Brendan Apfeld Graduate Student - University of Texas at Austin

VPNs and Internet on the Go

Why I use a VPN

In the past few months I’ve found the need to connect to public Wi-Fi on many occasions. Airports, coffee shops, subways. All free, all open, all terrifying because anybody else on the network can steal information (i.e. passwords) from me. Sure, I could stick with https only, but that’s not perfect protection from the sorts of things that worry me. Thus, I’ve started to use a VPN while I travel. At this point I’ve tried several different services and so far none has been 100% what I want.

There are lots of reviews out there for VPN services (cnet has a pretty thorough survey along with individual reviews that they update every year). But these reviews can be a lot to wade through. So in the hopes that this may help some of my fellow grad students, here’s what I’ve found.1

What I want in a VPN

In this order, I care about:

  1. Ability to work on all my devices. Not necessarily at the same time, but it needs to work on MacOS, iOS, and Linux. And it really needs to work, not just be theoretically possible. No major problems.
  2. Server locations. At a minimum, the service needs a good selection within the US and South America. In an ideal world, those will be in the countries I travel to. Some servers in strange places but with super internet connections are nice too (think the Isle of Man).
  3. Speed. Some services have the potential to speed up your internet. That would be great, but all I care about is that it doesn’t add too much of a noticeable delay.

And for nice-to-have features:

  1. On Mac and iOS I’d like there to be a “kill switch” mechanism. I use the Mail and Messages apps, which will connect (i.e. send out my password) as soon as a connection has been established. Even if those are being sent via https and should be safe, I’d be more comfortable if this behavior were blocked.
  2. Successful ability to fool Netflix (and other streaming services) into thinking I’m in a different place.
  3. If there’s an auto-connect feature, then a trusted networks list.

Your needs/interests may be different from mine. A top-notch no-logs policy may be really important to you. Maybe you want the ability to connect your router directly to the VPN (and thus protect anything connected to the router). That’s great, but these are the criteria on which my thoughts below are based.

Note that I don’t include cost anywhere on my list. Obviously I want to keep the cost as low as possible, but I’m only talking about using this for about 6 months at a time, so even the most expensive services aren’t terrible if they deliver on the features I care about.

VPNs and my experience

VyprVPN

  • Pros: Easy to install on Mac and iOS. Works on Linux. Kill switch for Mac. Good list of servers, including one in Argentina. Relatively fast. VERY good at fooling Netflix. Trusted networks list along with auto-connect.
  • Cons: Connectivity issues. Always tries to connect when on the cellular network. No way to test server speeds on Linux.

I was happy with VyprVPN until the moment I wasn’t. The servers were good and the apps were easy to use. Not being able to see the speed of different servers on Linux was a little annoying, but I got over that. The reason I moved away from it was that something about the iOS apps gave me serious connectivity issues. I suspect it was the auto-connect feature, though disabling that didn’t help. Whatever it was, I would lose the signal intermittently. It would reconnect quickly, but this completely ruined any hope of talking via WhatsApp, FaceTime, etc. And that’s really important to me while I’m abroad. Deleted the app and switched services — no problems since. I’ll also note that while the service was blazing fast at first, by the end of my month of usage, nearly every server they had always had a significant lag, had problems connecting, and generally offered slow service.

Given the pros, I would be willing to consider this service again. The connectivity issues could well have been related to the ancient router where I was primarily testing this and the public networks I tried it on not allowing VPNs.2 They would also need to fix the speed issues for me to return.

VPN Unlimited

  • Pros: Easy to install on Mac, iOS, and Linux. Good list of servers including one in Chile. Relatively fast. Kill switch on Mac.
  • Cons: Doesn’t fool Netflix one bit.

VPN Unlimited has worked well for me. Easy to set up, reliable, and none of the connectivity issues that plagued VyprVPN. Yet somehow I didn’t like it as much. The app will tell you the load on their servers, but it doesn’t ping them to tell you the actual speed. The speed was generally good, but tell me that! In Ireland (and possibly Scotland, though I won’t swear to it) I experienced an increase in speed. In Argentina I didn’t had the same thing (even when connecting to the servers in Chile or Brazil), but I couldn’t detect a slowdown either. It’s well-priced both in terms of offering a week-long “vacation” subscription and if you buy it in longer-term chunks. Signing up and managing a subscription is really easy through iTunes.

Overall this is probably my top choice for a VPN. I have to admit it’s not the one that I’m currently using at the time I write this post, but I may switch back to it once my current subscription expires.

Pure VPN

  • Pros: Easy to install on Mac, iOS. Good list of servers.
  • Cons: Doesn’t seem to fool Netflix. Weird requirement to select purpose for server. Ugly and frustrating apps. Managing account difficult/confusing.

Struggled at first to sign up for this one and gave up initially. Then I returned and managed to get it working. Connections on the computer seemed stable, but not so on iOS, where the connection was always dropping without any kill switch or even warning that it was lost.

After some more time using this service, I’m still very conflicted. When it’s good it’s great. The connection is strong and fast with a variety of servers. But it’s setup is a bit confusing — why should I have to specify ahead of time what “mode” I want? What if I want both security/privacy and streaming capabilities? And then the kill switch is also more or less ineffective. Computer screen turns off (computer doesn’t even fully sleep)? Too bad, you’re disconnected and it won’t reconnect automatically when it wakes up again.

Then there’s the app on iOS. It was working relatively well on my ipad for a while (which is surprising since that thing is super old), but on my decently new phone it crashed the moment I try to connect. So that’s pretty much worthless.

The cons way outweigh the pros on this one, especially since other services can do everything it does just as well (or better) without these flaws.

Nord VPN

  • Pros: Lots of servers, including ones in both Argentina and Chile.
  • Cons: Difficult to setup on Linux. Mac app is worthless.

Frustrating to use on Linux without any native app. You have to connect to a specific server and when they have over 1,000 including 400 in the United States, it’s more than a little annoying to try to choose without any easy way of judging the relative performance of a given server.

Once it connects it fools Netflix, though the speed leaves something to be desired.

The iOS app is much easier to use, though I had some trouble at first. Turned out it was just the server in Argentina that wasn’t working, but having access to that server when I’m in Argentina is kind of important. No problems connecting to either the US or Chile.

Recent updates to the app provided major improvements. At the same time, however, problems persist with some of the servers most important to me.

The nail in the coffin for Nord VPN, though, is their Mac app. The “kill switch” there is awful. Instead of limiting traffic to some or all apps if the vpn connection is dropped, it actually quits those programs. So your computer goes to sleep? Everything you had open is now closed. Stupidest feature ever.

Hide My Ass

  • Pros: Easy to use. Fast. Incredibly wide range of servers
  • Cons: Crass name. No kill switch. Doesn’t fool Netflix.

The HMA app is super simple in every sense. It offers few bells and whistles, and yet it does so in a way that makes me like it not in spite of but because of its simplicity. Probably because it just works. There’s no kill switch, which is a bummer, but at least it doesn’t have one that doesn’t work.

Connection is super duper fast both in starting up and once it’s up and running. While it doesn’t seem to fool Netflix, it does work on Pandora.3

The Bottom Line

I didn’t think that my list of wants in a VPN was lengthy, outrageous, or demanding. And yet every single service I tried fell short in at least one important way. Several had fundamental flaws.

My number two choice is HMA. It’s super range of servers, speed, and ease of use make it a strong choice. VPN Unlimited edges it out slightly because of its additional features including the kill switch. But HMA’s server list makes it a really tight race. If VyprVPN fixed its speed issues and connectivity issues (or if those were problems with my connection points and not the service), then it would also be in the running. Pure VPN and Nord VPN are both out in my book.

UPDATE May 2018:

I’ve spent a little more with these services and have a few more thoughts. First, what works today may not work tomorrow. This makes it a riskier to buy a longer subscription. That said, I think all the services reviewed here are sufficiently well established that they should be able to keep up in the vpn arms race even if the quality can vary a little on a daily or monthly basis.

Second, I’ve started using VyprVPN again and while I still have very mixed feelings, I’m convinced it’s worth the extra money. The aspects I don’t like: after installation and still on occasion I get really weird spikes in cpu usage. A judicious application of sudo kill <pid> and an early re-install seem to have fixed this. This is compensated by the positives. The customer service is great and responsive. And their “chameleon” protocol accomplishes what I haven’t seen any other VPN do: effectively hide the fact that I’m using a VPN. Oh and the company is based in Austin!

  1. It’s probably worth noting here that I’m not being paid by anybody for this material and that all opinions and experiences are my own. 

  2. This is a fact I discovered late in my testing: that it’s possible to disallow VPNs on a network. Thank you Buenos Aires airport for directing me to this discovery. Since VPNs can be used (in conjunction with others) to hide criminal activity, it’s probably not surprising that governments may choose to block this, but it’s certainly annoying for honest users. 

  3. Yes, I realize that I’m admitting publicly that I still use Pandora. Hey, for a free service, it’s not a bad radio option.