You might have heard of VPNs before, especially with regards to improving your privacy online, but how much do you really know about them? If you are uncertain about what a VPN should offer, or if it is even something you need, you certainly aren’t alone.
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is simply a group of computers connected remotely to share files and resources, most often through encrypted tunnels. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Most important, VPN services establish secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot.
If it isn’t clear already, the straightforward reason for why you would need a VPN is maintaining your privacy online. The encryption and anonymity that a VPN provides helps protect your online activities: sending emails, shopping online, or paying bills. VPNs also help keep your web browsing anonymous.
Now that the basics are out of the way, let us take a look at five essential things you should consider before investing in a VPN.
Also known as an exit node, a VPN server is one of the most important aspects of a VPN. When connected to a VPN, your data packets go out from the server through this exit node. This provides two important benefits.
First, it encrypts the visited site addresses and the contents exchanged. Second, it gives these packets the IP address of this location, creating a new virtual location for you.
When selecting a VPN, you not only want one with exit nodes, or servers, near you for more easy connections, you also want one with exit nodes in the specific geographies where you want a virtual location. The more servers a VPN has, the more difficult it is for content providers and nation-states to block it.
2). The best VPN protocols
There are many VPN protocols out there, which can make it confusing to narrow down the list to what you need. Naturally, you want to opt for the ones that give you easier connections, faster speeds, and more secure encryptions.
OpenVPN is one of the most popular protocols in the VPN space. In addition to using AES-256 bit key encryption, it is open source. This means that users anywhere can and do look closely at the code to uncover any vulnerabilities.
L2TP/IPSec L2TP is a combination of L2TP and the IPsec security protocol. It uses the secure AES-256 bit encryption but relies on a single port which makes it easier to block.
3). Data Caps
VPNs, especially the ones that are free, typically come with data caps. If you are streaming or downloading a lot of media content, your bandwidth requirements will be much higher. In addition, if you use a VPN on your mobile device, you can also use a significant amount of bandwidth with navigation services.
Therefore, make your decision based on your data requirements.
4). Useful Features
It is always a good idea to know about some of the most useful features of a product or service that you are planning to use.
As far as VPNs are concerned, the most useful functions are the ones that make sure you maintain your anonymity and privacy online, even if you forget to turn it on or don’t realize when the network gets disrupted.
For instance, “auto connect” will automatically start up the VPN when you connect to an insecure network. This can help prevent you from sending private information over, for example, a public Wi-Fi network.
Similarly, a Kill Switch drops the network connection when the VPN connection is disrupted. This is especially useful when the network connection is spotty or when the device is connected to the VPN for a long time and you as the user might not be sitting in front of the device at all times.
In a nutshell, these features provide safety nets in case anything goes wrong.
5). Maybe a VPN proxy is all you need
Maybe you don’t even need a full-fledged VPN. Maybe all you need is a VPN proxy, which is essentially a forwarding note pasted on your data packets that gives them a different IP address. It provides no encryption for the content of the data packets or the DNS addresses, but that’s precisely what makes them faster, cheaper, and simpler to operate. This is also why they are especially common among free VPNs for mobile devices.
In conclusion, a VPN is an important investment, especially if you care about maintaining your privacy online. As with all kinds of investment, it is important to do your research beforehand. Look into servers, VPN protocols, data caps, and useful features before you buy a VPN. Moreover, depending on your situation, you might find that a simpler and cheaper VPN proxy is all you need.
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