Any time we review a virtual private network at Cloudwards.net, we test for speed. There’s no denying that it’s the most important metric to many VPN users, but many may not understand what makes one fast and another slow.
To understand your speed when connected to a VPN service, there are a few components that need to be discussed. For instance, latency versus speed or how bandwidth is different from throughput. Once you know more about them, you’ll better know how, or if, a VPN can meet your needs.
Getting Our Terms Straight
If you’re a gamer, you’ve likely heard the term “ping” tossed around. In today’s internet culture, ping has taken on a couple of definitions. We’re not talking about pinging someone with an email or text. Rather, we’re referring to a term used to describe latency.
Ping is a measurement in milliseconds of the time required for a packet to travel between IP addresses and is used to test the connectivity between a client and host. It can be thought of as how responsive your connection is. A fast ping is imperative for applications where response time is sensitive, e.g. gaming.
Gaming is sensitive in this regard because there’s not a massive amount of data traveling between two machines. Both machines have all the data they need, so only a small amount of user input goes between them. In this case, having that small amount of data travel as fast as possible is important.
Speed, on the other hand, is what internet service providers market most heavily. It is measured as bandwidth and there are two numbers of concern: download and upload. Higher numbers are never a bad thing, but they can be misleading. Higher bandwidth doesn’t always translate to faster downloads or uploads.
Bandwidth is more important for tasks like streaming. Latency is irrelevant as there’s no user input to affect the source. Even if the stream is 500ms behind, it is that far behind consistently, meaning that there’s no difference on your end.
Throughput shakes up this theoretical stance, but it varies based on a few factors.
Bandwidth and Throughput
Bandwidth, which is the width of a communication band, is measured in megabits per second. Where latency is how fast data can travel, bandwidth is how much data can travel. ISPs almost always tout their download speeds over their upload speeds.
Bandwidth and throughput are often considered the same, but they have quite different meanings. Bandwidth is the capacity of a communication line to deliver data, while throughput is the ability of your machine to maximize that capacity.
Throughput limitations vary depending on the circumstances of the end user. Hardware specifications, WiFi interference and peak traffic are a few examples.
You can think of it like water pipes. ISPs control the pipes of the internet and the size of the pipes represents bandwidth. Pipes are shared between you and others and the speed at which the water (data) is delivered is affected by the pressure (latency).
That said, many factors will affect gallons delivered per minute in the real world (throughput). They include distance, traffic and quality of connections.
How Speed Affects VPNs
Speed, bandwidth, latency and throughput all come into play when you use a VPN. It will introduce a certain amount of latency to your connection, depending on the encryption and how your traffic is routed.
The speed of your VPN will be relative to your internet connection and the functions of the VPN can affect that in several ways. Your home connection is your baseline and will be the speed at which you access the VPN server. From there, factors such as VPN protocols, location and encryption strength start to affect speed.
Encrypting data eats up bandwidth. It adds additional data to the stream, which means stronger encryption protocols generally require more space to move. The quality and speed of the server you’re connecting to also affect the bandwidth. How crowded the server is at a given time and its location come into play, as well.
VPNs will introduce latency and that’s because of the way they route your traffic across the internet. It doesn’t have to be perceptible, though. It’s important to know how efficient your VPN is when routing your traffic across its server network.
Bigger server networks and using the servers closest to your physical location are key to managing latency.
It’s important to assess your needs and understand how a VPN can impact your speed. That said, we regularly test for the fastest VPNs and even the best providers for certain activities. Read our best VPN for gaming piece for one example.
Choosing a VPN for Your Needs
Gaming is highly sensitive to ping times, rather than download or upload speeds. For gaming, there are client-based VPNs for your PC or you could set up a VPN on your router, which will protect any device connected to it. You can read our best VPN router guide for recommendations.
Either way, you should choose a VPN with a broad server network, boosting the odds of having servers near your geographical location. The less distance data has to travel, the lower your ping times and the chance that you’ll rage quit.
When streaming video, bandwidth becomes more important. Most content providers aren’t equipped to buffer video long enough to deliver smooth playback to users with poor connections, so decent speeds offset that. Netflix recommends 5MBps for high-definition video. Providers that maintain that speed earned a spot in our best VPN for Netflix guide.
If torrenting is your thing, that requires above average bandwidth for downloads and uploads as it is peer-to-peer file sharing. It also warrants more focus on security, ideally complemented with a minimum amount of latency. Read our best VPN for torrenting guide to learn why NordVPN is our top choice.
For general browsing, you need not be overly concerned with speed or latency. Instead, going with a VPN that strikes a balance between speed and security makes sense. ExpressVPN is a great choice for that, as well as gaming and other activities (read our ExpressVPN review).
Hopefully, we’ve helped clarify how the different components of speed affect your online activities, specifically in the context of VPNs. Whether you’re seeking privacy, online anonymity, torrenting, gaming or trying to circumvent geoblocks, it’s important to assess your needs and understand how effectively a VPN can meet them.
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There’s no substitute for a great VPN and what makes one so will vary according to your needs. You can find our favorites in our best best VPN providers guide.
What VPN are you using? How does it stack up? Leave us a comment or tweet at us. Thanks for reading.