In-depth

Best VPN services 2021

With remote working on the rise, we round up the best tried and tested VPN services

VPN software displayed on a laptop

A virtual private network (VPN) is crucial for those worried about staying incognito online. As its name suggests, a VPN creates a private network from a public internet connection and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. Simply put, a VPN acts as a barrier between you and the content you're attempting to access, concealing your identity from those trying to snoop on your online actions.

For general internet use, VPNs function as a cover for your IP address, acting as a broker between a website's server and your device by simply showing the address of the VPN.

Connections going through a VPN benefit from an added layer of security, which means they are also a staple of remote working, something which has become widely adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a VPN enables employees to access confidential work documents safely and securely while away from the office and using potentially less secure internet connections. 

Aside from masking your IP address and remotely connecting you to business systems, VPNs are also used as a means of getting around regional locks, but some websites block access to known VPN technology to prevent the circumvention of their geo-restrictions.

In some parts of the world, the use of a VPN is prohibited. In China, for example, it's illegal to access the internet using a VPN unless you have been given express permission from the government. Even in the UK, there have been attempts to ban such blocking software, most notably under the Investigatory Powers Act, given concerns that it could make it more difficult to crack down on domestic terrorism.

Given the similarities between VPN services, it can be tough to choose a VPN provider. There are free VPNs available, but the paid-for services often tout better identity protection, a greater number of hosting locations, and often live support.

To help you cut through the marketing fluff, we decided to put these claims to the test, pitting some of the market's best-known VPNs against each other to see which is the best value for money and time.

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 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 VPN service we carried out a long test at Whoer.net, which would help expose potential problems such as a blacklisted IP address, or other issues that 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 

A screenshot displaying the home screen of F-Secure's Freedom VPN

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: From £24.99

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

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

AnchorFree Hotspot Shield 

A cheap and simple to use VPN that sidesteps geo-blocks, but it doesn't offer perfect anonymity 

AnchorFree Hotspot Shield VPN displayed on a laptop surrounded by world flags

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: From $5.99 per month

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

Publisher site: www.hotspotshield.com

NordVPN

NordVPN is excellent 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 are some significant variations in features between different servers. Overall, however, NordVPN is an excellent option for those looking to shield their surfing from prying eyes.

As we reported in October, the company admitted to suffering a data breach at one of its data centres back in 2018. The attack resulted in a hacker gaining access to a relatively new server holding a handful of encryption keys used by NordVPN users. NordVPN has assured customers that user credentials were not compromised during this attack and that the breach was isolated to a single server that is no longer used by the company.

Summary

Rating: 5/5 - EDITOR'S CHOICE

Price: From $2.96 per month

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: https://nordvpn.com/

Honourable mention: PureVPN

The PureVPN Google Play download screen displayed on a smartphone on a red background

The PureVPN app takes a goal-orientated approach. Instead of directly selecting an exit node location, you start by picking a usage mode. The modes cover all the main reasons why most people would want a VPN: streaming, censorship unblocking, security and peer-to-peer file sharing, and you can also choose a server that will assign you a dedicated IP address, for an additional $1.99 per month.

What happens next depends on the mode you choose. If you're looking for privacy, you'll still get a list of countries to connect to; choose the Stream mode, on the other hand, and you'll see a handy list of available streaming services - so you can, for example, open an optimised connection to Netflix US with just a single click.

PureVPN ticks all the privacy boxes and it helps that the operator is based in Hong Kong, far out of reach of even the Nine Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, and not subject to any mandatory data-sharing or retention laws. PureVPN, therefore, maintains a strict no-logging-policy, collecting no data whatsoever on its users' online activities, including the websites they visit or the apps they use. This - combined with the app's built-in privacy mode - makes PureVPN well worthy of your consideration if privacy and anonymity are your main concerns.

PureVPN also comes with a decent set of security features, such as the ability to block dating sites, piracy, drug-related pages and so on. Consequently, we could see it appealing to parents - although it is a little ironic that an app that's designed to bypass censorship can also be used to enforce your own.

PureVPN isn't short of servers, with exit nodes in over 14 countries. If you're looking to access blocked services from within a country with heavy censorship, PureVPN should be able to get you a fast, anonymous connection.

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 couldn't 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 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 superior performance, so it's our recommendation for those who need neither P2P nor router support. For those who do, we'd recommend NordVPN.

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