Best VPN services for 2018

The need for online privacy has never been more important - 8 VPN services tried and tested

VPNs are becoming increasingly important in business to test out services from a global perspective. Whether you need to check whether your company's website works in Japan, or want to access content only available in China, using a VPN will allow you to re-route traffic using services in that location, making it appear as if you're browsing from thousands of miles away.

Netflix, for example will only allow you to access local content according to where the connection originates. If you want to watch US content but are currently in the UK, you'll have to hop on a VPN with a server in the US to watch the TV or films you wish, othereise, you're stuck with UK-only programmes.

Although VPNs have had quite a bad rap in the past for hiding identities, which the world automatically thinks has malicious intentions, they also serve to protect the personalities of vulnerable people, campaigners and others who feel exposing their true self will result in persecution, whether by the government or other groups.

Although the concept behind VPNs is complicated, finding the right one for your business can be even more bewildering. Some have access limits, meaning you won't be able to download content without paying a premium, others are limited to certain regions, for example.

We've rounded up a number of different VPN services, analysing several different features to help you find the best service for your company's specific needs. We've also rounded up the prices to make it completely transparent.

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 probably 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 service we conducted the extended test at Whoer.net, which would help reveal potential problems such as a blacklisted IP address, or other issues which 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.

Best free VPNs

Avast SecureLine

SecureLine is an easy to use VPN, but it's not cheap, and it doesn't offer the best protection 

Pros: Simple app; Good territory range

Cons: Limited options; Failed DNS leak test; Expensive

Avast's SecureLine is a comparatively simple VPN service, with clients for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, but no browser or router-based configuration. A one-computer licence costs £49.99 (inc VAT), or £14.99 on mobile platforms. It's simple to install, and simple to connect either to your nearest server, or specify one of the 27 available locations where you'll appear to be located. The Americas and Europe dominate, with Asia-Pacific choices comprising Hong Kong, Melbourne, Singapore and Tokyo. 

Avast primarily sells the service on security scenarios, such as the ability to secure wireless traffic for mobile workers, and also says that it doesn't log traffic – although we believe that it does log IP addresses, timestamps and bandwidth. Its website mentions geoblocking benefits, but while our simple iPlayer test worked, Netflix US content didn't. While Whoer.net reported only minor configuration issues, DNS tests showed that we were still querying our ISP's servers: while the traffic we were exchanging may have been secured, a hacker on the same network – or our ISP – could generate a record of the sites we were visiting.

With AES256 encryption, SecureLine should be adequate to protect sensitive traffic on public networks, and its range of locations ought to defeat some location blocks. It's rather expensive, however, given its lack of advanced features and protection.

Summary

Rating: 3/5

Price: £49.99 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: http://www.avast.com/en-gb/secureline-vpn#pc

Hide My Ass! 

A huge range of servers and many security features makes Hide My Ass a fair choice 

Pros: Unrivalled geographical coverage; No P2P blocking; Advanced options

Cons: Some logging; Uses third-party DNS; Quite expensive

Hide My Ass (HMA) offers a huge number of servers, spanning 221 territories at the time of our review. It's owned by UK limited company Privax, which is reassuring in some ways, although the UK is a member of the five-eyes surveillance group of countries. Subscribers can use two devices or a supported router. There's no free trial, but there is a free browser-based version.

HMA's Windows client isn't especially attractive, but it does present you with a lot of information and options. You can quickly select country and server, choose OpenVPN or PPTP protocols, and view the session output as you connect. Advanced options include scheduled IP address changes to help mask your activity further, and secure IP binding to prevent critical apps connecting outside of the VPN. The load-balancing feature connects to the less busy servers in your chosen location.

We measured packet loss of about 3%, but there was no noticeable performance impact, and in most sessions HMA made little dent in our bandwidth. Whoer.net detected a possible VPN connection through WebRTC, but no other issues, while DNSleaktest.com showed that the service was using OpenDNS rather than its own servers. Bandwidth is unlimited and P2P traffic is not blocked, but despite the range of servers, we couldn't find one that worked with Netflix US or iPlayer content. Overall this is a well-specified, but pricey service, and at the time of our review its geo-unblocking performance was poor.

Summary

Rating: 3/5

Price: $11.52/month for Pro

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: http://www.hidemyass.com/

TunnelBear

Cute, cheap and mostly effective, Tunnelbear is a VPN suited to individuals and micro-businesses 

Pros: Cheap licence covers five devices; Mostly fast and effective

Cons: DNS configuration could be better; Limited stealth; Enough with the bear puns

Apple ditched skeuomorphism with iOS 7, but TunnelBear didn't get the memo: all wood-effect and switches, the PC app looks like it belongs in 2013. Worse, there's a constant mauling from bear references, such as the cutesy Little (free), Giant (monthly) and Grizzly (yearly) subscriptions – each covers five devices, and at $59.88 (£46) the latter is remarkably cheap. The twenty territories available comprise quite a balanced global spread. 

TunnelBear offers in-browser plug-ins for Chrome and Opera, but doesn't allow router configuration. The app is thin on advanced options, but the Windows and iOS versions include the option to block websites that use tracking for analytics, advertising or social profiling. There's a further option to automatically connect the VPN when an unsecured Wi-Fi connection is detected.

Despite a packet loss of around 2%, TunnelBear appeared to have little impact on our connection speed. Using it we were able to view content from Netflix US, but P2P traffic is blocked altogether. We were also less enthused about its stealthiness: DNSleaktest.com showed that it was using Google servers to resolve addresses, and a mismatch between the DNS and server locations tipped Whoer.net off to the fact we were probably using a VPN. While TunnelBear isn't bad overall, it could be more stealthy. Plus its app aesthetics quickly get old and the ursine corporate personality can be tough to bear.

Summary

Rating: 3/5

Price: $59.88 (£46 approx.)

Publisher site: http://www.tunnelbear.com/

Read on to find the best paid-for VPNs

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Best paid-for VPNs

Buffered VPN

An effective and robust way of accessing websites when you away from home

Pros: Aims to sidestep Netflix issues; 30-day money back guarantee

Cons: Customer service may be slow for some

Buffered is one of the newer VPN services on the market and is based in Hungary. While it isn’t one of the biggest, it is certainly a fast service with quality servers on tap to connect to.

 It supports a number of platforms including iOS, Android and Windows. Buffered uses IP sharing, which adds to subscribers’ anonymity. It also has a no logging policy so individual activities aren’t monitored.

It uses OpenVPN software to set up and connect to its VPN servers. It offered VPN servers in 33 countries with unlimited bandwidth and server switches. It does not provide support for PPTP or L2TP/IPsec protocols. It uses Blowfish CBC 128-bit to encrypt all data when connected to the service.

Monthly plans start from $12.99 per month with bi-yearly and annual subscriptions costing less.

Summary

Rating: 4/5

Price: from $7.75 per month (based on annual subscription)

Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux

Publisher site: www.buffered.com

AnchorFree Hotspot Shield 

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

Pros: Effective at defeating geo-blocking; Cheap

Cons: Limited advanced options; Imperfect anonymity

Hotspot Shield is one of few VPN apps to support Windows Phone and there's also a Chrome browser extension, but you can't set the service up on a router. It provides a choice from 20 virtual locations, among which Tokyo is the sole Asian representative. While the client has no advanced options, you can configure it to connect automatically if it detects either a secured or unsecured wireless connection.

The presence of eight icons showing various unblocked services suggests that geo-unblocking is the primary focus here – certainly, we were able to watch Netflix US content without issue. Performance was good: Hotspot Shield seems quick to connect, disconnect and change country, and we saw high speeds with no packet loss.

However, the service doesn't have its own DNS servers, which gives third parties the potential to aggregate information on its users. Whoer.net also rated our UK connection at only 40% anonymity, chiefly because it detected multiple IP addresses associated with our session. This seems a harsh mark, as none of these belonged to us or our own ISP.

There is a free version on the website but you can upgrade to pay just over £70 for the year, or choose a 'lifetime' plan forn£119.99. While we're not convinced that it offers perfect anonymity, it could be a cheap and effective way to secure a public wireless connection or view content from other territories. 

Summary

Rating: 4/5

Price: £5.99 per month for the yearly version inc VAT

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

Publisher site: www.hotspotshield.com

CyberGhost

CyberGhost offers intermediate control, but it's expensive if you have multiple devices

Pros: Fairly private; Some advanced settings; Supports router configuration

Cons: Some minor stealth shortcomings; Expensive

CyberGhost's PC app strikes a fair balance between a simple, intuitive client, and providing more advanced options to those who want them. You can choose from 30 'simulated locations' and connect, or delve into the settings to configure extras such as obfuscating your browser information, social content blocking and more advanced connection settings. Among these, DNS forcing is enabled by default - CyberGhost uses its own DNS servers.

CyberGhost performed adequately in the stealth and anonymity tests provided by Whoer.net, but minor configuration issues meant the site guessed that we could be connecting via a VPN service. Elsewhere the service scored highly: it meets the PrivacyTools.io criteria, claims to do no logging, and also accepts payments in Bitcoin. It's based in Romania, which offers EU data protections without 14-eyes surveillance group membership. Unfortunately, using CyberGhost we could neither view Netflix US content from a US server nor iPlayer content from a UK server, suggesting that geo-unblocking may not be its forte.

At £45 a year for a single device, the Premium subscription is expensive - some competitors include multiple devices for the same price or less, but the five-device Premium Plus option is £70. That said, CyberGhost does permit generic access through the OpenVPN, L2TP, IPSec and PPTP protocols, allowing network-wide implementation on suitable routers. While the service is fairly good, it's comparatively expensive. 

Summary

Rating: 3/5

Price: £45 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: www.cyberghostvpn.com/en_gb

F-Secure Freedome VPN

Easy to use, effective and reasonably priced, Freedome is a great option if you don't need advanced settings 

Pros: Effective privacy and security; Reasonably priced licences

Cons: Limited options for advanced users; Limited territorial options; Some P2P blocking

F-Secure's Freedome VPN client is available for PC, Mac, Android and iOS, but you can't configure it with a router. The software is straightforward, offering a choice of 27 locations majoring on Europe and North America – there are only three Asian locations, while Central and South America aren't represented at all. There's a 14-day trial, after which yearly licences cost £40, £50 or £58 for three, five or seven devices.

In our limited testing, Freedome was among the best-performing VPN services. We experienced a small (1%) packet loss, but little slow-down in ping or connection speed when connected to F-Secure's London servers. Our connection passed probes at DNSleaktest.com and scored highly at Whoer.net. A UK server connection let us watch iPlayer content, while this was one of only three services through which we could also view Netflix US content. Like most VPN services we tested, Freedome blocks P2P traffic in some regions – a slightly heavy-handed way of ensuring its own legal compliance.

The Freedome client has almost no advanced settings, but it includes additional, software-based features including tracking and browser protection, and a private search engine. Based in Finland, it benefits from EU data-protection and commerce laws, yet is also outside the 14-eyes surveillance group. F-Secure accepts anonymous payments and claims not to log usage or store user data. The service has strong privacy and is potentially effective at defeating geo-blocks. However, it's probably best suited to consumers and small firms due to its lack of advanced features.

Summary

Rating: 5/5

Price: £40 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

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

NordVPN

NordVPN is great value and offers high levels of security and privacy 

Pros: No logging; Broad geographical coverage; Good value

Cons: Features vary by server

NordVPN is operated under Panamanian jurisdiction, and promises no data logging whatsoever. It meets the other PrivacyTools.io criteria including those for encryption and Bitcoin payments. You can connect up to six devices on a single account, and configure a supported router for other devices. There's an easily configured kill switch, which immediately stops traffic from selected apps should your VPN connection fail. Almost no inbound ports are blocked, and P2P traffic is allowed on a small sub-group of the claimed total of 557 servers, which spans 49 countries. 

NordVPN's PC app is simple, displaying a list of territories, or a more detailed list of servers grouped into use cases such as 'Ultra-fast TV', VPN and 'double VPN' - an unusual two-step service routing your VPN traffic through a second VPN. DNS leak protection is enabled - and effective - by default, and Whoer.net tests showed no obvious problems on UK servers.

Unfortunately this wasn't the case on every server - we found a wide variation by server in how well our use of a VPN was stealthed, with some servers having been blacklisted at the time of our tests. While iPlayer content did work, a Netflix crackdown meant that we couldn't stream US content on any server we tried, even using the Smart-Play feature. The need to pick among servers for some features makes NordVPN more cumbersome than most, but otherwise it effectively combines privacy and performance, making it good value.

Summary

Rating: 5/5

Price: $69 (£49 approx)

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS

Publisher site: http://nordvpn.com/

Steganos Online Shield 

We encountered too many minor but annoying issues with Online Shield 

Pros: IPv6 support; Licence covers five devices

Cons: Limited country options; Imperfect anonymity; DNS leak

Steganos markets Online Shield on claims of maximum anonymity, protection from hackers and its ability to defeat geo-blocking. It's not available for Macs, and you can't set it up with a router, but a single licence covers up to five devices. It's the only VPN service we've seen so far that supports IPv6 connections, and the app incorporates some useful extra features such as ad and tracking blockers, a cookie eraser and browser anonymiser.

Unfortunately, there's lots we didn't like about the service. Only nine territories are offered, with Japan the only Asia-Pacific location and no servers in South America. We experienced occasional packet loss (less than 1%), the connection seemed significantly slower than our bandwidth, and we couldn't view Netflix US content. Whoer.net gave a respectable 90% score once we'd enabled Online Shield's WebRTC IP leak block, but we were still using our ISP's DNS servers, potentially leaking vital information about our activity. In one session we were allocated a blacklisted IP, a potential risk with any VPN service.

While most of the above issues are minor, taken together they were enough to dent our confidence in the service. We've no doubt it's up to the job of protecting data on an insecure network, but after our experience we wouldn't use it where stealth or anonymity are key.

Summary

Rating: 2/5

Price: £50 inc VAT

Platforms: Windows, Android, iOS

Publisher site: www.steganos.com/en/steganos-online-shield-vpn

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 weren't able to 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 down 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 good performance, so it's our recommendation for those who need neither P2P or router support. For those who do, we'd recommend NordVPN.

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