Three personal VPNs offer safer Wi-Fi

It's a truth universally acknowledged that public Wi-Fi hotspots aren't secure, but they're so convenient that most of us use them anyway. That's why there was something of a panic last year when Eric Butler showed everyone how easy it is to hijack Facebook, Twitter and PayPal accounts on open Wi-Fi networks via his FireSheep Firefox add-on.

Of course, not everything you do in an open Wi-Fi environment can be picked up by digital eavesdropping. Secure HTTPS servers are great, but it's likely that your e-mail account and many social networking sites don't use HTTPS servers, or maybe just use them for logging in. Or worse, have you submit your user name and password from an HTTP page to get to an HTTPS server. {There is at least one add-on for Firefox that offers HTTPS protection, but only for certain sites.}

In the end, online transactions are only as secure as their most open link, and the most open link of all is the gap between the laptop and the wireless access point. The technology that can really close that link is a tunneling virtual private network (VPN). VPNs establish a secure tunnel between your device and the first server you connect to.

Theoretically, if you're employed at a company that uses a VPN, you could use that corporate VPN to secure your coffee-shop connection -- but most companies frown on such use of their resources. So the obvious choice is to rent a connection from a personal VPN provider.

Personal VPN services have been marketing themselves as hotspot security measures for almost a decade. Once you get past the initial learning hump, it's a relatively simple and inexpensive way to lock down your communications. I looked at three of the more established players: HotSpotVPN, StrongVPN and WiTopia.

Choosing a VPN

The first step is to understand what these providers offer. For a fee, personal VPN providers provide an end-to-end secure connection to one of their servers, which can be located in a variety of places. Personal VPN providers offer some choice of servers, so you can pick those nearest to you for better response time, but some charge extra for wider choice. In addition to security, this can provide you with anonymous browsing and a virtual regional presence (so that if you're abroad, you can appear to be logging on in the United States and retain access to regionally restricted sites like Hulu or Netflix On Demand).

The personal VPN providers reviewed here offer two basic flavors of VPN. The most basic (and slightly cheaper) is built into the operating systems of practically every computing device: point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP). VPN providers give you settings for their servers to plug into your operating system. It's robust enough for most people, but is blocked in certain regions and by certain service providers. It also requires mucking around in your operating system for configuration and selection of a separate network device, which might not be feasible if you're on the road using a company laptop for some personal surfing.

A more robust and recent development is an SSL-based technology from OpenVPN, which uses client software to manage connections. This works on Windows, Mac and various Linux and Unix platforms.

Once configured, these services all work the same way: You turn on the OpenVPN client software when you're ready to connect to a public hotspot and make sure the OpenVPN software isn't showing a red (not connected) or yellow (attempting to sync up) color. If it's green, you're connected to a VPN server that's either owned or leased by your VPN provider, and can enter passwords in a public Wi-Fi hotspot with confidence.

How we tested

To evaluate the three services in this roundup, I signed up for each and used online documentation and technical support resources to configure and set up connections on three identical netbooks. The servers I picked for each were geographically as close to the test location as I could find: New York City.

All the services provided the degree of privacy required (they effectively blocked information from a nearby machine running FireSheep), and so to differentiate between them, I looked at these key factors:

Setup: Configuring PPTP sets up a new network connection, a process that's as hard or easy as your operating system makes it. The personal VPN provider gives you a user name, password and server address, and you set up the network connection accordingly.

An installation of OpenVPN requires a key and certification files, which are copied to a configuration folder. The OpenVPN client software is off-the-shelf, but each vendor has a slightly different approach to configuration. WiTopia and HotSpotVPN include key and certification details in a customized installer download; StrongVPN required more tinkering.

All three services I tested offer both PPTP and OpenVPN options. For the purposes of this review, I used OpenVPN because it was easier to implement, more flexible and easier to remove afterwards.

Ease of server selection: A VPN connection tunnels through the local access point to a specific VPN server: With personal VPNs, you pick the server nearest to your access point. This will, of course, vary if you travel. Each personal VPN provider has different servers. At the very least, you'll want easy access to a pick list of servers.

Pricing: It's not simply a question of what costs less. It's a question of paying for what you'll use. WiTopia provides buffet-style pricing: access to all its servers worldwide for an annual prix fixe. At the other end of the spectrum, HotSpotVPN provides day rates and weekly rates, while Strong VPN bundles servers into packages based on location.

Performance: Using a fourth netbook as a control, I timed connection and load times at various times for common sites, including Facebook, YouTube, and several news sites and e-mail providers. Several loads included long videos to test buffering time. To eliminate latency, I set up a dedicated 802.11n access point and ran identical tests serially on each netbook.

As expected, the control was more responsive in stopwatch testing than the machines using VPN services, but except for video buffering, not noticeably so. Server load responses are notoriously hard to evaluate in this kind of test, but StrongVPN's servers seemed to show the least latency when buffering and streaming videos.

HotSpotVPN

Of the three providers in this roundup, HotSpotVPN provides the most options and requires the most knowledge up front. It's great that the service lets you pick conference packages for a day or three days or a week, but you do need to do your homework before you buy.

The HotSpotVPN Web site is sparse on pre-sales information, and the support site is a no-frills affair with a knowledge base, trouble ticket system and FAQ. Unlike StrongVPN and WiTopia, HotSpotVPN does not provide online chat consultation for those who don't know whether they want to connect to a 128-bit Blowfish server via PPTP or something a bit more robust using SSL-based OpenVPN. But once you've settled on what you want, the site does provide some handy configuration videos to step you through the setup process for various operating systems.

The ordering process is quick and painless. Within a minute of ordering a basic one-month OpenVPN package (I opted for the least expensive and least robust 128-bit Blowfish encryption), the company had delivered setup instructions via e-mail.

People using their operating system's PPTP capability are given configuration details that are easy enough to follow -- especially if you view the videos at the HotSpotVPN site. People choosing the OpenVPN option get a link to a download page that remains active for 48 hours. Linux and Mac users and people using Windows XP are provided with automatic installers; Windows 7 users need to jump through a few hoops -- run an installer and a separate configuration package.

The service is pretty much a set-it-and-forget-it operation. When you run the OpenVPN client software under Windows, for example, you see an icon in your system tray that's green when connected to the VPN server, red when it's not and yellow when it's attempting to sync up. Once you have a handle on that detail, you just keep paying the subscription fees and you'll keep getting secure Wi-Fi connections. Theoretically, using a VPN slows down a network connection, but in the case of HotSpotVPN, it's nothing I noticed.

If you have technical questions, you don't get as much live support as users of WiTopia or StrongVPN. You visit the company's Web site and fill out trouble tickets for questions that the FAQs and knowledgebase cannot answer. There's a neat browser sidebar that is useful for some self-help steps, but in general, I felt a bit more on my own than with the other services.

At a Glance

HotSpotVPN

WiFiConsulting Inc.

Prices: HotSpotVPN-1 (PPTP-based): $3.88/day, $6.88/week, $8.88/month, $88.80/year. HotSPotVPN2 (OpenVPN-based, with complimentary PPTP account): $10.88/month or $108.80/year (128-bit encryption), $11.88/month or $118.80/year (192-bit encryption), $13.88/month or $138.80/year (256-bit encryption).

Pros: Simple installation and configuration, flexible duration contracts (including one-day and one-week conference rates), OpenVPN accounts include complimentary PPTP connections for handheld devices.

Cons: Complicated pricing tables with different rates for different encryption rates and services, fewer support options.

During this evaluation, I called upon the service to help during a holiday weekend and waited more than 24 hours for a response, which seemed like an excessively long wait -- although in fairness to the company, the answer to my question was lurking in the knowledge base.

HotSpotVPN does provide a handy additional service called TunnelGuardian, which as of this writing was still in beta. It's a Web proxy that uses port 80 to close the back door to visits from malware and ads. To turn on TunnelGuardian, you need to find your way around your Web browser's proxy settings -- which is not covered by the setup videos -- and point to one of two proxy servers. It's not 100% effective, and it doesn't work on HTTPS port 443, but it does add an additional layer of protection for the extra-cautious.

Bottom line

If you're comfortable plowing into VPN-related technology without much interactive help or guidance, HotSpotVPN delivers the goods in affordable short-term packages. Those who don't know Blowfish from AES-256 may want to opt for something with a more consumer-friendly approach.

StrongVPN

When you first log on to StrongVPN's Web site, you can see at a glance that the company has a lot going for it. To begin with, it has a strong showing of servers: 146 servers around the globe, including 94 in the United States. It uses gigabit switches. It can handle VoIP traffic. And it provides 24/7 live technical support.

What's a little harder to see is which of StrongVPN's services will fit your needs. The company packages its offerings in an almost bewildering array. There are Lite, Standard and Deluxe packages -- Lite packages offer servers in San Francisco, New York and Miami; Standard adds Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Dallas, Seattle and Chicago; and Deluxe adds everywhere else in the world. There are single-city a la carte offerings if you don't travel much. And each package is available in PPTP and OpenVPN flavors.

Fortunately, the company provides excellent support for sales and technical advice. StrongVPN offers online chat support in two forums: on its own site using Zopim's off-the-shelf LiveChat application (something that WiTopia also uses) and on Skype. At several key points during the evaluation, this team proved highly responsive: I never waited more than a minute for online chat assistance and the team was never at a loss to respond to any issue.

I finally picked the Lite OpenVPN package and received a confirmation e-mail immediately after placing the order. Ten minutes later, I also got a fulfillment e-mail with links for downloading and configuring the OpenVPN client software.

Configuring the OpenVPN client to work with StrongVPN servers feels a little kludgy. After you install the software, a box pops up asking for the URL of a custom configuration Zip file. That URL is part of StrongVPN's confirmation e-mail, and it's a custom-prepared set of files for each customer. You have to copy and paste the URL from your confirmation e-mail to complete the configuration -- not a tricky step, but it's something that the other vendors in this review handle more smoothly.

From that point on, you simply run the off-the-shelf OpenVPN software and you're tunneling securely from your laptop to StrongVPN's servers.

It's impossible to say definitively that StrongVPN's servers were more responsive than anyone else's. There are too many variables to account for. However, I ran through a suite of Web pages and videos using identical machines and lab conditions for each personal VPN in this review, and found StrongVPN's servers almost as responsive as the control machine running an unsecured connection.

At a Glance

StrongVPN

StrongVPN

Prices: PPTP packages: $7/month (SF, NY, Miami); $12/month (SF, NY, LA, Chicago), $15/month (multiple cities worldwide). OpenVPN packages: $10/month (SF, NY, Miami); $15/month (8 cities), $20/month (multiple cities worldwide). All servers: $30/month (multiple cities worldwide). All packages have a 3-month minimum.

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