The use of Virtual Private Networks (‘VPNs’) is surging. Remote-first working, as well as increased use of internet-based entertainment, is putting the spotlight on VPNs.
One question that needs to be asked is: Should the VPN be applied to the computer/device, or to the router? Here we set out the advantages and disadvantages of both options.
Why do I need a VPN anyway?
When you connect to the internet, units of information, ‘data packets’, are sent between your device and the website you are connecting to. This means a range of information is passed on to your Internet Service Provider (‘ISP’), including the websites you are visiting and your location (based on your IP address).
The information that you provide can be intercepted by hackers, as well as passed on to advertisers or governmental bodies. It can also be used to restrict your access to a service based on your location (for example, Netflix).
By using a VPN, your information is instead encrypted and sent to a server run by a VPN company (a ‘VPN server’). This VPN server decodes the information, before sending it on to the public internet. And the same happens in reverse with the information that is sent back to your device.
The net effect of the VPN is a ‘masking’ of your IP address and other important information. For more information on how VPNs work see A Beginners Guide to VPNs.
The potential advantages of using a VPN, include:
- Security. Using a VPN when connected to a public Wi-Fi network, can reduce the risk of ‘snooping’ on your internet use and/or the stealing of your information;
- Evading geo-blocking. Geo-blocking means that your access to certain sites (such as Netflix), might be restricted based on your location. With a VPN, your effective location can become wherever the VPN server is located, as such, you can unblock any website not available in ou country. Similarly, VPNs might be used to access sites which have been censored by your Government or your network administrator;
- Privacy/anonymity. The masking of your IP Address does prevent some of your information from being passed on by your ISP (such as to third party marketers). Note, however, that the VPN will not provide complete privacy. For example, it does not prevent the tracking of your activity via cookies.
Why choose a router VPN?
Once you have made the decision to use a VPN, you need to choose which VPN service to use. We recently reviewed a list of the top VPN services, including ExpressVPN, Surfshark, CyberGhost and NordVPN. Ultimately the optimal VPN service for you will depend on how you balance various considerations, including price, privacy, and speed.
In conjunction with your choice in VPN service, you need to consider another question: Do you apply the VPN service to each individual device, or do you install it on the router itself (a ‘router VPN’)? This decision must be made in conjunction with your choice of VPN service, as only some VPN services are compatible with/support use of router VPN
Some routers come with build-in VPN client capability, straight ‘out-of-the-box’. But this is still relatively uncommon. Other routers will require ‘flashing’ with VPN ‘firmware’ — that is, upgrading with a VPN operating system, to which the VPN service can then be applied. Whichever router is chosen, the firmware and the VPN service software need to compatible.
Advantages of using a router VPN
So why would you choose to place the VPN on your router rather than each device? Factors to consider include:
- Ease. With a router VPN, your multiple devices such as your PCs, phones, Smart TVs, tablets, or game consoles automatically have a VPN applied to them. You do not have to individually set up the VPN software on every device, nor do you need to consciously log into the VPN on each device;
- Comprehensive coverage. The VPN is applied to all devices connected to the network. This means, for example, that the VPN applies to the devices of guests who do not have a VPN downloaded onto their device. Similarly, it means the application of a VPN to those devices such as a Smart TV or Android box where it is difficult/impossible to download the VPN on to that particular device.
Disadvantages of using a VPN on your router
The disadvantages of using a router VPN include:
- Cost. A router with pre-installed client VPN is significantly more expensive than a regular router;
- Complexity. Where the router does not come with a pre-installed VPN client (or the VPN client you desire), you will need to organise for the router to be made VPN-capable yourself (for example, as outlined above, flashing the router for open source VPN firmware). While this process is not technically difficult, many may put it in the ‘too hard’ basket;
- Bandwidth capacity. Running a router VPN may use up bandwidth and reduce the speed of your connection. This will depend significantly on the particular VPN service chosen;
- Lack of flexibility. There may be some cases where you don’t want the VPN to be in operation. For example, sometimes the use of a VPN will be in breach of the terms of service of an app. Even though it is likely that you can temporarily switch off the VPN on your router, this is a less convenient step which you may well forget on occasion.
What are the advantages of a computer/device-based VPN?
The advantages of installing the VPN client directly on your devices include:
- Increased customization. A ‘VPN protocol’ determines the way in which information is protected via the VPN (examples of VPN protocols include PPTP and L2TP). While your client VPN will usually default to a particular protocol, at times it may make sense to switch protocols. For example, some protocols are much faster, or more secure, than others. With a device-based VPN, you can switch protocols ‘on the fly’;
- Flexibility. The device-based VPN can be turned on or off at ease when it suits you. For example, you may wish to access content that is only accessible in your country of origin, and logging out of the VPN may make this accessible to you.
The disadvantages of a device-based VPN correlate with the advantages of router VPN: You cannot simply ‘set and forget’ your VPN, and the VPN may not be able to be applied directly to all devices
Router VPN may be an important part of your internet security ‘belts and braces’. In general, it adds an extra level of protection compared to a computer or device-based VPNs. However, that added security may come with the extra expense, complexity and a lack of flexibility, which means a device-based VPN would suit you better.