Written by: Joe Robinson
A solid VPN is the backbone of most internet savvy consumers’ online privacy suites around the globe. Partly thanks to the Edward Snowden leaks of 2013 exposing the massive scale of government snooping, but also because normal people have become far much more aware of how their personal data can be obtained and used by criminals. Add to this different countries have varying licensing agreements for shows, leading to content providers such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer geoblocking certain content, and finally oppressive regimes that heavily censor the internet.
It’s not at all surprising at all that VPNs are this decade’s anti-virus.
Mac users rarely bothered with anti-virus as MacOS was considered a very low risk. A VPN, however, doesn’t protect your computer but rather the data you send through the internet. Data doesn’t care if it’s sent from a Windows, Mac or Linux system, which is why I’ve created today’s rundown of the best VPNs for Mac. Let’s jump straight in with our winner:
NordVPN is my favourite VPN for Mac because the service just works, and I mean pretty much flawlessly. It can be left on in the background and you won’t even realise it’s running, even though it’s providing a very strong layer of encryption.
I liked: Strong encryption, advanced options, no logs, great MacOS client, amazing price
I disliked: Nothing
Based in: Panama
DNS Leaks? None detected
Netflix USA: Yes
Netflix UK: Yes
The most cost effective way to pay for most subscriptions is to pay in advance, and NordVPN is no different. For $107.55 you can get a three year subscription to NordVPN, which works out to just $2.99 per month, by far the best quality-price ratio we’ve seen. There are a lot of cheap VPNs that we don’t recommend, but NordVPN is a top-class service. If you don’t want to sign up for a full three years, you can go for twelve months at $6.99/ month which is still a good price, or 24 months at $3.99/ month. A single one off month will cost you $11.95.
There’s a 30-day money back guarantee so you have loads of time to check that it lives up to your expectations and fulfills your needs.
Once you’ve set up your account you can go to the downloads area and choose the MacOS VPN client. Once you’ve installed the app, enter your login credentials from when you signed up and you’re good to go. The app is updated frequently and all you have to do is click update when you see the message and it will download and install the update automatically.
Using the app is very simple, you can either select a location from the map or choose from the list of servers on the left. I’ve never had any issues watching Netflix UK or USA, or BBC iPlayer with the UK servers.
This is where you’ll find some advanced features of NordVPN. If you check the speed test section towards the bottom of the page you’ll see that NordVPN scored slightly lower than ExpressVPN in terms of speed, but in actual use, there’s no noticeable difference when streaming HD, gaming, downloading, etc. I frequently use NordVPN to watch UK football matches on BBC or ITV in the highest quality when I’m abroad.
There are several speciality servers available for all NordVPN users:
P2P servers in 40+ countries that are optimized for P2P (torrent) downloads. These are fast servers that use shared IPs to make it practically impossible for any activity to be traced back to an individual. In my test I got 78.75 Mbps download and 18.17 Mbps upload speed, definitely fast enough for sharing large files.
Onion over VPN gives an extra layer of strong encryption by routing the VPN connection over The Onion Network. This type of connection is mean to protect people who a high level of protection. Whistleblowers and journalists, for example, from countries where speaking out against the government could put their lives in danger, can use this service to remain safe. TOR is not meant for downloading movies anonymously, and doing so slows down the network for people who genuinely need it.
Double VPN routes your internet traffic through two NordVPN servers to make it extremely difficult to trace.
Dedicated IP gives you your own IP address on the NordVPN network. Shared IPs are generally considered far more secure, as many people will be using the same IP at once, and therefore an individual is practically impossible to track.
Obfuscated servers hide the fact that the internet traffic is going through a VPN at all by disguising the encrypted packets as regular internet traffic. This feature is very useful in countries where ISPs are controlled by the government.
Like any serious VPN, NordVPN are a privacy focused company. This means they don’t store any user activity. Being based in Panama means they don’t have the legal requirement to keep any logs. Their official statement is: “NordVPN does not monitor, store or record logs for any VPN user. We do not store connection time stamps, used bandwidth, traffic logs, IP addresses.”
NordVPN provides very strong encryption for all its customers, and their Mac VPN app offers military grade encryption that’s unlikely to become even remotely insecure for the foreseeable future.
Packets are encrypted using 256-AES-CBC, which means there’s a 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm used to encrypt your data, that utilizes Cipher Block Chaining, where each ciphertext block is dependent on the previous block, so as more blocks are encrypted, their complexity becomes greater and greater. Authentication of keys is with SHA-384 and exchanged using 3072-bit Diffie Hellman Exchange.
I liked: Very fast servers, strong encryption, no logs
I disliked: Mac app could have more options
Based in: Panama
DNS Leaks? None detected
Netflix USA: Yes
Netflix UK: Yes
The cheapest way to get ExpressVPN is to sign up for twelve months at $88.85, which works out to $8.32/ month. Six months is $59.95 ($9.99/ month), and a single month is $12.95. All plans come with a 30-day money back guarantee.
The Mac app for ExpressVPN aims for function over design. The design isn’t bad, but there’s not a lot to it other than a big button to connect, one to choose “Smart Location” that chooses a fast location near you, and one to choose location from the full list of servers. The slightly annoying thing about the ExpressVPN app is that when you click Locations or options, it opens an entirely new window instead of just changing the original.
The options area doesn’t have that many advanced settings, but there is a kill-switch there, and the ability to manage connection on a per-app basis, which is a nice touch. You can choose from UDP or TCP OpenVPN suites or L2TP or PPTP for when speed is more important than privacy.
ExpressVPN have a really good network of fast servers in many countries. You won’t find any special servers here though, it’s assumed that they all provide the same high level of privacy.
ExpressVPN usually come out on top of any VPN speed tests, and their service for Mac is no different. I’ve used a lot of VPNs, and have had an account at ExpressVPN for three years now, and have almost never noticed any problems. Any time something hasn’t worked 100% I’ve just gone to the website and their amazing support has sorted it very quickly.
Privacy and logging
Express doesn’t keep any activity logs and only log data that is essential to keeping the service running, but can’t identify you. Their statement is:
“ExpressVPN does not and will never log: IP addresses (source or VPN), browsing history, traffic destination or metadata, DNS queries. We have carefully engineered our apps and VPN servers to categorically eliminate sensitive information. As a result, ExpressVPN can never be compelled to provide customer data that do not exist”.
Like NordVPN, Express uses 256-AES-CBC to encrypt data. Authentication is provided by SHA-256, and handshake encryption is 256-AES GCM with RSA-384 handshake, with PFS provided by a 2048 Diffie-Hellman key exchange.
I disliked: Some servers frequently disconnect, not the best for streaming
Based in: Romania
DNS Leaks? None detected
Netflix USA: Yes
Netflix UK: No
ibVPN has a slightly different pricing model to NordVPN and ExpressVPN. The Standard VPN package is the one I’d go for, as it gives you full access to all the servers and most VPN features. At $3.08/ month if paid yearly ($36.95), or $4.95/ month, this is a great low cost Mac VPN service. This package only gives you one simultaneous connection and you don’t get some of the advanced features, so if you want to connect with more than one device at a time or have specific privacy concerns, then you’ll want to check out the Ultimate VPN package at $4.83/ month if paid yearly ($58.06), or $10.95/ month.
You can sign up for a free 24 hour trial, which should be enough time to check if it’s what you’re after.
ibVPN has a solid VPN client for Mac that guides you through setup if you’re a beginner, but you can skip that if you already have basic VPN knowledge. There are some neat features like a killswitch that automatically blocks all internet traffic if your VPN connection fails, and some nice preferences such as disable notifications and send to tray. In the main window there’s a tiny graph that shows your data usage in real time, although I’m not sure why you’d ever use this.
It’s easy to choose a server and there’s a wizard to help you connect for a specific use such as streaming, torrenting, or bypassing the Great Chinese Firewall.
ibVPN have a long list of servers in over 40 countries, with a few special servers such as P2P servers that provide a good stable connection for torrents, TOR over VPN which is similar to the NordVPN offering and provides a high degree of anonymity to those who need it, Double VPN that sends your internet traffic through two VPN tunnels, and a gaming server
The very first server I tried with Netflix (New York 1) worked perfectly straight away, which was promising, so I tried a few others and no problems there. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a UK server that worked with Netflix at all. I was able to access BBC iPlayer using the “UK Streaming 1” server.
ibVPN keeps no logs at all, which is great! From their website: “ibVPN does not collect or log any traffic or use of its Virtual Private Network service. We cannot relate any specific activity with any specific user. If any legal notices are forwarded to our legal department we will comply with that notice. However, we cannot be compelled to hand over information which we do not have”.
ibVPN have an excellent security suite, which is one of the main reasons I chose it as the third best VPN for Mac. From the app you can choose between the normal VPN protocols: L2TP, PPTP, SSTP, IPSec, and OpenVPN-UDP. Next there is “Stealth VPN” which allows Mac users to make their VPN encrypted data packets look like normal HTTPS web traffic in countries where VPN connections are blocked. Finally, ShadowSocks which is popular in China to circumvent censorship.
I always recommend OpenVPN as it provides the best mix of privacy and usability.
I put our three Mac VPN clients through their paces with rigorous testing using Speedtest.net on my normal home network through an Ethernet connection. I performed ten tests of each VPN for both UK and USA servers, and ten control tests with no VPN. The average speeds are as follows:
ExpressVPN came out on top (as it so often does in speed tests), with NordVPN close behind and ibVPN being the slowest. The most consistent, however, was NordVPN, which showed only very minor fluctuations throughout the ten tests.
The UK tests showed almost identical results to those of the USA, just with all three VPNs performing slightly slower than with their USA servers.
If your main reason for using a VPN on your Mac is streaming and basic privacy, then your VPN service needs to have plenty of fast servers that don’t drop the connection while your in the middle of watching Jonathan Creek. If, however, you’re a dissident journalist in a dangerous country, then you need super strong encryption and servers that can obfuscate your VPN usage. The VPNs I chose for this list have a those and many more areas covered.
The first thing we look for is a good suite of encryption and authentication protocols. All good VPN providers should offer OpenVPN as standard – If they don’t then I would run a mile. Encryption is what puts the Private in VPN.
Mac users are used to having great software that integrates seamlessly with the machine, and aren’t too happy with sluggish or ugly apps. However, being beautiful has to come secondary even in an article specifically about the best VPNs for Mac, because when it comes down to it, there are more important things than how it looks.
I looked for apps that functioned correctly and had enough features to allow advanced users to customise their connection, whilst being simple enough for beginners to use correctly.
Yes and no.
One reason people believe Macs are more secure than, say, Windows machines, is that it’s not possible to actually make some of the adjustments to the machine in OSx that you can in Windows. It’s also important to remember that Apple has a relatively low market share in the laptop and desktop world at around 12.5%, which has typically meant that fewer attacks target Apple computers.
However, this doesn’t apply to online attacks. If you’re sitting in Starbucks with your Macbook Pro connected to the free WiFi, you’re just as vulnerable as someone on a Windows laptop or Android phone. If you want to enjoy privacy and relative anonymity online (not to mention stream geo-blocked content), you still need to use a quality VPN. Any of these best VPNs for Mac will do, and the one you choose will ultimately come down to your specific requirements and what you’re happy to pay.