VPN Software Put to the Test: Secure and Fast Line?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In basic terms, VPN means that the PC or the mobile device of the user, with the help of software, receives a secure private line to the selected service and, in doing so, can even remain anonymous. Only the VPN provider could identify the user, where they are from, and their current country location. The box at the end of the article provides more explanation on the technology behind VPN.
10 VPN packages put to the test
While all of the tested products are purchased versions, some do allow use for free during a test period, whereas others enable user to try out the application for a limited data volume. These packages are included in the test:
- Avast SecureLine VPN
- Avira Phantom VPN Pro
- BullGuard VPN
- CyberGhost VPN
- F-Secure FREEDOME
- HideMyAss! (HMA!)
- Hotspot Shield Premium
- Norton Secure VPN
- Surfshark VPN
The lab chose the test scope to enable all typical user groups to easily rate their requirements in this VPN test. Because while gamers, for example, place high value on fast data transmission and a low ping rate, video fans require quality data transmission and smooth-functioning anti-geo-blocking. Dissidents and free-speech advocates in regulated countries expect high-security and reliable transparency of the provider so that no private user data can leak out. And then there are users who need a secure line and protection from attackers and data thieves when using third-party networks when traveling, or those who wish to remain anonymous when downloading or uploading data.
In order to cover all the requirements of the various user groups, the test was divided up into five key topics: usability, security, privacy, speed and transparency. Each topic naturally has various subtopics which were considered in the test. As not all the topics and the individual test data can be covered in this article, the lab has stored a PDF file with detailed findings for those who are interested.
VPN software put to a performance test
VPN providers and their transparency
Gamers swear by VPN
Many gamers like to use VPN, as doing so enables them to solve many problems at once. They can set up a private line into the country where the game server is located, for example. This tends to lower their ping. At the same time, depending upon the time of day, they also encounter less server traffic in other countries. Naturally, the data throughput always needs to be high as well, as otherwise the player may experience delays in the game. Looking at the test under these aspects yields the following ranking: Hotspot Shield Premium delivers the best scores in the category of speed. The up- and downstream of data is always high and at an excellent ping level (latency). In terms of latency, F-Secure also earns high marks – only the downstream is somewhat slower, as the lab also discovered with the rest of the field. The VPN packages from Avira, BullGuard, CyberGhost and NordVPN are also fast alternatives.
All providers maintain a large number of servers and server support locations in the world. Thus, each package offers the option of selecting the countries in which particular game servers are located. The speed varies depending upon the continent, however. The lab also measured the differences in the test.
Video streaming without geo-boundaries
The various video platforms use geo-blocking to prevent access outside of the home country in which the user has signed up for access. Usually, the user only receives the cursory notice that the film is not available in that country. Many VPN providers even advertise the fact that you can circumvent geo-blocking with their package. That is a game of cat and mouse, however. No sooner does a provider tout the fact that various platforms can be reached from anywhere, the platform or online broadcasting operators follow-up with an update. Circumventing geo-blocking is then no longer possible. Which means that the latest result is only a snapshot in time. In the test, all packages were able to access popular video platforms, e.g. Netflix, without exception in foreign countries. With respect to the speed of video streaming, all the packages yielded good to very good ratings. In fact, even sophisticated 4K streams were accessed in the test. The best results were achieved by seven VPN packages from Avast, BullGuard, F-Secure, HideMyAss, NordVPN, Norton and Surfshark. But the last three candidates still delivered good results even on the 4K streams.
Security in third-party and Wi-Fi networks
Any time you access a third-party or Wi-Fi network with a notebook or smartphone, you're taking a certain risk. Because you often do not know whether the provider is trustworthy or whether perhaps you're being attacked or spied on in the background. Here as well, VPN is the first choice in fending off all these threats from the outset. Speed is naturally an important issue as well when using a Wi-Fi network via VPN. Especially for this user group, the testers paid close attention to automatic access, user-friendly connection, protection of personal data in public networks and secure VPN tunnel protocols. All VPN packages tested did a good and reliable job in fulfilling these criteria. The VPN tunnel protocols used are in fact heterogeneous, but they comply with existing security standards. The 256 bit AES data encryption deployed by all products conforms to the highest standard. The packages from NordVPN and Surfshark VPN even offer an additional blocking tool against advertising and ad trackers. CyberGhost also offered the same setting, but it was ineffective in lab tests.
As previously mentioned, Hotspot Shield Premium attained the best test scores in terms of up- and download speeds. The other packages offer good and reliable data speeds. Only the packages from Avast and Surfshark VPN had a somewhat slow response, but this is not security-relevant.
Anonymity for free-speech advocates, security-conscious users and downloaders
Thanks to encryption, VPN offers not only a secure connection to other servers. In fact, VPN also offers privacy protection, right down to user anonymity. Without VPN, the user of a website or service can be identified by their IP address. With VPN, however, a surfer uses a service which on the target website only reveals the IP of their VPN provider. If anyone tries to trace the IP address, all they will find is the address of the VPN provider. Depending upon the provider, the user of the VPN IP is not stored at all or only for a short time. In this manner, the actual IP address and country of origin are obfuscated. This opens up the path to a service which might otherwise be barred for users from particular IP blocks. For dissidents or free-speech advocates, this is often the only way of gaining a secure contact into the free world (e.g. in the case of the Great Firewall of China). Relevant websites quickly make clear the type of information surfers normally disclose about themselves: IP address, country, access node, provider and much more. The lab evaluated all packages in terms of whether personal data leave the tunnel and are transmitted. Here, all the packages received high marks, as they did a flawless job, protecting users in all respects. FYI: If VPN users visit their favorite websites on the web, they can still be identified by a cookie. Which means that the server visit could be tracked despite VPN. The only more secure solution in this case is an anonymized browser, e.g. in incognito mode.
The users of Torrent or other P2P networks are well protected with VPN and do not reveal any of their true data. However, the data speeds with VPN are lower than with other data transfer protocols, for example. The lab experienced the best P2P transfer speeds with HideMyAss and Avast. With all other packages, the data throughput is somewhat lower, yet suitable for everyday use. The packages from F-Secure and Norton do not allow data transfer using these protocols.
Hotspot Shield Premium
Avast SecureLine VPN
Avira Phantom VPN Pro
Provider transparency fosters trust
A provider can naturally always assert that their service protects the user, allowing them to remain anonymous and not logging any of their activities. But is the provider truly trustworthy? What is the corporate entity behind the service, and where is it located? This is a factor the lab looked at as well, as this topic is important for every user group: transparency. The chart below shows what VPN providers officially disclose about themselves. This includes information on management, the company address, the legal jurisdiction, along with many details on the EU General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR for short. That regulation specifies how user data is to be handled.
Another very interesting criterion is whether a transparency report exists. The report, continuously revised, indicates whether and when official agencies have requested user details and how often they have been handed over. This information is only provided by the companies Avira, CyberGhost, HideMyAss, Hotspot Shield and Avast.
The provider, depending upon their home country, may be forced to disclose data in cases of national interests or appropriate laws. It is usually stipulated, as in the United States, for example, that the provider is not allowed to make such an incident public. That is why providers use a trick by the name of "warrant canary", which is a synonym for the infiltration of a VPN provider's service by government agencies. The trick is simple: the provider continuously states on their website that there haven't been any requests from government agencies. If that message is no longer there, it's clear what has occurred. This very important piece of information for certain users is offered by Avast, Avira, HideMyAss, NordVPN and Surfshark.
VPN makes many things more secure
Each user group will find in VPN a helpful solution to their special needs. The manufacturers also put a lot of effort into the products, constantly enhancing them to boost their capabilities. VPN is in high demand, as in addition to anonymity, it also offers many security benefits. More than half the VPN packages tested, for example, also scan websites visited for malware and phishing. For now, it is more of an additional function, but soon it will probably become a standard. This is no substitute for a good antivirus solution, however.
The test shows that providers of VPN software are serious and are actually implementing the promised protection measures. That is why all products receive a positive certification from the laboratory. The additional features in the products are also ever increasing, as manufacturers want to stand out in the crowd of traditional VPN tools.
Which product is the best largely depends on its field of application. The two test tables help to find the right VPN package. Because the fast ping, valued greatly by gamers, is a feature that a dissident or free-speech advocate could care less about.
VPN and the technology behind it
Head of Test Research
The technology behind VPN is actually simple, because a private line is set up with only one service and the appropriate protocols.
It is called a "virtual private network" because the connection from the user to the server is exclusive and additionally secured similar to an actual physical cable. This secure connection is often referred to as a tunnel, as thanks to complete encryption, the protocols used (such as OpenVPN) prevent others from "looking inside" the transmitted data. Once a user has set up a secure channel to the server of their VPN provider, it technically looks as if the user is located at the site of the VPN server. For example, if the user is located in Germany, in Magdeburg, and connects to a VPN server in New York, the websites and services they visit from their device will view them as being a North American user based in New York, USA. This fact also helps to avoid geo-blocking on video platforms. In the process, providers use the information entered by the user, e.g. through their browser or IP address. If the surfer provides the expected server-sender information with the help of VPN, they are enabled to watch the movies on a video platform in the United States, which are normally only accessible to users residing in the USA.
IP sharing for more security
VPN enables anonymous surfing for many users on the Internet. Normally, the user appears in the network with the IP address "borrowed" by their VPN operator as long as they are online. If the VPN server were to save the history of the user, then the VPN IP could later be ascribed to a user. In order to provide even greater security in this area, providers are now relying on so-called IP sharing. This means that many users on the VPN server use an identical external IP address at the same time. Which means that even a log file produced later could not identify a unique user, as the VPN IP address was shared by dozens of users.