Sitting in Starbucks mashing away at your laptop and sipping on your taste-like-the-future-macchiato, it's easy to miss that there has been a crucial shift in the way your work is getting done.
No, it's not the smell of freshly ground beans drifting across the room and no, it's not the fact that your drinks are taking half your wages. It’s the internet connection.
A few years back all internet browsing was done either comfortably at home, or gloomily at the office. Now we are connecting through more public networks than ever.
Assuming you can trust the owners of such networks, even if you did know the owners of every Starbucks and McDonalds in the country, look around, what about the other customers?
Do you really trust that man in the trench coat even though its thirty degrees out?
This is where VPN comes in as so vital for all portable device users. This is especially relevant to laptops where such important private work and information can be stored and processed.
It cannot protect against spilt coffee, but it will defend you from most other attacks.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, which is actually very simple. Virtual means it’s simulated, not real. An example of a real private network would be your home network, where devices can see each other and connect to the internet.
This means that if you connect to a VPN server somewhere else in the world, all the websites you navigate to and the information you download will appear as requests from the VPN server’s location, not yours.
In addition, the local coffee shop Wifi you are connected to simply see a single encrypted connection from you to the VPN server and will not be able to gain any knowledge about where you are browsing or what information you are sharing.
Depending on where you are, probably yes. VPNs are completely legal in almost all countries in the world. If you are from Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, or India, you are definitely fine, otherwise double check your countries laws.
One note on the law is that if you happen to use a VPN service within your own country, your country might have authority over it and therefore the ability to request your data. If you want to go all the way with security, it’s advisable to find a service somewhere abroad.
One of the great uses of laptops is as a tv viewing device. VPNs are a great compliment to this service by allowing the user to represent themselves to a streaming service as located in a different country.
Many streaming services filter the content they provide by country because of complex licencing laws, but with a VPN you have access to the lot.
Changing country on most VPN services is as quick and easy as a click of a button so you can quickly switch between your favourite shows and movies in different countries.
Another use around video streaming that is gaining ground is to stop ISP speed throttling. This is where internet providers have been known to slow down speeds for certain sites, for example when youtube was slowed in France or when Netflix and YouTube were slowed by Verizon.
If you are using a VPN, then the ISP simply cannot see what kind of content you are viewing, and therefore cannot lower the speeds it is providing you based on that information. In this way even if you were watching Netflix on an ISP which is capping the speed, yours will be completely unlocked.
Although as we have discussed, there are many advantages to using a VPN service, there can be some downsides too.
They can cause your internet to be slowed down, and sometimes if you end up accessing a site from a different country, rather than opening options, it can limit them.
Because of these downsides, it's often more effective to only use the VPN for your private data. One way of quickly choosing what goes through a VPN is to use a browser extension VPN.
This means you can have a browser window which is accessing your private emails or work, which is encrypted and protected, but outside of the browser, say if you were playing a video game online, it wouldn’t be slowed by the VPN Connection.
All four of the VPNs reviewed below have a browser plugin alternative.
With ExpressVPN you can stream browse and game from 3 different devices simultaneously.
24/7 live chat customer support is available. It has a 30-day money back guarantee but no free trial.
ExpressVPN comes with the downside that you pay for all those features with a reasonable monthly fee. This is at the higher end of the market.
Available on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and many others.
With over 4000 servers across 60 countries, NordVPN is an excellent choice. It can stream up to 101Mbit/s a second, meaning if your coffee shop were capable of streaming 4k content, NordVPN can too. It is a highly praised service.
It can be used to stream unlimited data across up to 6 different devices, and 24/7 live chat customer support in case anything goes wrong. It has a week trial to test it out and a 30-day money back guarantee.
NordVPN is not free and will set you back a small fee each month, however at the time of writing it is cheaper than ExpressVPN.
Available on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox and many others.
It offers security as the others do, but this product has had an independent audit by a 3rd party company. It claims to be the only product to have done this.
The free version of TunnelBear comes with 500MB of data, which is a fair amount for talking on facebook and browsing traditional websites but might be strained if you want to stream videos. It is very simple to use.
Unfortunately for the unlimited data version, you will need to pay for the service at a similar price to the other two on this list, if not a bit cheaper. Also, it doesn't quite have all the advanced features, but it is unlikely you would need them anyway.
TunnelBear also provides a blocker tool for chrome which will keep your personal data more safe and secure, especially when used with a VPN.
Available on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome and Opera
Another free option, Windscribe is still up there with the best. It is a relative newcomer but has similar strong features to the others. It has a large network of 100 cities across 52 countries, and a minimalist easy to use setup.
The free version comes with 10GB of data per month, which is a bit less than TunnelBear, but it’s measured by month instead of by day. This means that regular users would likely be better served by the larger data allowance of TunnelBear, however occasional but heavy users maybe find Windscribe suits their needs better.
An example might be that you only want to use it to watch a location restricted TV show once a week. On the highest video quality, an hour-long show is now often over 1GB in data, which would be fine even twice a week on Windscribe, but you couldn’t even watch one episode on TunnelBear because it would go over the daily limit.
Even on standard quality, a movie maybe be around 600MB which is too much for TunnelBear.
The premium version is similar in price to TunnelBear’s premium version.
Available on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Blackberry, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and many others.
Keeping up with technology can be daunting, but often taking tiny easy precautions can make all the difference. Nowadays its best to use a VPN at all times, but at the very least, next time you are typing your bank details into a website and sipping on your Starbucks latte, remember where you are and who could be listening.
Then turn your new VPN on.
As we’ve discussed, VPNs can be very effective at getting you to the content you want or protecting your data, especially on the go. There is a myriad of options out there but the simplest would be to get a free one such as TunnelBear or Windscribe, depending on which one’s data plan best meets your needs.
If you get to a point where the free offerings are not cutting it, there are great options out there such as NordVPN where you can test the waters before you pay. If you do sign up to a plan, many of them have the money back guarantees and none of them is truly too costly for what they provide.
Keep yourself protected.
VPNs may sound intimidating with talk of networking, internet tunnelling, and encryption, but most of them used in their simplest way is as simple as installing the app and turning it on.
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