Since the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, public interest in and awareness of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) has grown significantly. Faced with the true scale of Government surveillance, many have been looking around for a way to keep their private online activities private.
More recently, the very public effort of Netflix to prevent VPN users from using their service has brought another aspect of VPN usage into the public consciousness. Accessing geo-blocked content, whether because you are an ex-pat, travelling overseas, or living somewhere where such content is censored by your Government, is big business too. Geo-blocking is something the EU is trying to get rid of within Europe, but which is still very much alive and kicking both here and across the rest of the world.
But while VPNs are increasingly popular for both of these reasons, and others besides, far fewer people are aware of what a ‘SmartDNS’ or a ‘Proxy' are. Some may have come across the terms whilst visiting one of the countless VPN review sites out there to help you select which of the myriad of VPNs is right for you. Most will have glossed over them and carried on looking at VPNs.
Yet depending on what you are looking to get from your VPN, a SmartDNS, or Proxy might prove to be a much better, and more cost effective option for you.
So what exactly is the difference between a VPN, SmartDNS, and a Proxy? And how do you decide which is right for you?
As more and more people are now beginning to understand; a VPN service is one which reroutes your online activity down an encrypted pathway to an external server. This encrypted pathway means that it is all but impossible for your online activity to be traced back to your IP address, meaning that you can, to all intents and purposes, surf the Internet anonymously.
The connection between the server and the sites you visit is not encrypted, but that means the site, and anyone watching your online activity, can trace it back to the IP address of the VPN's server. But, crucially, no further.
As these servers can be located pretty much anywhere in the world, a VPN is also a great way to get round geo-blocked sites too. For example, if you visit a site via a server located in France, it looks as if you are located in France, even if you are not. This means you can visit any site, or use any streaming service which is only available to those based in France.
So that’s a VPN, but what’s a SmartDNS? Simply put, a SmartDNS carries out the same function as a VPN, but in a different way, and without the encrypted pathway to your device.
DNS stands for ‘Domain Name System’ and is the tool which translates website addresses into numerical Internet protocol (IP). A SmartDNS will receive the information that defines a user location and change it to a different region, which the user can select beforehand.
This means a SmartDNS can help you to get round geo-blocked services like Netflix, but it does not offer any of the additional benefits of privacy and anonymity that you can get with a VPN.
Why would you choose a SmartDNS over a VPN then? Well not bothering with encryption means a SmartDNS can usually offer a faster connection speed, which makes watching videos, downloading, online gaming, and other such data-heavy pass-times, easier. They are also usually cheaper than a VPN too. SmartDNS users will on average part with about 50 per cent less than VPN users.
So how about the other option which comes up; a proxy. Well a Proxy is another computer or server which acts as an intermediary between your device and the internet. Again using a proxy will mean that your internet traffic will appear to originate from the IP Address connected to the Proxy server, and not your own connection. A Proxy will usually also be cheaper than a VPN (often they can be free) but most will offer at best a limited level of encryption, and some none at all.
A Proxy server will also support a great deal more traffic than a VPN server which can lead to their biggest drawback; speed. Proxies can be slow at peak times, especially if you want to do something data-heavy such as watching video, downloading content, or online gaming. However, they can also be faster than VPNs at times, as a result of the lack of strong encryption slowing their process down.
So which should I use? And when?
Deciding which of these to use depends very much on for what exactly you are planning to use the service.
If your main purpose is to access geo-blocked content from another country, and you are not concerned at all about your online privacy, a SmartDNS is undoubtedly the right choice. They are cheaper, faster, and usually offer a more stable connection as well. But be aware that your online activity will be openly available for any individual or body which might want to monitor you.
If your main purpose is to make your online activity more secure and private, a VPN is the only way to go. A good VPN will offer you strong encryption on your connection, and a guarantee that they will retain no logs on your online activity, meaning that once you have logged off, there will be no way any external individual or body can know what you have been doing online.
This is something that neither a SmartDNS nor a Proxy is able to offer, nor would they claim to.
A Proxy sits somewhere between these two, but to be honest, in neither circumstance does it offer the best solution. Essentially, the only time you would choose a Proxy service if you wanted to go with a service which was cheaper than a VPN, and still offered some level of encryption, but without sacrificing as much connection seed as you do with a DNS.
So to summarise, a VPN, a SmartDNS, and a Proxy all do similar things, but in a different way. If you know what you will be using them for, it should now be pretty easy to pick the right one for you.
Chris Beattie, Managing Director and Editor in Chief at Fried.com