We meticulously test all of the VPNs that you’ll find on this site for holes in their security, lapses in their speed, and faults in their functionalities. Below, you’ll find the nitty gritty stuff, so if you’re the kind of person who wants to get knee deep into VPN testing at home, this is the section for you. Even if you don’t want to do these tests yourself, these directions can give you a bit of context as to our ranking above. For example, in this review, one of our key factors for ranking the VPNs was the total number of servers in Spain, obviously.
Now, volume of servers isn’t the only factor that determines our ranking. Once each VPN showed the requisite number of servers in Spain, we got into its features. Security and privacy are the two most important elements of any VPN and unsurprisingly, both go hand-in-hand. To determine if the VPN truly belongs on our, “best of” lists, we concentrate on the VPN’s logging policy, whether the company retains any information that could be connected to to a user’s search history, the standard level of encryption (the gold standard is 256-bit AES), and most importantly, how effectively the VPN masks our IP addresses. If all of these boxes are checked, we roll up our sleeves and get testing.
If a VPN isn’t secure, it’s essentially useless, so if your VPN isn’t a virtual Fort Knox, why even bother? Key checkpoints for VPN security are a fully obscured IP address and a fully obscured search history. IP addresses are finicky things and can leak in a number of ways. One of the most common ways is through a WebRTC, a function of some of the most popular browsers which allows them to communicate with each other directly. Another common leak is via a DNS or Domain Name Server (a DNS is a translation of a web domain to an IP address).
To head off any concerns around a potential WebRTC or DNS leak, we use two publicly-available tools. One is a WebRTC leak test provided by ExpressVPN, and the other is from DNSLeakTest.com. For extra comfort, we use a pretty straightforward method where we look at the local and public IPv4 IP addresses to discover any potential WebRTC leaks. Once we’re confident that a VPN is airtight, it’s on to encryptions.
Our technical security assessment wraps up by stepping away from how the VPN provider protects our data and looking at how they anonymize us while searching the web. The best VPNs offer unique, dynamic, and completely anonymized IP addresses to guard our search history. Dynamic IP addresses are nearly impossible to trace back to their original user, making them the gold standard for VPNs. If dynamic is gold, then coming in at silver is a static IP address. Static IPs are fine for the large VPN companies with hundreds of thousands of users on the same set of IP addresses; the sheer volume would make it hard for anyone to connect the dots. However, it’s much easier for streaming services or other protected websites to block VPNs if thousands of users are all accessing the site with the same few IP addresses.
Another security feature no VPN is complete without is the kill switch. A kill switch is a toggleable on/off feature that shuts off the internet and closes out all windows on your device if you lose connection to the VPN. This is an emergency function and great backup if you’re doing any work deemed absolutely confidential.
Finally, the fine print. We dive into the VPN provider’s data-logging policies and their privacy jurisdictions. The most important non-technical aspect to a VPN is their headquarter location. Ideally, the VPN is not based in any country where they are subject to the three major international surveillance alliances: Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes, which obligate companies to hand over customer data to the government when law enforcement requests it. Whether they’re based in a country that is subject to these alliances or not, we also look for those companies to retain only the most basic information about their users. Anything beyond an email and payment information is too much, so as close as providers can get to that bare bones retention policy, the better.
So, we’ve determined that the VPN is as secure as Area 51, but is it still fast with all of that security weighing it down? It’s important to note that there are many things that can alter or impact a speed test that includes but is not limited to the distance to the server, device type, operating system, etc. It’s fair to say that there can be quite a bit of variance. However, in order to consider a VPN up to our standards, we need to make sure that the speed tests have no more than a 40 percent difference in any of our categories.
We test all of our VPNs on our private Optimum network at our office in Brooklyn. We establish a control by only connecting one device at a time and by measuring our internet speeds without any VPN live. Then, we test our VPNs on two different computers with two separate operating systems. For the tests referenced above, we used a Macbook Air and a Windows Vivobook on the website SpeedTest.net.
Using the Speedtest.net tool, we test each VPN’s download speed, upload speed and ping (latency), all important elements for P2P-sharers, streamers, and gamers respectively. Download and upload speeds are measured in Mbps or megabits per second while latency is measured in milliseconds. We record each number and then convert the differences to percentages. As expected, Mac and Windows naturally have different connection speeds (Macs are usually much faster, in our experience).
VPNs can run anywhere from $1 to $15 per month depending on the number of users, connections, packages, etc. So before you go spending all of that hard-earned cash on a VPN, we do all of the research for you. Our goal is to give readers straightforward comparisons between some of the biggest players in the VPN space, and perhaps some VPNs that you’ve never heard of. We look for pricing, we look for discounts, and we especially look for VPNs with free trials and money-back guarantees. If you’re still not sure how to shop for a VPN, our VPN guide is a great jumping-off point.
We look at both Android and iPhone capabilities, and app store ratings. Then, we test out the VPNs with our own user experiences. Our rule of thumb is that if a VPN has an app store rating below three stars in the App or Google Play store, this disqualifies it from being recommended.
Torrenting and Netflix
Whether you’re a sharer or a streamer, there are a million reasons to use a VPN to do either activity. We try to use each VPN on some of the world’s most popular streaming and torrenting sites to make sure that they function normally. The best VPNs for torrenting are the perfect confluence of speed and access. Streaming sites like Netflix are always trying to block VPN connections, so it’s important that providers are always building workarounds.