VPN Reviews: Watching Hulu, Comedy Central Without Hacks

Full Disclosure: VPN Authority approached me with a trial account for review purposes.

A VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is a system for securely joining a remote network over the internet, typically they’re used to allow remote workers secure access to their company’s internal networked file system and other network resources. When a computer connects to a VPN all internet traffic can be configured to route through that VPN. As a side-effect, this re-routed traffic appears to be coming from whatever geographic location the VPN server. In other words, if you connect to a VPN in the USA, you can use geo-restricted sites – like Hulu and Pandora –  from anywhere in the world; if you use a VPN located in the UK, you can access BBC iPlayer and Spotify. You get the picture, see Wikipedia for all the glory details.

A while ago, someone decided that they could charge money for access to this side-effect. When you to a search for something like US VPN you get a tonne of results, some free, others paid. It’s hard to tell them apart and for the most part, they’re fairly similar. The main differentiating factors for the purposes of watching geo-restricted video are connection speed and cost.

Truth be told, before VPNAuthority contacted me I had not tried using a VPN to access US content, at least not in a very long time. I had assumed that the free options were too slow and the paid options weren’t worth it. I’m not about to shill for VPN Authority just because they set me up with a free account (sorry guys). It’s only fair to pit them against some of their competitors. So, I took a look at 2 other services: HotSpot Shield and CastleVPN. HotSpot shield seems to be the most popular free VPN and I picked CastleVPN because they had a professional looking website.

HotSpot Shield

Price: Free, ad supported.
Locations: US only
Speed Test:

Verdict: With the low speed and even lower ping, watching Hulu is very erratic and practically impossible. As if that wasn’t bad enough, HotSpot Shield injects ads above the main body of the page you’re browsing and let’s just say the ads tend to be of the low-quality, annoying nature. I would not recommend HotSpot Shield.

Castle VPN

Price: 12months @ $7/mo – monthly @ $9/mo
Locations: US Only
Speed Test:

Verdict: Although the download speed is a fair bit slower than HotSpot Shield, the low ping times seem to making up for it. Page loads were reasonably fast and watching Hulu was worked fine. I’m unsure how/why the upload speed is so much faster than download, or how this affects the overall connection. At $7 – $9 per month I’m not sure that the service is worth it though, more on that later.

VPN Authority

Price: 12months @ $5.30/mo – monthly @ $7.10/mo
Locations: US, UK, Czech Republic, Slovakia
Speed Tests (US, UK):

Verdict: Relatively speaking, the download speed are great on both sides of the pond! The other two services offer their own applications that simply the install, setup and connection process for both Windows and Mac. Unfortunately VPNAuthority does not have an installer for mac, so the setup process is a little more technical. Then again, I prefer using a native OS feature whenever possible.

Conclusion

Two of this blog’s most popular posts of all time are “How to watch Hulu in Canada” and “How to watch Comedy Central from Canada.” It’s really hard for me to recommend a paid VPN solution when there are perfectly workable – free – solutions/hacks, if you have the time to tinker. The downsides of hacks are that they’re tailored for specific websites and they really only make sense in a desktop environment. Though when I was streaming video through a 3 – 5Mb/s VPN tunnel I found browsing at the same time to be painfully slow. So for that reason, I wouldn’t really recommend using VPN unless you’re dedicated to watching online and nothing else (well, I suppose you can do low bandwidth things like twitter or IM).

I might recommend a paid VPN solution to someone who’s cut their cable and has some sort of home theatre PC or set-top box. As far as I can tell, both Boxee and AppleTV support VPN settings. Since most of the content we actually want to watch is geo-locked to the USA having decent access to a US IP would give you a much fuller experience. With a VPN, you can just set it and forget it. At $5 – $9 per month is significantly less than you’d paid to access US content via cable TV.

As far as VPNAuthority’s service specifically, their prices are low and their level of service is high. For that reason, I would recommend them. But, I’d want to do a more comprehensive comparison of their competitors before declaring them “the best VPN service evar”!

Worth Noting

Detectability: Based on my limited knowledge of how they work, I believe it would be fairly difficult for a website to block VPN traffic outright. But, I assume these VPN services route a lot of customer traffic through a given IP (or range of IPs). It may be possible for a site like Hulu to flag these IPs as suspicious if they detect a large number of requests coming from a small number of IPs. If the traffic looks suspicious enough, they could technically ban an IP range. I don’t know whether this would happen or how easily someone like VPNAuthority could recover from this.

Security: Seeing as VPN tunnels are secure channels, another added bonus of is security over public wifi. Using a VPN is makes you invulnerable to firesheep. On the flip side, a nefarious VPN provider could preform a man-in-the-middle attack on you.

Pay Website: While a VPN will technically give you access to paid services like Netflix.com, Amazon’s MP3 and movie stores, spotify etc; these services almost may require you to have a credit card with a US (or UK) billing address.

Legal: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but it’s worth noting that this type of work-around is almost certainly against every one of these website’s terms of service and I would not be surprised if it broke some industry-written US law. Use at your own risk.