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Best VPN for streaming: Unlock Hulu, Netflix, and more
What is the best VPN for streaming? Our top pick is ExpressVPN! We analyzed everything from native streaming apps, locations, kill switch ability, and more to give you the best VPN to unlock streaming restrictions.
This is a sensitive topic. Owners of entertainment content go to great lengths to control the distribution of their wares, especially when it comes to international markets for movies and TV, and even local regions for black-out sporting events. By contrast, VPN vendors go to great lengths to make the case that you can use their services to bypass all those restrictions.
But there are times when, legally, you might want to use a VPN to watch a movie or video. If you're traveling, you can VPN back to your home country and use your home streaming service account to watch your favorite show. That said, it is, at best, a legally gray area.
ExpressVPN has been burning up the headlines with not the best news. We've chosen to leave ExpressVPN in this recommendation, and I wouldn't necessarily dismiss ExpressVPN out of hand because of these reports, but it's up to you to gauge your risk level. The best way to do that is to read our in-depth analysis:
ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPN providers out there, offering a wide range of platforms and protocols. What we like about ExpressVPN is how it documents setting up VPN services for virtually all the most popular set-top boxes, even those that don't natively support VPN. For each device, ExpressVPN has a guide walking you through the process.
With 160 server locations in 94 countries, ExpressVPN has a considerable VPN network across the internet. In CNET's review of the service, staff writer Rae Hodge reported that ExpressVPN lost less than 2% of performance with the VPN enabled and using the OpenVPN protocol vs. a direct connection.
While the company does not log browsing history or traffic destinations, it does log dates connected to the VPN service, the amount transferred, and the VPN server location. We do want to give ExpressVPN kudos for making this information very clear and easily accessible.
Native Streaming Apps: Fire TV, Android TV, Nvidia Shield TV
Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
Kill Switch: Yes
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, Firefox, Chrome
Logging: None, except billing data
Trial/MBG: 30 day
At two bucks a month for a two-year plan (billed in one chunk), Surfshark offers a good price for a solid offering. In CNET's testing, no leaks were found (and given that much bigger names leaked connection information, that's a big win). The company seems to have a very strong security focus, offering AES-256-GCM, RSA-2048, and Perfect Forward Secrecy encryption. To prevent WebRTC leaks, Surfshark offers a special purpose browser plugin designed specifically to combat those leaks.
Surfshark also offers a multihop option that allows you to route connections through two VPN servers across the Surfshark private network. We also like that the company offers some inexpensive add-on features, including ad-blocking, anti-tracking, access to a non-logging search engine, and a tool that tracks your email address against data breach lists.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, plus routers, Fire Stick, and Kodi
Logging: None, except billing data
Trial/MBG: 30 day
For those folks who love the Kodi media player (and I'm one of them), IPVanish is the VPN for you. IPVanish has full, detailed setup guides for using Kodi with many of the more popular streaming set-top devices. Of course, you don't have to use Kodi, but if you haven't spent any time looking into this awesome open source home theatre system, you should.
IPVanish is a deep and highly configurable product that presents itself as a click-and-go solution. I think the company is selling itself short of doing this. A quick visit to its website shows a relatively generic VPN service, but that's not the whole truth.
Its UI provides a wide range of server selection options, including some great performance graphics. It also has a wide variety of protocols, so you can know what to expect no matter what you're connecting to. The company also provides an excellent server list with good current status information. There's also a raft of configuration options for the app itself.
In terms of performance, the connection speed was crazy fast. Overall, the transfer performance was good. However, from a security perspective, it wasn't able to hide that I was connecting via a VPN -- although the data transferred was secure. Overall, a solid product with a good user experience that's fine for home connections as long as you're not trying to hide the fact that you're on a VPN.
The company also has a partnership with SugarSync and provides 250GB of encrypted cloud storage with each plan.
Performance testing was adequate, although ping speeds were slow enough that I wouldn't want to play a twitch video game over the VPN. To be fair, most VPNs have pretty terrible ping speeds, so this isn't a weakness unique to Nord. It's more than fast enough in most countries to stream your favorite movie or video.
In our review, we liked that it offered capabilities beyond basic VPN, including support of P2P sharing, a service it calls Double VPN that does a second layer of encryption, Onion over VPN, which allows for TOR capabilities over its VPN, and even a dedicated IP if you're trying to run a VPN that also doubles as a server. It supports all the usual platforms and a bunch of home network platforms as well.
A VPN is not required for streaming movies, games or TV shows, however it can help encrypt your location to unlock certain services or products in other countries.
How does the router thing work?
You first install your VPN onto your router. This depends on the VPN provider and the router, so you'll need to do some digging. But if your VPN and router are willing to play nicely with each other, then because all traffic on your network travels across your router, it will also be able to use the router's VPN connection. It's a bit crude but not as crude as the next on our list...
What is the best VPN for streaming?
The best VPN for streaming and unlocking streaming services is ExpressVPN, due to its ability to unlock streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, and because of its higher streaming speeds compared to competitors.
Wait, so I'm supposed to use my PC as a router?
Yeah, if you don't have a compatible set-top box or a compatible router, the idea is you connect your TV to your PC or Mac as a network client, use that computer's VPN client, and then go out over the network. It's janky as heck, but the VPN vendors generally have clear enough guidelines. But, by the time you're doing all that, just buy a $39 Fire TV Stick and be done with it.
Does a VPN slow down streaming?
A VPN can in fact slow down your streaming since the distance to the server, encryption process, and protocol can create a lag in your internet speed. However, this lag can oftentimes be unnoticed with better VPN services such as ExpressVPN.
So some set-top devices have native apps?
Basically, Android TV is a version of Android. That means that most apps in the Google Play store will run reasonably well on Android TV -- including VPN clients. Most VPN vendors slightly recoded their Android handheld apps to have a wide-screen UI for the TV and pushed those apps into the Play Store. Since Amazon's Fire TV is basically a skinned version of Android TV using Amazon's app store, VPN vendors didn't have to do too much technically to make it work -- and Amazon is, of course, a huge market. So you just go to the app store and install the app. Easy peasy.
But not Apple TV or Roku?
Nope. You're doing the router or PC network client hoop jump game. And before you ask, if you want to use Xbox, Playstation, or Switch to stream your entertainment, you're also going to need to run your streaming movies through a router or a PC network sub-LAN.
But, if Android TV works, surely Chromecast does?
Nope. No it doesn't. Same as the Roku or the consoles. Because Android giveth and Chromecast taketh away.