Setting up and configuring a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on the iPhone and iPad can be a daunting task for many. You can first search online and choose from one of the many providers, pick a plan that suits you, and then manually enter the account details into the Network area under Settings. You can of course use the the recently released Onion Browser for more secure browsing, but relying on the Tor network can be frustratingly slow at times. For those not familiar with VPNs, they’re great for accessing websites or social networks that have been blocked by your company’s (or even country’s) firewall and allow you to surf the web without revealing your true IP address. But perhaps even more important for iOS users, using a VPN while logged onto a public WiFi network — something we’ve all done, be it in a hotel, coffee shop or airport — will ensure that your data (namely usernames and login passwords) is encrypted and protected from would-be snoopers. Let’s take a look at two iOS apps that will easily let you setup a VPN and won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
VPN Express (VPNVIP)
Run by VPNVIP inc., the company only sells VPN services on the iOS platform, a big reason why their rates are some of the most competitive around (per gigabyte). Once you’ve downloaded the VPN Express app on your iPhone/iPad, you can register for a new account and you’ll be given 300MB free to test the VPN out (get anywhere from an extra 100mb to 1GB free if you use [email protected] as a “Referee” when signing up).
To help new users get started, that there’s a handy “VPN Auto Setup” feature, meaning you don’t have to manually configure your VPN settings on your iDevice. Simply tap on auto setup, then the “Start Auto Setup!” button on the next screen. You’ll then be taken to a Install Profile page, where the configuration profile with all the required VNP info will be installed. To begin surfing with VPN enabled, head back into Settings–>General–>Network–>VPN. Here you’ll find two options for VPNVIP-FREE-L2TP and VPNVIP-FREE-PPTP; now turn VPN toggle to ON. L2TP and PPTP are both VPN protocols and either one can be used. PPTP is the more lightweight and stable of the two, though L2TP is more secure (VPN Express recommends using PPTP if both work with the ISP you’re currently using). You can always go back and forth between the two protocols to see which gives you the best speeds.
Note: If you rather not download any configuration files, you can also set up the VPN manually. The “User Manual” tab provides step-by-step instructions on what to fill out in the iOS VPN settings page.
VPN Express offers plans either by Monthly or Data, though neither provides users with unlimited bandwidth. Under Non-recurring subscription plans (Monthly), you can get 2GB of data for $0.99 or 6BG for $2.99 (both 30 days). A better deal would be $3.99 for 10GB , and this is good for 60 days. If you want a plan that’ll last you an entire year, there’s 300GB for $45.99 ($0.15/GB). For those who likely won’t be consuming lots of bandwidth while using VPN (i.e occasional browsing while using a public network) and/or would prefer a plan that never expires, you can grab 1GB for $1.99, 10GB for $5.99, or the max of 200GB for $69.99 (more plans are available).
The great thing about VPN Express is that your Free/Paid plan can also be used on a desktop or laptop, so you’re not restricted to only your iOS devices. VPNVIP has put up detailed instructions on how to configure both PPTP and L2TP Connections for Windows, Mac and iOS and Android on their website.
As for those either traveling to or are living in China, VPN Express does work and will let you access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like, though you will need to change the server name in the VPN settings to vpn.smartvpn.info. This is a result of the “Great Firewall of China” blocking the DNS of VPNVIP and the company claims to be working on a more permanent solution to this workaround. I was in Shanghai for a layover last week and using the server name change method, I was able to log into pretty much all the social networking sites, just as if I were in North America.
- Easy to setup
- Offers various monthly/data plans
- Ability to choose PPTP/L2TP protocols
- Plans work on PC/Mac as well
- Choose location of VPN servers for paid plans (US or UK)
- Configure VPNVIP on as many computers/phones as you like (all can connect simultaneously)
- No unlimited plans
- Must manually turn VPN on/off every time
- Speeds not always fast
Hotspot Shield is one of the most popular VPN services around and aside from their popular Windows/Mac client that gives users free Ad-supported VPN (ads appear in a single banner above every webpage within the browser), there’s also a dedicated iOS app that was first released in November 2011. Unlike VPN Express, Hotspot Shield offers unlimited browsing with their plans, and new users can try out it for free for the first 7 days. On iOS devices, you can choose to pay per month ($0.99) or year ($9.99). If you’re on a desktop/laptop environment and want to do away with the ads, Hotspot Shield Elite is available for $4.99/month or $29.95/year (Elite also offers additional malware protection).
Whether you’re planning on using Hotspot Shield on iOS for free (7 days) or the paid plan, you have the option of selecting your connection type. With “Always On”, the iDevice will connect through the VPN 100% of the time and no other actions have to be carried out on your part. Whereas “Manual” works just like VPN Express in that you’ll have to manually turn the VPN on/off in the settings area.
One great feature with Hotspot Shield is data compression, where users can save on bandwidth by having images compressed (High/Medium/Low/Off) before they’re downloaded onto the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. This can be found under Your Bandwidth savings –> Compression, and is especially useful if you use VPN while on your 3G or LTE networks. Basically for a buck a month, you can potentially save a nice chunk of bandwidth from your data plan by compressing high quality images when surfing the web (if you primarily only want data compression and not VPN, you can check out the free Onavo Extend app).
Unlike VPN Express, I wasn’t able to get Hotspot Shield working on my recent trip to China, though it didn’t come as a complete surprise as this VPN has been blocked in the country for quite some time now. And with no manual way to change the server name in the VPN settings, this likely won’t change in the near future. If you live in or are planning on travelling to a country where certain websites /social networks are blocked, I suggest that you search Google for “Hotspot Shield” + (name of country) + “blocked”, with a filter for last month (or last few months) and see what people are reporting.
- Easy to setup
- Unlimited plans
- Always On feature
- Image compression to save on bandwidth
- Paid (mobile) plan works across all your iDevices
- No manual settings (can’t change VPN server name)
- Paid plan doesn’t work on Windows/Mac (though there’s a free ad supported version)
- May not work in all countries
Which VPN is best for the iPhone/iPad?
As for which VPN is the best for the iPhone and iPad, I’d say that it primarily depends on your usage. For someone who either wants VPN enabled all the time (for that extra layer of security) or are consistently using a Free Public Wifi network, Hotspot Shield is the way to go as it offers unlimited data. For those who only occasionally log onto a public hotspot or don’t exactly care about being able to go online anonymously, VPN Express’ never expire plans may even be the more economical route. For example, a $3.99 5GB plan could last someone well over a year or more if it’s used for simple things like checking emails, online banking or logging into other more data sensitive websites. Another thing to take into account is speed. I’ve found varying speeds between the two services over the past several weeks, though of late, Hotspot Shield has been faster than VPN Express. You can always install both and test out their download/upload speeds with the free Speedtest.net app.
While a VPN isn’t required by all iOS users, having one while you’re connected to a public network will better protect the data you send and receive – you just never know when someone’s trying to sniff out your Facebook, or worse, online banking login details.