Slow WiFi and an exposed Google history are an avid internet user’s worst nightmares, and the Obama-era rules that protect from these have been under attack since 2017. Hopes for change were all but squandered when a late 2020 vote affirmed the FCC’s commitment to erasing net neutrality.
Discussions about the government’s right to spy on your digital habits without a warrant don’t exactly make anyone feel confident, either.
Whatever the reason, people are becoming more and more paranoid about the vulnerability of their internet usage (that, or they’re just really tired of American Netflix). In turn, Google has become littered with VPN reviews and lists of the best VPNs according to experts, tech publishers, and regular consumers alike. But if you wanted a more raw opinion — thousands of them — from people with absolutely no filter, there’s only one place to go: .
What is a VPN used for?
The bottom line is simple: People don’t want other people watching what they’re doing online, even if they’re not doing anything wrong.
A VPN (virtual private network) is an internet security subscription that basically allows you to make up your own internet rules. It acts as a bodyguard between you and your internet service provider (and hackers, and other third-party weirdos) by carving out a personal security tunnel in which you perform all of your internet activities. A VPN works to plug the holes that could be making your data vulnerable to nefarious eyeballs, like creeps scouring public WiFi networks for personal information that could be used to steal your identity. VPNs are as wise of a precaution as antivirus software or a password manager (yes, this applies to Macs too).
Hackers love free WiFi for the same reason you do: Connecting to the internet requires no authentication. That network is littered with unsecured devices, many times belonging to working professionals with bank accounts and business credentials that have phishers frothing at the mouth. Often, the easiest thing for hackers to do is slide in between your device and the connection point. This Man-in-the-Middle situation is essentially a form of eavesdropping on emails, credit card info, and work logins. Other hackers users public WiFi to unleash malware to all of the suckers using the network without protection.
Many folks avoid the public WiFi risk by recruiting their phone’s hotspot. But on the flip side, data limits might be an issue — setting up a situation where both a laptop and phone need VPN protection. Many Reddit users suggest using something like EasyTether to share the VPN connection. Just download and enable a proxy app on your phone, configure it on your laptop, and you can enjoy a sort of reverse hotspot VPN-style.
VPNs and streaming
The convenience factor also plays a big role. VPNs also provide a way for people to get around internet roadblocks and censors. These can be location-based or around blocks to certain websites set by, say, your school.
All decent VPNs offer a wide selection of servers based in multiple geographic locations. Picking one of those essentially tricks your ISP into thinking your device is based there, maneuvering around geoblocks and opening the door to international content, like another country’s Netflix library.
VPN criteria, as made *very* clear by Redditors
The specs that Reddit users care about in a VPN are easy to tally when the same ones (or multiple people bitching about the lack of a certain feature) pop up in countless subreddits throughout the year. Here are the ones that were mentioned the most:
Streaming dependability is a given. Tons of people want a VPN solely to watch content from other countries, so a VPN’s ability to fake out geoblocks and get around VPN blocks is crucial. The speed at which that content streams matters, too (a fast VPN should be able to upscale to HD without lag). Connection speed and location spoofing are dependent on the number of servers and where they’re located — more servers means less people hogging a single server’s capacity, and various locations means more streaming libraries from around the world. (Free VPNs typically don’t have the funds to support as robust of a menu of servers.)
Most big streaming services aren’t psyched on the idea of VPN usage for obvious reasons and will probably mention it in their terms and conditions. If they happen to sniff out your VPN-ridden IP address, you’re not necessarily screwed. The most likely repercussions would be the inability to access the streaming platform despite just binge-watching a season the day before, but there have been instances of steaming services terminating subscriptions associated with spoofing.
Split tunneling can aid with traffic jams as well. VPNs that support split tunneling let you route some of your traffic through the encrypted VPN tunnel while bouncing other traffic over the internet directly. One might choose to separate less demanding but high-security activities like web browsing from high-bandwidth but low-security activities like streaming or playing video games. Advantages include reduced traffic on corporate networks, better speeds and reduced latency for the chosen tasks, and more customized privacy.
No DNS leaking is a good test of a VPN’s trustworthiness. Think of a DNS (Domain Name Service) as the internet’s phonebook: It’s the service that transfers host names for humans to use (like Mashable.com) to IP addresses for computers to use. A leaked DNS essentially blabs your browsing history to whoever’s watching on the other end — thus totally defeating the purpose of a VPN.
A kill switch cuts your connection to the internet if a secure connection to your VPN drops without notice. This is less likely on a high-quality VPN with a hefty roster of servers that can balance the traffic of millions of users, but far from impossible. By default, your device will switch back to your personal IP address or, worse, a public one. The speedy end-all action performed by a kill switch essentially ensures that you aren’t unknowingly operating on a weak IP address. Some kill switches operate in the form of a firewall.
Are free VPNs the move?
Reddit has strong feelings about this. It’s summed up here in response to an inquiry about the “best free VPN”:
Reddit users will let you know that comparing free VPNs to paid VPNs just doesn’t make sense. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, and you’ll almost definitely be skimping on some crucial features by opting out of paying. Proof isn’t always provided, but many Redditors are convinced that free VPNs don’t follow a true no-log policy or sell your data to third parties. “Free” is sometimes synonymous with “slow” due to fewer servers in fewer locations.
The general consensus seems to be to only use a free VPN to test the waters, then cough up the credit card info (or Paypal, or Bitcoin, or Visa gift cards from your grandma). Most times, this can be done through a trusted paid VPN that has a free tier to experiment with, or via a free trial, which many services offer. In a rare turn of events, Reddit backs Windscribe’s free service hard. However, free VPNs can step up to the job for more temporary endeavors — like having access to your home country’s streaming services while going abroad for a semester or keeping up with a certain sport for a season. Because paid VPNs only really get affordable when a one or two-year subscription is met, it may not make sense to pay $10 or $12 per month for the few months that you need a VPN.
Here are the VPNs that Reddit users recommend the most in 2021:
SurfsharkFeature-rich Surfshark makes countless appearances in subreddits due to high speeds and no device limits.
The sheer absence of bandwidth and device limitations should clue you in: Surfshark is way more generous than its prices suggest. The clean, ultra-straightforward app helps to keep things organized, even with such a jumble of devices and simultaneous connections.
On top of unlimited device log-ins, this feature-rich VPN offers rarely-seen additions like Whitelister split tunneling, which lets you choose which sites should be routed outside the VPN tunnel, and Multihop, which bumps both security and speed by ricocheting traffic to a second VPN server. People seem to dig the CleanWeb ad-blocking tool as well.
WindscribeRedditors appreciate the option to build your own plan, and the free 10 GB per month is a godsend.
Build A Plan:
$1 per location/month
The “Build A Plan” option is an interesting alternative to a traditional subscription. If you need a VPN to watch a streaming service in just one other country, you can pay $1 per month for unlimited data in that location.
MullvadPicky users are loving Mullvad’s speed, port forwarding, and dedication to transparency.
Mullvad corrects complaints that more expensive big-name companies still struggle with: Ownership of its servers contributes greatly to consistently boosted speeds. It’s transparent as hell and offers its users the closest thing true anonymity by allowing sign-ups without asking for a name or email. In the midst of clickbait and vague logging policies, Mullvad makes it clear that your personal data is a top priority.
Port forwarding is one of Mullvad’s strong suits. This allows remote computers to access a specific device with a private LAN, which can aid with lobby wait times, mixing and matching of consoles owned by different friends, and improve gameplay overall. (Port forwarding also opens the door to control of your computer when you’re not home.)
NordVPNSecurity slip-ups haven’t knocked this powerhouse from its ranking, aided by solid geo-unblocking.
NordVPN’s app takes a minimalist approach that’s easy on the eyes — but its menu of high-level features gets heavy quickly. Seasoned VPN users will appreciate the quick hop to obfuscated servers while the lack of guidance may send beginners packing.
Many users seem to be able to look past Nord’s erratic speeds due to its mastery of the art of unblocking streaming sites. An issue that’s less forgivable is that of security breaches. There’s still trust to earn, but the slew of privacy toggles and double independent audits are a start.
PIA (Private Internet Access)The 10-device allowance and P2P features keep PIA a classic, but it still struggles with streaming.
The war on shared streaming site passwords trudges on, but sharing a VPN can lessen the load. PIA’s famous allowance for 10 simultaneous connections makes it easy to split the cost between a couple, a few roommates, or even a whole family. Its above-average server count leads to less resource hogging and less complaints about dropped connections. PIA doesn’t limit torrenting to specific servers or sharing on P2P, nor does it limit premium features based on subscription tiers.
One device, unlimited data
Speeds aren’t great in Proton’s free version. It simply has less servers in less locations (only US, Netherlands, and Japan on the free tier) with a slot for just one device at a time. That device does get unlimited leeway in the data department, however P2P and torrenting aren’t even in the question here.
Proton makes up for its leisurely load times it with an emphasis on privacy. Its strict no-log policy pairs pristinely with Switzerland’s security laws, which are far less nosey than those of the US. Proton’s app is smooth as hell to navigate and is open for anyone to look for security vulnerabilities.
The Wireguard vs. OpenVPN debate: What VPN protocol is best?
If you know to check Reddit for VPN advice, you likely already have some general knowledge about VPN protocols. But here’s a breakdown if you need a refresher: A protocol is the rulebook that dictates how the VPN client talks to the VPN server and creates a tunnel, ultimately playing a role in security and vulnerabilities. Outdated-yet-popular protocols like L2TP/IPSec and PPTP, two more modern protocols often come up in conversation on Reddit: Wireguard and OpenVPN.
Both are open source, giving anyone in the community access to the source code to conduct their own investigation on potential security flaws — and Reddit users appreciate the ability to take things into their own hands. Wireguard’s simpler code base is a little easier to crack and offers technical perks like better encryption and connection times, but it’s not as polished as OpenVPN. OpenVPN, on the other hand, is the go-to for streams and gamers.
Subreddits get much further into the weeds than this, and TechRadar does a sweet job of unpacking it all.