For this month’s Readers’ Choice Award survey, we asked you about the virtual private network services you use for personal and work-related online activity.
Businesses have long used VPNs to securely connect their remote workers and branch offices to their main office, but in recent years, VPNs have gained in popularity for personal use. Personal VPNs make you more anonymous online, encrypting your internet traffic and hiding your IP address. If you connect to a VPN server in another country, you may also be able to access content such as streaming movies that are only available in that country.
If you don’t currently use a personal VPN, you might think that those who do are extremely concerned about their online privacy. According to a recent study, that’s not always the primary motivating factor.
Overall, staying anonymous falls about 20 percentage points behind accessing better entertainment content, which was cited by more than half of respondents as a leading factor. Anonymity is the No. 1 motivating factor among personal VPN users in the United States, whereas in the Asia-Pacific region, nearly twice as many respondents chose accessing better content as the main factor.
If you use public Wi-Fi networks, it’s virtually impossible to assess how safe the network is. Is the network legitimate or is the host trying to steal your data? Are other users on the network sniffing your Wi-Fi traffic to capture your information? Consider using a VPN. Whether you’re using a laptop or a smartphone, you can connect to a VPN service and hide your traffic from snoops. At home, you can also install a VPN service on most routers so that the traffic for every device on the network, including digital streaming devices such as a Roku or Apple TV, passes through the service.
This type of protection isn’t expensive. There are dozens of companies offering personal VPN services that only cost a few dollars a month, often with substantial discounts if you’re willing to sign on for a year or more. There are even some free VPN services, though bear in mind that the provider must make money somehow, so they might serve up ads, limit your bandwidth or traffic, or even sell your data. (Of course, there’s nothing stopping a paid service from doing that either.)
Our survey respondents used a variety of personal VPN services. Nine services had at least 50 responses, the minimum to be included in our analysis. By contrast, the business VPN responses were dominated by two of the biggest companies in enterprise computing: Cisco and Microsoft.
Our respondents were asked to rate their VPN services on a variety of factors, from overall satisfaction and likelihood to recommend to satisfaction with setup, performance, and trustworthiness. Read on to see which ones they say provide the most satisfying experience. The right service can help you stay vigilant about your online safety and enhance your online experience.
The PCMag Readers’ Choice survey for VPNs was in the field from August 13, 2018 through September 5, 2018. For more information on how the survey is conducted, read the survey methodology. Each person who completed the survey was entered into a drawing to win an Amazon.com gift card valued at $350.
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Readers’ Choice: VPNs
There are a lot of personal VPN services and most are not household names. Still, we were pleased to see that our survey respondents are generally satisfied. One service, Private Internet Access, stood out from the others, though, receiving the highest rating for overall satisfaction and likelihood to recommend, and earning our first ever PCMag Readers’ Choice Award for Personal VPNs. (It’s also one of our Editors’ Choice VPNs.)
Private Internet Access was at or near the top on every satisfaction measure. The service’s overall satisfaction rating was 8.8 and likelihood to recommend was 9.1, top marks among the nine services in our analysis. (All satisfaction ratings are on a scale from 0 for extremely dissatisfied to 10 for extremely satisfied.) Private Internet Access also had the best marks for satisfaction with performance (8.5), keeping users safe online (9.0) and trustworthiness (9.0). It also tied with Windscribe for the highest rating for satisfaction with reliability (8.7) and ease of use (9.0). ExpressVPN also received a 9.0 for satisfaction with ease of use.
Wherever Private Internet Access didn’t come out on top, it wasn’t far behind. Its satisfaction with cost rating of 8.7 was second to KeepSolid VPN Unlimited’s 9.0 and its excellent rating for satisfaction with ease of setup of 9.1 was just behind Windscribe’s 9.2.
PCMag Readers’ Favorite VPNs
Private Internet Access VPN
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited
Norton WiFi Privacy VPN
ExpressVPN had the second-best overall satisfaction rating, 8.7, just behind Private Internet Access. In general, its scores were very good although it did have the lowest rating for satisfaction with cost (7.3). As of this writing, ExpressVPN’s cheapest plan costs $8.32 for 12 months compared to KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, which goes down to $2.78 for three years and $199 for a lifetime subscription. Private Internet Access offers a two-year plan for $2.91 per month.
KeepSolid and ExpressVPN had the highest percentage of respondents needing technical support during the past 12 months—at 41 percent and 30 percent, respectively—far above the category average of 19 percent.
IPVanish (8.6) and Windscribe (8.5) also had very good overall satisfaction ratings. IPVanish, however, had a disappointing rating for satisfaction with cost (7.7). The company’s least expensive plan is $6.49 for one year. Windscribe’s likelihood to recommend rating was 8.9, second only to Private Internet Access.
NordVPN—another PCMag Editors’ Choice winner with our analysts in PCMag Labs—received more responses than any other provider in our survey. The service received its best marks for satisfaction with ease of setup (8.9), ease of use (8.7), keeping the user safe online (8.7) and being trustworthy (8.7). However, most of the company’s other ratings—including overall satisfaction (8.3) and likelihood to recommend (8.5)—were in the middle of the pack. Our third Editors’ Choice, TunnelBear, in general scored right behind NordVPN.
Most people are familiar with Symantec and its Norton line of security products. However, its Norton Wi-Fi Privacy VPN finished near the bottom on nearly every satisfaction measure. It had the lowest ratings for satisfaction with performance (7.0), reliability (7.1), ease of setup (7.6), ease of use (7.6) and keeping the user safe online (7.6). Norton’s overall satisfaction rating of 7.6 was tied with PureVPN for the worst in the lot.
See all of our survey results for VPNs
WINNERS: VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORKS (VPNs)
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access received consistently high ratings from its users across every aspect of VPN satisfaction from ease of setup and ease of use to performance, reliability, trustworthiness, and safety. That’s a winning package, worthy of our first-ever Readers’ Choice Award for personal VPNs.
VPNs for Work
Setting up a VPN for business is more complicated and expensive because you need to set up and configure both ends of the connection: the remote client and the home server to which it will connect. That’s a much bigger deal than the personal VPN services above, where your VPN connects to the company’s server(s) at different spots across the globe.
The goal is an encrypted link for traffic between a worker’s device (be it a PC, tablet, or phone) and a server in the office. The effect is the same for the employee’s PC traffic as it would be with a personal VPN—but the access provided is protected and offers access to specific files or services at work.
Cisco and Microsoft were the only companies that received enough responses to be included in our analysis of business VPNs. Respondents were much more satisfied with Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN in general, so it receives our first Business Choice Award for business VPNs.
Cisco had higher satisfaction ratings on every measure, including overall satisfaction (8.3 to 7.3), likelihood to recommend (7.6 to 7.1), ease of use (8.3 to 7.6), performance (8.2 to 7.3), and reliability (8.4 to 7.4). Having scores almost a full point higher in many cases shows Cisco clearly making things a lot easier on end users.
That said, the scores for both companies under the likelihood to recommend aren’t high. So their Net Promoter Scores are also very low, at 13 percent for Cisco and only 2 percent for Microsoft, indicating that no one really loves the work VPN required by their IT departments.
See all of our survey results for VPNs for the office
WINNERS: BUSINESS VPNs
Cisco is doing a much better job than its rival, Microsoft, in keeping its users satisfied with their VPN experience. The company earned substantially higher satisfaction ratings across the board. Businesses that want to keep employees happy while keeping data safe should consider Cisco first.