VPN Direct is a personal VPN service that is easy to use, hides your online activity from eavesdroppers, and allows you to spoof your IP address to view content that is restricted to a certain geographic location. The service’s VPN technology encrypts all traffic leaving the computer online and ensures data remains hidden from third parties even when on an open wireless network. As a paid service, it’s on-par with many of its competitors, but its free offering falls a bit short.
How VPN Services Work
Your computer has an IP address assigned by your ISP. A geo-location lookup reveals the geographic location of the ISP or the data center containing the server assigning the address. Sometimes, you may want to change the address so that it will be harder to trace online activity back to you. Other times, you may be trying to access a service that is restricted by geographic region. VPN Direct overrides the IP address with one drawn from its pool of servers, so you can suddenly pretend you are in a different state, or even country.
I was overseas for the past few weeks, and I was able to use VPN Direct to take advantage of U.S.-centric services such as Netflix and Hulu. I also used it to protect my connection when I was logging into Google Apps to check my email while on the hotel wireless. Having VPN Direct was quite handy, since my corporate VPN software was having trouble maintaining a connection. VPN Direct is not intended to replace my corporate VPN as it won’t let me connect to work servers, but it did encrypt my network connection when I logged into my email and other Web-accessible accounts.
VPN Direct & the Competition
There are many VPN services on the market, some of which we’ve reviewed, such as proXPN, AnchorFree’s HotSpot Shield Elite and Private WiFi from Private Communications. Like these services, VPN Direct offers both a free version and a paid version. The current Editors’ Choice for paid VPN services is Norton Hotspot Privacy for its ease of use and multi-device support. The Editor’s Choice for free VPN services is shared by VPNBook and CyberGhost VPN, which offers both a paid and free version as well.
VPN Direct comes in two flavors, lite and premium. While the lite version is free, the premium version has several pay levels, starting with $9.99 for a 30-day subscription, $24.99 for a 90-day subscription, $44.99 for 180 days, and $74.99 for a year-long subscription. I reviewed the premium version of VPN Direct, with a 90-day license. The rating reflects my experience with the paid “premium” version.
Regardless of the version or license, users get OpenVPN SSL technology and access to Web proxy servers. While the premium version offers 24 servers in five countries, including Netherlands, United States, Germany, Hong Kong, and Canada, the lite version is limited to only one server in the United States. Unlike other services we’ve reviewed, VPN Direct doesn’t have any bandwidth limitations. For example, OkayFreedom caps users to 500 MB per month, or 5 GB per month for paid users, and proXPN restricts free users to a mere 300 kbps a month.
Installation and Getting Started
I created a username and password and selected the desired version on the VPN Direct website before downloading the installation file. It’s easy to click on the wrong area on the site, so be careful that you are registering for the correct version. I started out with the lite version and then upgraded to the 90-day premium version later.
Like Private WiFi and OkayFreedom, VPN Direct replaces the actual hardware adapter on the machine with a virtual network adapter provided by OpenVPN (TAP-Win32 Provider V9). The installation process ends by launching the tool, which asks me to enter my username and password, as well as to select the preferred server to connect to.
As a premium user, I had access to four servers in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada (near Vancouver), four in Amsterdam, Netherlands, four in Hong Kong, four in Frankfurt, Germany, and eight servers in Chicago, Ill. The lack of geographic diversity within each region was a little disconcerting. For example, all four Canadian servers are hosted by the same ISP, so if that ISP ever suffers an outage, VPN Direct customers would not be able to access any Canadian servers.
AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield Elite offers a nice variety of servers, ensuring that if there’s an outage or service disruption in one area, users could pick a server from a different part of the country. This is not an option with VPN Direct that I could see.
The tool has a “Verify IP Address” button which automatically launches whatismyipaddress.com to display my newly assigned IP address. It also has a button to launch the speed tests to see how fast the connection is to that server at that time. A nice touch. I also liked the ability to schedule the IP connection. At a specified time, the software would connect to the desired server.
No Error Messages?
Overall, the tool was easy to use and didn’t have any major issues, which was a good thing because I was relying on it pretty heavily on my trip. But there was one perplexing problem: There were a few instances when I tried connecting to a server and it wouldn’t establish the connection correctly. I got the little message in the system tray telling me the connection was successful, but in the main panel of the software, I saw my original IP address listed in the “Original IP” field and nothing listed in the “Current IP” field. I was unable to reach any websites, and my IP address didn’t appear to have changed. I had to disconnect and reconnect several times before the service finally picked up a new addressI was able to reproduce this problem several times in both the lite and paid versions, but not in a consistent manner. No errors were ever displayed and I found an error message stating it was unable to obtain an IP address, but not explanation was given. As issues go, it was irritating, but not a show-stopper.
Speed and Performance
I didn’t notice any discernible lag with VPN Direct while overseas and connecting to the U.S. servers in order to view Hulu videos. I also connected to Hong Kong servers for regular Web surfing and didn’t feel any degradation in performance while surfing the Web. To measure network speed, I ran the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net once I was back at my test bed in the U.S. The tests are designed to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to servers in different cities. I determined my location by looking up the IP address and then looked for a city closest to that location to run the test. I ran the test twice with the VPN service turned off, and again when turned on, and picked the best measurements. The figures below are over a wired connection, not wireless.
Performance was surprisingly consistent, regardless of what servers or geographic region I tried to test with. This was unusual and made VPN Direct stand out from its peers, since other services generally had significantly worse network speeds when connecting to overseas servers.
Compared to the other services, the premium version of VPN Direct has a far less performance hit on download and upload speeds than any of the other competing services I’ve reviewed. It’s worth noting here that the free version of VPN Direct is the most similar to Private WiF in terms of performance impact.
Skip Lite, Get the Premium Version
The lite version allows users to connect to only one server, the one based in Chicago, Ill. This was a severe limitation since most competing products have free versions that could connect to multiple servers, even overseas ones. I highly recommend users just skip the lite version entirely and go straight to a premium one. The flexible pricing plan means users don’t have to make a long-term commitment to using the software, but can sign up for short terms as necessary.
VPN Direct filled a need when I needed it. Not having any bandwidth caps is a nice plus, but the lack of diversity within a region is a little worrying in case of outages or service disruptions. VPN Direct is worth shelling out the money for because there is very little performance impact between having the VPN on and turned off. However, since you are paying anyway, you may consider paying for Norton Hotspot Privacy to get multi-device support and easier user experience.
|OS Compatibility||Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc