There's a growing number of valid reasons to use a virtual private network in 2017, but with the number of companies marketing VPNs skyrocketing, making an informed decision is harder than ever. We've evaluated four of the leading commercial VPN providers – IPVanish, ExpressVPN, NordVPN and PrivateInternetAccess.
Here's who we recommend.
We've evaluated these services using four categories we feel are the most relevant to a wider audience – privacy, speed, ease of use, and value for money.
We will be preparing guides for more specific use-cases in coming weeks, and if you have any suggestions, we'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An important clarification about VPN privacy
A VPN is an encrypted connection between you and a server – it is not a magical, all-in-one privacy and security solution.
Even if you trust the company running the VPN, your browser can still be fingerprinted by advertising companies, and your computer is still vulnerable to viruses and software exploits ... and if a government or law enforcement agency has reason to come after you, all bets are off.
Nevertheless, with many countries implementing mandatory data retention laws, and more recently, the US Senate making moves to allow ISPs to sell your browsing history, we believe that a trustworthy VPN can play a useful role in your overall digital hygiene – particularly if you ever use untrusted networks.
We tested speeds in a variety of scenarios. Using three different connections – a 4G mobile device, a 12 Mbps home ADSL connection, and a 100 Mbps commercial fiber connection – we tested each using the closest server available, and a server from the other side of the world.
In all cases, connecting to a server in another country impacted the peak download speeds on fiber and 4G – so you'll want to ensure that whichever VPN you choose has servers available in your country.
4G mobile connection
- Best upload speeds - IPVanish
- Best download speeds - PrivateInternetAccess
Home Wi-Fi connection
- Best download speeds - IPVanish
- Best upload speeds - draw
- Download speeds - IPVanish
- Upload speeds - IPVanish
All the VPNs we tested have:
- strict no logging policies (although there is obviously no way for us to verify a claim like this)
- a kill switch, which blocks all network traffic when there is an issue with the VPN connection
- IPv6 leak protection, which disables IPv6
- DNS protection
One point to note is that the kill switch in NordVPN's desktop application works differently to the others, allowing you to specify applications that will be shut down in the event of a connection issue.
Ease of Use
All the VPNs we tested have dedicated applications available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
Being able to install an application, enter a username and password, and click one button to log in to a VPN is certainly a boon for privacy, but not all apps are created equal.
Getting connected to the right server is crucial for maximizing performance, and some make this quicker and easier than others.
We tested the iOS, Mac and Windows apps.
We loved PrivateInternetAccess's minimal and snappy iOS app, which seems to connect far faster than others, and shows you the latency to each country.
NordVPN's app allows you to choose a specific server from a particular country to connect to, but doesn't tell you where in the country it is.
IPVanish is the clear winner on iOS. It has a server browser that can show you your latency to each server in each state and the current load on that server, or the ability to choose the best city and/or server in a specific country.
Windows & Mac
We tested both Windows 8.1 and Macintosh applications, and couldn't find any difference in the interface, features or performance of each particular provider across platforms.
The PrivateInternetAccess app allows port forwarding on some servers, which is a particularly niche feature, likely only useful for people using private torrent trackers.
IPVanish can filter by region and latency, while NordVPN can show you the distance to a server, but not the latency.
ExpressVPNs speed test is powerful, and will actually test real world download speeds from each server, but this takes over 10 minutes to run, and we found better results on IPVanish.
PrivateInternetAccess gets the nod for being the cheapest we evaluated, currently available for US$3.33/month on a yearly plan or $6.95/month on a monthly plan. If you're solely concerned about price, this is your best bet.
If you want the best, IPVanish has the best apps on mobile and desktop, and offered the best upload and download speeds available in all our tests (apart from the 4G download test, which went to PIA). These results are likely because its app provides the most detailed information so you can connect to the best server at the time. IPVanish costs $6.49/month on a yearly plan or $10.00/month on a monthly plan.
For a limited time, IPVanish is offering New Atlas readers 20% off all VPN plans, which works out to US$5.19/month on a yearly plan.