A Beginner's Guide To Choosing A VPN

You might know what a virtual private network (VPN) is, but the odds of you actually using one are low. You really should be using a VPN -- ultimately, you may end up seeing it as just as vital as your internet connection. We'll tell you why, explain how to choose a VPN provider and list five that are worth considering.

Title image remixed using konmesa (Shutterstock) and Toria (Shutterstock).

When we took a look at your five favourite VPN service providers, we noticed a few things. First, being the "best" is big business for VPN providers, and they'll fight hard to be identified as one of them. Secondly, there are so many VPN providers that it's difficult to choose a really good one. VPNs are not all created equally, and in this post, we're going to look at what a VPN is, why you want one, and how to pick the best one for you. Let's get started.

What Is A VPN?

Put simply, a virtual private network is a group of computers (or discrete networks) connected together through over a public network -- namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect remote data centres. Individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they're not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they're using an untrusted public network. Photo by Pavel Ignatov (Shutterstock).

When you connect to a VPN, you launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a remote server. Once both computers have verified each other's identity, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.

The most important thing you need to know about a VPN: It secures your computer's internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you're sending and receiving is encrypted and safe from prying eyes.

Whether the VPNs you're familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work in remote locations or the options you pay to get you watch your favourite shows in another country as they air, they are all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they are used, check out this How Stuff Works article.

Why You Need A VPN

A VPN alone is simply a way to bolster your security and access resources on a network you're not physically connected to. What you choose to do with a VPN is a different story. Typically, VPN users fall into a number of separate categories:

  • The worker/student. Generally uses a VPN service provided by their company or school to access resources on their corporate network when they're at home or travelling. As well as securing network resources, when using airport or cafe WI-Fi hotspots, the VPN helps ensure no-one is snooping on their connection. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they're not usually shopping around. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
  • The downloader. Whether they're downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn't want to end up on some media company's hitlist. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?
  • The privacy-minded security advocate. Whether they're a in a strictly monitored environment or a completely free and open one, this person uses VPN services to keep their communications secure and encrypted and away from prying eyes whether they're at home or abroad. To them, unsecured connections mean someone is potentially reading what you say.
  • The globetrotter. This person wants to watch the Olympics live as they happen, without dealing with their crummy local TV network's scheduling and commentary. They want to check out their favourite TV shows as they air instead of waiting for translations or re-broadcasts (or watch the versions aired in other countries,) listen to location-restricted streaming internet radio, or try out a new web service or application that looks great but has been limited to a specific country or region. (The country this kind of VPN lets you access is often referred to as the "exit location".)
  • A combination of the above. These categories aren't mutually exclusive, and many of us will fall into one or more of them. In all of these cases, a VPN service can be helpful.

Even if none of the above really sound right to you, you can still benefit from using a VPN. You should definitely use one when you travel or work on an untrusted network (read: a network you don't own or manage.) Opening your laptop at the coffee shop and logging in to Facebook, or using your phone's Wi-Fi to check your email at the airport can all potentially put you at risk.

We've shown you how to build your own VPN for remote gaming and browsing that also protects your security, explained how to make a VPN even more secure, and discussed dozens of services that operate free and paid VPNs you can sign up for and use.

Free is always a tempting price tag, but paying often makes sense. Free VPN providers are more likely to log your activities and serve contextual ads while you're connected. They're also more likely to use your usage habits to tailor future ads to you, and often have fewer exit locations and a weak commitments to privacy. If you're trying to access overseas services; free providers are often quickly identified and blocked by content owners, so you may find yourself switching frequently. If logging and privacy are important to you, you may want to avoid them. However, if you just need quick, painless security while travelling on a budget, they're an option to consider.

We've featured several reader-driven Hive Five Lists of the best providers out there. There are lots of choices, so how do you pick a solid VPN service?

What Makes For A Good VPN?

The best VPNs offer a solid balance of features, server location, connectivity protocols, and price. Some are great for occasional use, others are geared towards getting around the location restrictions companies put on their apps and services, and others are targeted at people who do heavy downloading and want a little privacy while they do it. Here's what you should look for.

  • Protocol: When you're researching VPN providers, you'll see terms such as SSL/TLS (sometimes referred to as OpenVPN support,) PPTP, IPSec, L2TP, and other VPN types. We asked Samara Lynn, lead analyst for networking and small business at PCMag, which options were the most useful. "SSL is what is commonly used these days," she said, but emphasised that the details are less important for most users. "All of these protocols will provide a secure connection."
  • Corporate and Exit Locations: Your service's location and the "exit locations" you can choose that identify the country you're browsing from are key considerations. If you want to watch the BBC iPlayer service, for example, your VPN service provider will need servers in the UK. If you're concerned about privacy or state-sponsored snooping, you may want to pick a service operated outside of your home country. It's important to make sure a VPN has servers in multiple locations -- or at least the location you're interested in -- when shopping.
  • Logging: When you connect to a VPN, you're trusting the VPN service provider with your data. Your communications may be secure from eavesdropping, but other systems on the same VPN -- especially the operator -- can log your data if they choose. If this concerns you, make absolutely sure you know your provider's logging policies before signing up. This applies to location as well -- if your company doesn't keep logs, it may not matter so much where it is located. For a good list of VPN providers that don't log your activities when connected (and many that do), check out this TorrentFreak article.
  • Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn't mean you're invulnerable. You should still make sure you're using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers -- especially mobile ones -- bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you're not downloading viruses or trojans. When you're shopping around, see if the providers you're interested in offer anti-malware protection while you're connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it's always good to have someone watching your back.
  • Mobile Apps: If you're going to spend money on a VPN service provider, you should be able to get a consistent experience across all of your devices. Most prominent providers offer desktop and mobile solutions for individual users. You shouldn't have to use two different VPNs with two different policies and agreements just because you want to secure your phone along with your laptop.
  • Price: Finally, go into your user agreement with both eyes open. You should read the privacy policy for the service you're interested in, and be very aware of the differences between free and paid services. Most paid providers offer free trials so you can give the service a shot first, but remember: just because you're paying for a service doesn't mean you shouldn't do your homework.

A mix of features and price make a good VPN, but plenty of bad VPNs masquerade as good ones. Look for articles written by trustworthy sources that discuss the merits of each service based on its features rather than simple rundowns and user testimonials, which are almost always polluted by a combination of fanatical users and corporate bootstrapping.

Which VPNs Are The Best?

You can find five of the best VPN providers for Aussie users in our 2017 Top Five list. There are plenty of other options out there but these are all solid choices.

The Five Best VPNs For 2017

We last updated our list of best VPN providers in 2014, but a lot has changed since then. With Netflix blocking VPNs and privacy becoming more of a concern than ever, the parameters of a good VPN for Aussie users have shifted. Some popular choices have fallen out of favour of late, so we've had a look at what VPN users in Australia are recommending now and for the year ahead.

Read more

Alternatively, Roll Your Own VPN

We've shown you how to roll your own VPN using cloud services from companies like Amazon, and open source software such as SoftEther VPN from the University of Tsukuba, Japan. You can also use how to set up Privoxy to secure your web browsing once you have your personal VPN set up. Other options include downloading and configuring OpenVPN (a free SSL VPN) on your own home server and also on your home router for overseas access. Combined with Privoxy, you get the privacy and anonymity benefits of a VPN without spending a cent.

Both of these options put control in your hands, and while they're not quite as anonymous as subscription methods and don't offer international exit locations, they do give you the most important benefits of a VPN: security, privacy and anonymity while you're away from home.

Samara Lynn is Lead Analyst, Networking and Small Business at PCMag.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @samaralynn. She graciously volunteered her expertise for this post, and we thank her.

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