Personal VPNs Offer Safer Wi-Fi: Three Services Compared

From that point on, you simply run the off-the-shelf OpenVPN software and you're tunneling securely from your laptop to StrongVPN's servers.

It's impossible to say definitively that StrongVPN's servers were more responsive than anyone else's. There are too many variables to account for. However, I ran through a suite of Web pages and videos using identical machines and lab conditions for each personal VPN in this review, and found StrongVPN's servers almost as responsive as the control machine running an unsecured connection.

At a Glance

StrongVPN

Prices: PPTP packages: $7/month (SF, NY, Miami); $12/month (SF, NY, LA, Chicago), $15/month (multiple cities worldwide). OpenVPN packages: $10/month (SF, NY, Miami); $15/month (8 cities), $20/month (multiple cities worldwide). All servers: $30/month (multiple cities worldwide). All packages have a 3-month minimum.

Pros: Strong showing of servers worldwide, fast server response times, 24/7 support via chat and Skype, static IP addresses.

Cons: Complicated pricing policy, changing servers requires logging in to StrongVPN's Web site and ordering new configuration files.

So far so good, but there are a few dings against StrongVPN. First, it's not the easiest solution if you want to change servers around. Just to make sure I had the most responsive server, I checked the company's Web site and decided to try another New York server that the site told me had five free slots. I logged in to my account, clicked the Change Server slot, and was e-mailed another link to a Zip file with configuration data.

This isn't a big deal for someone with tech smarts, but it turned out that StrongVPN limits the number of times you can do this: Lite packages allow for five server changes a month (with three trial switches during the first month); Standard and Deluxe offer two more server changes, for a total of seven per month. Any more changes and you will need to purchase a switching upgrade, which starts at an extra $5/month.

Bottom line

StrongVPN is a mixed bag. Its service team is very responsive and very knowledgeable. Its server selection is large and its latency seems to be minimal. But it uses the same off-the-shelf OpenVPN client software that the other personal VPN providers do, so it doesn't stand out from the pack in that respect, and its doesn't modify the configuration process as smoothly as the others. And the packages that the company offers are flexible, but can be overwhelming to an untrained customer.

WiTopia

Understanding off-the-shelf VPNs isn't easy, even for someone with grounding in networking. WiTopia's strength is that the company does a lot of the work for you up front.

Instead of making you research pricing tables for abstruse services, you pick from one of just three packages: one year of PPTP-based privacy, one year of OpenVPN-based privacy or a combo package of both. The annual fees range from $50 to $70, and once you've picked your poison, you don't have any significant hurdles to jump through.

Within a minute of creating an account and ordering a personal VPN SSL at WiTopia's site, I received the receipt and setup instructions, including a URL for downloading the client software. WiTopia's installation package included the personalized key the OpenVPN client software needed to configure my account, so as soon as the installation was over, I was ready to connect.

Unlike the other services in this roundup, WiTopia provides access to all its servers right in the OpenVPN client software. Where HotSpotVPN and StrongVPN make you log in at their Web sites, request a server change and reconfigure the access program, WiTopia gives you a pick list. Right-click on the Windows tray icon and you can browse 60 servers in a variety of locations across the globe; as long as you remember to disconnect from your current server first, you can connect within seconds to another.

Server hopping's not something you need to do every day, but it's definitely handy. For example, if you suddenly want to step up your security level from a standard 128-bit to a more industrial-strength 256-bit encryption, you can look for a more robust server from the list.

And if you travel, you may want to pick a server that's nearer to your current location. That's because the further you are from your VPN server, the more sluggish the response tends to be. If you're from New York and working in Chicago, you might not notice much lag. If you're from San Francisco and visiting Manchester, England, you'll definitely want to log on to a Manchester server (or even a New York one) to bump up your response time.

At a Glance

WiTopia

Prices: $69.99/year (OpenVPN and PPTP combo); $59.99/year (OpenVPN only); $39.99/ (PPTP only).

Pros: Simple pricing, 30-day money-back guarantee, easy installation and configuration, easy to switch servers, servers available around the world at no extra cost.

Cons: No short-term contracts for conferences or vacations, no static IP addresses.

At the time of this review, WiTopia didn't assign a static IP address, which could muddy things up if you share a server with a WiTopia customer who abuses the service (such as a spammer or torrent abuser, for example). But during the review, neither this potential drawback nor any of the other factors that might affect performance (such as overloaded switches or servers) put much of a crimp in my online experience. If there was any latency in my network connection, it wasn't noticeable, and stopwatch testing of a typical heavy-traffic network activity -- video streaming -- showed very little buffering delay compared to a control that wasn't using a VPN.

Like StrongVPN, WiTopia provides on-the-spot help via online chat. I tested this feature in several sessions during the course of this evaluation, and on each occasion WiTopia's staff proved very prompt and helpful. They handled product selection, billing and technical questions with equal speed; and when I scaled the service down to remove the PPTP option, I received a refund via PayPal in less than five minutes.

Bottom line

WiTopia provides services that are easy to understand and adopt. Its support proved very responsive, and although the company offers only annual subscriptions, the rates are reasonably priced.

Conclusions

HotSpotVPN's 1-, 3-, and 7-day conference packages are great for getting your feet wet in this class of products. And StrongVPN's sprightly servers seemed to serve up videos with a little less buffering time than the others.

That said, WiTopia provides the most customer-friendly approach to setting up and selecting servers. For the price, you get pick-list access to servers worldwide from the OpenVPN application in the Windows tray. If you don't mind committing to a year's service up-front, it's the most cost-effective and easy way to get into personal VPNs.

Matt Lake is an author, award-winning technology journalist and technical services coordinator in the field of education.

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