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Best gaming VPN 2021 | ZDNet

Look, let’s be honest with each other. The laws of physics aren’t going to be repealed by any VPN service provider. Bits take a certain amount of time to move across a network, and if that movement is slowed down due to encryption and extra hops inherent in VPN usage, those bits slow down.

That means that if you’re playing a first-person shooter and you perfectly target some enemy’s head and pull the trigger, your shot might not score even if it was ideally staged. The propagation delay inherent in the VPN might be such that while you saw your target’s head in one location, it might have actually been somewhere slightly different on the server. And that might result in a miss.

In other words, VPNs get in the way of successfully playing Twitch games. But if you want to use a VPN to watch a game on Twitch, you’re golden. Any game that requires fast ping speeds won’t play well with a VPN. But casual games and games where millisecond responses aren’t needed will do well. Fortnight: no. Apple Arcade: yes. World of Warcraft: maybe.

Also, keep in mind that performance may differ over time. One night, you might be able to play over VPN and totally dominate. Another night, through no fault of your own, you may miss every shot. So where do VPNs work well for gamers? Game-related video, definitely. Downloading, absolutely. Streaming game services? Well, that depends on the game and the service. But don’t expect FPS games to respond well to a VPN. That said, since game consoles are also media streaming devices, many of the media streaming advantages of VPNs will be available to consoles.

We always advocate looking at the money-back guarantee from VPN services and then seriously putting them to the test during that period. In the case of VPNs for gaming, that’s not a recommendation. It’s a requirement.

And with that, let’s look at the four most popular VPN services we’re tracking right now.

nord-game.png

  • Console Guides: PlayStation, Xbox, Switch
  • Simultaneous Connections: 6
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Android TV, Chrome, Firefox
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Countries: 59
  • Servers: 5517
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

Also: How does NordVPN work? Plus how to set it up and use it

NordVPN is one of the most popular consumer VPNs out there. Last year, Nord announced that it had been breached. Unfortunately, the breach had been active for more than 18 months. While there were failures at every level, NordVPN has taken substantial efforts to remedy the breach.

Also: My in-depth review of NordVPN

In our review, we liked that it offered capabilities beyond basic VPN, including support of P2P sharing, a service it calls Double VPN that does a second layer of encryption, Onion over VPN which allows for TOR capabilities over its VPN, and even a dedicated IP if you’re trying to run a VPN that also doubles as a server. It supports all the usual platforms and a bunch of home network platforms as well. The company also offers NordVPN Teams, which provides centralized management and billing for a mobile workforce.

Also: My interview with NordVPN management on how they run their service

Performance testing was adequate, although ping speeds were slow enough that I wouldn’t want to play a twitch video game over the VPN. To be fair, most VPNs have pretty terrible ping speeds, so this isn’t a weakness unique to Nord. Overall, a solid choice, and with a 30-day money-back guarantee, worth a try.

express-game.png

  • Console Guides: PlayStation, Xbox, Switch
  • Simultaneous Connections: 5 or unlimited with the router app
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: A whole lot (see the full list here)
  • Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logsGet 3 extra months free.
  • Countries: 94
  • Locations: 160
  • Trial/MBG: 30 days

ExpressVPN has been burning up the headlines with some pretty rough news. We’ve chosen to leave ExpressVPN in this recommendation, and I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss ExpressVPN out of hand because of these reports, but it’s up to you to gauge your risk level. The best way to do that is to read our in-depth analysis:

ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPN providers out there, offering a wide range of platforms and protocols. Platforms include Windows, Mac, Linux, routers, iOS, Android, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, and even the Nook device. There are also browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. Plus, ExpressVPN works with PlayStation, Apple TV, Xbox, Amazon Fire TV, and the Nintendo Switch. There’s even a manual setup option for Chromecast, Roku, and Nvidia Switch.

Must read:

With 160 server locations in 94 countries, ExpressVPN has a considerable VPN network across the internet. In CNET’s review of the service, staff writer Rae Hodge reported that ExpressVPN lost less than 2% of performance with the VPN enabled and using the OpenVPN protocol vs. a direct connection.

While the company does not log browsing history or traffic destinations, it does log dates connected to the VPN service, the amount transferred, and the VPN server location. We do want to give ExpressVPN kudos for making this information very clear and easily accessible.

Exclusive offer: Get 3 extra months free.

shark-game.png

  • Console Guides: PlayStation, Xbox
  • Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, Firefox, Chrome
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

At two bucks a month for a two-year plan (billed in one chunk), Surfshark offers a good price for a solid offering. In CNET’s testing, no leaks were found (and given that much bigger names leaked connection information, that’s a big win). The company seems to have a very strong security focus, offering AES-256-GCM, RSA-2048, and Perfect Forward Secrecy encryption. To prevent WebRTC leaks, Surfshark offers a special purpose browser plugin designed specifically to combat those leaks.

Must read:

Surfshark’s performance was higher than NordVPN and Norton Secure VPN, but lower than ExpressVPN and IPVanish. That said, Surfshark also offers a multihop option that allows you to route connections through two VPN servers across the Surfshark private network. We also like that the company offers some inexpensive add-on features, including ad-blocking, anti-tracking, access to a non-logging search engine, and a tool that tracks your email address against data breach lists.

vanish-game.png

  • Console Guides: None
  • Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, plus routers, Fire Stick, and Kodi
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Servers: 1,500 
  • Locations: 75
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

IPVanish is a deep and highly configurable product that presents itself as a click-and-go solution. I think the company is selling itself short doing this. A quick visit to its website shows a relatively generic VPN service, but that’s not the whole truth.

Also: My in-depth review of IPVanish

Its UI provides a wide range of server selection options, including some great performance graphics. It also has a wide variety of protocols, so no matter what you’re connecting to, you can know what to expect. The company also provides an excellent server list with good current status information. There’s also a raft of configuration options for the app itself.

In terms of performance, connection speed was crazy fast. Overall transfer performance was good. However, from a security perspective, it wasn’t able to hide that I was connecting via a VPN — although the data transferred was secure. Overall, a solid product with a good user experience that’s fine for home connections as long as you’re not trying to hide the fact that you’re on a VPN.

The company also has a partnership with SugarSync and provides 250GB of encrypted cloud storage with each plan.

What’s the difference between Internet speed and ping time?

Internet speed, often called “bandwidth,” is the speed that data overall can be transferred over the internet. If you’re downloading or uploading a big file, you want lots of bandwidth, a fast pipe. Ping time is how fast you can send out a request and get back an answer. It’s the round trip response time — and it’s very sensitive to distance and hops. When watching a video, you want to get all that video information down to your machine, but once it starts to transmit, it’s usually running a good, steady flow. But ping time is how long it takes after you pull the trigger for the game to know you pulled the trigger. If the game thinks you squeezed off a shot half a second after you did, the results could be radically different.

If I see a good ping time in a review, can I count on it?

No, not at all. Ping is the travel time between two points. Your two points and the reviewer’s two points will always be different.

How does a VPN protect me when I’m using a game console?

Game consoles don’t support native VPN apps, but you can still get the protections, location spoofing, and anonymity of a VPN. The key is running your VPN client on a router or sharing the internet connection of a PC. Most VPN vendors have guides that show you how to set this up.

If a VPN isn’t great for when I’m playing a game, why should I even care about using one?

Because, young Padawan, life is about more than gameplay. If you’re out and about, and you want to use a coffee shop, airport, hotel, or school Wi-Fi, you need to be sure you’re protecting all your data communication. This includes financial information, personal information, location data, and more.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.




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