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Best VPN services: Reviews and buying advice

By using a VPN you can keep your identity and data secure online. vpn hub 960 IDG/Rob Schultz

Contributor, PCWorld | Aug 12, 2019 12:42 PM PT

Table of Contents

Choosing the right virtual private network (VPN) service is no simple task. A VPN should keep your internet usage private and secure, but not every service handles your data in the same way. Just look at the critiques of notable computer security experts and online pundits to understand the challenge.

Even supposed experts in the field can turn out to be frauds, as was recently reported about site TheBestVPN.com. The site’s creator appears to not actually be a cypber-security expert, as he once claimed, but might not actually be a real person, casting serious doubt on any of the site’s VPN reviews and research.

VPN cheat sheet

Our quick-hit recommendations

Rest assured, we’ve done the legwork to determine if a VPN service has a history of good or bad behavior. In order to win our seal of approval, the service has to protect online privacy; allow you to keep anonymity; offer a good variety of locations from which to direct your traffic; offer fast, reliable performance; and provide an easy-to-use interface.

If you’d like to have more flexibility and choose for yourself, we also offer our tips on what to look for in a VPN. Just keep reading past our Best VPN and Best VPN for U.S. Netflix recommendations. (And if you live in the United Kingdom and are looking for a VPN, check out VPN recommendations from our sister site, TechAdvisor.)

Want to know more about VPNs and what they can and can’t do? Skip down to our “What is a VPN?” section below.

Updated 8/12/19 to include our review of IVPN, which has improved a lot since we last reviewed it, with more country locations, more servers, and the inclusion of the up-and-coming WireGuard protocol. Scroll to the bottom of this article for links to all of our VPN reviews.

Best VPN overall  Mullvad (late 2018)

Sweden-based Mullvad is like the Swiss Bank account of VPNs. Instead of attaching your account to an email address, the company auto-generates an account number for you, which is all that's required to log in. Mullvad now offers a much improved and user friendly interface, its speeds are good, and the company takes privacy very seriously.

It’s hard to select the best overall VPN. Some services are weaker on privacy, but are significantly easier to use, while others could stand an interface redesign.

Nevertheless, the point of a VPN is to remain private and to have your internet activity kept as private as possible. For that reason, we’re choosing Mullvad as the best overall VPN (see our full review of Mullvad). The company recently released an overhauled desktop client, and the VPN does a great job at privacy. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, and you can mail your payment in cash if you want to. Like many other VPNs, Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t even collect any identifying metadata from your usage.

Mullvad is also fast, though not the fastest VPN we’ve tested. Last year, we said if Mullvad added a more user-friendly interface it would be nearly unbeatable and that is definitely the state of affairs at this writing.

Runner-up  CyberGhost

CyberGhost is an easy-to-use VPN with impressive speeds with features that will appeal to both novice and experienced users.

CyberGhost gives Mullvad some stiff competition in the speed department, especially for locations in North America and Europe. It does a good job protecting user anonymity, too—requiring no identifying information and using a third-party service for payment processing—albeit not to the same degree as Mullvad. Add to that CyberGhost’s unique, easy-to-use interface, good price, and streaming unblocking (although not for Netflix), and this VPN is a solid choice. (See our full review of CyberGhost.)

Best VPN for U.S. NetflixMentioned in this article Windscribe Pro

Windscribe won't win any speed showdowns compared to other VPNs we've looked at, but it's still got some great servers in Europe and North America. The service also has added extras like a link shortener with warnings about ad trackers on the destination page, and it currently works with U.S. Netflix.

If you live outside the U.S. (or are a U.S. resident and traveling abroad), a VPN is the only way to access Netflix’s US library. But ever since Netflix began blocking VPNs, few services even bother to do battle with the streaming behemoth.

Fortunately, there are some brave companies that are still trying to stay one step ahead of Netflix’s VPN catchers. Currently, Windscribe Pro is our top choice. The service delivers good speeds on its U.S. servers, and has a very simple approach to Netflix: Just select the “Windflix” connection from the desktop app or browser extension and you’re good to go. Windflix is still technically in beta, but it works well and there’s even a Windflix U.K. option if you’d like to experience Netflix from the other side of the pond.

Of course, Netflix could block access at any time, but right now Windscribe is one step ahead of the streaming giant’s crackdown. (For more about Windscribe Pro see our full review.)

Fastest VPN  HotSpot Shield Premium

HotSpot Shield offers fast speeds, a beautiful and simple desktop app for windows, and 25 country locations. But it's privacy policy means your activities are recorded—though not tied to you. Still, this is not what privacy-conscious users will be looking for.

HotSpot Shield has some of the best speeds we’ve seen yet, and it’s not even close. In our tests, HotSpot Shield dipped around 35 percent below the base speed. That’s substantially less impact than you’ll see with most VPN services—though yourexperience may vary.

On the downside, HotSpot Shield doesn’t allow for a way to pay anonymously and its privacy policy may not sit well with some.

Still, HotSpot Shield has excellent speeds, it’s desktop application is very nice, and as a bonus it works with U.S. Netflix (read our full review).

Best VPN for U.S. speeds  IVPN

Gibraltar-based IVPN has a small network of servers, but good speeds, and a solid privacy policy. It's pricier than other VPN services, but for those who want a solid set of privacy features it's a good choice.

IVPN has by far the best speeds we’ve seen on U.S. (and UK) connections. Your individual results may vary, but with a free, three-day trial, anyone looking for good speeds from the U.S. or UK should give IVPN a try. IVPN’s Windows program is very easy to understand and manage; however, it is a pricey service at $100 per yearand there’s no guarantee it will work with Netflix. (Read our full review.)

Best VPN for torrents  Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access has an excellent price and recently backed up its privacy policy claims in dealings with the FBI. It also has good number of country locations and a ton of servers.

Torrents get a bad rap, and if we’re honest, that’s for good reason. Using torrents is the number one way to download pirated material including movies, TV shows, music, and games. But that’s not all there is to torrenting. It’s a very efficient way to download legitimate software such as Linux distributions and authorized content from sites such as BitTorrent Now.

If you’re going to use torrents, however, life is easier if you use a VPN—especially if the network you’re on blocks torrenting. There are many VPNs among our top picks that could be used for downloading torrents, but our preferred choice is Private Internet Access. This no-frills VPN has an absolute ton of servers, good speeds, and a nice amount of country locations to remain relatively anonymous. (Read our full review.) The price is right at less than $40 a year, and its privacy policies have been tested in court. Plus, advanced users can adjust their level of encryption for data encryption, data authentication, and handshake.

What is a VPN?

VPNs create a secure tunnel between your PC and the internet. You connect to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country—say, France or Japan. Your web traffic then goes through that server to make it appear as though you’re browsing from that server’s location, and not from your actual location.

When you’re using a VPN, it’s difficult for others to snoop on your web-browsing activity. Only you, the VPN service, and the website you’re visiting will know what you’re up to. 

A VPN can be a great response to a variety of concerns, such as online privacy, anonymity, greater security on public Wi-Fi, and, of course, spoofing locations.

safervpn SaferVPN

A good VPN offers you a wide variety of locations to connect to. 

While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. Some security experts argue that a commercial VPN is better than a free proxy such as the TOR network for political activity, but a VPN is only part of the solution. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $7 monthly subscription to a VPN.

If you want a VPN for political reasons, this article cannot help. But there are other places you can turn to online such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Moving on to less serious topics, a VPN is an excellent choice for staying secure while using Wi-Fi at the airport or your local café. Hackers sitting on public Wi-Fi can try to hack your PC, but a VPN makes that task much harder.

Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.

There are VPNs that can fool Netflix, but they are rare and there are no guarantees these services will outsmart Netflix forever.

Beyond Netflix, a VPN can help to download an Android app that is only available on a foreign version of Google Play, or stream content from regionally restricted services such as the UK-bound BBC iPlayer or Pandora.

One final note of caution: Do not rely on your VPN to protect banking information on an open Wi-Fi connection. Whenever possible, leave online financial dealings for home over a hard-wired connection.

What to look for in a VPN

Before anything else, understand that if you want to use a VPN you should be paying for it. Free VPNs are either selling your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or giving you a paltry amount of data transfer every month. Either way, a basic rule of thumb is that a free VPN will not protect your privacy in any meaningful way.

The next thing to consider is a VPN’s logging policies. In other words, what kind of data is a service collecting about you and your VPN activity, and how long is that data saved?

Privacy is the basic principle of a VPN, and what good is it to avoid passive government surveillance only to have a VPN provider record all your website visits?

Ideally, a VPN will say it only keeps logs for the briefest of periods. Some providers, for example, only log activity in RAM during a session or automatically send all records to oblivion once they’re created. Other providers may keep records for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months.

privateinternetaccess Private Internet Access

The settings window for Private Internet Access.

VPN policies also vary when it comes to personal information. Some VPNs want to know very little about you, preferring users sign on with a pseudonym and pay with Bitcoin. That’s a little exotic for most people, which is why many services also accept PayPal.

Paying this way isn’t ideal for privacy, but it means the VPN doesn’t have your payment information on record—though it would be available from PayPal.

After the logging policies, you want to know how many servers the VPN offers and how many country connections it has. The number of servers provides an idea of how much load a VPN can take before slowing to a crawl due to overwhelming traffic.

The country connections, meanwhile, matter most to those who want to spoof their location; however, non-spoofers should also make sure there are connections in their home country. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, and want access to American content, then you’ll need a VPN that provides U.S. connections. It won’t work to try and watch Amazon Prime Video over a Dutch VPN connection, because as far as Amazon’s concerned your computer is in the Netherlands.

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Organic dye in zinc oxide interlayer stabilizes and 2019-08-16 10:10:00Organic solar cells are made of cheap and abundant materials, but their efficiency and stability still lag behind those of silicon-based solar cells.

Best of both worlds: Asteroids and massive mergers 2019-08-16 09:24:27Researchers are using the Catalina Sky Survey's near-Earth object telescopes to locate the optical counterparts to gravitational waves triggered by m

Wireless sensors that stick to the skin to 2019-08-16 09:24:24Engineers have developed experimental stickers that pick up physiological signals emanating from the skin, then wirelessly beam these health readings

Tiny lensless endoscope captures 3D images of objects 2019-08-15 18:06:31Researchers have developed a new self-calibrating endoscope that produces 3D images of objects smaller than a single cell. Without a lens or any optic

Oil and water: better monitoring needed to secure 2019-08-15 18:06:27When it comes to groundwater quality, fracking receives much of the public attention but misses most of the picture, according to a new study by hydro

New contrast agent could make MRIs safer 2019-08-15 16:04:26Researchers have taken a key step forward in developing a new, possibly safer contrast agent for use in MRI exams.

Newfound superconductor material could be the 'silicon of 2019-08-15 14:08:43Newly discovered properties in the compound uranium ditelluride show that it could prove highly resistant to one of the nemeses of quantum computer de

Suit up with a robot to walk and 2019-08-15 14:08:28A collaborative team reports that they now have developed the first portable exosuit that can assist the extension of the hip joint during both walkin

Winning coaches' locker room secret 2019-08-15 12:51:41Researchers found a significant relationship between how negative a coach was at half-time and how well the team played in the second half: The more n

In product design, imagining end user's feelings leads 2019-08-15 12:22:57In new product design, connecting with an end user's heart, rather than their head, can lead to more original and creative outcomes, says an expert i


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