Whether you’re someone who often works remotely from cafes, airports, or hotel lobbies, or are just concerned with the alarming frequency and specificity of targeted ads in your timeline, you should consider investing in a VPN. But with the myriad of commercial options available, it can be tough to find one with the right balance of features, scale, and price. Here’s what you should expect from a quality VPN, and how much you should be willing to shell out for a subscription:
1. Actual privacy protection
When subscribing to a VPN service, you’re paying for privacy, not a neat way to consolidate your browsing data for advertisers. Sadly, the increased interest in online privacy has given rise to scores of phony mobile VPNs — many of which would love to take over the exclusive rights to your browser traffic from your ISP. If your chosen provider doesn’t mention a no-log guarantee, there’s a good chance they have a side hustle of selling your search history to advertisers or law enforcement.
Additionally, a VPN should ensure that the tunnel they are providing is actually secure. This means offering strong encryption over a variety of data transfer protocols like PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec to maintain compatibility with the most platforms. Just because your bleeding-edge desktop OS supports a certain secure communication method doesn’t mean your 2-year-old smartphone will.
2. Ease of use
There’s no silver bullet for internet security. It’s all about making the right compromise between convenience and strength, and having the world’s most impenetrable data shield doesn’t matter if it’s a pain to use every day. To make sure you’ll actually want to use it, your VPN should be available at the push of a button, preferably with minimal setup. Since you likely spend half of your browsing time on a mobile device, you’ll want something that just works in the background without needing to be monitored.
Speaking of mobile, you’ll also want to make sure you get one that actually has an app for the rectangle that lives in your pocket, as well as every other internet-enabled widget you own. And those people that have a device on-hand for everything from bedtime Netflix to online games will definitely want a VPN that allows multiple simultaneous connections.
3. A wide reach
It’s possible to have a VPN that only lives on a single server, but that’s usually for home sysadmins who want granular control over how their fleet of machines connect to the internet. To get decent speeds over your secured line while making sure your online activity isn’t completely transparent, you should choose a VPN that has enough nodes to offer a painless browsing experience in more than one location.
While the number of servers isn’t as important as how spread out they are, it can be a fairly decent indicator of your VPN’s global sphere of influence. If you are traveling to a country that falls outside of your provider’s range, your VPN connection will be too slow to be useable for even the lightest browsing.
4. Control over your virtual location
Not only does a VPN mask your physical whereabouts, as revealed by your device’s IP address, certain providers offer the capability to completely spoof your location to make services think you’re somewhere you aren’t. This is critically important when traveling in a country that has a track record of internet censorship. Even if you don’t care about declaring your support for the freedom of information, getting around state-controlled roadblocks can be necessary to access work resources internationally. Aside from circumventing censors, faking your IP address can give you instant access to region-locked media, so you can watch all the British television you could ever dream of from the comfort of your home.
5. A not-outrageous price
When it comes to software services, you often get what you pay for. But that doesn’t mean you should pay out the nose for basic online privacy. Free VPNs should be avoided like the plague because there’s no clear incentive for them to guarantee the safety of your personal information. If they are already freely offering a dedicated route for your traffic, there’s nothing stopping them from profiting of your data in any way they see fit. As a rule of thumb, your VPN should never be more expensive than your monthly internet bill.
For a VPN that checks all of these boxes without charging an arm and a leg, take a look at Private Internet Access. They offer robust security and anonymous browsing without collecting any user data. You get 5 simultaneous connections, so you can always have it running on your phone, desktop, game console, wireless router, or smart TV. They have over 3200 gateways in 25 different countries to keep latency low no matter where you are. A two-year subscription usually goes for an already-reasonable price of $166, but it’s available for $59.95 from the Boing Boing store.