Testing the Speed of a VPN

We received some good feedback on our last post which explained everything you need to know about VPN speed. We greatly appreciate it. But, we also quickly realized there is one vital piece of information we left out: how to test the speed of a VPN service.

The Difference Between Testing Home Internet and VPN Speeds

The way to test the speed of a VPN differs from how you would test your home Internet connection. Both use similar tools, but without understanding one important detail, your VPN speed test may yield incorrect results and make your VPN seem a lot slower than it is.

As we eluded to in the previous post, one of the most important factors influencing your VPN connection speed is the server’s physical location. The distance between your device and the server has a direct and significant impact. The greater that distance, the further data has to travel, and the more network hubs it needs to navigate.

The location of VPN speed test hosts

When you run a speed test using a service like www.speedtest.net, that site will automatically pick a host to test against that is closest to your location. For your home internet connection, that likely means somewhere in your city. For a VPN server, that means near to the server’s location, which could be half way across the world.

This host selection discrepancy immediately puts the VPN at a disadvantage. The data will obviously have to travel much further to reach your computer, and therefore the connection will appear slower.

The Right Way to Run a Speed Test

To level the playing field, start with the VPN test first. Take note of which speed test host is used. Once you disconnect from the VPN and are running a comparative test on your home connection, use that same host. This will make sure that as much as is possible, you are comparing apples to apples.

The speed of the VPN will still be slower than your internet connection, and that is to be expected. But, you are now in a position where you can use the information in our previous post to tweak a few things. Try to get the VPN speed to match your home internet as closely as possible.

All About VPN Speed

In our last post, we briefly introduced VPNs and what they’re all about. Now, we will dig deeper into VPN speed, which is porbably the most important factor to consider.

Speed does matter. None of the other features or benefits of a VPN service mean much if it is slow to the point of being unusable. But what makes one VPN provider faster than another, and how can you get the best experience?

In this post, we will talk about the most important factors that affect VPN speed. Addressing any of them can make a VPN connection much quicker.

Examining the speed of a VPN

What affects VPN speed

Several things can impact the upload and download speeds of a VPN server. There are six that we believe are worth mentioning. A few are entirely in the hands of the VPN provider. However, your network setup and how you chose to connect to the VPN can also have a big effect. We will cover the six factors in order of importance.

Your Internet Connection

Regardless of how fast a VPN service is, it can never be faster than your internet connection. Even if a provider could guarantee 100 Mbps speeds (which they never can, but let’s say so for argument’s sakes), if you’re using your cell phone and are on a 5 Mbps network, that’s the maximum speed you’ll ever get from the VPN.

Splitting the internet connection amongst several users, which is often the case at home, will further impact VPN speeds. This is especially true when those other users use real-time services like video streaming (which can often be given higher priority over other traffic to maintain a good user experience).

VPN Server Location

The physical location of the VPN server you connect to relative to where you are can be a big influence on VPN speed. The further the server, the greater the distance your data has to travel, the more networks it has to cross, and the more traffic it has to contest.

Assuming no influencing factors other than distance, if you had a 100 Mbps server next door, that would very realistically be the speed of your VPN connection. If you moved the same server to the other side of the planet, you would be lucky to get a tenth of that.

Unless you have a reason to do so, like wanting to stream content from another country, always pick servers that are as close to your location as possible.

Server Bandwidth and Load

The number of individuals simultaneously using a VPN server will affect its speed. If the maximum connection speed of the server is 1000 Mbps and 50 users are connected to it, then on average, each person can expect a top speed of 20 Mbps. As the number of users rises, that top speed will drop.

Pay VPN services usually invest a lot more into their hardware that free alternatives. If you can afford it, a good pay provider is recommended. Visit a high-speed VPN review site beforehand and look through their service speed test comparison to determine which provider is typically the fastest. Singing up with the quickest one will be a good starting point.

Encryption Strength

VPN encryption keeps any data your transfer secure. It can also be computationally expensive and eat up additional bandwidth by making the data you send or receive slightly larger. Usually, the stronger the encryption, the slower the connection.

If you don’t have a good reason to do so, don’t necessarily pick the highest level of encryption possible. 256-bit encryption is still very secure and will be a lot less resource intensive than 2048-bit encryption.

VPN encryption strength can affect speed

VPN Connection Protocol

Most VPN providers give you a choice of protocols you can use to connect. Which one you choose can affect your data’s encryption strength (which is discussed above), and can also affect the connection speed.

The most popular protocol is called OpenVPN. It comes in a couple of flavors: TCP and UDP. TCP is the most reliable of the two. It keeps track of data packets sent, and knows if any go missing (which happens a lot more often than you think). That reliability comes with some overhead and is often overkill. Pick UDP and only switch to TCP if you find yourself having major connection issues.

Data Routing

How your data is routed to the VPN vendor’s hardware affects speed. That, unfortunately, you have little control over. Once data arrives at the provider, it is routed to one of its servers based on some heuristic which can involve server and infrastructure load and several other factors.

New or inexpensive VPN providers may do this internal routing quite inefficiently. Premium providers that have been around for some time are usually much better at it due to their extensive experience with and research into the problem. So, just like with server load and bandwidth, if you can afford one, choose an established pay provider like PureVPN or Private Internet Access.

Data being transmitted to a virtual private network server

More to Come

There is a lot more that can be said about each of the above six factors. That is something we plan on doing shortly. Each factor will get its own post that will cover it in much greater detail. It’s certainly not information everyone needs to know or fully understand. But in my experience, when dealing with VPNs (or anything computer related for that matter), having as much knowledge as possible is never a bad thing.

Introduction to VPNs

For our first real post, we thought we would start at the very beginning and briefly explain what a VPN is. This knowledge should help us all be on the same page going forward.

VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. When you browse the internet using a VPN, you are doing so via an encrypted tunnel. This tunnel allows you to browse websites, social media, and any other online property securely and privately.

The encrypted tunnel works by creating a direct connection between your device, be it a phone, tablet or computer, and a VPN server. Tunneling will encapsulate any transmitted data into standard TCP/IP packets that can then be sent across the Internet. If you didn’t quite get this last part, don’t worry about it too. All you need to know is that VPNs will always work over the Internet.

Because the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted, your internet service provider, the government or hackers cannot see what’s it is. Your ISP won’t be able to slow down your internet connection based on what you’re doing. Hackers won’t be able to compromise any of your usernames, passwords or banking information when you’re connected to a public WiFi.

Diagram showing how virtual private networks work

Depending on where you live in the world, VPN services can also help you defeat internet censorship. With most providers, you get a selection of servers all over the planet. If you live in China and connected to a server in the US, you would then be browsing the Internet as though you were physically located in the US. Any censorship imposed by the Chinese government would be effectively bypassed.

One other last thing worth pointing out is how a VPN differs from a Proxy. The two share some similarities. In both cases, your device connects to a server which then talks to the Internet at large. The key difference is that traffic between your device and the Proxy server is not encrypted as is the case with VPNs. So, while you still can “pretend” you’re in a different location and access censored content, everyone from your ISP to the government will be able to tell exactly what information you’re looking at. Proxies also don’t provide you with any protection on public networks.

That is VPNs in a nutshell. Although they’re quite complicated behind the scenes, they’re relatively straightforward to use for you and me, the end users. We will get into details on how to select a VPN provider and connect to one of their servers in future posts.