Slow WiFi and an exposed Google history are an avid internet user’s worst nightmares, and the Obama-era rules that protect from these have been under attack since 2017. New FCC nominees could offer hope for a fairer internet in 2022, though undoing years of net neutrality bashing is an uphill battle.
Squashing these protections essentially gives internet service providers the green light to dish unfair treatment to certain web traffic — like throttling a Netflix connection or charging extra to use a certain social media platform. And don’t get us started on how it could affect smaller sites with smaller budgets.
Discussions about the government’s right to spy on your digital habits without a warrant don’t exactly make anyone feel confident, either.
Whatever the reason, people are becoming more and more paranoid about the vulnerability of their internet usage (that, or they’re just really tired of American Netflix). In turn, Google has become littered with VPN reviews and lists of the best VPNs according to experts, tech publishers, and regular consumers alike. But if you wanted a more raw take on the day-to-day VPN experience from normal people (people with absolutely no filter), there’s only one place to go: Reddit.
What is a VPN used for?
The bottom line is simple: People don’t want other people watching what they’re doing online, even if they’re not doing anything wrong.
A VPN (virtual private network) is an internet security subscription that basically allows you to make up your own internet rules. It acts as a bodyguard between you and your internet service provider (and hackers, and other third-party weirdos) by hollowing out a personal anonymity tunnel through which you perform all of your internet activities. A VPN’s job is to plug the holes that could be making your data vulnerable to nefarious eyeballs, like creeps scouring public WiFi networks for personal information that could be used to steal your identity. VPNs are as wise of a precaution as antivirus software or a password manager (yes, this applies to Macs too).
Hackers love free WiFi for the same reason you do: Connecting to the internet requires no authentication. That network is littered with unsecured devices, many times belonging to working professionals with bank accounts and business credentials that have phishers frothing at the mouth. Often, the easiest thing for hackers to do is slide in between your device and the connection point. This Man-in-the-Middle situation is like eavesdropping, but on emails, credit card info, and work logins. Other hackers users public WiFi to unleash malware to all of the suckers using the network without protection.
Many folks avoid the public WiFi risk by recruiting their phone’s hotspot. But on the flip side, cellular data limits might be an issue — setting up a situation where both a laptop and phone need VPN protection. Many Reddit users suggest using something like EasyTether to share the VPN connection. Just download and enable a proxy app on your phone, configure it on your laptop, and you can enjoy a sort of reverse hotspot VPN-style.
Does a VPN help with streaming?
VPNs also provide a way for people to get around internet roadblocks and censors. These can be location-based or around blocks to certain websites set by, say, your school.
All decent VPNs offer a wide selection of servers based in multiple geographic locations. Picking one of those essentially tricks your ISP into thinking your device is based there, maneuvering around geoblocks and opening the door to international content, like another country’s Netflix library or BBC iPlayer.
VPN criteria, as made *very* clear by Redditors
The specs that Reddit users care about in a VPN are easy to tally when the same ones (or multiple people bitching about the lack of the same feature) pop up in countless subreddits throughout the year. Here are the ones that were mentioned the most:
Streaming dependability is a given. Tons of people want a VPN solely to watch content from other countries, so a VPN’s ability to fake out geoblocks and get around a streaming site’s VPN blocks is crucial. (If you, in the U.S. want to watch a show that’s only available in France, you’d want to pick a VPN with a plethora of servers in France.) The speed at which that content streams matters, too (a fast VPN should be able to upscale to HD without lag). Connection speed and location spoofing are dependent on the number of servers and where they’re located — more servers means fewer people hogging a single server’s capacity, and various locations mean more streaming libraries from around the world. (Free VPNs typically don’t have the funds to support as robust of a menu of servers.)
For obvious reasons, most big streaming services aren’t psyched on the idea of VPN usage and will probably mention it in their terms and conditions. If they happen to sniff out your VPN-ridden IP address, you’re not necessarily screwed. The most likely repercussions would be the inability to access the streaming platform (even if it just worked the day before), but there have been instances of steaming services terminating subscriptions associated with spoofing.
Split tunneling can aid with traffic jams as well. VPNs that support split tunneling let you route some of your traffic through the encrypted VPN tunnel while bouncing other traffic over the internet directly. One might choose to separate less demanding but high-security activities like web browsing from high-bandwidth but low-security activities like streaming or playing video games. Advantages include reduced traffic on corporate networks, better speeds and reduced latency for the chosen tasks, and more customized privacy. If you’re looking to tunnel to specific apps, look for an SSL VPN.
No DNS leaking is a good test of a VPN’s trustworthiness. Think of a DNS (Domain Name Service) as the internet’s phonebook: It’s the service that transfers host names for humans to understand (like Mashable.com) to IP addresses for computers to understand. A leaked DNS essentially blabs your browsing history to whoever’s watching on the other end — thus totally defeating the purpose of a VPN.
A kill switch cuts your connection to the internet if a secure connection to your VPN drops without notice. This is less likely on a high-quality VPN with a hefty roster of servers that can balance the traffic of millions of users, but far from impossible. By default, your device will switch back to your personal IP address or, worse, a public one. The speedy end-all action performed by a kill switch essentially ensures that you aren’t unknowingly operating on a weak IP address. Some kill switches operate in the form of a firewall.
Not all VPNs run equally smoothly on every device, so app compatibility can make or break your VPN experience. Before signing up, make sure that your chosen VPN’s app doesn’t have major bugs on your operating system. For instance, some mobile VPN apps don’t play as well on iPhone as Android, or an app might keep getting killed depending on other apps sucking your phone’s battery. Alternatively, if you’re using a VPN to stream on your TV, ensure that the service has a dedicated Fire TV app.
Are free VPNs the move?
Reddit has strong feelings about this. It’s bluntly summed up here in response to an inquiry about the “best free VPN”:
Reddit users will let you know that comparing free VPNs to paid VPNs just doesn’t make sense. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, and you’ll almost definitely be skimping on some crucial features by opting out of paying. Proof isn’t always provided, but many Redditors are convinced that free VPNs don’t follow a true no-log policy or sell your data to third parties. “Free” is sometimes synonymous with “slow” due to fewer servers in fewer locations.
The general consensus seems to be to only use a free VPN to test the waters, then cough up the credit card info (or Paypal, or Bitcoin, or Visa gift cards from your grandma). Most times, this can be done through a trusted paid VPN that has a free tier to experiment with, or via a free trial, which many services offer. In a rare turn of events, Reddit backs Windscribe’s free service hard. However, free VPNs can step up to the job for more temporary endeavors — like having access to your home country’s streaming services while going abroad for a semester or keeping up with a certain sport for a season. Because paid VPNs only really get affordable when a one or two-year subscription is met, it may not make sense to pay $10 or $12 per month for the few months that you need a VPN.
The Wireguard vs. OpenVPN debate: Which VPN protocol is best?
If you know to check Reddit for VPN advice, you likely already have some general knowledge about VPN protocols. But here’s a breakdown if you need a refresher: A protocol is the rulebook that dictates how the VPN client talks to the VPN server and creates a tunnel, ultimately playing a role in security and vulnerabilities. Outdated-yet-popular protocols like L2TP/IPSec and PPTP, two more modern protocols often come up in conversation on Reddit: Wireguard and OpenVPN.
Both are open source, giving anyone in the community access to the source code to conduct their own investigation on potential security flaws — and Reddit users appreciate the ability to take things into their own hands. Wireguard’s simpler code base is a little easier to crack and offers technical perks like better encryption and connection times, but it’s not as polished as OpenVPN. OpenVPN, on the other hand, is the go-to for streams and gamers.
Subreddits get much further into the weeds than this, and TechRadar does a sweet job of unpacking it all.