The internet of 2016 is a very different place from just a decade ago – and we don’t just mean that Harambe was still around then. Everything has gone mobile, and with it, the convenience of using advanced cloud services on-the-go has become part of everyday life.
But here’s something to consider while you’re booking your next vacation from the Starbucks Wi-Fi. There are reasons to consider how your phone or tablet connects to the Internet. It isn’t just desktops or laptops that face problems like malicious snooping, ad tracking, and geolocation restrictions.
We’d argue that getting a good mobile VPN (virtual private network) app can help ensure privacy and convenience while you’re swiping on-the-go. And the great thing is, it couldn’t be easier to get started.
We know, we know – security is boring. But it’d become more interesting if you were to discover that while you were asleep, someone in another part of the world was applying for an instant loan in your name, or buying Batman bath ducks on your credit card (I mean, they could at least send you one, right?!).
The sad truth is that our mobile devices are especially vulnerable to data leakage – even more so than our desktop PCs or laptops. Mobile apps regularly fail to implement security best practices, leaking information such as your age, name, location and more through unencrypted connections that are easy for adversaries to monitor.
In the mobile environment, you have little information about the connections that your device is making. On a desktop, you could at least check that all the websites you visit use secure (HTTPS) connections. But phone and tablet apps often fail to inform you of the types of connections that they’re making. So is Clash of Clans sending your date of birth securely to the game company, or to an advertiser ‘in the clear’, ready for anyone to intercept?
Without countermeasures, you can have little confidence. The good news is that VPN software can help mitigate these issues. By wrapping all the traffic on your phone in a secure encrypted tunnel, you can be assured that no-one can eavesdrop.
Is your net really neutral?
Back when the Internet was only used by men with beards at Carnegie-Mellon, all traffic – email, web, voice, and video – was considered equal. But sadly, this concept – net neutrality – has taken a back seat, as carriers try to protect their existing businesses and cut costs.
People using mobile devices are particularly vulnerable. From T-Mobile’s controversial ‘BingeOn’ video feature that ‘helpfully’ degrades video image quality, to telecoms companies in several countries cracking down on Skype, it’s clear that the freedom to use the services you choose is especially under threat on mobile.
Mobile carriers also ‘zero rate’ (discount) certain kinds of mobile data, to give their customers access to their preferred services. While this could be convenient at times, it also effectively means that you pay more to use services that don’t have your carrier’s blessing. It also makes understanding your data usage a nightmare – if they charge for Vimeo but not YouTube, how long can you watch without going over your allowance?
Handily, a VPN can help by establishing a tunnel where different traffic types aren’t segregated. All mobile carrier restrictions are bypassed, and you’re free to roam.
Everyone knows about how useful VPNs are for watching streaming video from other countries. But if you use an Android device, then there’s another big reason to consider hooking yourself up with a good VPN. It’s all those goodies in the Google Play Store that are locked down to only a few regions.
Publishers often release apps, videos, and streaming music albums first in a particular market, and sometimes only in that market. Usually, customers in the United States get the best selection – with some exceptions.
So, for example, if you live outside the US or vacation internationally, consider this. If you’d had a VPN on your mobile device, you could have accessed those sweet, sweet Pokémon Go creatures before everyone else in your city by connecting to an American VPN server. And you could have been enjoying TV shows on Hulu and CBS All Access – just like those stateside – whilst you wait for a Charmander to appear.
NordVPN’s unique selling point is its strong commitment to its values – Scandinavian ideals of ‘confidence, trust, freedom and innovation’. This certainly comes across in the mobile applications themselves, which are available for both iOS and Android.
As well as all of the benefits we’ve alluded to above, NordVPN supports advanced features like Tor over VPN, and Double VPN, which obfuscate traffic sources and layer two VPN connections on top of one another. These are normally complex features to configure, but the app sets them up with a single tap.
Geolocation is also a breeze. Using the NordVPN app, you can select a server in your chosen country from the zoomable map:
Alternatively, you can select a country from the (huge) scrolling list:
Either way, once you’ve used a location once, you can long-press it to save it to your favorites list for a quick connection in future.
What really makes the NordVPN app indispensable for TV and movie lovers is the SmartPlay feature, which routes traffic for geographically-restricted video and audio streaming services to the appropriate proxies automatically.
So whether you’re keen for a Dr. Who fix on the BBC iPlayer, or looking to catch up on Italian soccer on RaiTV, NordVPN makes viewing straightforward. You don’t have to switch server locations to use it, either – NordVPN takes care of the details for you:
The app also offers convenient features that make using their service hassle-free. There’s an auto-connect feature, so the connection starts up whenever your phone is online. The app can also be set to update its configuration automatically – and there’s a live chat option in case you get stuck.
All in all, NordVPN is a solid option, offering a very slick mobile application. It’s ideal for those with a TV binge-watching habit, or the highly security-conscious.
ExpressVPN offers all the security you could wish for, but its real focus is on pure, unrestricted speed!
From the get-go, the mobile app not only gets you up and running in just a few taps, but offers the Smart Location feature, which picks the best server for your environment automatically.
The interface is clean and simple, offering the key controls such as connecting, disconnecting, and location-switching via tactile buttons on the main screen:
The app also lets you connect automatically when the device starts, and if you’re techie, you can even to select which protocol you’d like to connect with. If you have questions, then ExpressVPN has you covered – not only is the built-in help easy to access, but you can request help from their service desk right from your device.
ExpressVPN also offers an impressive list of VPN server locations. Uniquely, the app allows you to drill down to individual cities, so if you have a preference then you can pick the server that is just right for your use case:
There are also other benefits: the referral scheme allows you to get an extra month of service for inviting a friend, and the on-line help is extensive and carefully written.
Overall, ExpressVPN is the speed demon for people who want to get things done!
You can check out our full reviews of NordVPN and ExpressVPN for a complete rundown of all the features of this highly regarded VPN services. You can also see how they fared in our Top 5 list of VPNs for different devices and OS.