2018 has been a tumultuous year in more ways than one. A time of winners who won huge and losers who were forced to sell the world. But enough about politics. One of the year‘s winners, for the N-th time in a row, has been the entire VPN industry.
The success of the VPN is such that market projections see the segment more than doubling by 2025 (from 1260 million US$ to 2960 million US$). Among other things, such financial exuberance weaves an inviting habitat for a seductive literary beast – the “Best of list.”
But VPN services are diverse and that’s why we have decided against doing an annual Top 10. Instead, here are our 2018 VPN Awards, where we go category by category, giving our favorites for the previous year and the year to come.
Best VPN for Asia
Not to be confused with the Best VPN for China – at least not entirely. Asia is by far the biggest VPN market in the world and one that comes with widely ranging needs.
These needs can be divided into two distinct camps. The first is the surveillance and censorship camp, of which users in China are the most prominent (but not the only) members. In that same conversation, we could mention the people of the Gulf states, North Korea, Myanmar, and some others. Their primary needs are to bypass censorship measures blocking access to sites such as Google or Facebook, and avoiding the gaze of law enforcement or other authorities.
The second camp is people in countries that are more or less democratic and use VPNs much the same way people do in the US or Europe. For them, access to geo-blocked content, speedy torrenting, and avoiding targeted ads are the primary reasons to use VPN services.
NordVPN can do all the things Astrill VPN does for its Asian users, only not as fast. The reason we chose it as the runner-up in this category is that, unlike some other good choices, NordVPN is dirt-cheap.
Best VPN for the USA
American VPN users are different from any other group because they generally don’t need a VPN to access content. Most of the content they need is available through their regular internet connection. Instead, Americans want to use torrents safely and avoid surveillance measures of all shapes and sizes.
The USA was understandably the most impacted by Edward Snowden’s revelations. Ever since then, the situation has hardly improved. As a matter of fact, most would probably say it got worse, especially in 2018. One of the things that happened this year was the FCC’s now-notorious decision to repeal net neutrality. And that’s just one entry on a long list of attacks against consumer privacy perpetrated by the unholy alliance of big business and the federal government. For example, in 2017, Congress voted to repeal FCC rules that make ISPs seek the consent of their customers before sharing their private data (or selling it to advertisers, as is more realistically the case).
Well, since the powers that be will no longer protect citizens, it’s clearly time to pony up a few bucks and get a VPN. Which one?
The perennial VPN industry front-runner has plenty of servers in the Americas and offers a great set of features as well. It’s also quite expensive and many of its benefits are lost on users in the US or Canada.
Best VPN for Europe
For most VPN users in the Old Continent, the tool is about getting past geo-blocking measures and avoiding heavy fines for copyright infringements. This particularly applies to countries in Western Europe, like Germany or the UK. Citizens of the latter country are also interested in sidestepping similar surveillance capabilities like those of the US.
Further to the East, the good people of Russia and Turkey (not to have the discussion whether either is European) are dealing with some of the same realities as those under Chinese rule – namely, censorship and the police state.
Starting in 2019, Europeans will have to contend with even weirder things. Those who have heard of the infamous Article 13 of the Directive on Copyright (the “meme ban”) will know exactly what’s up.
In short, what Europe needs from a VPN is a lot of access to content, comfortable features to allow juggling between apps, and a bit of (“a lot of” for Russians and Turks) security.
Runner-up: Astrill VPN
Astrill is very similar in its offerings, the differences being more speed, stealth protocols, no split-tunneling, and significantly higher prices. Unless you really do need those stealth protocols, Ivacy VPN is probably the more reasonable choice in Europe.
Best VPN for Torrents
Torrenting and other P2P sharing are important reasons for using VPN services in the West.
In recent years the market trajectory seemed to be going away from torrenting and in the direction of streaming services. Platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Fire TV, BBC iPlayer, Spotify and so on have prospered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. For a while, we could believe that the case of Personal self-interest v. Copyright holders was resolved in an amicable way to both parties… nooooot!
Too many different platforms mean too much exclusive content and too many subscriptions for regular Joes to afford. Result: the popularity of torrenting is on the rise yet again and the battle rages on. Cease-and-desist letters and DMCA notices are flying to and fro along virtual highways, people are paying hefty fines, and VPNs for torrenting are all the rage. So it goes.
What makes a good torrenting VPN? Well, we’re looking for speed, no leaks, a kill switch, the ability to forward your ports and, preferably, access to a SOCKS5 proxy for some additional value. Here are the choices.
The proof is in the name – Torrent Guard. And indeed it gives many of the same features IPVanish does, with the main difference being you’ll have to pay extra for SOCKS5.
Best VPN for Netflix
Just because torrenting is on the rise, that doesn’t make Netflix anything close to obsolete. Here‘s a telling statistic – 30% of VPN users use it to watch Netflix. Remember that dollar figure at the beginning of the article? Yeah, that’s very significant indeed.
Let’s back up a little. Why use a VPN for Netflix in the first place?
Simply put, when you go to Netflix.com, the website looks at your IP address and decides which version of the content library to serve you. If you’re in the US – you’re in luck because you’re getting the biggest library of all. If you’re elsewhere, however, you need a way to change your IP address. That’s what VPNs do best. There’s just one issue, namely, Netflix is wise to the VPN industry and blocks VPN servers if they can help it.
So, in terms of which is the best VPN for Netflix (or other streaming platforms – Hulu, HBO, BBC iPlayer, etc), the criteria are simple. We want to know if the VPN is capable of unlocking Netflix and whether the speeds are good.
Runner-up: Astrill VPN
As ever, Astrill VPN is a good suggestion (although we might have gone with ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or even CyberGhost), which unlocks almost as many different Netflix libraries and gives amazing speeds. Only, again, it’s not a cheap one!
Best VPN Newcomer
It’s always important to recognize the successful newcomers. This is especially true in an industry with thousands of them, and where old names occupy the summit. Breaking into the VPN industry nowadays requires several things that not many providers have/offer.
Firstly, what’s needed is a lot of investment. Servers cost money, as does coding apps for half-a-dozen device types, and as does marketing. The latter is an especially arduous task in the VPN sphere: your branding matters very little, which makes communication both difficult and expensive, and the most important channels of information are concentrated on the first page of Google.
Secondly, you need your own spin on the VPN product. Something that makes it unique and allows it to find a niche in this particularly dense industry.
That’s not all there is to it, but it’s enough to make the task insurmountable for the overwhelming majority.
Sure, technically, ProtonVPN opened shop half-way through 2017, but most of its development took place throughout the current year. The ProtonMail team has certainly managed to put forth a great product.
Best VPN for Privacy
Almost all VPN services pay lip service to the idea of anonymity, privacy, and all those other nice platitudes. It’s no coincidence that the current boom in the VPN industry can at least partially be traced back to the NSA-Snowden debacle of 2013. Each piece of news about online privacy, from Cambridge Analytica to the Yahoo leaks, strengthens VPNs and their talking points.
We would argue that many – and perhaps even most – VPN services are capable of safeguarding your privacy from the outside world. The real question is whether they are capable of protecting your privacy from themselves. After all, by choosing to use a VPN service, you are simply switching the entity that keeps tabs on what you’re doing from your ISP to your VPN.
This is the exact reason why VPN services claim to keep “zero-logs” of their users’ online activities or other data. It’s also why stories about law enforcement using data from VPN services are such a stain on the reputation of the VPN.
This category presents VPNs even a spy or a top-level investigative journalist could use. These providers have proven time and again that they take user security and privacy very seriously.
Runner-up: Perfect Privacy
Not nearly the behemoth of NordVPN’s caliber, but also offering most of the same features. If you’re reluctant to use NordVPN, don’t mind an ugly interface, and can afford to pay somewhat extortionate prices – Perfect Privacy is the tool for the job!
Best VPN for Newbies
Here’s a category many cater to but can’t seem to get it right much of the time. It’s hardly a surprise – to be a good VPN for newbies it must still be a good VPN, period, and that means many complicated features on your app. The trick is to get as many inessential decisions out of the way of the user as possible.
But that’s not all there is to it. Such a VPN should also have lots of well-written guides and easily-reachable customer support. So those aiming for the “newbie vote” should work on their presentation skills, starting with the website.
We also believe that default settings are very important. They shouldn’t leave a newbie exposed just because he or she doesn’t think past clicking “Connect.”
This category shouldn’t be underestimated, either. As time goes on, more and more VPN users will be complete novices. Best catch them early!
Similar in most regards, only doesn’t have a free version (unlimited 7-day free trial instead) and could have better default settings.
Best VPN for Free
There are thousands of free VPN services but few are worth your time.
“Free” is generally a word you don’t want to hear in the same sentence as “VPN.” Providers such as Hola and too many others have made a mockery of online privacy and security over the years. The truth is, nothing in this world is free – so who’s paying for these VPNs and how?
Often, free VPNs survive by selling user data to advertisers or selling idle bandwidth, or they use some other problematic method to cover the costs. The victim is almost always privacy, a.k.a the exact thing you were trying to protect.
Other VPN services have both a free and a paid version, in which case it’s usually the paid subscriptions subsidizing the free ones. These VPNs have their own issues, the most common being various limitations. For example, most have data transfer limits, server switching limits, etc.
You can already see that free VPN services, while never as good as the top paid services, are not equal to each other. This category celebrates the best ones.
A solid backup choice: secure, and has a more generous data transfer limit (2 GB/month) than most. If regular browsing is all you’re doing, Hide.me may be enough.
Most Ethical VPN
When we consider that customers can never really know what happens on VPN servers, ethics becomes extremely important. The only issue we have as users is that – important or not – ethics is also very difficult to evaluate.
With that said, we can infer a lot from the product, the communication, and other factors.
First off, we have to look at the feature list and try to figure out whether the VPN goes the extra mile for security and privacy. Features like double-hop, stealth protocols, Tor over VPN, and others are not necessary for selling a VPN product and neither are they easy to implement.
Thirdly – are there any scandals related to the VPN service? Is the marketing truthful or does the VPN provider use all the dirty tricks available to get a good review?
Here’s what we think.
Runner-up: Astrill VPN
Based in Seychelles and offering most of the feature list of Perfect Privacy, Astrill VPN is a very good choice for most ethical. Alas, Perfect Privacy is just a little bit ahead.
Best VPN for Speed
Speed! What good is security without it? Yes yes – we usually say it the other way around, but let’s dispense with other considerations for a moment (at least some of them) to answer a simple question. Which VPN was the fastest in 2018?
Of course, we kid when we say speed is simple. As a matter of fact, there are many factors to consider and speed varies quite a bit depending on the time of day, the distance from the VPN server, the hardware, the software, et cetera.
Therefore, take our word with a grain of salt – we’re only telling you what our results have been, not implying they are universal.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the winners.
Has a high number of servers, all self-owned and optimized to the teeth. VyprVPN has none of the privacy issues of PureVPN but is not a good choice for torrenting.
Best VPN Branding
The VPN sphere is known for a lot of positive things but originality in branding is not one of them. It would be really easy to create one of those “VPN name generator” things – start with “privacy”, “security”, “anonymity” and you’re probably halfway there. That’s why it is our duty to congratulate VPN service providers who have transcended this bland paradigm and found success doing it.
The mascot is a mole, which is an underappreciated creature and makes a whole lot of sense. Also, Mullvad is a super secure, awesome VPN.
Best VPN for Gaming
Gamers are not the most natural group of VPN users. The reason is simple: no one wants more ping cramping their flick-shots and wombo combos. But there are situations when using a VPN service is simply the smart thing to do for a gamer.
The first reason for using a VPN is geo-blocking. Like streamers, gamers sometimes have to contend with geo-restrictions placed on games and using a VPN is the most straightforward way to fix the issue. And let’s not forget that gamers also have to protect their privacy – perhaps even more so.
One of the fastest VPN services and one of the most versatile. No digital border can stop you with ExpressVPN.
Best VPN Update
In 2018, there was plenty to be pleasantly surprised about. This category celebrates exactly that – here are the VPN services that have managed to shore up some big weaknesses over this year.
One of the most important VPN security features is the kill switch. Connections drop even using the best tools, which is why a VPN with no kill switch is incomplete. In 2018 SaferVPN has introduced this feature on its apps.
Best VPN for Mobile
Images of people lost in the glare of the smartphone are fast becoming a cliché. Not that it’s not true, of course, and there’s a reason as well – you can do almost anything on a smartphone nowadays. And whilst you’re doing everything you would on your PC, you might want to be just as secure.
There are more mobile VPNs than there are regular ones, so there is plenty to choose from. If only most of them weren’t atrocious, data-stealing jumbles of code linking to poor servers…
Top VPN services mostly have good or decent mobile apps but there are specific areas they must be strong in to contend for the title of best mobile VPN:
• The interface should be simplistic and easy to manipulate using your fingers
• It should have the IKEv2 tunneling protocol or some other protocol with Mobile and Multihoming Protocol (MOBIKE) functionality, which prevents data from leaking when switching between WiFi and cellular data
• Should have good security features (there is often a downgrade from PC to VPN in terms of security)
On the flipside, some features are less important, an example being P2P support
This top-notch service also has stellar mobile apps, which are perhaps even better suited for touchscreens (not that they’re bad on regular ones). ExpressVPN is fully-featured and good at almost everything.
Best VPN of 2018
Over this year, competition at the top of the VPN market has grown even fiercer. The very best are patching up even the smallest holes in their game and there are now 3-4 services that are neck and neck. We could even say it’s a matter of preference between them.
All these VPNs have stellar security features and work reliably regardless of geography. They’d probably let you stream Netflix in UltraHD out of North Korea if you could find an internet connection!
As such, our choices are led by less tangible aspects – speed, security under the most sensitive of circumstances, scandals (or lack thereof), customer support quality, and other such things.
The most secure VPN service on the market. Just like our winner, NordVPN is good at everything and we could’ve gone either way with this one. Ultimately, however, the media silence around ExpressVPN wins the day in 2018.