We put a lot of work into our VPN reviews. However, since you’re here, we’d like to take a few minutes to explain what goes into these reviews and how we decide things. After all, anybody can put a number on a service, but that doesn’t mean you’ll believe those numbers. Knowing how and why we rate things is the best way for you to be sure you can trust us.
We divide our VPN reviews into a selection of subjective and objective factors and then combine them into ratings.
- Number and location of servers
- Own infrastructure
- Native apps
- Browser Extensions
- Kill Switch
- Torrenting and P2P
- Jurisdiction and privacy laws
- Dedicated servers for streaming
- Dedicated servers for torrenting
- Advanced features
VPN Reviews: Objective factors
Privacy policies are an essential part of high-quality VPNs. These clarify what the service can and cannot do with your information. Since privacy is one of the primary goals of using a VPN, knowing your rights is essential.
This is more complex than it seems, though. Many VPNs are headquartered around the world, with different national jurisdictions governing their policies. We’ll talk more about that below, but the critical thing to know right now is that privacy policies around the world can look very different from those you’re used to seeing from American companies.
Number And Location Of Servers
In this case, more is usually better. VPNs with more servers tend to be more redundant and have better speeds at all times. When their servers are in more locations, they can access more content providers and otherwise provide you with different benefits.
However, this factor isn’t as cut-and-dried as looking at the number of servers a company claims to have. The quality of the servers is almost as important as the number of them. A high-quality server can handle more users simultaneously, which means a company with fewer servers could still provide better service.
When possible, we evaluate the quality of the servers alongside their number.
Whether The VPN Owns Its Servers Or Even A Whole Data Center
Thanks to cloud services, you can rent essentially any amount of computing power you need for any task. That said, if another company owns the servers, it’s impossible to guarantee that the VPN company can secure your privacy.
Companies that own their servers are also fundamentally more trustworthy. A rental company could spring up in the blink of an eye to dazzle you with claims about thousands of servers. However, a company that owns the servers has put a lot more money into running their business.
Data centers are the best thing to own, and we always love hearing about them when we’re doing a VPN review. These are large clusters of servers in a dedicated facility that the company can control in its entirety. Sadly, few VPNs own these, but possessing one always gives the company a lot of points in our final review.
Native Apps Availability
Most people don’t think about native apps when they’re reading VPN service reviews. However, having a native app makes it much easier to use the VPN on different devices, often as soon as it boots up.
Having a native app for one type of machine, such as Windows desktops, is good. Having native apps for many types of devices is better.
Browser Extensions Availability
Browser extensions are useful secondary versions of VPNs, able to work exclusively within a web browser. This is different from a standard VPN service, which protects all data coming from the user.
While browser extensions are inferior to a proper VPN, they’re still good to have if you only use the internet on a device. They’re also useful if you’re accessing a public computer and want to enable a VPN there.
Kill Switch Is A Must-Have Feature
Kill-switches are a ‘must have’ because they stop you from accidentally connecting to things without the protection of your VPN.
Is Torrenting And P2P File Sharing Allowed?
Supporting torrents and other forms of peer-to-peer file sharing are advantageous features for VPNs. Many companies use torrenting services internally to reduce lag and network loads. Even some large companies use torrents to deliver software to employees, clients, or customers.
Pricing is also important. While the costs are relatively similar per month, often ranging from $3 to $15, that adds up if you extend it over a year. $36 is far less than $180 for a service.
We rate prices on a few factors, including the availability of discounts for long subscriptions and the opportunity to test the software before buying it. Free trials are the best, but a money-back guarantee is an acceptable alternative.
We also rate companies based on the type of free offers they allow. Some companies allow as little as one day for a free trial, while others may let you use them for an entire month. Essentially, the more consumer-friendly their offer is, the higher we’re going to rate it.
This is especially true because user interfaces vary between VPNs. Something easy for you might be a lot harder for someone else. Free trials allow you to experience the software yourself without any real risk involved, and there’s no substitute for personal experience.
VPN Reviews: Subjective Factors
Subjective factors are usually much harder to evaluate than objective factors. We can’t raise a score just because we like a company, or because we think they have potential in the future. However, elements like reputation are a real part of any business, so we can’t ignore them.
For this part, we research the brand to see what real users are saying about it. If hardly anyone even talks about the company, they won’t be earning any points for it. On the other hand, if there are many positive or negative comments, that’s an excellent way to see how the overall company performs.
Transparency is also useful. In this context, transparency is how much information the company shares with other people. That includes who its major employees are, how many servers it has, what protections it offers, and what steps they take to protect your privacy. Reporting the results of audits is another type of transparency.
We believe that if information can be public without compromising their operations, it probably should be. Trust is something companies have to earn, and the more transparent they are, the easier it will be to earn that trust.
Outside of objective and subjective factors, there are a few elements that fall between the two. Evaluating these is usually a matter of the reviewer’s experience and ability to compare the factors to other services.
VPN Service Jurisdiction And Its Privacy Laws
We touched on this earlier, but the service jurisdiction – or where the company is headquartered – is a significant factor in ensuring your privacy. Some parts of the world are not privacy-friendly and could compel businesses to hand over their information. Other locations have impressive privacy laws and lean on that reputation to attract business.
We give companies more points if they’re based in an area with strong privacy laws or a long history of protecting people’s information. Having both is better, but some countries have only recently passed legislation to protect digital information.
Some good jurisdictions include the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Panama. Many Central American jurisdictions have surprisingly robust privacy laws, so they’re an increasingly popular choice for companies looking to get a safe domain.
When it comes to connection speed, it’s hard to evaluate companies properly. Factors like the number of users accessing the server, the quality of the original connection, and the geographic location of the person conducting the test impact the results of this, so people in one area may have great connection speeds while people in other regions do poorly.
When possible, we try to test the service with people located around the globe. If they have consistently positive experiences, we know that the VPN is better at speed. If people have trouble in some areas, the VPN is likely to lose a few points.
We also look for information on this when we’re checking user comments and reviews. Most people don’t mention positive things about a VPN’s speed. As long as it’s fast enough, they’re satisfied, so it doesn’t come up very often. However, people often let others know if the VPN is too slow, making problems easier to spot.
Dedicated Servers For Streaming
Streaming content is one of the primary reasons many people look for VPNs. For example, people who move between countries may want to keep accessing their original streaming service to keep up with certain shows they’re invested in.
That’s why servers dedicated to streaming are beneficial for any VPN. The company can optimize the server’s performance for streaming, and the streaming won’t interfere with anyone who’s doing regular browsing.
Note that in most cases, standard servers can handle streaming while also helping other users. It’s more a question of how much they can do at any given time. Streaming content takes far more bandwidth than regular content browsing, but servers can usually handle multiple users without much difficulty.
Dedicated Servers For Torrenting
Torrenting isn’t quite as popular as streaming, but it’s still a useful technology for many businesses. Most computers upload content considerably slower than they can download it, so using torrents to download from multiple computers at the same time drastically reduces the time it takes to transfer large files.
Incidentally, this is why so many large companies use torrents internally. When speed is vital to their daily operations, transferring large files quickly can be an essential part of what they’re doing.
Torrents are also a popular client-side feature. For example, many multiplayer video games can be tens of gigabytes large, with similarly-sized downloads and updates. Trying to get that through a standard connection could take days or even weeks with a slower connection.
By giving users a torrenting service, companies can drastically reduce download speeds and keep customers happy enough to continue enjoying their product.
All of this means that having dedicated servers for torrenting is extremely useful for any VPN. This isn’t fundamentally tied to sharing illegal content, and providing such dedicated servers doesn’t make a VPN suspicious. All it really does is help maximize the utility of a popular service.
Finally, there are advanced features. These vary widely by company, so we try to compare them to each other when possible. Occasionally, companies have unique features, so we’ll get together and discuss those to make a better judgment call. Here are some of the advanced features you might see us talk about:
- Split Tunneling: This is the ability to protect some of your information with a VPN while leaving the rest alone. For example, a VPN could protect everything except the content of your web browser. This is useful if your employer needs to see what you’re doing online, but you still want to protect the rest of your information.
- Custom VPN Protocols: Custom protocols can provide a variety of features for clients, ranging from additional encryption to improved speeds. This tends to be extremely technical, so we may consult experts to figure out if a custom protocol adds value to the service, or if they’re just trying to advertise something normal.
- Double VPN: A double VPN sends your information through a second server before it reaches the destination. This is a little slower than typical VPNs, but it’s also even more secure and helps protect your privacy better than almost anything else. Since this can impact speed, companies usually let you toggle it on or off.
- Multi-Hop: Multi-hop VPNs are similar to double VPNs, but can include even more servers before you finally reach the destination. Technically, double VPNs are also multi-hops. This isn’t necessary for most users, but it’s occasionally helpful for accessing content that you otherwise couldn’t.
- Advanced Privacy Servers: Advanced privacy servers use technology to further protect you and your information. For example, the TrustedServer that ExpressVPN offers doesn’t write user data to its hard drive and reinstall the operating system every time it boots. Since it runs entirely on RAM, it physically cannot retain data.
Some advanced features are significantly more valuable than others. The TrustedServers described above are a top-tier privacy option for users, but multi-hop systems beyond a double VPN don’t add that much value for regular users. This means that a company may get a lot of points for just one or two features or a few points even if they have many advanced features.
The main factor we consider here is how useful the features are to consumers. Most advanced features are on the back end of things, so you may not even notice or experience them while using the VPN. That doesn’t mean they won’t impact you, so they’re still an essential part of our grading scale.
10-grade evaluation scale
Privacy is one of the two main reasons people use a VPN. If it’s located in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction and takes steps to protect users’ information, even from itself, the company earns more points. If it’s located in areas with anti-privacy regulations, it earns considerably fewer points.
Features & Software
All VPNs provide the same basic service, but some provide many extras on top of that. Features that enable you to customize your use of their software are always nice to see. In addition, the software itself impacts the final score. VPNs that are usable on more devices get far more points than VPNs limited to a single device, or worse, a single browser.
As we explained above, we try to evaluate the number, speed, and quality of servers when rating a company. This detail can change faster than almost anything else about the company if they’re able to bring new servers online, so be sure to read their own information to see if they’ve changed things since we last updated our review about them.
Streaming is the other main reason why people use VPNs. While any server can stream content, dedicated servers are usually faster and can support more users at the same time. Since this is so important for users, streaming support’s presence tends to earn a lot of points.
Finally, while keeping all of the above in mind, we decide whether or not the company seems to offer a good deal to customers. This comes into play on two levels. First, we want to see if the price is fair in the absolute sense. $100/month would be ridiculous for any VPN, for example. However, we also see if the price is competitive with other VPNs offering similar services.
For A Quick Evaluation, There Are Pros and Cons In Each VPN Review
Finally, to help you make an informed decision, we put the Pros and Cons of different services into our VPN reviews. These aren’t a substitute for reading the entire review, but they’re designed to help you filter services quickly so you can spend time reading reviews for the companies that seem most likely to meet your needs.