While on vacation recently, I received a call from my IT department asking me if I was traveling outside the United States because they were seeing traffic on my account from Romania. I told them, no, but I was staying in a hotel with unsecured Wi-Fi. So I had turned on my VPN service to protect my traffic and my devices. (I didn’t need the VPN to hide me in another country, so I subsequently changed a setting to keep my traffic inside the US.)
I hadn’t signed up for the VPN service to mask my location, but it’s certainly a welcome benefit. I purchased the VPN for the same reason many PCMag readers do: So I could access streaming content that wasn’t available in the US. In my case, it was so I could watch European bicycle races, but more likely, people are choosing it to watch Netflix content and other streaming video and TV services not available in their location. (Read about How to Unblock Netflix with a VPN.)
VPN services can protect and disguise traffic on PCs, smartphones, tablets, and even network routers. But choosing the right service can be complicated. In this month’s PCMag Readers’ Choice survey, our readers help you sift through the various VPN service providers by rating their satisfaction. The good news is that you have a lot of choices and, for the most part, our readers are happy with their products. However, they do warn of gotchas. Read on to see which services they say you should consider, and which to avoid.
VPN Services 2021
The acronym PIA is often used to mean pain in the @$$, but according to our readers, the VPN service, Private Internet Access, is anything but. In fact, the service has been a top choice of our readers every year since 2018, when we first added the VPN service category to our PCMag Readers’ Choice Awards list.
This year, Private Internet Access shares the award with NordVPN, the most popular service with our readers, based on the number of responses, and a current PCMag Editor’s Choice VPN.
PIA and NordVPN, along with ExpressVPN, earned the highest marks for overall satisfaction in our survey with ratings of 8.8. Ratings are on a scale from 0 (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied). However, PIA and NordVPN also had the best scores for likelihood to recommend at 8.9. ExpressVPN received an 8.7, which wasn’t far behind, although it did place it fourth on this measure, behind also ProtonVPN, which won a Readers’ Choice Award last year.
As we always do, we asked respondents to rate their product satisfaction on several other measures. PIA earned the highest ratings on five measures: setup (9.4, tied with ProtonVPN and IPVanish), ease of use (9.3, tied with ExpressVPN and IPVanish), reliability (9.2), performance (8.9), and internet speed (8.7). Performance refers to satisfaction with the protected device’s performance while there’s an active VPN connection, while internet speed refers to satisfaction with the speed of the internet connection while the VPN is running.
Our other Readers’ Choice winner, NordVPN, wasn’t far behind PIA on any of these measures. Plus, it topped the ratings itself on a couple of additional measures: satisfaction with technical support (8.7) and trustworthiness (9.1). The latter rating is based on the response to the statement, “My VPN service is a trustworthy service that keeps me safe online and protects my privacy.” And really, it might be the most important thing about a VPN, period. That people can feel that way even after Nord once had a data breach says a lot.
VPN pricing models can be somewhat confusing, often involving significant discounts in the beginning. Surfshark (a PCMag Editor’s Choice) received the highest rating with satisfaction with cost (9.0), with PIA (8.8) and NordVPN (8.6) not far behind. None of the other rated VPNs received scores above 8.0. ProtonVPN did not receive a rating on this question because we did not ask the question to respondents who said they used a free version of the service, which most of the ProtonVPN users did.
For more, read The Best VPNs Services of 2021.
The PCMag Readers’ Choice survey for VPNs was in the field from September 13 to October 4, 2021. For more information on how our surveys are conducted, read the survey methodology.
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