Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are the most popular way for ordinary internet users to anonymize their data and identity. By using a good VPN, you can mask the sites you visit, the movies you stream, the torrents you download, and the messages you send. And in a world of multiplying online threats, it’s understandable that millions of people rely on these privacy tools around the world.

How do software VPNs work?

VPNs come in two major forms: software VPNs and hardware VPNs, and in this post we’ll be talking a bit about the first option.

Unlike hardware VPNs, software VPNs are based on installable clients that run inside your OS. These clients run the encryption and authentication processes required to guard your privacy. Just to be clear, that’s not the case with hardware VPNs, where the tools you need to use the VPN are installed directly onto a router, not your computer or mobile phone.

However, in both cases these tools create an encrypted “tunnel” via security protocols, which protects data and scrambles your IP address, making it seem like you’re located far away from your home or workplace.

So why would you choose a software VPN client instead of opting for the hardware option or choosing not to use a VPN at all? There are quite a few good reasons, applicable both for home and business users. Let’s look at some of them in a little more detail.

Ways to use VPN software for home

The vast majority of VPN users select to install a software VPN client. It’s a convenient option for people who aren’t well-versed in working with router firmware and flashing apps onto external hardware. The best clients are both extremely easy to set up and highly effective.

Instead of buying a separate piece (or even pieces) of hardware, the users of a software VPN can just install a VPN application and be up and running within moments. And for people with relatively little time or specialist skills, these are all massive advantages.

Moreover, many current VPNs use what is known as Secure Socket Layer encryption. This works via web browsers, and provides a relatively secure connection to web services. In these cases, you might not even need a software VPN client, as the encryption and anonymization software is added to your existing browser setup. That’s a neat solution for people who mainly use the web.

Why use VPN software for business?

Businesses have different aims in mind. For them, security is extremely important, but their VPN solutions also need to be scalable (and therefore suitable for use in large workplace networks) as well as cost-effective and technically suitable. Sometimes, there’s no use going for an incredible – and incredibly expensive – VPN setup.

Software VPNs aren’t always the security method businesses strive for, but they are often the best available tool. In some instances, the cost of getting a software VPN client for all workstations is actually cheaper than taking the hardware route. And they can be scaled up or adapted very easily – it’s certainly a lot simpler than hardware based alternatives.

Then again, a good hardware VPN will tend to run slightly more quickly, can be more cost effective in larger organizations, and offer a slightly superior level of security. That’s mainly because hardware VPNs are totally dedicated to one task and don’t share hardware with other operations. You can definitely secure software-based versions, but it takes more precision.

The pros and cons of software VPN solutions

Before we move onto recommending some leading software VPNs, let’s quickly summarize the pros and cons to help you make a decision:

Pros

  • Software VPNs are highly scalable for businesses
  • They are easy to download and install
  • Can be implemented as browser add-ons
  • Effectively anonymize and secure online communications
  • Cheaper than hardware VPNs for individuals

Cons

  • Offer less security than hardware VPNs
  • May be complex to manage in larger organizations
  • Can be more expensive when implemented across businesses

How does the cost of a software VPN compare?

As we noted above, there are usually some noticeable cost differences between software and hardware-based VPNs. With a hardware VPN, users will need to purchase a router that is configured to use VPNs, and subscribe to a suitable VPN provider. This generally leads to higher upfront costs.

Software-based VPNs simply require users to take out a subscription and download a software VPN client. Subscription prices vary and a reputable provider could charge as little as $5-7 per month (about $50-70 per year). There are free services, but we don’t usually recommend them.

Our pick for the 3 best software VPN services

When you first come to install software VPN solutions, the sheer variety can be overwhelming and it can be hard to differentiate reliable providers from poor-quality second-raters. So here are 3 options that won’t let you down.

ExpressVPN – One of the most popular VPNs around, ExpressVPN has a great track record of working around Netflix geo-blocking, offers an impressive 2,000 servers in almost 150 nations, and is great at catering to more than one device.

CyberGhost – Another first rate VPN, CyberGhost also scores highly when it comes to unlocking streaming sites and has a comparable international server network.

NordVPN – Again, great at unblocking sites like Netflix and masking IP addresses. NordVPN provides a gold-standard privacy service with a massive 5,000+ server network.