How to Choose Your Perfect VPN Provider: Top 10 Metrics to Consider
Each one of us wants a VPN for a distinct purpose. Maybe you just don’t want the school or company to see what we’re doing on their network. Maybe you don’t want prying eyes when we’re doing sensitive banking transactions. Maybe you’re evading government surveillance as we access whistleblower sites.
Whatever use you have in mind for your VPN, you might be best off judging services according to your own criteria. While our comprehensive and unbiased reviews break down services down to the last minutiae, you can do your own version of reviews by following the metrics in this doc!
Metric 1: Where is the VPN based?
The first thing you need to know is the place where the VPN company is incorporated. This is important because the company will then be subject to that country’s laws and restrictions.
If at all possible, you should avoid VPNs headquartered in any of the countries located in the “Five Eyes” — a coalition of five nations that came together after World War II, sworn to exchange information to prevent what was then the encroaching Communist threat. Today, the Five Eyes countries have cast their nets upon the internet, and their legislations allow their governments to obtain any data from any company, even VPNs. If you want a truly private VPN, it’s best to find a service that aren’t predisposed to feeding your data to government spies.
The members of the Five Eyes are:
- The United States of America
- The United Kingdom
- New Zealand
There is another agreement called the “14 Eyes”, another intelligence consortium. It’s agreements aren’t as privacy-disrupting as the Five Eyes, but you may also do well to avoid them. These countries include all the Five Eyes members, plus:
- The Netherlands
On the other hand, there are certain countries whose pro-privacy laws make them perfect havens for truly secure VPNs. These regions include Panama, the British Virgin Islands, and Hong Kong. Sweden and the Netherlands, despite being part of the 14 Eyes, have strong independent pro-privacy legislation so they’re also good VPN locations.
Metric 2: What are the VPN log policies?
You can get this by checking their Terms and Conditions, along with their Privacy Statements. Some VPNs have a dedicated page for their log policies alone, allowing you a quick glance into what sort of data they retain, and how they deal with that data. You should also check external reviews, like the one we have, to make sure these services aren’t known for breaking their own log policies and similar terms!
Ideally, you’re looking for a VPN that retains as little data as possible. It’s tempting to ride the hype of many VPN providers that say they don’t keep any data at all, but most of those are just marketing gimmicks. Even for the truly private VPNs, they still keep some form of log that lists down your subscription details — it’s the least they need to know who their customers are! At the bare minimum, though, such information (your email address, contact and billing details, etc.) should be kept encrypted and not tied to any of your browsing activities.
Metric 3: What is the VPN’s storage type?
You don’t hear about this frequently, but it ties directly to the no-logs policy that the best VPNs have. Just like in a computer, there are two types of available storage: hard drive storage, and RAM (random access memory). Storage makes it possible for the VPN servers to work.
Hard drives are more traditional, but RAM is the new way to go. The latter is notably faster than the former, and also automatically deletes all data about your browsing activity after you log off. Contrast this with traditional hard drive storage where a separate process has to be run to clear the logs. While there are very good hard-drive based VPN services out there, RAM-based VPNs deserve a longer, harder look.
Metric 4: What are the supported Encryption Protocols and Algorithms?
We’ve discussed all about protocols in our VPN primer. As you see, some VPN protocols are just really bad for daily usage. Make sure your chosen VPN provider makes a clear statement about its supported protocols!
Today, every VPN worth its salt should offer 256-bit AES cipher to protect your data. This algorithm is nearly impossible for all but the most powerful supercomputers to crack — and even then they would only be able to crack a minuscule portion of your data after years of painstaking hard work. This is the only encryption algorithm you should consider.
As for the protocol, look for one that offers no less than OpenVPN and IKEv2. WireGuard is a nice plus, though it’s still not fully mature. As of now, only the top VPN providers offer it. For the rest, OpenVPN is the golden standard, while IKEv2 is a decent fallback. Anything less and your data might be at risk.
Aside from the encryption protocols and algorithms, there are also two other factors that will complete the layer of safety that VPNs are supposed to provide. One is its ability to prevent IP and DNS Leaks. Some VPN providers, despite offering good encryption protocols and algorithms, are deployed in such a way that your IP address gets leaked to the site you are browsing, thus removing that layer of anonymity that is so important in VPNs. At the same time, your DNS requests may be leaked to your ISP, allowing them to see the website you are trying to visit even though they can’t see your activities. We have a complete guide on catching and fixing VPN leaks right here!
Then, there is the ability of VPNs to protect you even during sudden outages or failures. Even the best VPN servers can have a downtime despite being well-kept. When that happens, you don’t want your internet traffic to be suddenly stripped of its protection. That’s why the top VPN providers have a “kill-switch” feature that cuts off your entire internet access if you are not connected to the VPN server. Weigh this one carefully though, since if you have a slow or inconsistent connection (i.e., you can’t maintain a consistent line to the VPN server), the kill-switch may end up disconnecting you too frequently.
Metric 5: What devices and platforms does the VPN service support?
Of course, you’d want to make sure that the VPN service covers all your devices. Maybe you’re the casual user with a desktop, a laptop, and a mobile phone (or two). Assuming they run mainstream operating systems, you should be covered by just about any VPN service on the market. Nearly all of them offer support for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.Many even offer Linux support, at least for all mainstream distros (such as Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and RHEL).
If you’re a power user, though, or if your devices run the less-mainstream OSes, then you should be more picky. This is even more so if you plan to install a VPN client on other hardware, such as routers, game consoles, and Smart TVs.
Some VPNs, while not offering outright clients for these devices, offer integration through third-party apps. Give the instructions a once-over since they can vary greatly — make sure they’re something you can follow with your level of expertise.
Metric 6: How many Servers does the VPN offer (and what are their Locations)?
When it comes to servers, the more isn’t always the merrier. What’s really important is the quality of the servers. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell that from the VPN’s spec sheets, so you have to test their services out directly.
The number of servers is a good indicator of a VPN’s quality overall, though. More servers mean there’s more of them to share the load, so overall there’s better performance. The fewer the available servers for a VPN service, the more easily those servers can get overwhelmed by high volumes of traffic.
Server spread also matters for two reasons. First, the more servers are spread out in several regions, the more options you have when it comes to spoofing your IP address and accessing geo-restricted resources. If you want to access a site’s version from Japan, for example, it’s tough luck if your chosen VPN company does not have a Japanese server.
It also helps with speed — if you can connect to a server that is close to the server of the website you’re browsing, then your data can travel faster.
While the top VPN providers offer upwards of 3,000 servers, a few studies have shown that speed and stability don’t show any significant improvement beyond that number. Generally, choose a VPN provider that has at least 3,000 servers if you’re going for the absolute best in speed and server spread.
Metric 7: What does the VPN offer in terms of Bandwidth, Speed, and Simultaneous Connections?
These can be deal-breakers, so pay attention! Not all VPN providers offer unlimited bandwidth. Those who do often advertise it in bold, clear letters, so make sure you read their terms completely. In today’s world of 1080p videos and increasingly large file sizes, being throttled due to a bandwidth limitation is a very bad experience.
As for speed, it’s a given that your connection can take a hit when you connect to a VPN. However, VPN services often have methods in place to boost your connection speed as much as possible. This is the reason why the top VPN providers seem to have very little impact on your browsing and streaming speed, if at all. Some of these methods include specialized servers for specific high-bandwidth tasks, such as streaming and torrent downloads.
Simultaneous connections can also be deal-breakers, depending on how many devices you’re planning to use at the same time. If you’re planning to get a VPN service for your whole family or household, you might be better off with the few VPN subscriptions that offer unlimited simultaneous connections. For personal use, most VPNs offer anywhere from five to ten devices at once. Then again, if you’re feeling like tinkering, you can just install the VPN app to your router and take care of everything at once!
Or, almost everything. There’s one thing that the router can’t take care of, and that’s mobile data. When you’re on the go, you need to make sure your chosen service has an app compatible with your device so you can simultaneously connect it to the service wherever you are.
Metric 8: Can the VPN bypass Geo-Restrictions?
Because streaming services have taken it upon themselves to actively combat VPN access to their servers, only the best VPN providers have the resources to bypass their geo-restrictions. These services often advertise such capability, so you can’t miss it.
Then again, you may be wanting to bypass a different kind of geo-restriction, and streaming-oriented bypass techniques may not work as well. If this is the case, you might need to do a little homework based on your perceived use case. If you’re in China, for example, and want to see Internet content from the other side of the Great Firewall, this significantly narrows down your choices.
Metric 9: How easy is it to use the VPN?
“Ease of use” is a pretty vague term, since most VPNs have a one-click client or app for most devices. Still, user experience matters a lot. There are some VPN clients that hide their settings in out of reach places, while others put them only a click or two away. There are also those clients that play better with some systems than others. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the one that suits your tastes and needs best.
For the purposes of testing, “ease of use” should also consist of how easy it is to get back on track if something goes wrong in your VPN. For example, what do you do if the client crashes or won’t start? Or if connecting to the VPN server causes your connection to go wonky? Is there a comprehensive knowledge base where you can search for solutions? Is there a 24/7 support line (at least through email and chat) to help you get back up? Maybe there’s a community of friendly users in forums to help you get around your issue.
Metric 10: How budget-friendly is the VPN?
The VPN industry can be pretty competitive, with its top players neck and neck with each other in terms of features, and even the price. There are a few outliers, however, who offer services that are either too good to be true, or too steep for the level of service.
Most VPNs offer discounts for longer-term plans (2 years or more) but it’s not always good to jump in with a 2-year subscription especially if you’re just testing the waters. If you do want to get in on the new user deal, make sure your chosen VPN has a clear money-back guarantee provision so you don’t lose your money if you ultimately decide that the service isn’t for you. Most services offer risk-free money-back offers for periods lasting from a week to a month.
While you’re at it, you might also want to check the payment options your VPN offers. While common payment methods such as credit card and PayPal are supported by most services, others support more anonymous options such as cryptocurrencies. This can make a difference for the privacy conscious. Remember that VPNs have to keep at least a few customer details on their servers so they can identify their subscribers. Among the data often kept are payment details, which can be easily traced back to your other personally identifiable information. By taking advantage of anonymous payment options, you’re better protected against unforeseen privacy breaches.
And if you’re looking at those free VPNs, our general advice is to be very, VERY careful with them. VPN servers are fairly expensive, and if they’re being offered for free, then something must be up. The free access may be limited, and meant as a “free taste” for those who just want to test the waters, but still it’s best to check every nook and cranny of the service to make sure you’re not being data-mined and put up for sale to advertisers and other third parties.
Which one will you choose?
There are dozens of “good” VPNs out there, but when you strip them down according to these ten metrics, you’ll find that the number of available options have narrowed down significantly. Those that remain will probably be those VPN services you often encounter around the web, and you’ll find that there’s a reason for their exposure.
Still, just because a VPN is famous, doesn’t mean it’s really secure. On the other hand, there are also a handful of VPN providers who aren’t really famous but offer a really good deal depending on your preferences.
So pick and choose, test and compare, and as much as possible don’t settle for compromises! Remember, your privacy is at stake here. The internet is the frontier of tomorrow, and huge entities are fighting tooth and nail to monetize it. VPNs are among the few things left that the masses can use to protect themselves from prying eyes that get bigger and bigger by the minute!