Simple, cheap apps keep your secrets online

Easy to use VPN apps keep you anonymous in cafe or office

With a host of new exploits and apps lurking out there to grab your data the first time you hook up wirelessly, sometimes using enough power to crack your whole house, not just the laptop, and evil cookies that will follow you farther than your permanent record, permanent portable encryption begins to look like a good idea.

Not if it's a pain to use, or is as fat, slow and crash-prone as half the commercial VPN apps I've been stuck with in various corporate jobs.

When you're looking for VPNs for personal use, free is the best price.

Hotspot Shield is a pretty good option at that price, though it comes with toolbars and ads you have to decline or block with add-ons like NoScript.

It comes in Windows, Mac and iPhone varieties, all free, and kept things private during my tests.

The ads were annoying, and its performance was often slow enough that I went looking for paid alternatives.

HMA! Pro (which is short for HideMyA@@) is one of a series of privacy and security tools available from hidemyass.com/vpn (which wouldn't pass the porn filters on many corporate firewalls, btw unless, of course, it was encrypted.)

It works well, has a non-threatening interface that's easy to navigate, and encrypts your connection to your choice of HMA proxy servers in several countries.

It's billed as being able to work with any applications, which it appears to do.

On the 64-bit Windows 7 machine I tested it on, however, it sometimes got confused when the machine went to sleep, preventing it from waking up again, or allowing it to recover, but FUBARing the network so I had to restart anyway.

Connecting through a proxy server is useful to avoid being tracked by nuclear cookies, but changing proxy servers occasionally -- and automatically on a pre-set schedule -- is more useful yet.

The HMA! Pro feature that allows that is easy to get to, easy to set, worked flawlessly, but confused both Firefox and Outlook enough that I had to restart each at least once per day.

Mind you, that's a lot less often than most VPN apps I've used have caused, but it was still annoying.

Despite advertising that says it operates at "GigaBit server speeds," I found performance slow, especially on high-traffic sites and during busy times of the day.

HMA!Pro is pricey for the category, however, at $11.52 per month, or $78.66 for a year.

Less expensive and less embarrassing to type into an address bar is proXPN, which offers very little information on its site about what, specifically it is, or what it does, except in the broadest, most consumer-friendly, geek-annoying, non-specific language.

The site also takes its time about explaining whether it's a paid app or a free one.

It's free, but not completely.

For free you get 2,048-bit encryption, the app for Windows or Mac (or instructions to use it on an iPhone), and bandwidth equivalent to 100Kbit/sec, at least according to the site. YMMV.

For $5 per month or $45 per year, you get unlimited-bandwidth-connections to the proXPN servers (which means the best bandwidth you can get between you and their servers, and a gigabit/second from each of their servers to the rest of where you want to go; the same as HMA!Pro).

You don't get the choice of servers, though. All proXPN proxy servers are in the U.S., which helps avoid copy protection problems if you're trying to watch U.S.-based TV online, but doesn't. Not having a choice of server seems lame, though.

proXPN caused the same Outlook and Firefox network stoppages as HMA!Pro, but didn't force me to restart the OS to fix them.

If you launch the VPN while Outlook and Firefox are already running, they get confused when the machine they live on suddenly switches IP addresses.

Of the three, only HotSpot Shield didn't freak out my browsers. Its ad-supported business model didn't make me feel more secure for using it, though, especially because the point was to find ways to use Internet connections without being spied upon by either hackers or advertisers.

Balancing cost and function, of the three, proXPN would be my choice. It's not free, but for $5 per month it's more confidence-inducing that HotSpot Shield and moderately less troublesome than HMA!Pro.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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