Whether you are on the road and worrying about hopping onto random hotspots in airports, hotels, and cafes, in a country where certain Web services aren’t available, or just concerned about being tracked online, a VPN service is a worthwhile investment. Newcomer WiFi Protector aims to simplify the whole VPN experience, but it doesn’t quite measure up against more polished offerings such as Norton Hotspot Privacy, AnchorFree Hotspot Shield , or VPN Direct .
VPN services offer Internet users the benefits of Virtual Private Networks without the complexity of installing a dedicated server. Most people may be familiar with using corporate VPN to access work files and services. A VPN service won’t connect you to your work network, but you can use it to create a secure tunnel that encrypts all the data you are typing on whatever site you are on, as well as hiding your online activities from eavesdroppers.
WiFi Protector has a free, ad-supported offering and a paid version that doesn’t display ads for $6 a month. The paid version comes with an “All History Cleaner,” which is essentially a way to clean up cookies and delete browser history. There is also an Android app but no support for iOS or Macs.
We’ve looked at several VPN services recently and I’ve noticed a slight difference in speed and performance between paid and free versions. Paid versions generally have similar performance regardless of which server the user is connected to, while free versions may fluctuate. Since WiFi Protector doesn’t give users a choice of servers, I decided to stick with the free version for the review.
WiFi Protector Interface
WiFi Protector is all about simplicity. Unlike most VPN services there is no location dropdown to give users the choice of which servers to connect to. WiFi Protector isn’t useful if you are looking for a way to change your geographic location to access services, such as watching Netflix outside the United States or BBC’s video player outside the United Kingdom.
Like other VPN services we have reviewed, WiFi Protector installs the TAP-Win32 adapter from OpenVPN. Installation is a quick process, and once the program launches, it immediately uses the active wireless connection to connect to its VPN service in Chicago, IL. WiFi Protector launches automatically on startup, as well, and displays a little blue bubble informing users that they are connected. For people who regularly hop on public wireless hotspots, this is handy as they don’t need to remember to launch the service. They are always protected.
WiFi Protector displays a large “Secured” message when the user is successfully connected to its services. It also pops up a Web page (on the free version) telling the user that the connection is secure and displaying both the original IP address and the newly assigned IP address. If a connection is ever lost, a new Web page opens with the information, and when the connection is reestablished, another Web page re-displays the new IP address.
At the bottom of the panel, WiFi Protector displays the last ten networks you last connected to, and identifies what kind of security it had (WEP, WPA2, none). Each of the networks are flagged with a red “x” and the words Unsecured, and explanations, such as using an outdated security protocol (WEP) or a weak password that can be brute-forced. The information about the kind of encryption being used and password strength was useful.
The network description also displays the network password and interface UUID, which I didn’t like from a security standpoint. There is absolutely no reason for software to display passwords in plaintext, even if it is fairly benign such as a wireless network.—
Next: WiFi Protector: Features, Performance
WiFi Protector also includes a browser extension, which hooks into Internet Explorer and Chrome. The default installation adds the extension; if you don’t want it installed, pick the custom install option. The idea behind the extension is that if you happen to have the VPN service turned off, it will enable itself if you open up the Web browser.
WiFi Protector includes “intrusion detection” in its list of features. It’s essentially a screen listing all the devices connected to the wireless network. The network is secure as long as you trust all the devices currently connected. For a home network, this is a great idea, as it lets users see what devices are using the network. If it’s an unrecognized device, the user can take steps to remove the intruder from the network. For a public wireless hotspot, it may be a little distracting.
I got inconsistent results when testing the detection feature on three wireless hotspots. While I could see printers, routers, and laptops, I couldn’t see any of my mobile devices. It would be a nice thing to be able to see all types of devices, not just some. While most times, I was able to see other devices using the same wireless network and be alerted when new devices were added. On one network, I was consistently unable to see any devices. I mentioned the issue to the WiFi Protector team and they suggested something in the network configuration may be at fault.
Inconsistent performance was actually a problem throughout the review. As I mentioned earlier, every time WiFi Protector lost connectivity, it would open a Web page letting me know that I was no longer being protected, and then open another page after re-connecting. That’s useful, since the last thing you want is to think your data is being encrypted when it isn’t. The problem appears to be in maintaining the connection.
During the course of the review, I was on an airport hotspot, and noticed that I was dropping and reconnecting every five to six minutes. The repeated messages informing me of getting dropped got irritating really quickly. After a bit of investigation, it appeared that dropped connections correlated to the frequency of the network DHCP refresh. DHCP servers define a specific period of time (“lease”) for IP addresses. A computer gets an IP address from the DHCP server, and even when it is no longer on the network, the server remembers that computer for the lease period. When the machine reconnects within that time interval, it receives the same IP address. The network periodically refreshes the DHCP table to release IP addresses that aren’t being used back into the general pool so that it can be assigned to a new machine.
The lease time can be as short as one minute, or as long as several days, but the most common interval seems to be around 12 to 24 hours. On a heavily trafficked wireless network, such as an airport, having a long lease time is not practical. On networks with a long lease, I found WiFi Protector stable, but losing connection every single time a refresh happened (even if the IP address didn’t change) really interrupted my Web experience.
Overall, speeds was pretty consistent, in that I didn’t notice a significant degradation when I was on the VPN and when I wasn’t. I think the fact that WiFi Protector didn’t offer alternatives for what servers to connect affected how it compared with other services.
There was a lot to like about WiFi Protector, such as detecting intruders using the device list and seeing how the wireless network is configured. Its turn-on-and-go approach is very useful for users who don’t want to have to think about VPN. However, the difficulty I had staying connected on some networks and my unease about displaying network passwords hurt its score.
To be fair, the team behind WiFi Protector is highly responsive and is continuously working to improve the product. I went through at least three updated versions during the course of my three-month review and saw distinct improvements each time. This is reassuring, and I anticipate the product will evolve rapidly over the next few months. WiFi Protector has a number of unique features that are quite appealing, but for the moment, it is overshadowed by more stable competitors.
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|OS Compatibility||Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc