There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the use of technology throughout the western world, with communications firm Zoom seeing their sales increase by 40% through 2020 alone.
The use of virtual private networks (VPNs) has also soared both during and since the pandemic, increasing by 124% in the US during the two weeks between March 8th and March 22nd in 2020.
This trend is also prevalent in the UK, where VPN usage continues to rise (particularly among the 18-24 age demographic and on smartphones).
Because of this, the market for VPN clients has continued to grow and diversify significantly. This includes both free and paid VPNs, but what are the key considerations when choosing between these different products?
Pricing is one of the key selling points for free VPN service providers, who make their connections available completely free of charge.
While there are potential security restrictions associated with freely accessible VPNs (we’ll touch more on this below), they do tend to initially offer a greater sense of anonymity to users.
They do this by minimising the amount of personal and financial information that you have to provide when signing up, or negating the need for you to have an account at all.
In contrast, the best and most secure VPN clients charge for their services. However, this isn’t necessarily as costly as you may expect, with the average price of a paid VPN estimated to be around $3 per month.
This will fluctuate slightly depending on the length of your subscription, with longer agreements (extending to 12 or 24 months) often providing discounted access.
Regardless, an average price of $3 is more than reasonable given the benefits of using a VPN and its potential applications, and likely to offer genuine value for money if you stream international content regularly or engage in pastimes such as gaming.
You should also keep your eyes peeled for paid VPN clients that offer a free trial of their services. This will usually cover a period of between seven and 14 days, enabling you to comprehensively review the product before making a financial commitment.
Similarly, some VPN clients operate a so-called “freemium” model. This means that they’ll offer a basic iteration of the software available for free, before introducing tiered levels of service that are available through different monthly subscriptions.
While this offers flexibility and may be tempting if you’re new to the world of VPNs, you should note that the free product version offered by freemium clients is usually incredibly basic and not completely fit for purpose.
#2. Security and Quality of Service
As we’ve already touched on, free VPN clients are often less robust than paid alternatives and less secure overall. This relative lack of security can manifest itself in a number of ways, including the sale of your personal data and browsing activity to third parties.
By selling this information for advertising purposes, free VPN clients are able to raise revenue and continue to offer their services free of charge.
However, it’s far from ideal for users, who are unwittingly committing to a free service at the expense of their online security and privacy. This can also saturate your network with ads and cause bottlenecks in your bandwidth speed, while potentially capping monthly data usage.
Historically, we’ve also seen instances of free services inadvertently making their users complicit in cyberattacks. In 2015, for example, the freely accessible Hola VPN platform was leveraged in an online attack on a website, with customer bandwidth used to directly deploy a botnet.
There are two clear takeaways here. Firstly, it’s evident that the revenue model of free VPN clients can compromise your online privacy and security, often without your knowledge or express permission.
Secondly, there’s an obvious link between security and the overall quality of experience when using a VPN, so opting for a paid service can deliver numerous benefits when streaming or playing your favourite games.
It’s also important to remember that free VPNS often lag behind paid alternatives when it comes to the security protocols that they use. These protocols contain specific rules on how users’ data will be packaged and routed through a private network, with some considerably quicker and more robust than others.
Interestingly, the best paid VPN clients actually use multiple protocols, including OpenVPN, IKEv2 and WireGuard. The latter is the newest tunnelling protocol, and one that offers significantly superior connection speeds and minimal lines of code for implementation.
As a result, paid VPN clients can significantly reduce latency and (in some cases) offer 256-bit data encryption, compared with the 128-bit encryption provided by free alternatives.
So, they’re far better at safeguarding your interests and most sensitive data from the moment you complete a VPN download, while making you less vulnerable to malware and Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks.
#3. Do You Stream Regularly?
We’ve already spoken about pastimes such as gaming and streaming content in the digital age, which are two of the most popular applications among VPN users.
When it comes to streaming, VPNs are widely used to access geographically restricted content through platforms such as Netflix. They achieve this by hiding your IP address and physical location, effectively preventing third parties and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from pinpointing your precise location at any given time.
Of course, all VPNs work on this premise, so you’d think that free service providers would be ideal for streaming international content.
However, you need to remember that sites like Netflix actively look to block the use of VPNs across the globe. Because of this, free clients may be unable to evade sophisticated VPN detection systems or even particularly robust firewall settings.
What’s more, free VPN clients may struggle with processes such as streaming content due to the imposition of data allowances and usage caps.
Make no mistake; attempting to stream movies or gaming content utilizes significant swathes of data, and a cap of 500MB is likely to be consumed in an incredibly short period of time.
To put this into some form of content, 500MB translates into a single episode of your favourite Netflix show, and that’s if you’re able to access the platform through your free VPN in the first place.
This issue is completely negated by the unlimited data packages synonymous with paid VPN subscriptions, which also help to reduce latency and minimize the chance of buffering while engaging with content.
The Last Word
If you’re a casual VPN user who doesn’t stream content regularly and rarely accesses public networks, there may be a viable case for using a free service provider.
Even this may be fraught with risk, however, especially when you consider how free VPNs can lack robust security protections and may utilize ineffective or outdated protocols.
In most instances, a paid VPN offers far better value from a user’s perspective, from improved privacy and 256-bit encryption to much faster connection speeds. These specifications impact virtually every conceivable VPN application, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where you wouldn’t use a paid service provider.
It’s also important to remember that most paid VPN subscriptions cost less than $3 per month, which is a relatively small outlay that overwhelmingly delivers excellent value for money. They’ll also offer a free trial in most cases, enabling you to make an informed decision without committing any cash at all.
Most reputable providers will also offer different length subscriptions and packages, enabling you to optimise value according to your precise usage.