3 personal VPNs offer safer Wi-Fi

VPNs-for-hire can secure your laptop at public hotspots.

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When you first log on to StrongVPN's Web site, you can see at a glance that the company has a lot going for it. To begin with, it has a strong showing of servers: 146 servers around the globe, including 94 in the United States. It uses gigabit switches. It can handle VoIP traffic. And it provides 24/7 live technical support.

What's a little harder to see is which of StrongVPN's services will fit your needs. The company packages its offerings in an almost bewildering array. There are Lite, Standard and Deluxe packages -- Lite packages offer servers in San Francisco, New York and Miami; Standard adds Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Dallas, Seattle and Chicago; and Deluxe adds everywhere else in the world. There are single-city a la carte offerings if you don't travel much. And each package is available in PPTP and OpenVPN flavors.

Fortunately, the company provides excellent support for sales and technical advice. StrongVPN offers online chat support in two forums: on its own site using Zopim's off-the-shelf LiveChat application (something that WiTopia also uses) and on Skype. At several key points during the evaluation, this team proved highly responsive: I never waited more than a minute for online chat assistance and the team was never at a loss to respond to any issue.

I finally picked the Lite OpenVPN package and received a confirmation e-mail immediately after placing the order. Ten minutes later, I also got a fulfillment e-mail with links for downloading and configuring the OpenVPN client software.

Configuring the OpenVPN client to work with StrongVPN servers feels a little kludgy. After you install the software, a box pops up asking for the URL of a custom configuration Zip file. That URL is part of StrongVPN's confirmation e-mail, and it's a custom-prepared set of files for each customer. You have to copy and paste the URL from your confirmation e-mail to complete the configuration -- not a tricky step, but it's something that the other vendors in this review handle more smoothly.

From that point on, you simply run the off-the-shelf OpenVPN software and you're tunneling securely from your laptop to StrongVPN's servers.

It's impossible to say definitively that StrongVPN's servers were more responsive than anyone else's. There are too many variables to account for. However, I ran through a suite of Web pages and videos using identical machines and lab conditions for each personal VPN in this review, and found StrongVPN's servers almost as responsive as the control machine running an unsecured connection.

So far so good, but there are a few dings against StrongVPN. First, it's not the easiest solution if you want to change servers around. Just to make sure I had the most responsive server, I checked the company's Web site and decided to try another New York server that the site told me had five free slots. I logged in to my account, clicked the Change Server slot, and was e-mailed another link to a Zip file with configuration data.

This isn't a big deal for someone with tech smarts, but it turned out that StrongVPN limits the number of times you can do this: Lite packages allow for five server changes a month (with three trial switches during the first month); Standard and Deluxe offer two more server changes, for a total of seven per month. Any more changes and you will need to purchase a switching upgrade, which starts at an extra $5/month.

Bottom line

StrongVPN is a mixed bag. Its service team is very responsive and very knowledgeable. Its server selection is large and its latency seems to be minimal. But it uses the same off-the-shelf OpenVPN client software that the other personal VPN providers do, so it doesn't stand out from the pack in that respect, and its doesn't modify the configuration process as smoothly as the others. And the packages that the company offers are flexible, but can be overwhelming to an untrained customer.

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