Tested: 7 VPN services that help protect your privacy online

We evaluated seven VPN services that can help anonymize your Internet traffic so it’s much harder for websites to track your personal browsing history.

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VPNs explained

Virtual private networks (VPNs) have many uses. When connected to a VPN service, the websites you access think you’re at the location where the VPN server is located. This can help anonymize your Internet traffic so it’s much harder for websites to track your personal browsing history, or for attackers to sniff your data on public Wi-Fi hotspots. This also allows you to access content that’s restricted where you are currently located, such as Netflix or Hulu when traveling overseas.

We evaluated seven third-party VPN services. 

Avast SecureLine

Avast SecureLine

SecureLine is one of the many security solutions provided by Avast, known mostly for their free antivirus. Pricing starts at $7.99 per month for one PC or Mac, $2.59 per month for one Android device, and $2.99 per month for one iOS device. For businesses, it’s $5 per device per month via their managed services solution. We installed the SecureLine Windows application, version 1.0.244. A notification icon in the system tray of Windows lets you know if it’s connected or not. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect, or left-click to bring up the application. The app is small and very simple.

On our Android device, we installed the Avast SecureLine app, version 1.0.7704. By default, you only see a status icon for the app on the status bar of Android and on the notification drawer when you’re connected to the service. However, you can optionally enable the icon and notification to be present when disconnected as well. The Android app is also very simple. There’s no shortcut to any help or documentation within the Android app or Windows application, but it really isn’t needed given how simple the apps and service are. Additionally, your Internet traffic would be encrypted when you’re on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, such as public hotspots. This prevents local eavesdroppers from capturing your browsing history and logins.

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F-Secure Freedome VPN

Freedome VPN is from F-Secure, which provides antivirus and other security solutions. There’s a 14-day free trial. After that pricing starts at $49.99 per year for up to three simultaneous devices. There are additional pricing options that include support for up to five and seven simultaneous devices. Additionally, they offer Freedome in their business solutions, which is manageable via their Protection Service Portal. We evaluated version 1.0.2246.0 of the Freedome Windows application, which includes a notification icon in the system tray of Windows. The main window shows a big circle which tells you the connection status and serves as a connect/disconnect button. On the sides of that, you see the amount of traffic you have sent/received and the number of harmful sites and tracking attempts blocked. Below you see the VPN location, which you can click on to change to one of 21 countries. The Private Search tab explains how to search without websites being able to track you. Tracker Mapper lets you track yourself and build a visualization of what sites or services are trying to track you.

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HMA is short for Hide My Ass. The service is hosted by Privax. Pricing starts at $11.52 per month, supporting up to two simultaneous devices. We evaluated version 2.8.24 of their Windows application. Its system tray icon in the lower-right of Windows. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect/disconnect and to initiate an IP address change. Double-clicking brings up the application. Upon opening the Windows application, you’ll find a more extensive GUI than the other services we reviewed in order to support all the advanced features and settings. The Dashboard contains the basic connection settings, shortcuts, and stats. The Country Selection tab lets you search through the available VPN locations. The IP Address Settings tab allows you to view your current and past IP addresses and schedule automated IP changes. Then the Secure IP Bind tab allows you to define applications on your computer that you want to prevent from using your regular Internet connection if the VPN is disconnected. The Speed Guide tab provides a utility for speed testing the VPN servers.  

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Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield is powered by AnchorFree. They offer a free service with limited features and functionality, and a paid service, called the Elite version. The shortest subscription length for the Elite version is six months for $19.99, equivalent to $3.33 per month, supporting up to 5 devices. Business pricing starts at $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year for up to 20 devices. Although the free version can be useful, it has some limitations. The Elite edition removes ads and enables access to all virtual locations, provides increased speeds, supports unlimited bandwidth usage, gives you additional malware protection, and offers better support. We evaluated version 5.0.2 of the Hotspot Shield Windows application. It includes a notification icon in the system tray of Windows. A normal left click on the icon shows the application. There’s two unique features of the Hotspot Shield service that you actually may never see, but work in the background. The data compression feature helps reduce the amount of real data consumption. The malware protection alerts you of any web pages you visit that are detected as unsafe, along with a screen shot of that particular webpage.

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NordVPN provides a three-day free trial upon emailing them. Pricing starts at $8 per month, $30 every six months, or $48 per year with a 30-day money back guarantee. We evaluated version 5.53 of the NordVPN Windows application. There’s a notification icon in the system tray of Windows, which is red when not connected and green when connected. However, you can’t right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect. You must open the application, select the desired connection protocol (TCP or UDP) and server location, and click Connect. You can configure program and connection properties by clicking the Settings button in the upper-right corner of the application. This includes the ability to set the DNS servers, default connection protocol, proxy server, and auto-connect settings. You can also add programs and processes to the Process Kill List, if you’d like any to automatically close if the VPN connection is lost. When you’re connected to a VPN, the application will display your username, number of devices currently logged on, expiration date of your subscription, and VPN server info along with your current IP.

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StrongVPN is offered via a unique licensing and pricing scheme, which may be okay with those who know exactly what they want, but could certainly be confusing to the more average users. We evaluated version 1.5.1 of the StrongVPN Windows client. The notification icon in the system tray of Windows is red when not connected and green when connected. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect, or to access the properties or advanced settings. After opening the application and signing in, you’ll find a relatively small window where you can choose the server location and connection method: UDP, TCP, or proxy. You can click the Change Location button to access a wizard to help find the fastest servers, and if you’ve chosen a subscription that supports both OpenVPN or PPTP, you can find a server that supports the protocol you prefer. From the main window, you can click the Advanced button to access advanced stats, settings, and properties. StrongVPN provides a web portal that’s more functional than most other VPN providers. In addition to accessing help tickets and billing information, you can view and change your server details. This includes your desired server location, ports, and credentials.

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SurfEasy offers a limited free edition or a full-featured seven-day free trial. Pricing starts at $2.99 per month for one mobile device or $4.99 per month for up to five computers or mobile devices. We evaluated version 3.4.470 of the SurfEasy Windows client. After opening the application and signing in, you find the client is fairly small and simple. In the upper-right corner of the window are two drop-down menus. The globe icon lets you select the server location country and then it will automatically choose the exact server location in that country. The gear icon drops down the same tool menu as when right-clicking the system tray icon. There’s also tabs that show your current VPN server location when connected along with your public IP and status of ad tracker blocking. There are also help shortcuts you can utilize when troubleshooting. One shortcut leads to the support section of their website, which has a FAQ look and feel. Though there’s step-by-step guides on using their clients, we didn’t find full documentation listing and describing all the client features and settings.

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