Update August 2022: I’m going to let you in on a secret, PC Matic is working on creating our own VPN. If you want to be the first to know about it when it’s ready and see some sneak peeks along the way – join our VPN newsletter!
So you’re in the market for a VPN, but with the number of solutions available, choosing the right one can be a bit overwhelming. We set out to test and rank the top five VPNs based on their Speed, Usability, Feature Set, and more to give you some extra insight while you’re making that selection.
If you’re unfamiliar with a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, it’s a great tool to help keep your online activity more secure from your Internet Service Provider and any other snooping eyes. You can learn more about VPNs and what they can do to help you in our blog post.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Private Internet Access
|Price: $39.95 (1-year)||Our Rating: ★★★|
|Country: USA||Logging Policy: No traffic logging.|
|Support Offered: 24/7 Live Chat||Server Locations: 77 Countries|
|Number of Servers: 26,441||Simultaneous Connections: 10|
Private Internet Access is one of the two VPNs that we tested that is based in the USA. While using solutions that are made in the USA is important, when it comes to VPNs it’s also important to read their policies on logging and what they can be compelled to turn over to the government about their users. Private Internet Access maintains no logging about user traffic and thus has no information to turn over. A checkmark for privacy. PIA also offers good support and comes in as the most affordable solution we tested.
I’ve been using this VPN for myself for the better part of five years now and was especially interested in how it stacked up against competitors. But, the speed testing for private internet access is what let me down the most. Speed is such an important factor when looking for the right VPN to use. Unfortunately, private internet access was among the slowest VPN that we tested. The upload speeds that we saw with PIA were respectable, but the download speeds were very low. There was a dropoff of over 300 Mbps in our download speeds with the VPN turned on. If your biggest factor in choosing a VPN is speed, PIA may not be the choice for you.
In the usability area, we wanted to take into account several different aspects of the VPN. First, we’ll talk about streaming. One popular use for a VPN is using the location switching ability to place yourself in a different country and access their streaming service content. However, do all VPNs work with all streaming services? We put that to the test by trying three different servers for each VPN and seeing if we could access and play content on Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+.
PIA was on the lower end of streaming success. We were able to stream content on two of the three servers with Netflix, but Hulu and Disney+ didn’t work on any of the three we tried. Again, if you’re looking for a VPN primarily to stream, PIA struggles with overall speed and success functioning on streaming sites.
Another important factor when using a VPN is how it may conflict with normal tasks during your work or personal day. We tested each VPN to see if there were conflicts with using our email clients like normal or using our work VPN connection. Unfortunately, PIA did cause conflicts when trying to run our work VPN, but email worked as expected.
Overall PIA has a great user interface on both mobile and desktop applications. They include additional features like a kill switch to stop your network traffic once the VPN loses connection, and PIA Mace, a feature to block ads and potentially malicious content while you browse. Taking everything into consideration, PIA is a solid VPN but comes up short on delivering the blistering speeds we’re all looking for.
|Price: $59.00 (1-year)||Our Rating: ★★★★★|
|Country: Panama||Logging Policy: Zero Logging Policy|
|Support Offered: 24/7 Live Chat||Server Locations: 59 Countries|
|Number of Servers: 5,519||Simultaneous Connections: 6|
If you’re a fan of listening to podcasts or watching content on Youtube, you’ve probably heard of Nord VPN. They do a lot of marketing in the influencer space and have a large market share to go with it. As we mentioned before, if privacy is important to you then you should always investigate the logging policy of the VPN. Nord has a zero-logging policy with a great landing page to break that policy down. They’re also based in Panama which lowers the reach from your government or ISP to request information anyway.
Nord was a rock star in our speed testing, coming in as the fastest VPN that we tested overall. They had a great showing in upload speeds and had the highest overall download speeds as well. If you’re looking for speed, Nord is certainly a VPN to check out. During some of the individual desktop runs, Nord even cracked 300 Mbps download speeds which leaves you with a dropoff of only about 100 Mbps.
When it comes down to overall usability, Nord continues to shine. The user interface of all of their applications and the website are spectacular. That continues into our streaming testing where again we tried three different servers to see how Nord performed on Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+. For all servers, we were able to load up the page and play content. This even worked great moving to another country like the UK and watching content that is not available on the American version of Netflix. If streaming is the primary goal of your VPN, Nord is an excellent choice with its success on streaming sites and fast speeds.
Moving on to our daily tasks, Nord did run simultaneously with our work VPN connection without any issues and didn’t hinder email sending or receiving at all.
There really were no areas where we could pull points away from Nord VPN. It’s a great offering for a reasonable price and checks off all of the important areas that we set out to test for this review piece. Some other offerings have a lower price, or more simultaneous connections, or servers in more countries, but in our opinion, Nord VPN is the best overall solution.
|Price: $99.95 (1-year)||Our Rating: ★★★|
|Country: British Virgin Islands||Logging Policy: No Identifiable Logging|
|Support Offered: 24/7 Live Chat||Server Locations: 94 Countries|
|Number of Servers: 3,000||Simultaneous Connections: 5|
Express VPN is another big player in the VPN space and a favorite of many. Based in the British Virgin Islands, they look to evade the reach of many governments or ISPs with this location choice and thus protect your privacy. Even if that reach was possible, Express says there is no identifiable information they could hand over. On the higher end of cost, Express has a respectable amount of servers in the highest number of countries of any VPN we tested.
In our speed testing, Express VPN did come in on the low end. They were the second slowest VPN that we tested, only mustering up 125 Mbps download speeds on average. Most of the other VPNs entered the high 100’s or low 200’s for download speeds. That’s a pretty severe drop-off in speed which is one of the most important considerations with a VPN purchase.
On the streaming front, Express VPN was pretty respectable. We only saw one issue with a single server while trying to watch Hulu and Disney+. Other than that, it worked great with Netflix to stream content from any location we chose. I was again able to change my location to the UK and watch some content that isn’t available on American Netflix, another bonus! This theme continues through the other items we checked; email functionality was great, and there were no conflicts running alongside our work VPN connection.
For the most part, setup on these VPN services is about the same. You download for your OS and do a quick install, login with the account you created and you’re up and running. Express VPN does throw one more small step into this setup by providing you with a license key after purchase that you must use to activate your purchase after install. Nothing major, but one additional thing to keep track of after purchase.
Express does do a great job of consistency with their user interfaces. After testing both the Windows 10 app and the iOS app, the design is almost the same. You can check out the screenshots above and besides a size change, the layout will feel very familiar when jumping between your different devices.
Overall, the main reason Express received a three out of five rating from our review was the speed. It’s such a large factor when using a VPN that being in the bottom tier of our speed tests just weighs down the overall score.
|Price: $95.88 (1-year)||Our Rating: ★★★★|
|Country: USA||Logging Policy: No identifiable logging.|
|Support Offered: 24/7 Live Chat||Server Locations: 73 Countries|
|Number of Servers: 3,200||Simultaneous Connections: 5|
Another shining star in the speed testing, Hotspot shield came in with some blazing results on download and upload, coming in as our second fastest VPN overall. In the raw data for the speed testing, Hotspot actually performed better than Nord (our fastest VPN) on Windows 10. However, the mobile testing brought them down, coming in almost three times slower than Nord on iOS. So if you’re only looking for Windows 10 support and want blazing fast speeds, Hotspot Shield might be the choice for you.
Streaming brought in more great marks for Hotspot Shield, they performed well on all platforms and servers that we tested, even allowing content from the UK to play like normal on Netflix. In addition, the setup process with Hotspot is just a bit easier than the others. They link the installer to your account after purchase so once the install completes you’re automatically logged in and one click away from being covered. A welcome touch from Hotspot!
Hotspot did function well with our email clients, however we saw issues when trying to run it alongside our work VPN connection, and it is missing a feature to block ads while browsing, something that most solutions we tested had available. In addition, Hotspot does promote a lot of other products towards you while you’re using it. Something I didn’t notice as much with the other solutions. If that type of thing bothers you, take that into consideration before making the jump.
Overall, Hotspot looks like a great choice for a VPN against these top competitors with blazing fast speeds, reasonable pricing, and only a few negative marks.
|Price: $38.94 (6-months)||Our Rating: ★★★ ½|
|Country: British Virgin Islands||Logging Policy: No logs policy.|
|Support Offered: 24/7 Live Chat||Server Locations: 65 Countries|
|Number of Servers: 3,200||Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited|
Surfshark was the least recognizable one to me coming into this testing, but they’re moving up in market share amongst some of these heavy hitters. They offer a unique take to their pricing model which gives you unlimited simultaneous connections. Most others limit you to about five connections or five devices where you can have the VPN running at the same time. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck and have a lot of devices to cover this would be a really big selling point.
Coming in third overall in our speed tests, Surfshark had some respectable results. They fit right into the middle of the solutions that we looked at. During our testing the results were a bit inconsistent though, swinging from 200 Mbps download speeds in one result, to around 50 Mbps only a minute or two later in the next result. While it wasn’t the blazing-fast results we saw with Nord or Hotspot, it’s certainly sufficient to tackle anything you’d normally be doing with a VPN turned on.
Looking at streaming, we performed the same test as before, connected to three servers and tried to watch Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ on all of them. Surfshark did great with Netflix and Disney+, but Hulu presented problems. We couldn’t get Hulu to play content on any of the three servers that we tried.
Bringing in more positive marks, Surfshark does offer the extra features that we were looking for in testing, including an option for ad blocking and a kill switch to protect your traffic in a disconnection event. However, we did have an issue running Surfshark alongside our work VPN connection, something to consider if that’s a likely path for you.
Overall Surfshark offers a competitive price, unlimited connections and some respectable speeds. They’re a solid choice for a VPN, unless you’re only looking to stream on Hulu.
It’s time to give away some awards! We’re going to break these down into a few different categories of Best Overall, Best Budget Pick, and Best Speed. Be sure to let us know what your VPN of choice is in the comments below!
Best Overall: Nord VPN
Nord shined bright like a diamond in all of our testing, speeds were consistent and high, streaming performed well, and the setup and user interface is very clean.
Best Budget Pick: Surfshark
With competitive pricing, unlimited connections, and some respectable speeds, Surfshark is a great budget pick.
Best Speed: Nord VPN
Nord was very consistent in speed testing on both Desktop and Mobile and still managed to surpass Hotspot’s average speeds just by a hair.
While testing each VPN we maintained the same structure and method. Each VPN was tested using a custom build Windows 10 PC that was connected via ethernet, and an iPhone Xs connected via wifi. Both devices were on the latest software version at the time for the VPN and the operating system.
To remove the variable of different servers being faster than others, for each speed test we let the VPN pick the server it connected to automatically. Each VPN had a feature to connect to what it said was the fastest server for you.
For each VPN, we ran a total of 20 consecutive speed tests with 1 minute in between each test. 10 speed tests were done using the mobile app on the iPhone and 10 were done on the Windows 10 machine. These 10 tests were broken down into 5 tests with the VPN turned on and then 5 tests with the VPN turned off. Those values were collected into an average across both devices of performance with the VPN turned off and the VPN turned on. The speed tests were performed using Ookla on Windows, and the Speedcheck application on iOS.
While performing these tests, my internet plan with Spectrum was set at 400/20.