Comparing the Top VPN Providers of 2021
We compared the top VPNs on the market so you don't have to
When you whittle them down, VPNs all do essentially the same thing; hide our web traffic and replace our IP address to make us completely invisible online. So when we compare VPNs, we have to get down to the nitty-gritty, details like IP addresses, encryption methods, and privacy policies that are surprisingly important. Here’s exactly how we compare VPNs, as well as links to our top VPN comparisons.
Zooming out, we like to look at the company behind the VPN before we touch the VPN itself.
Number of Servers and Locations
If you’re a frequent traveler like us, you’ll want to know that VPNs have servers all around the world. The VPN with the most servers in the most locations wins in this category.
FYI: Our proximity to a server can affect our Internet speed, so we make sure that the VPNs have servers near our office in Brooklyn, New York.
Privacy and Security
VPNs are meant to give us privacy online, but we also like to keep private from the VPN company as well as the government. Here’s how we compare VPNs in terms of privacy and security.
Where a VPN company is located in matters. We prefer companies headquartered in countries that are non-members to Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes, which means that they can’t be forced to share our information with the federal government. VPN companies based in member countries like the U.S are less desirable.
DNS and WebRTC Leak Tests
We perform leak tests on each VPN to make sure our domain names and private IP addresses weren’t leaked outside of their encrypted tunnels. We’ve never had a VPN fail either of these tests, but they’re still an essential part of the comparison.
Now that we’ve figured out which VPN is more trustworthy, we check to make sure that they have essential features, as well as some useful extras to put them over the top.
VPNs typically have kill switches that shut down web activity in the event that the service fails; we privilege VPNs with kill switches on all devices versus VPNs with no kill switches or kill switches on some devices but not others.
Many people use VPN to torrent files, but not all VPNs allow this. Although we’re not huge torrenters ourselves, as we prefer to stream from our many subscription services, we place VPNs that allow torrenting over VPNs that do not.
The same goes for Netflix; we like VPNs that allow for Netflix usage over VPNs that Netflix has already blocked. However, Netflix is in an ongoing battle with VPNs, blocking their IP addresses as they discover them, so this information should be taken with several large grains of salt.
We also prefer VPNs that let us route some of our traffic to the public Wi-Fi network and some directly to the VPN, as this lowers our bandwidth, creating faster speeds. But not all VPNs have split tunneling, which we take note of in our comparisons.
For us, the only acceptable encryption method is AES-256, the current industry standard. If VPNs encrypt our web traffic and IP addresses using 128-bit encryption, their status is lowered. Sorry, not sorry!
You know the old saying that two heads are better than one? The same is true of servers. We always appreciate VPNs that encrypt our data multiple times through at least a couple of different servers, a process called multi-hop. While it’s certainly not a necessity, multi-hop can put certain VPNs over the edge.
Although we prefer VPNs that give us new IP addresses every time we log on, we also accept shared IP addresses, meaning that although they’re the same we connect, we share them with other VPN users, making us easier to hide online. Some VPNs offer dedicated IP addresses for an extra fee; for VPNs like NordVPN, for example, this costs $70 a year, as you can see in our NordVPN pricing page.
Speed is essential for VPN comparisons. Even though most VPNs will slow us down at least a little, we want to see how much, and whether that changes on Macbooks vs. Windows computers. To figure this out, we use the speed test from Ookla,1 testing for upload speed, download speed and latency, also known as ping, on a Macbook Pro as well as a Windows Vivobook. Once we test out the speeds with and without the VPN connected, we calculate the difference in terms of a percentage to see how much slowdown occurred. Obviously, the fewer differences the better!
Tip: Make sure you’re the only one on your Wi-Fi network during your speed tests! Otherwise, the data won’t be totally accurate.
We are living in a material world, and although there are some free VPNs available, these often have limits on devices connected or the amount of data used. So, we review each VPN’s pricing options to make sure we’re getting good bang for our bucks.
When it comes to pricing, the lower the better, although most VPNs cost about $10 a month. We prefer VPNs with flexible contracting as well as discounted prices for longer-term lengths. Many of our readers prefer to sign up for two or even three years so that they can lock in a low monthly rate, although the total price will be billed upfront. We also compare what each subscription actually gave us in terms of the total number of devices connected, the maximum amount of devices connected at once, the maximum amount of server switches as well as the maximum amount of data we can use.
Since we’ve tested out so many of the best VPNs on the market, we’ve put a bunch of them head to head, applying the above information to see which came out on top.
- CyberGhost vs. ExpressVPN
- CyberGhost vs. NordVPN
- ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN
- ExpressVPN vs ProtonVPN
- IPVanish vs. ExpressVPN
- IPVanish vs. NordVPN
- NordVPN vs Norton VPN
- Perfect Privacy vs. NordVPN
- Private Internet Access vs. ExpressVPN
- Private Internet Access vs. NordVPN
- ProtonVPN vs. NordVPN
- PureVPN vs. ExpressVPN
- PureVPN vs. NordVPN
- Surfshark vs. ExpressVPN
- Surfshark vs. NordVPN
- Tunnelbear vs. ExpressVPN
- Tunnelbear vs. NordVPN
- VyprVPN vs NordVPN
- Windscribe vs. NordVPN
- Windscribe vs Surfshark
And there you have it, exactly how we compare VPNs! If you have more questions or are simply curious about VPNs in general, read our VPN guide as well as our VPN usage study. We also have a Youtube channel2 with a ton of VPN reviews if you’re sick of reading, which we totally understand. However you learn about VPNs, we hope we helped pick out the right one for your needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
We eat, sleep, drink and breathe VPNs, so we’re not done answering your most commonly asked questions.
What is the best VPN of 2021?
The best VPN of 2021 is ExpressVPN. Based in the British Virgin Islands, a non-member country to Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes, ExpressVPN didn’t log any of our web activity or IP addresses, and we got Netflix and torrenting access plus fast speeds on Windows and Macs.
Which free VPN is best?
The best free VPN is Hotspot Shield. We got a 500 MB daily data limit for a U.S. server on up to five devices total. The app worked well on Android, iOS, Mac and Windows, and the company didn’t log any of our web browsing activities.
Is VPN use illegal?
In the U.S., VPN use is not illegal. However, the same can’t be said for every country. In China, for example, VPNs are illegal and blocked by the Great Firewall.
Which is better, NordVPN or ExpressVPN?
ExpressVPN is better than NordVPN in terms of its worldwide reach of servers, dynamic IP addresses, Windows speeds and lack of device limits. It also has a slightly better Android app.
Speedtest by Ookla. (2020). Speedtest.
Youtube. (2020). Security.org's Channel.