Steganos Online Shield provides a no-frills VPN service with a simple desktop interface. It's one of the few VPN products you can buy in a boxed edition, as well as online, and it doesn't require you to create an account in order to use it – simply download the SOS application and plug in your registration key. This means that you don't have to associate a bank or even an email address and account name with the product, which could appeal to the privacy-minded.
It offers limited features and configurability compared to many of its rivals, however.
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Unlike most VPN services, Steganos doesn't provide you with a list of server addresses and login data that you can use to create manual VPN connections using your preferred operating system and method. Instead, it provides an easy-to-use desktop client for Windows, as well as mobile clients for Android and iOS.
We were pleased to find that the desktop client uses OpenVPN, but it doesn't include any option to export your connection details, so Linux and Mac OS X users are out of luck. However, if you're an experienced OpenVPN user, it's possible to manually extract your key and import it to OpenVPN's application on other platforms.
Steganos lets you choose from endpoints located in France, Germany, UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and USA, which is a useful, but hardly an exhaustive list. We were pleased to find that we able to watch BBC iPlayer, making it handy if you travel, and view US YouTube content such as Comedy Central's channel. However, Netflix US spotted that we were on a VPN even when we enabled Steganos' anti-IP-leak tool.
In our FTP download speed tests, Steganos' performance was the strongest we've seen from any VPN service. Even its US servers gave us speeds of 10Mbits/sec, while its UK server managed a blistering 73Mbits/sec.
Steganos is based in Germany, where a recently introduced data-retention law requires ISPs to retain traffic metadata for 10 weeks. It isn't immediately apparent how these changes will affect VPN providers. Steganos itself has a no-logging policy and actively works to avoid linking personal data with your presence on the VPN.
There's a free version of SOS, which gives you 500MB per month, so you can try out the service before you buy. At $49.95 (£34.68), the full version with no data limits works out at a reasonable £2.90 per month, but its limited server list and platform restrictions mean that it's best suited to casual users. Unfortunately, no monthly subscription plans are available.
As well as a VPN, the desktop client includes a number of optional extra security features. These include an ad blocker, a "prevent social tracking" tool to keep your social networking accounts from following you around, an automatic browser cookie eraser with the ability to add exemptions for specified cookies you want to retain, and a browser anonymiser.
Tools of this kind are available for free, but it's convenient having them in one place. However, if you only require the VPN part of SOS's package, Steganos' OkayFreedom VPN subsidiary provides access to the same servers for only $29.95 (£20.79) per year, and less if you buy it on its current $17.97 (£12.48) offer price.