5 new things we learned from our latest VPN tests and reviews

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Examining VPNs can be a difficult task, especially when we conduct our in-depth semi-annual technical surveys of dozens of top providers.

But we’re getting started, because it’s important. Well, that’s our job! And while we’ve reviewed most of these VPNs several times before, the industry is always on the move, evolving, updating, so there is always something new to learn.

Here, we’re going to talk about five of the latest issues to get our attention, including some significant changes in how VPNs would like to be judged, how to measure the speeds of the fastest VPNs more accurately, and how much confidence you should really place. to all of these “we unblock Netflix claims”.

1. Size doesn’t always matter

VPN providers have been competing from the very beginning on the size of their network, and that makes a lot of sense. The more countries and locations a provider has, the more likely there is a server near you.

We have seen the start of a change on this issue in some of our latest reviews. PureVPN offered over 180 locations in over 140 countries at the start of 2021, for example; by October, that number had fallen to 86 sites and 78 countries. By old standards that would be bad news, but not today.

As the company explained: “… we have put dozens of virtual servers on the back burner … to deliver a best-in-class VPN experience … Our physical VPN servers are more reliable and better equipped to deliver faster speeds … “

PureVPN reinforced this by talking about starting to ramp up 20 Gbps servers, providing additional bandwidth to its users. And other big vendors are increasingly doing the same.

NordVPN hasn’t significantly changed its number of locations for some time, for example, but it also recently talked about infrastructure improvements, including the move to 10 Gbps servers.

The next time you buy a VPN, don’t just look at the number of locations. Check the server page for other details – maybe browse the VPN blog – and see if it has more details about the network and its capabilities.

The Netflix web interface showing thumbnails for individual movies

(Image credit: Netflix)

2. Netflix could win the VPN war

Netflix cracked down on VPNs even more than usual this year, banning some residential IP addresses because they were “associated with the use of a proxy or VPN.”

This battle has been going on for a very long time, and the best VPN providers have always found ways to fight back, so it’s tempting to assume it’s pretty much the same.

Our recent tests, however, suggest that this may not be true. The providers who unblocked Netflix in previous tests did a lot worse this time around. Take Hotspot Shield and StrongVPN, for example, neither of which can unblock exclusive content in the US or Canada.

Just a temporary problem, isn’t it? We asked Windscribe, and while the company hasn’t given up, it didn’t look promising for the future of Netflix VPNs: “We are researching solutions to work around this problem, but we cannot currently guarantee that unblocking of Netflix will work because of these sweeping changes implemented by Netflix. “

It’s not all bad news. Some VPNs still do well for unblocking, and ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN unblocked US Netflix and each of our other test sites.

A few vendors have also added more unlock options. Smart DNS is smart technology that uses network trickery to convince websites to think you’re in another location. It’s simpler than a VPN and can be set up on smart TVs, game consoles, and other devices that you can’t install an app on.

NordVPN has a Smart DNS service, ExpressVPN’s MediaStreamer also uses Smart DNS technology, and Private Internet Access has just added Smart DNS to its service. There is no guarantee that these will get you to a particular site, but it is always good to have a backup system.

Windows iTop VPN application protocol settings

(Image credit: iTop VPN)

3. Mystery protocols

Most of the best VPNs can encrypt your data using a number of protocols. These are usually industry standards, like OpenVPN or WireGuard, that give you a well-known level of security and privacy. And if a big vendor creates their own protocol, they’ll give you a lot of information on how it works. ExpressVPN took this all the way by opening its Lightway source code, so experts can examine every detail.

What we found in our last batch of reviews is that some vendors aren’t as transparent.

UFO VPN offers four VPNs, its website explains. Sounds good, until you read this they are described as “Protocol A”, “Protocol B”, “Protocol C” and “Protocol D”. Uh, okay.

Was there any information about ciphers, authentication, key size … anything? No, just vague descriptions like: “Protocol B is specially designed for making video calls”.

The UFO is not alone. ITop VPN lists its protocols as UDP, TCP, and HTTPS. At least these are known technologies, but the company is still not giving out any information to show how its protocols stack up against industry standards.

If you’re just unblocking Netflix, you might not care much about encryption. But if you need a VPN with real privacy, make sure it supports a standard VPN protocol or has its own well-known system, such as Hotspot Shield’s Catapult Hydra or NordVPN’s NordLynx. Because if it doesn’t, there is no way to know how secure your data can be. Sign up, if you want to, but you’re just keeping your fingers crossed and hoping you will be okay.

Private Internet access applications running on desktops, mobiles and tablets

(Image credit: private internet access)

4. Simultaneous connections

Not that long ago, almost all VPNs had the same five connection limit for using your service. In other words, you can connect up to five devices simultaneously.

Our latest reviews show that this is changing in a number of ways. For example, ProtonVPN has doubled its Plus plan to ten devices as standard, and VyprVPN now supports connecting up to 30 devices.

Where providers maintain limits, they sometimes offer more flexibility. PureVPN has a limit of ten devices, but it has added a multi-login system, which means these devices can be owned by different users. If you have three people in your family, you can protect a phone and laptop each, while still maintaining four slots for smart TVs or other connected devices.

While this is good news, it can’t compare to IPVanish, Surfshark, and Windscribe, which have no device limits.

Still, this puts more pressure on companies that stick to the lower limits (or, like KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, charge extra fees for additional devices). Even though we are reviewing ExpressVPN, its five-device limit seems somewhat archaic in 2021.

We expect the typical “maximum device” allocation to continue to increase over the next year. Some providers will never switch to “unlimited,” but that’s okay, even an allowance of ten devices could be more than many will use.

5. Beware of internet speed test sites

Measuring your VPN download speeds can seem easy. Connect to your nearest VPN server, visit a site like Netflix’s SpeedTest.net or Fast.com, click a button and you get the results in under a minute.

But there is a problem. In fact, there are a lot of issues, in the many different factors that can affect the outcome. Is your local network busy? A neighbor competing for a Wi-Fi channel? Maybe multiple users suddenly connect to this VPN server, or the speed test website is just overloaded.

In our recent reviews, we saw how the results of speed test websites can vary over time. Sometimes there may be a difference of 200 Mbps, 300 Mbps or more between one test and the next, at the same site.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore speed test sites. We use them for our own performance checks, but with care and in a way that minimizes the impact of any errors.

Speedtest.net performance benchmark

(Image credit: Speedtest.net)

Our test environment uses a wired internet connection, for example, to eliminate any Wi-Fi complications. We then run tests at multiple sites (SpeedTest.net, TestMy.net, nPerf.com, SpeedOf.me and more.) We also use a SpeedTest app, as the company says, which gives more accurate results for downloads above 100Mbps.

We run at least five tests at each site and use the median as the result (sort them in numerical order, then select the median). time.

Running these numerous tests – sometimes 200 per VPN – helped us provide a much more accurate and reliable picture of VPN performance and how it varies by protocol.

Chances are you don’t want to spend hours doing the same thing, but you can improve the accuracy of your own results by following a similar set of rules.

Use multiple speed test sites, for example, and also launch a speed test app. Run multiple tests at different times of the day. And just be aware that sometimes test sites return weird results for no apparent reason. If the numbers seem strange to you, don’t just accept them, come back later and try again – they could be very different.


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