Thanks to savvy hackers, desperate ad companies, and increasingly lax government oversight of the internet it's a good bet that even your nana knows what a VPN is by now. In the best case, Virtual Private Networks are essentially an underground railroad, whizzing you from destination to destination through a secure server that hides your ISP from advertisers and malcontents. Users in China and other areas that restrict internet content are using it to bypass those restrictions, and there's nothing to stop international travelers from using VPNs to access (for example) cheaper local rates on things like hotels and attraction tickets.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Setting up the infrastructure necessary for that kind of security is no mean feat, and user experiences are going to differ based on where you are, which VPN you choose and what you choose to do with it. Based on user chatter and reviews, two services have arisen as popular favorites: NordVPN and Private Internet Access. Let's break down the highlights:
Since its release in 2012, NordVPN has steadily grown a fan base of satisfied users that include reviewers at trusted tech sites like CNET, TrustPilot and PC Mag, the last of whom gave them a rare 5-stars, or "outstanding" rating. With a somewhat higher price point, it's the Cadillac option of VPN - but with features that make the extra scratch well worth it.
NordVPN wants to be your across-the-board security guard. It's compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS or iOS and Android smartphones, and you can connect to six devices simultaneously.
Like all VPNs, NordVPN runs your data through its own dedicated servers, making your location appear to originate from wherever the server is located. In Nord's case, you can take your pick of any one of 3,521 servers in 61 different countries. And yes, we did say dedicated servers, meaning they are physically located where they claim to be, not configured to appear that way. Depending which server location you choose, you'll be able to bypass international content regulations and firewalls - an added perk that comes with the anonymity. And perhaps most vitally, NordVPN stands by its no-logging policy. That means it keeps no record of your log-ins or where you surf, making you effectively anonymous even to the VPN itself.
The fact that ISPs won't be able to track your location acts as its own rudimentary ad-blocker, but NordVPN piles on some extra features here. Data sent through their service is double-encrypted, and they'll automatically shut down your site as soon as the VPN connection is dropped, ensuring no data leaks out.
With all these bells and whistles, NordVPN holds up as the option for those that really want to hedge their bets - especially with anonymity. As we said, the price points tend to be higher, but there are discounts available. A two-year subscription to NordVPN is currently $95.75 and a one-year sub is $60 - more than 65% off MSRP in either case. Use the code VPNSAVE20 for an additional 20% off.
Private Internet Access
Compared to NordVPN, Private Internet Access' shorthand description would be the "value" option - but writing it off that way would really short-change the features. Compared to the many, many VPNs in its price range, PIA offers some unparalleled security features, as well as that crucial (and all too rare) no-logging policy to protect your anonymity. Introduced in 2010, it's the more experienced dog in the fight and has garnered its own accolades from Tom's Guide and PC Mag, both of whom named PIA their Editor's Choice. (Check out PC Mag's breakdown here.) Both they and BestVPN gave PIA high marks for their speed, too - always a concern when running through a VPN.
With Private Internet Access, you can access up to five devices simultaneously on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, or Chrome. There's unlimited bandwidth on any of the above.
With Private Internet Access, you've got your pick of more than 3100 servers in 33 countries - more than enough options to bypass geological restrictions and still keep your speed up to par. Like NordVPN, PIA also holds to a no-logging policy that means it will not keep track of your whereabouts, virtual or otherwise - and neither will advertisers or hackers.
Here's where PIA really shines, with a host of extra protections that augment the ISP invisibility you'll already get. Like NordVPN, it's got a kill switch that will shut down your session if the VPN connection drops. But even through the tunnels of its secure servers, PIA runs your data past Blowfish CBC encryption. Users have the option of additional security with their MACE ad blocker, which keeps a running list of sites associated with malware or ad tracking and stops them at the DNS level. There's also the option to run using SOCKS5 proxy service, which adds an extra layer of anonymity for using torrent services or other specialized software. Lastly, MIA runs on an open-source system, which can be combed for any flaws and constantly improved.
For security, Private Internet Access is an unbeatable option at any of its regular price points. There's no free option for the service, but deals abound: A one-year subscription to PIA is currently 59% off at $33.77, with deeper discounts available for the two-year subscription ($55.55) and three-year subscription ($77.33).