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Best VPN: best software for Netflix, file sharing and privacy

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Getting a VPN is the best way to easily digitally transport yourself from one place to another, but there are a lot on the market. We've rounded up eight of the best VPNs and subjected them to some in-depth tests, rating them for speed and accessibility for both Netflix and BBC iPlayer. There are free VPN and paid-for options available. Read on for more...

What is a VPN?

A VPN (virtual private network) gives you direct and encrypted access to a private network via the internet. Before they were a consumer product, VPNs were widely used in business to allow employees working remotely to access secure data that would usually only be available to those physically at the office.

With such a vast array of streaming sites now available in addition to our post-Snowden world where privacy feels ever-more eroded, VPN providers have leapt at the chance of making some extra cash out of regular consumers. Instead of routing you to a business server, VPNs now act as a middle man between you and the internet. In this middle phase, your data is encrypted and anonymised and, if you wish, the location your connection appears to be coming from can be altered.

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This use for a VPN is known as tunelling: you enter your VPN provider's service at one end of the tunnel and find yourself on the wider internet at the other end. The diagram below explains, simply, how this works:

VPN diagram

Privacy

There are a number of reasons to use a VPN tunnelling service. Of these, the most compelling is privacy: thanks to end-to-end encryption, it becomes impossible for your network traffic to be monitored from outside your PC. Packet inspection will reveal only encrypted data that can't be read by even the craftiest of hackers.

This has obvious advantages if you want an extra layer of security when it comes to, for example, keeping your browsing habits private. This is particularly important on public Wi-Fi networks, where you have no way of determining how secure your connection is. It also means services that may throttle or even block your connection based on what kind of data you're sending, such as some office, mobile and public networks, won't be able to do so. While some networks – either deliberately or as an incidental result of not permitting certain protocols – may also block VPN connections, this is unusual.

VPN services are particularly popular among those who use BitTorrent for both legitimate and illegal purposes, since traffic of this kind is frequently monitored, blocked or throttled by ISPs. However, if you're trying to distribute your own software via a torrent, for example, bear in mind that to keep outgoing traffic encrypted while seeding, you'll need a service that supports incoming port redirection. Of those we've reviewed here, only Private Internet Access currently supports this on some of its servers.

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International access

As VPN services allow you to access online content as though you were physically located in a different country, they're extremely useful if you're travelling on business and need to access location-restricted services, or if you need to see how – and whether – a particular website or service works properly for users elsewhere in the world. With servers in more than 190 countries, Hide My Ass is by far the best-equipped VPN provider in this respect, on the off-chance that you ever need to see what your website looks like to users in Burkina Faso.

Some VPN services can also provide you with dedicated IP address of your own in a specific country, making it easier to create a virtual home or office overseas. NordVPN and Hide My Ass both provide this service.

VPN for Netflix, iPlayer, YouTube and more

This ability to virtually hop around the globe is most widely used to watch streaming video services from other regions or, while you're travelling, to avoid missing your favourite TV programmes from home. While this is frowned upon by international media-rights holders, and companies such as Netflix have undertaken to block proxy and VPN services where possible, it's a legal grey area that could put you in breach of a streaming service's terms and conditions, rather than outright copyright theft of the kind involved in torrenting pirated content, for example.

Our reviews detail which services we were able to access during testing. However, as VPN blocking and detection are often based on endpoint IP address, it's impossible to predict how long any given endpoint will remain undetected. Services with a large number of endpoints, and which regularly cycle them, tend to do best in this respect. All the services we tested allowed us to view BBC iPlayer and region-locked YouTube content, but Netflix proved to be significantly more of a challenge.

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Performance

VPN performance is affected by such a wide range of factors that it isn't possible to produce conclusive test results. The speed of your own internet connection and user load on your selected endpoint server at the time are both significant here. Due to the sheer number of frequently rotated servers provided by most VPN services, comprehensive testing is difficult.

However, we ran comparative tests on each service from a London-based server that typically sees speeds of between 90Mbits/sec and 105Mbits/sec. We tested multiple servers from each provider in three locations: the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. Our table shows the best results obtained during a large-file download via FTP. However, these figures are a snapshot of performance at a single point in time to a single location, rather than being fully representative.

ProviderUK (Mbit/s)NL (Mbit/s)USA (Mbit/s)
Hide My Ass!30.7823.981.8
PIA43.6533.990.75
NordVPN24.88351.22
CyberGhost17.479.32No FTP access
PrivateTunnel49.4630.546.71
Steganos72.8233.5810.07
Avast47.0184.117.53
Tunnelbear29.66.52
TotalVPN13.099.980.52

We were surprised how universally slow connection speeds to the USA tended to be, with results ranging from around 1Mbit/sec to a maximum of just over 10Mbits/sec. The services that worked for watching Netflix – Hide My Ass, NordVPN and Private Internet Access – were perhaps predictably also those with the busiest and slowest US servers. Fortunately, in practice, slow average connection speeds weren't sluggish enough to prevent us from streaming media smoothly in at least standard definition.

Data retention and the law

If privacy is a key concern, then you should be aware that different VPN service providers have varying policies on logging users' connection data and that, depending on where a company is headquartered, they'll be subject to differing data retention regulations. Our table and reviews detail where each service is based and whether it retains any connection logs.

It's always worth keeping up to date with the latest data retention laws in the countries you tunnel to. For example, Russia is about to begin a new regime of data retention laws whereby all data that passes through servers must be retained for a year. The law doesn't come into practice until later this year but our top-rated service, Private Internet Access, apparently had its servers in Russia physically seized by officials earlier this year. Because no user data was stored on the servers, according to PIA, no actual data was compromised, but that company has ceased its operations in Russia all the same.

Any good VPN service will keep you up-to-date with changing laws in the country it operates in, but it's worth checking yourself from time to time.

Turn the page to see our series of best VPN reviews and choose one for yourself.

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