Revealed: Why You Badly Need a VPN (and Some VPN Reviews)

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VPN reviews

Time for some VPN reviews!

Getting your own VPN is actually something I think almost every online user should be considering nowadays. Why?

Well, did you know that through the use of a simple browser extension, a naughty person can access all of your passwords and details when you are blogging, Facebooking or internet banking from a public WiFi hotspot?

Gross right?

I’ve been traveling around Europe for the last month and during that time my VPN has been an essential part of my work life.

Don’t know what a VPN is? I’ll get to that in a minute.

This won’t be like every other VPN reviews post that you see. I’m going to focus on the premium service that I personally use – StrongVPN – and then tell you about a free alternative or two.

My goal is not to tell you about every VPN out there but rather to give you confidence to start exploring for yourself.

Note: As with any purchase, please make sure you do your own research and analysis before making a decision. I’m not a security expert – just someone talking about a service that I’ve personally enjoyed. If you purchase StrongVPN through a link in this post I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for the support!

What exactly is a VPN, dude?

VPN
An image from StrongVPN showing how one part of a VPN works.

Okay, so VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it is basically a way to keep yourself safe from prying eyes when you are using public Wifi. It does lots of other things too but this is the main benefit I wanted to talk about today.

A lot of people don’t realize that working in cafes, airports and other places that offer free WiFi can actually be really insecure. A simple Firefox extension and a would-be jerk can see all your passwords as you enter them into your blog, email account or bank sign up.

Yep. πŸ™

So how does a VPN help with that?

Simply put, it acts as a “barrier” between your computer and the intruders by encrypting everything that you submit over the WiFi or Internet. So instead of seeing your passwords they see a random chain of characters that don’t really mean anything. It also changes your IP address to a different location so people can’t see which computer location you are using.

(Note: The technologies that VPNs use to keep data private and secure is actually quite complicated and can vary from company to company. Some of them include L2TP, IPSec, PPTP, SSL, etc. Feel free to do more research into this if you’re interested in how that process works but, to be honest, I find it all a bit boring confusing.)

You simply login to your VPN client when you open up Chrome or Safari and it will go to work hiding your IP, details and lots of other things.

VPN login
A screenshot of the little icon on my laptop that I click to login.

Hopefully now you can see why I wanted to do a few VPN reviews for you – I know a lot of you like to work on the road.

Some background to these VPN reviews

A few months ago I got an email from a guy called Peter Nguyen who runs a VPN company called HotSpotShield. Quite by coincidence, he sent me an email asking if I knew much about VPNs and whether I had talked about them here on Blog Tyrant.

It just so happened that I was preparing to leave Australia and go to Europe where I knew I’d be spending a lot of time working in cafes.

So what did I do?

I totally forgot about my email chat with Peter and went on being a busy nutcase. I ended up asking my friend Chris Ducker for a recommendation on which VPN he uses when he travels (he travels a LOT).

StrongVPN reviews

As you can see, Chris recommended StrongVPN which was what I ended up buying and using while I was over in Europe.

After a while I realized that I had rudely ignored Peter by complete memory-lapse-accident and decided to contact him again. During that conversation I actually discovered that his company offers a really useful feature that StrongVPN does not provide.

More on that soon.

Why do I need a VPN?

Let’s quickly list a few benefits that you can get from a VPN server installed on your computer, laptop, iPhone or iPad.

  • Security
    Obviously, the main benefit is to keep your data secure by encrypting your goodies while you work in public places where people might be watching. They can also protect from viruses (more on that later).
  • Anonymity and privacy
    Ever since it was revealed that certain Governments might be looking at our data sales for VPNs have gone through the roof. They allow you to change your IP, hide your location and browse the net completely anonymously. This is NOT so you can do bad things but rather so you can have some remaining privacy.
  • Location changing
    Can’t afford to go on a holiday? Well, with your VPN you can browse the net from a foreign country. This is useful if you’re into things like SEO and want to go to the USA or UK to look at results.

There are a lot more uses (like looking at overseas websites that are blocked in your home country) but these three are the main ones that I thought would be of interest in our VPN review for bloggers.

A review of StrongVPN: my paid VPN of choice

I’ve been using StrongVPN for around two months now and so far have really enjoyed it. Here are some of the main things I’ve noticed:

  • It’s cheap
    Some VPNs can be quite expensive but you can get a really good plan that will only cost you a few dollars a month.
  • The 24 hour support staff rock
    I really love live support. They have technicians and sales staff on live chat 24 hours a day and they are really helpful and speedy with their responses.
  • The setup is simple
    Setting up your VPN is as simple as buying a package and then following their step by step screenshots. It’s a little bit like setting up a new modem on your computer. It took me probably 5 to 7 minutes to get up and running.
  • Turning it on is easy
    Once it’s all set up, you just click a little button next to the clock on your computer navigation and you’re ready to go.
  • You can change servers
    Some VPNs don’t allow you to change servers. This is a shame because sometimes you get a slower IP address and want something better. StrongVPN gave me 18 free server changes for my basic package.
  • Good speeds
    I really didn’t want my workflow to be slowed down. I’ve noticed some drops in speeds but, to be fair, I’m in Europe using a server not all that close to me.

As I said, it has been a great service. I wouldn’t recommend them to my readers unless I had personally used them and found them to be of the utmost quality.

The only downside that I can find so far is that the Lite package only lets you chose servers in the USA. This might mean that people in the UK, Europe, Australia, Asia, etc. need to pay a bit more to get a server nearby that is fast enough to use daily.

What other VPN options are there?

As I always say when I do these types of reviews, my goal is not to give you an overview of every service that is out there. Rather, I like to tell my readers what I have used and found to be helpful and then leave you up to your own devices as to which direction you want to go.

And as far as a VPN review goes my recommendation would be StrongVPN as they have been the company I’ve been using and really enjoying.

But as Peter (the owner of HotSpotShield) has been so helpful to me over email in regards to what features a VPN should have, I thought it only fair to mention his company as a potential alternative. I did want to give you a free option to consider in case you don’t want to go the paid route.

As I mentioned earlier, his VPN has a few extra features:

  • Free and paid version
    You can get a free version as well as a paid version. Although please note that the free version comes with ads in order to help pay for the servers.
  • Inbuilt scanner
    Unlike most other VPNs, this one has an inbuilt scanner that HotSpotShield say will help to keep your computer free from any nasties that you might accidentally expose yourself to whilst surfing the web.

That inbuilt scanner is the extra feature that I thought a lot of people might be interested in as I know a lot of us are paranoid about web security.

Some concerns with HotSpotShield?
Now, when I was doing some research for HSS I went onto CNet to look and see if they had any reviews. The review from the CNet staff member is very positive and awarded them 4.5 stars out of 5 as a VPN service.

The reviews from the members though are not all as positive. Many people indicated a lot of problems like pop up ads and the inability to remove the toolbar and software when they decided to stop using it.

I decided to contact Peter (the owner) and ask him about these concerns. I decided to share his answer here (with his permission) because I think it is a very good one:

HotSpotShield

To be honest, I don’t really know why a company that makes its money from protecting people’s computers would then cause them to be infected with problems. They’d lose business instantly. I think Peter is probably right when he says that people probably don’t understand the way the ads operate.

I should also mention that HSS has been downloaded over 150 million times and has over 1.7 million likes on Facebook. Not bad!

That being said, always do your own research (even with StrongVPN), whenever using an online service. You want to make sure it’s right for your own needs and wants.

Perhaps at this point I should ask for comments from the Tyrant Troops about any other VPN services they have tried?

FYI: some short points about VPNs

I thought I’d just finish off this (now quite long) post by sharing some summary points as well as a few important things that you need to remember after reading this VPN review.

  • Do your own research
    Spend a little bit of time to learn about why you might need a VPN and then find one that suits those needs. Personally, I’m happy to pay a bit more if I know I’m getting something good. Here’s a good post from Gizmodo that takes it deeper.
  • VPNs work differently
    As mentioned, some VPNs work differently to others. It might fry your brain but see if you can learn just a little bit about what they do so you don’t put unrealistic expectations on it. Some VPNs also keep logs of your activities while other delete them daily. Stuff like that is good to know (if it matters to you). If you want to get really deep check out the Wiki article on VPNs.
  • A VPN won’t keep you 100% safe
    You can still catch a cold when you use a VPN. Sure, it might help protect you from prying eyes but it’s not a 100% failsafe deal. Make sure you be careful in other ways.
  • Find one with support
    One of the main reasons I chose StrongVPN and have been so happy with them is because their support is literally 24/7/365 and they are always polite and active. It’s so important these days.
  • Don’t break the law
    When it comes to using my VPN I am straight down the line. I just want it to keep me safe online. Please don’t use it to be a douche bag or break the law. And don’t break copyright law either. Here’s a post from Glen about why it matters. If you want to use something, pay for it.

Here at Blog Tyrant I really like to act as a kind of stimulus for you to take your own knowledge or experiments further. I can’t provide all the answers! πŸ˜‰

Do you have any VPN reviews?

I’d be really interested to know whether any Troops have used a VPN before and what they thought of it. Do you have any of your own reviews that you’d like to share with the other readers? Drop a comment while it’s hot!

Top photo: Β© Nejron.

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53 Comments. Join in. *Closed after 30 days*

  • Michael

    Hi Ramsay, Thanks for the strongVPN review. I personally use Hide My Ass! which is quite good.


    1. Ramsay

      Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about them but never considered them as one that you can set up on your computer. I always thought it was a web browser deal. Enjoyed them?


      1. Michael

        It is actually installed on a computer. Sometimes it can reboot by itself during the connection but works fine otherwise.


      2. Serge

        Ramsay, check your email. I’m shooting you some info you might like about HMA πŸ˜‰


    2. Serge

      I also suggest HMA Pro! VPN. I’ve set it up to automatically launch when my PC boots and have in rotate IPs every 30 mins.

      Fairly useful if you’re using “tools” for backlinks as well.

      It’s nowhere near as good as Paid-for PRIVATE IPs, but it’s better than nothing.

      Ramsay; I sent you an email on it a few mins ago. A friend of mine uses their affiliate program for a piece of software he built and they’ve paid him every time.

      At first, they investigated how he was getting a ton of sales (new affiliate, 5+ sales a day) but after their investigation cleared, they paid him every penny and he hasn’t had any issues after that.

      -Serge of ASW


      1. Ramsay

        Thanks Serge. Will check it out.


  • Ben

    I’ve used Astrill, its worked well for me!


    1. Ramsay

      Is that a free or paid VPN, Ben?


    2. Nathaniell

      I can 110% recommend folks stay away from Astrill. I was an affiliate of theirs and they refused to pay $2k in commissions about 2 years a go. I wrote a blog post on it, and since then, I’ve had tons of comments from people (actual users)telling stories about how they can cancel your account without giving any excuses.

      And I’m not the only ‘reviewer’ that’s seen this phenomenon. Several other review sites have lists of nasty comments from unhappy users.


      1. Ramsay

        Wow. That’s a bit scary. Did they give reasons?


        1. Nathaniell

          They changed their affiliate TOS without telling me, so two weeks after no sales, I called ’em up asking. I sent a strongly worded email afterwards, saying if they wanted my continued work as an affiliate they needed to inform me of this stuff. Two days later, my aff. credentials were revoked and the money was lost. No returned emails, no response to blog posts. Silence.

          BTW, watch out for the spam comments on this post. I’m in the VPN niche, and most of these guys are ruthless when it comes to promoting their own services, and hiring poor SEO teams. Eventually you’ll start getting recommendations for services that may seem like spam but may seem like a real person. 90% are backlink attempts.

          I still get fresh ones on articles I wrote YEARS ago!


          1. Ramsay

            Sorry to hear that.

            Yeah, I close comments after 30 days to avoid that. Pretty annoying.


  • Deepak Choudhary

    Thanks a lot Ram. I use my internet always in a public wifi hotspot. I was totally unaware about these security issues!. Thanks a lot for posting it. I think in the beginning I would prefer free version of HSS than paid one. πŸ˜‰


    1. Ramsay

      I’m glad I could help someone. Personally I would pay for a service as then you get no ads and a faster server. But it’s totally up to you.


  • Karena

    Is this something that you just switch on when you’re in public or do you leave it on all the time? Are you supposed to choose a server close to where you are or always choose the same one to connect to? I’m wondering if any online banks or PayPal may think that it looks fishy to be logging in from different locations. Thanks for the post. This is something I had been considering for a while.


    1. Ramsay

      Hey Karena.

      You can switch it on when you’re in public but I also know of some people who use them all the time at home just for an extra layer of security.

      That last question is a really good one and I don’t know the answer to be honest. You can choose a server in your own country though which should make it okay. Not 100% sure.


  • Stephanie

    Wow! I am so clueless about this whole VPN thing, I’m glad I read this! One question: Do you have to install this type of thing on your phone too? I do a LOT of browsing, editing, emails, etc on my phone and I’m thinking maybe I need to install a VPN?

    Thanks, Ramsay! Such good info.


    1. Nathaniell

      I’ll jump in here. Yup. PPTP or L2TP for mobile devices, and Mac/Windows can use those two, or a higher encryption can be had with OpenVPN.


      1. Ramsay

        Thanks Stephanie for the kind words and thanks Nathaniell for the tips!


      2. Stephanie

        Thanks Nathaniell!


  • Benjamin

    I also use Hide My Ass, and I have nothing negative to say about them. I just wish the linux app wasn’t command line based.

    I had actually stopped using a VPN for a while, but your article reminded me of their necessity.

    What is irritating is that I have no idea of where I can find objective VPN reviews, all websites seem to be using affiliate links. And although you do use strong VPN yourself which makes your review better, many websites who review VPN are hard to trust.


    1. Ramsay

      Hey Ben.

      Yeah, good point about the VPN reviews. I try to make it clear in my review posts that I’m just telling people what works for me and not really trying to give an overview of the market.

      To be honest, 99% of review sites are there to make money. The only real exception I can think of is a site in Oz called Choice Magazine which is funded by the Government but is still independent. They have a long history of reviewing things based on price, quality, etc. in a very independent way.

      I suppose CNet is pretty good for a democratic approach to tech reviews but, again, the results are often swayed by competitors leaving bad reviews and so on.


    2. Glen

      To be fair, affiliate linked or not, if the review outlines service spec, shows server locations, app/client screenshots and connection speed tests it’s kind of enough to give the customer an idea without falling for any ‘promo’ slant.

      Albeit these are ‘skimming the surface’ reviews, to really get to know a service well, you’d have to test it over periods of months and you’d have to wriwhile using the VPN, defeating the main objective to gain privacy in the end.


      1. Glen

        somehow missed out words near the end: you’d have to write about your specific online activities while using the VPN, thus defeating the objective of anonymity.


  • Eros Peterson

    Hi Ramsay!

    Yes, it is super easy to access your details in a public hotspot and sadly, many people DO NOT realize the hazards and the possible repercussions involved. A VPN is the only way to reliably keep your data safe from intruders.

    I have been looking into a VPN for sometime now and I am so far leaning towards SurfEasy VPN (disclaimer: no affiliation whatsoever!) especially since I have just started to use a tablet for my online needs. They have a number of solutions available including an encrypted USB key that you can keep with you, plug it into any computer that you wish to use, be it a public library, office computer that you want to keep personal data shielded (think sepatation of church and state) or internet cafe. The USB key looks to be great for people on the go, much like yourself.

    Entry and exit points (what country/sever you connect to) is also a biggie for those who wish to avoid places that have been accused of spying on user internet data. Not everyone will offer a multitude locations to connect to/from.

    Bottom line: Nowadays we all need to protect whatever privacy we have left. Do your basic homework on the hows and whys of a VPN and get it into place.

    Cheers from Canada,
    Eros

    PS. as an aside (again, I have NO affiliation), look into software called “Prey” http://www.preyproject.com it’s an amazing piece of software that can help you recover your desktop/laptop/mobile device should it ever get lost or stolen especially when you travel with your device. Works on most everything except Blackberry.


    1. Ramsay

      That last thing sounds like a great idea. Will be checking it out for sure. Thanks Eros.


  • Scott Kindred | SafeHouse Web

    Peering through the blinds and holding a secretive briefcase. Once again, nicely done imagery for your post, Ramsay!

    I headed over to StrongVPN just to take a quick peek before leaving a comment here… Looks like something I will definitely want to check out. Typically, I have the “it won’t happen to me” mentality about having my goodies stolen while using public wifi networks. This is a defective mentality!

    A few months ago, Bank of America sent me a security notice to let me know someone had successfully accessed my account from Iran. The likelihood of that being the true case, versus someone here in California breaching my security (and using a VPN to hide their actual location), seems clear. It was time for a password change, to be sure.

    Here’s one thing I will have to make decisions about and have a strategy for: multiple devices.

    1. My Android smartphone is always on and auto-connects to known wifi networks whenever they are in range. Some of these networks are naturally public ones. VPN = must have.

    2. My iPad is something I take with me to “lightweight” client meetings. The meetings where I do not need the resources of my MacBook to show a client the ins and outs of their website project or social media campaign. In these meetings, frequently held at a Starbucks or a restaurant, the wifi networks are public. VPN = must have, but only some of the time.

    3. My MacBook is the workhorse for all projects and gets taken to “heavyweight” client meetings. The project work I do on it is almost always at my office or my home, so the security risks are lower. But, again, meetings in public places draw risk. VPN = must have, but only some of the time.

    An [expenive] alternative is to use a portable wifi, such as Verizon’s MiFi, that allows you to tether your devices on the MiFi’s secure connection.

    In any case, the VPN security is a necessity. As you said in your pre-announcement to his post, Ramsay, it’s something most every Internet user ought to have. Thanks much for cluing us in on the service you’ve tried and that you’re comfortable with!


    1. Ramsay

      Glad you liked the photo Scott!

      And thanks for taking the time to write such a long essay!

      Yeah, it sounds to me like a VPN would be a good idea for you. Strong VPN lets you have one package but use it on unlimited devices which is kind of cool. Although you can’t connect to more than one at once.

      Let me know how you go with it all.


  • Vukasin

    Definitely worth reading. Well done. Keep with good posts.


    1. Ramsay

      Thanks…


  • mark

    Awesome, do you know if the vpn’s outbound server info can be used for pop3/smtp emails whilst using public WiFi? Very annoying to try and work out the settings whilst traveling using a work email account.


    1. Ramsay

      Hey Mark.

      I read about that in your Blackberry post but I’ve never actually heard of anyone having to do that before.

      What exactly do you have to do that is so frustrating? I wonder if your email can be set up so that you don’t have to do it each time?

      Let me know and I’ll take the question to StrongVPN for you.


  • Ryan

    Great post Ramsay. You’re absolutely right that everyone should be using a VPN these days, especially when conducting things like online banking, making online purchases and more.

    I stumbled upon an incredible (and FREE) VPN service called Spotflux a while back and I couldn’t be more satisfied with it.

    I use it to stream my music via Spotify when I’m abroad, catch the latest PPV fights via online streams, and a hell of a lot more.

    P.S. I know, it sounds like I work for these guys or something. I don’t. I’m just a very satisfied user!


    1. Ramsay

      Thanks for the VPN review, Ryan. There really are so many to choose from it’s hard to get a grip on it all!


  • Arbaz Khan

    I have never used any VPN ever in my journey.
    But I do know the benefits of having a VPN with you to stay safe in the online world by hiding your IP address and its importance has only increased as a lot of people do online banking and online purchases.


    1. Ramsay

      Will you be trying one out then?


  • Kim

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to look into this, Ramsay! It’s one of the things on the to-do list that I’ve put off researching because it’s definitely a bit confusing. But I appreciate your thoughts and now have it on the calendar to look into more thoroughly. Cheers!


    1. Ramsay

      Glad it helped Kim. Thanks for commenting.


  • Naveen

    Hi Ramsay,

    Have you checked out Ultrasurf? It’s one of the best ones out there. And, it’s free. Mostly, used by people in countries where there is no internet freedom and heavy censorship.

    For me personally, I’m still trying to figure out the perfect security combo with anti-virus, firewall and VPN.

    Keep up the good work mate. πŸ™‚

    Naveen


    1. Ramsay

      Never heard of it but will take a look. Thanks mate.


  • Janolyn

    I have yet to have the pleasure of traveling much but I am looking forward to it soon. My question is this, my cell phone is what I use as a hotspot for my computer everywhere. It is slow, but what I have for my home too. Do I need to protect myself with that as well?

    Thank you,
    Janolyn


    1. Ramsay

      I think using it as a hotspot is a lot safer than using it for public WiFi as long as it’s on your phone network and your laptop has all the relevant protections.


      1. Janolyn

        Thank you.


  • Srikanth

    Hi Ramsay,
    This is totally new subject for me never heard of VPN before. Enjoyed reading keep up the good work mate.


  • Patrick

    Well, I just tried Hot Spot Shield (HSS) and am glad to have got it off my Mac. It is one of those programs that doesn’t make it easy to know how to uninstall once you have it running, the idea presumably being that you don’t. The uninstall is in the original dmg that you download, but unless you note that when installing there are no clues after and it sits there like an unwanted boil on your bum!


    1. Ramsay

      Good to know. Did you try the paid version?


  • vpn accounts

    I think VPN should be used by each internet user because of the safety and security of important data. I also use VPN for doing the important data transfer.


  • STEVEN J. FROMM, ATTORNEY, LL.M. (TAXATION)

    Hey Ramsay, I must admit that I did not know very much about VPM. Yes I do live under a rock. But your article has provided a lot of insight into this area and what can be done to protect yourself with VPN. Thanks so much for this useful post!


    1. Ramsay

      Glad it helped Steven.

      Just a friendly pointer – your comment went to spam, possibly because of the additional keywords and caps.


  • ajay

    Anonymity and privacy are best part of using VPN, but you only need them in very imp cases…


  • Vadim Kotin

    I tried Hide My Ass a couple of times, first in 2010 then early 2013 and It was slow… I was trying the paid account, so it suppose to be faster than the trail version but in my personal experience it wasn’t so good


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