPNs are powerful tools, but it’s not safe to think of them as magic-bullet solutions. There are real, technical limits to what they can do and how much protection they can provide. For example: Unless you’re exclusively browsing HTTPS-secured websites, then your data is potentially visible once it leaves the VPN server. But so much of digital security is really about economics, and that often means going after the low-hanging fruit. Using a VPN to encrypt your web activity makes it harder for attackers and spies to get at you, and that alone can help protect you from many of the large attacks and mass surveillance that have defined the last few years. Just remember that using security tools isn’t an excuse for not also using a healthy dash of common sense. Remember, too, that using a VPN might break local laws or be against some terms of service.
What Do You Mean by Fastest VPN?
There are many different ways to evaluate an internet connection. When we review VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) It’s a simple but powerful tool, measuring three important metrics: latency, download speeds, and upload speeds.
Latency is a measurement of time between when your computer sends a request and when it receives a response. Lots of things can affect latency; the distance your request physically travels through fiber has a big impact on this metric, for example. Latency is measured in milliseconds, however, so even a large increase may not be noticeable to the average user. Download and upload speeds measure how much data is moved over your internet connection. Simple.
We’ll go into greater explanation about these three metrics and how we collect them below. But choosing which is most important is tricky. Mostly, it depends on how you’re using your internet connection. We assume that most people reading are major consumers of content. Reading the news, streaming movies, using BitTorrent, or listening to music on the web all require that your device be pulling down data more or less continuously. With that in mind, we’ve settled on download speeds as the most important benchmark.
So, when we say the “fastest” VPNs, we mean, first and foremost, those that have the least impact on download speeds. In case that doesn’t really apply to you, we’ve also broken down the top performers in the other two categories.
Speed Up Your VPN
There are a few ways you can offset the speed-reducing effects of using a VPN. First, choosing a service with many servers means that you’re more likely to find one that isn’t crowded with other people all trying to use the same bandwidth. Having many servers to choose from in different locations also means you’re more likely to find one that’s physically close to you, shortening the distance your data must travel.
Private Internet Access meets all these criteria: It has well over 3,000 servers across the globe. Of those, 1,600 are spread across 10 locations in the US alone. If you live in this country, you’re very likely to find a nicely uncrowded server close by. The ubiquity of its servers also means you’re likely to find a server nearby no matter where you travel.
Another approach is to offer purpose-specific servers. NordVPN, for example, has a high-speed server earmarked for video streaming. The company’s collection of these special servers is a great way to offer customers a better experience, one tailored to their needs. It even offers Tor-over-VPN servers, for another layer of privacy.
Also important is the protocol the VPN service uses. Connecting to a VPN service using the OpenVPN protocol generally yields a faster experience. Plus, OpenVPN is, as the name implies, open-source. That means it has been picked over for flaws and exploits by thousands of volunteers. If you’re concerned about speed and security, selecting a service that supports OpenVPN and makes it available by default is important.
Split tunneling is the generic term for defining what data goes through the VPN tunnel and what data does not. Most VPNs put all your data through the tunnel, but split-tunneling lets you segregate more sensitive activities, like web browsing, from more mundane but higher-bandwidth activities, like streaming music or playing video games. It’s especially useful because Netflix blocks VPN use, as do other services. You can simply route these apps outside the VPN in order to avoid this problem. Not many VPN services offer this feature, but PureVPN does. Seek it out if speed is of primary concern.
While not all VPNs offer split tunneling, many offer browser plug-ins. These lightweight additions secure only your browser traffic, leaving the rest of your traffic unaffected but more exposed. Many VPN plug-ins are free and without limitations, so seek them out of if price is an issue. Note that the Opera browser includes an excellent free VPN tool.
Some VPNs will also let you define the specific context in which the VPN functions. TunnelBear VPN, for example, lets you mark a network as trusted and will only activate when you’re not connected to one of these trusted networks. This will protect you from bad guys, but it will leave you open to tracking and surveillance by governments and your ISP when you’re on trusted networks.
While it’s rare, some VPN servers can actually make your internet connection faster. The reason for this isn’t always clear, and it may just be a result of local network trouble during the no-VPN baseline testing. But in some cases, you may be connected to higher bandwidth internet infrastructure somewhere else in the world, bypassing slower local fiber for a net gain in speed.
What’s the Fastest VPN?
When we test VPNs, we try to get a sense for the impact a service has on internet performance by finding a percentage change between using the VPN and not using the VPN for several speed measurements. First, we run several tests without the VPN active, discard the highest and lowest results, and find the average. This is our baseline. We then do the same thing, but with the VPN active.
To stress-test the VPN services, we do things a little differently. Instead of letting Ookla find the best (read: closest) test server, we select a test server in Anchorage, Alaska for both the VPN testing and the baseline test. we then connect to a VPN server in Australia, and record the results. Usually, this results in a large, very noticeable impact in latency as well as download and upload speeds. It helps give a sense of how the VPN would perform when you’re traveling abroad, or using the VPN to spoof your location.
We have tested each of these services in as repeatable a manner as possible, but it’s worth remembering that networks can be fickle. To get the clearest picture of a VPN’s performance, we would have to perform these tests many more times, at different locations and different times of day. We think of these tests as more of a snapshot of performance that establishes a replicable metric for measuring each service. Your mileage with these services will almost certainly vary somewhat from mine.
Below are the results of our local VPN testing, in descending order based on download speeds. This is because we consider local download speeds to be the most important metric when it comes to VPN speeds. This table also shows the top performing VPN services for upload speeds and latency, which, while less critical, are still important. Note that the table at the top of this article and the capsule reviews below show the fastest performers in terms of local download speed, ranked in descending order by overall score.