Wireless hotspots are convenient, giving you online access even when you are out and about. However, public hotspots aren't always safe, since anyone can be lurking on the network and eavesdropping on all your online activity. If you connect to public hotspots on a regular basis, you should consider protecting your connection and personal information with a VPN service. If you aren't ready to commit to a monthly or annual subscription, or need the service for infrequent use, the free VPNBook may be a good way to dip your toe in the VPN pool.
Your workplace may offer virtual private networks so that you can connect to corporate file servers and applications even when you are not in the office. When you start up a VPN session, the remote server communicates with the client software and configures the computer to think it is on the same network as the server. This way, employees can access work servers remotely and securely.
VPN services such as VPNBook work in a similar manner. Users sign in to the service and are immediately redirected to a server within the service's infrastructure. This way, no one can track the user's geographic location. The service passes all traffic going from the computer to the VPN server and to your destination, through an encrypted tunnel, protecting your data from snoops.
VPNBook is different from other VPN services we've looked at in the past due to the fact that there’s no separate installer or software package. Most services include full-fledged software programs you need to download and install on your computer. With VPNBook, you configure readily available clients – either built in to the operating system or the open source OpenVPN package – with the appropriate server information and you are up and running. VPNBook is less intrusive because it relies on existing clients to connect you.
VPNBook works with the free OpenVPN client, as well as with the built-in PPTP VPN client built into the Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux operating systems. Mobile devices and PlayStation 3 devices also support PPTP (point-to-point tunnelling). I already had the OpenVPN client on my laptop, so it was just a matter of downloading the configuration and certificate bundles from VPNBook and importing the settings into the client. I could also just add the server name and password into the built-in VPN client to set up a PPTP connection.
While it's tempting to just skip the OpenVPN client download altogether and stick with the default client, it's worth considering your environment and requirements. PPTP is fairly easy to block, so if your Internet Service Provider (or your government, as the case may be) restricts using VPN services and similar anonymiser tools, then you may not be able to connect over PPTP at all. In that case, OpenVPN may be your only option.
Because you have to perform your own configuration, as opposed to a click-and-install-setup that other VPN services offer, getting started is not as dead easy as with some services. If you know how to work with PPTP, setting up is easy, and OpenVPN is a fairly simple tool to use.
At the time of this review, there are four servers – one in the United States, one in the United Kingdom, and two in the European Union. The server information and the login information are provided on the VPNBook website, along with its uptime status. If you are having trouble connecting to a server, check the site to see if there are any known disruptions or if it’s offline. The password changes fairly frequently, so if your connection fails, check the site for the new one.
VPNBook does not impose any restrictions on what kind of sites users can access on the service or any bandwidth limitations. The EU servers are in locations where they are not required by local laws to log or monitor any activity. The only thing being saved is the IP address and time of connection, but VPNBook claims those logs are purged every three days. The US and UK servers would be good for accessing Hulu, Netflix, and other country-restricted sites.
I checked the traffic flowing through the network using Wireshark and verified the data was encrypted. VPNBook claims it uses "only the best encryption techniques such as AES-256 and AES-128," but that awkward phrasing makes me wonder what it really is using. When you are using a VPN service, you have to trust someone else to properly encrypt the data, and that your activity is not being logged. Being upfront and clear about exactly what you are offering goes a long way towards establishing that trust.
For some users, that trust issue may justify paying for a VPN service from a well-known company, such as Symantec's Norton Hotspot Privacy.
VPN adds some overhead so connection speeds usually get a little slower than if you are on a regular connection. However, I didn’t notice any bad lag with VPNBook and was able to watch videos on YouTube, catch a live Webcast on UStream, and listen to music on Pandora.
To measure speed, I used the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net and tested performance over OpenVPN connections. I noticed that port UDP 53 consistently gave better upload speeds. Ports 80 and 443 over TCP were more or less what I expected. The tests are designed to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to servers in different cities. I ran the test with the VPN connection turned off, and again when turned on. I repeated the test twice and picked the best measurements.
As you can see from the table, VPNBook was fairly middle-of-the-road compared to other free VPN services. As a general rule, free VPN services take a performance hit compared to paid services, and VPNBook was no different. The service returned solid results. Nothing stellar, just good enough for most users.
VPNBook is a service in the original sense of the word – the servers are available, and all you have to do is point your VPN client to those servers. There is no VPNBook software to install – and if you already have the OpenVPN client that you use with other VPN servers, or have no problem relying on PPTP, this is the least intrusive and minimalistic approach you can take.
The performance, as noted above, is solid and in-line with similar products.
Since there is no extra software or subscription required, VPNBook is a good backup service to have on your computer. If for some reason one service has an outage or is being blocked, you can easily switch to VPNBook to stay online.
VPN services keep your data safe when you know you will be hopping on to a wireless hotspot in a coffee shop, at the airport, or even when you are hopping onto someone else's open network. If you are trying to bypass government censors or trying to access services that are restricted to a geographic region, being able to make it look like you are located somewhere else is useful.
VPNBook is a no-frills service that may require a little bit more effort to set up compared to other free services, but it gets the job done, making it a solid enough product.