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.