So are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees? I was left wondering this question recently on a trip to China where I could not get access to many sites which I have come to depend on such as Google, Gmail and Facebook. Some of these fall under the outright ban category while others were just so slow they were basically unusable. VPNs should at least help bypass the former, while it may have surprising results for the later too.
Before I dive into my experience, just a quick recap of what benefits a VPN can bring
- Most VPN providers will have servers in various countries, which means you can select which VPN server you connect to which will allow you to access contents not available in your current location, but is available elsewhere. The example I gave before would be facebook where I can connect to a VPN server in USA while in China.
- Encryption means that the connection between your computer and the rest of the internet is encrypted and no one can spy on what you are looking at or doing. This provides an extra layer of protection against anyone spying on your traffic.
- Anonymised IPs are provided by the VPN so that your real IP is not revealed to any websites. This is important if you are visiting file sharing sites which might log visitor IPs.
- (Unexpected) Sometimes using a VPN can boost your internet speed. This is counter intuitive as the traffic has to be encrypted and therefore should be slower in theory – see next section.
Can VPNs make my internet faster?
As mentioned, the biggest surprise I got when using a VPN was the speed up of my internet connection. Two possible theories:
- Your normal internet traffic is not encrypted and gets throttled by your ISP. Your VPN traffic is encrypted, not recognised by your ISP as traffic they want to throttle, so they don’t.
- There is a bottleneck somewhere along the typical routes between you and the sites your are normally visiting. When you go via the VPN you end up going via different routes and bypassing the bottleneck.
Choosing the right VPN provider
After reading many review sites, I opted to try out Private Internet Access – https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/. They are known to offer some of the best service at competitive prices. At time of writing, you can get unlimited access from as little as $5.99 (or about £3.50) a month. That seems very reasonable to me given the amount of infrastructure they provide in order to make this possible. However, there are hundreds of different providers out there and some provide more tailored services aimed at specific tasks, it is worth shopping around before diving in.
At this point, you might be wondering if its a good idea to be sharing everything you do with a VPN company. You are right to be cautious, so when choosing a VPN company, make sure they have a long and reputable history. The VPN I chose (PrivateInternetAccess) also claims never to store server logs and also allows you to pay with Bitcoins – thus you can have another layer to protection as they don’t really know who you are either (disclaimer: you are relying on Bitcoin’s anonymous nature which isn’t perfect).
Reality strikes again
This is all very promising so far and I was extremely looking forward to permanently having it enabled for my internet. Unfortunately my experiences wasn’t so smooth.
Some of the issues I faced:
- VPN software wasn’t very stable, it would often drop and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night because of the beeping (warning that VPN is down). There is an option to drop your whole internet connection if VPN is down by default as well.
- If you install the VPN on your computer, you will have issues connecting to it using your home wifi from other devices. For example I have Plex server on my PC and Google Chromecast connected to my TV. Because the VPN essentially encrypts everything, you cant connect to your PLEX server.
- The VPN software had Windows 8 compatibility issues even though it claimed it is Windows 8 compatible. You have to set the client to run in Compatibility mode for Windows 7.
- IPv4 supported but not IPv6 – this along with Windows 8 (IPv6 is on by default) can cause the VPN client to crash as well. To get round this, you have to disable IPv6 browsing on your computer.
Even after working with their support folks on 3 and 4, I could not get their VPN to reliability stay up for 24 hours. At one point, their support actually said VPNs are fragile by nature and very fiddly to get right – I totally believe him, but it means that this market segment is still a little immature and those who put up with it are your more computer savvy types rather than everyday folks.
It is important to mention that just because you are using a VPN, does not mean you are 100% protected. Always remain cautious and don’t start undertaking illegal activities just because you thought you could get away with it.
Recently police in the UK has started to target VPN sites, arresting a 20 year old owner who ran various proxy / VPN sites. It seems the authorities are now turning their attention to VPNs / Proxies after their victory over the ISPs in regards to direct access to torrent sites. The UK authorities were not the first ones to do this of course, VPNs have long been targetted by Chinese authorities and each month new sites are taken down.
Are VPNs worth the price?
We go back to the original question posed at the start, are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees? I think if I were to go on abroad this moment in time again, knowing there would be restrictions in the country I am travelling to, I would gladly pay the small insignificant fees. However, as a everyday tool, it is too fragile and breaks too often – I simply grew tired of fighting it all the time. I am hopeful that this sector will mature over time and a polished product will one day emerge.