With the rapid recent escalation in threats to online privacy from both hackers and state actors alike, more and more internet users are seeking out tools that help them protect their data privacy. Equally people are also on the lookout for software which can help them keep the internet free and open. They want to get around state censorship and corporate restrictions and access whatever content they like, whenever they like. And the two most commonly encountered services that offer these benefits are a VPN and TOR.
But for the uninitiated these two acronyms can appear daunting. What do they mean? And what is the difference between them? The truth is that while there are some similarities between the benefits that VPNs and Tor can offer, they are very different. In this article, we will explain precisely what are the differences between TOR and a VPN and give you all the information you need to know to quickly become confident about your safety and privacy online.
What is TOR?
The acronym TOR stands for ‘The Onion Router’ but knowing its full name doesn’t really adequately explain what TOR actually is. It is actually an internet browser, but unlike Google Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge, this is one which helps to protect your online privacy rather than hoovering up your personal data. The TOR Browser directs all of your online activity through a secure channel which makes everything you browse for anonymous. It stops your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from being able to see what you are doing online and the websites that you visit should also be unable to trace your activity back to your internet connection. Using the TOR browser you should also be able to access blocked and censored sites too.
The TOR Network consists of a network of many hundreds of thousands of different servers located all over the world. Your data is passed around this network before reaching its destination and as each connection as no observable link to the previous one, it quickly becomes almost impossible to trace your activity back to you. If you just want to be anonymous online, TOR is great, but it does have some drawbacks. It does not offer you complete protection from hackers who may want to compromise and steal your data. The browser itself is also not 100% secure itself and has been known to install malware onto user devices in the past.
How does TOR work?
The TOR Network consists of a huge number of different servers. These servers are more commonly referred to in TOR lexicon as relays. They are operated by volunteers located all over the world. If you are wondering why the word ‘Onion’ cropped up in the TOR acronym, the reason is that, like an onion, the Tor Network is multilayered. It encrypts your data and then bounces it around various different relays
Each relay then decrypts a single layer of the encrypted data you are sending before passing it on to the next relay. The final relay it reaches is the intended destination of your data (i.e. the website you are trying to visit). This process makes it almost impossible to follow your data from your device to its ultimate destination and so renders what you do online pretty much totally anonymous.
How to install TOR
If you want to try out the TOR network for yourself, you will need to download to TOR browser onto your device. It is not massively complicated to do, but to help you through it, we have compiled this short step-by-step for you to follow:
- Visit https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html to download and save the TOR Browser. It is available for Windows, Mac OS, and GNU/Linux devices and in 16 different languages.
- When the file has downloaded, click Run to set up the Tor Browser
- Choose the destination folder you want the TOR files to be saved in. Ensure that there is at least 80MB free disk space available.
- Now click Install and the TOR Browser will be download. Follow the simple onscreen instructions and when you have finished, the TOR Browser should be installed and ready to use.
What is a VPN?
VPN is another acronym that might seem daunting, but this one is even simpler than TOR. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a term you are probably more likely to have come across as VPNs have exploded in popularity in recent times. It is another online security and privacy tool which can be used for a number of different purposes. Its primary intended purpose is to allow users to use the internet security and to help protect their privacy while they do it. As such, it will encrypt all of your online data and redirect it through an external server which, in a similar way to the TOR network, will help to hide your real location whilst also preventing your ISP from seeing what sites you are visiting.
But there are various other things you can do with a VPN too. It enables you to use public Wi-Fi networks with confidence as it secures all your data. It lets you bypass online censorship which has been imposed either by your government or ISP and access the internet freely. It also lets you get around geo-restrictions which prevents some websites and online streaming services from being accessible in different countries. And it lets you use services like Kodi or BitTorrent download sites without fear of legal repercussions if you inadvertently download copyrighted content.
How do VPNs work?
To use a VPN, you have to sign up with a VPN provider who will then provide you with software which allows you to access their network of servers. Each VPN provider will operate a network of secure servers located in different places around the world. When you connect to one of these servers, which can usually be done with just a single click of the mouse, all of your online data is redirected through an encrypted tunnel and via this server before heading on to the website or service you are trying to visit.
By encrypting everything you do online, you are ensuring that anyone who wants to see and log your online activities will be unable to do so. This includes hackers, government surveillance operatives, law enforcement agencies, and even your own ISP. By passing this data through another server you are also making yourself anonymous online too. This is because when the data leaves the VPN server it is tagged with the IP Address of that server rather than your own internet connection. An IP Address is the code which tells websites and anyone else who is looking, where this online data came from. Because it has been changed, your own IP Address and therefore physical location is completely hidden, and you are rendered all but anonymous while online.
If you want to evade online censorship or geo-restriction, you just have to connect to a server in a different country where these restrictions are not in place. Because your ISP and the websites you visit cannot see where you are located, if the VPN server is in the right place you will be able to access anything without impediment.
How to install a VPN
To use a VPN, you will have to sign up with a VPN provider. There are more than a thousand of these currently trying to win your custom, and below you will find a few that we recommend. But all work in pretty much the same way. This means that the installation process to get a VPN up and working on your device will be similar, no matter which provider you opt. So, while you should always check with your provider and follow their specific instructions, the installation process will work roughly like this:
- Choose your preferred VPN provider and head over to their website. If you don’t know which provider you want to sign up with, pick one from our recommended VPN list below.
- On the website, choose the subscription package which best suits your needs and then follow the onscreen instructions to subscribe to their service. Don’t worry, most VPNs will cost you no more than a few dollars a month.
- When you have subscribed, you will need to download your VPNs software onto your device. Most providers will offer dedicated apps for Windows and Mac computers as well as Android and iOS devices. Many offer apps for other devices too. Choose the right software for you and then follow the instructions to download it onto your device.
- Once the app has installed, open it and when prompted, enter the login details you will have been given when you completed step 2 of this process.
- This will open you app and you will then have a choice. With most VPNs you will be able to connect to their network with a single click and then get on with your internet browsing. Or, if you prefer, you can select which of their servers you want to connect to or otherwise customize their service to suit your needs.
With so many VPNs on the market and almost all of them claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread, deciding which one to sign up for can be a difficult decision. While it may be tempting just to go with the first one you see or one with a quirky name or humorous logo, it is important to do some research to make sure you are signing up for the best provider to suit your needs. Everyone has different priorities when choosing a VPN, but some of the main points to consider are:
- Fast Connection Speeds – to ensure smooth and reliable internet connections and enable hitch-free streaming and downloading.
- Size of server network – the more available servers, the more content you can unlock around the world. It can also help with connection speeds too.
- Encryption strength and security – to keep you secure when online.
- Effectiveness of privacy policies – to help ensure your online activity is kept hidden from prying eyes.
- No restrictions on bandwidth or file types – to let you stream or download as much as you like, whenever you like.
There are other factors you might want to bear in mind, such as the number of simultaneous connections a provider permits, how good their customer support is, and what extra features they offer. But for most VPN users, it is these five criteria which are their main priority. And if that is the case for you too, then our testing suggests that the following VPNs are the best ones to go with:
IPVanish is a colossus of the VPN scene, and rightly so. Its excellent all-round service has seen it build up a legion of loyal subscribers attracted to its excellent security and impressive speeds. IPVanish has built its reputation primarily on its excellent security and privacy provisions. Their encryption is among the strongest around at the moment with their default OpenVPN protocols employing 256-bit encryption as standard, as does their L2TP protocol. They also offer shared IP Addresses, which helps to hide your data even more effectively and so makes it much harder to trace your online activity back to you. There are also a number of additional security features available too, including a kill-switch, which will automatically cut your internet connection if your VPN connection goes down as well as a built-in feature which allows users to switch IP Addresses periodically for additional privacy. It can even be used together with TOR.
In addition to this comprehensive security coverage, IPVanish also offers comprehensive privacy policies, including a no user logs guarantee you can depend on. And their connection speeds are superb meaning that users can stream and download with confidence. This is true across their entire network of servers which numbers more than 850 servers in 60+ countries around the world. IPVanish also has no restrictions on either bandwidth or file types, and they offer a dedicated apps available for almost every device you might possibly want to go online with. All this combined makes them our number one recommended VPN provider right now.
ExpressVPN is another VPN which is extremely highly regarded. They have built a reputation on the back of their connection speeds, but like IPVanish this comes as part of a great all-round package. ExpressVPN does offer some of the fastest connection speeds around. They have an eo/expressvpn-discounts/normous server network, consisting of more than 1,500 servers available in 94 countries around the world. And no matter which server you connect to, speeds are almost always impressive.
But there is more to their service too. ExpressVPN offers robust encryption with their entire network SSL being secured with 256-bit encryption. They also offer a kill switch as standard and being based in the British Virgin Islands, they are able to offer a no user logs guarantee that is 100% trustworthy. If there is a downside to the ExpressVPN package, it is that it is priced a little higher than most of its competitors. But thanks to our exclusive deal, you can make some big savings on that too.
NordVPN is another longstanding name on the VPN market, but there was a time when slow connection speeds meant it was not so popular. Those days are very much in the past now though. With huge investment going into their server network, which now consists of 1779 servers available in 61 countries, many of these have been upgraded to super-fast status and the results are impressive. NordVPN do their security pretty well too. They also offer 256-bit encryption on OpenVPN connections as standard and 2,048-bit Diffie-Hellman keys used too.
They also offer a number of unique extra security features too. They have a kill switch and shared IP Addresses available, which is not so unusual. But they also offer a Double VPN server option, which reroute your internet data via two servers for extra protection. And for those still undecided about TOR or VPN, they also offer Onion over VPN servers, which pushes your traffic through the TOR Network as well as a VPN for additional security. Because of the TOR problems we have outlined, these connections are usually pretty slow though. Nord also has no user restrictions in place and being based in Panama, they can also offer great privacy protections. Toss in their competitive pricing policies and NordVPN really does offer a compelling deal.
VyprVPN is the cheapest VPN provider on this list, but that is not the only reason it warrants a place. They also offer 256-bit AES encryption used as standard, but also have their own unique extra-secure Chameleon protocol. But before you sign up, beware that you have to subscribe to their more expensive premium service to get access to this. VyprVPN also offers a dependable no logs guarantee and a built-in kill switch as standard, so their privacy and security is a match for the others on this list regardless of which package you opt for.
Their server network consists of more than 700 servers located all over the world which means users can access content from all the major markets. And their connection speeds are generally pretty good too, although perhaps not as fast or consistent as the other three providers on this list. For most regular internet usage, these should still be more than sufficient and VyprVPN remains a competitive VPN provider.
TOR vs VPN – The advantages and disadvantages
While the TOR network and a VPN are very different at a technical level, they do serve a pretty similar purpose for users and even after reading this far, some people are probably still scratching their heads to know whether TOR or a VPN is the best option for them. To try and clarify this and help you make an informed option, we decided to compile a simple list of the advantages and disadvantages of each. These simple bullet points should help to crystalise your thinking and enable you to come down firmly on one side of the fence or the other.
- Private and anonymous – absolutely no-one is able to see what you are doing online or trace your online activity back to you. trace you to external IPs visited
- Secure and Reliable – Because TOR is a distributed network, consisting of a huge network of independent relays, it is almost impossible to shut down. If one relay goes down, the network simply cuts that out and bounces data elsewhere.
- Free – There is absolutely no charge to use the TOR Router.
- Slow and inconsistent speeds – the nature of how TOR works means it is almost always slow and speeds can be very irregular. Bouncing data around different relays around the world takes time and as you could use differing numbers of relays, speeds can change very quickly.
- Unsuitable for P2P or Streaming – Because of these slow speeds, TOR is not suitable for downloading content from P2P sites (or anywhere else for that matter) or for streaming media content online. P2P is also frowned upon in the TOR community because it slows the whole network down for everyone else too.
- Can’t be used to get round geo-restrictions – technically TOR can be used to spoof your location to fool sites that use geo-restriction. But it is not a simple thing to do and can be a bit tricky and technical for anyone not already familiar with how TOR works. As a result, it is not usually recommended for this purpose.
- Fast Connection Speeds – A premium VPN service, like the ones we have recommended here should have very little impact on your internet connection speeds. Most use super-fast servers and because your data is only passing through a single server, it gets to its intended destination much faster than on the TOR network. This makes a VPN ideal for downloading, streaming, and P2P.
- Easy to evade censorship and geo-restriction – With a VPN it is really easy to change your geo-location. Providers offer a network of server in locations around the world. User can choose any of these and then connect. Once connected, you will be able to access any content available in that location and so circumvent your own countries online censorship and access anything that is geo-restricted where you are.
- Secure and private – A VPN still makes ensures it users privacy and security. Most offer 256-bit encryption, and a variety of different encryption protocols, with OpenVPN the default with most providers. Most providers keep no usage logs whatsoever, so once you disconnect, your online activity is not traceable anywhere.
- Price – There are free VPNs available but these are not recommended as they are frequently not secure and will often sell your online data to third parties. The best VPNs do come at a price, but this is usually only a few dollars a month and still represents great value for money. There are secure ways to pay too.
- Trust – By using a VPN, you are essentially placing your trust in the VPN provider you choose. Unlike the TOR network, your data is being passed through a single server and can therefore be seen by your provider. Most reputable VPNs will keep no records of your activity, but some do. It is therefore important to do some research and only pick a provider who privacy policies are acceptable to you.
While the TOR Network and VPN serve similar purposes, they are in fact very different, both in the way they work and what they offer to users. If privacy is your primary objective and you are not planning to do any online activity which is too data-intensive, then the TOR Network is definitely a viable option for you. But for most regular internet users, the slow speeds it offers means it is not very practical on a day-to-day basis.
In contrast, a VPN can offer extremely fast connection speeds and comes with many other benefits. VPNs are easy to download and use, offer all of the security and privacy benefits of the TOR network, and in addition also allows you to stream and download content securely and privately as well as evade online censorship and geo-restriction. So while the TOR network serves a very specific purpose for a very specific demographic, a VPN is an online security and privacy tool that can be used by anyone. For this reason, in most circumstance, we would suggest readers opt for one of the VPNs we have recommended in this article.
What have your experiences of using VPNs been? Have you found our recommended providers to be as good as we have, or have you encountered any problems? Have you used the TOR network and if so how did you find it? Are there any advantages or disadvantages to either the TOR network or a VPN that we didn’t mention? We are always interested to hear your comments and opinions, so why not share them with us using the comments box below?