It's an old joke that no one on the Internet knows you're a dog, but with an increasing amount of news about how much we are being tracked as we browse and click, it may be time to build a secure digital kennel for man's best friend. One of the ways to fight back against online snoopers is a virtual private network or VPN, whose tech is now big business for both personal and enterprise use.
However, there isn't one single type of VPN connection. The two major choices are either proprietary protocols or OpenVPN. For privacy-minded users -- exactly those who would want to avoid proprietary programming code because it's not available for public inspection -- OpenVPN has been a popular alternative. However, it doesn't have a reputation for speed, stability, or compactness.
Despite its relatively straightforward task, OpenVPN needs hundreds of thousands of lines of code to work, which makes inspection and stability difficult to achieve. However, there's a new open competitor in town called WireGuard, and it needs only 4,000 lines. And a popular VPN service called IVPN has just added a WireGuard option to its mobile app (Android, iOS), on an experimental basis.
We're not the types to shy away from app experimentation, so we grabbed the update from the Google Play Store, and we put it to the test. The upshot: Despite its purportedly raw state, we found WireGuard to be much speedier than OpenVPN, at least on our office Wi-Fi network -- and in one case, it could stream and download content where OpenVPN got blocked right away.
If you have the updated version of the IVPN app and you want to test out WireGuard, just tap the gear icon in the upper right, then VPN Protocol, then Wireguard. There are several stark warnings for test drivers on this screen: "The WireGuard protocol is currently under heavy development and should be considered as experimental. Review the WireGuard project for more information. We do not recommend WireGuard except for testing or in situations where security is not critical."
The company currently supports up to 5,000 WireGuard testers.
Despite this highly conditional language, our test drive of WireGuard felt buttery smooth. On a OnePlus 6 phone running Android 9 Pie, a connection to one of IVPN's regional servers happened pretty much instantly (though a regular OpenVPN connection rarely takes more than ten seconds), and YouTube had no problem delivering 1080p video at 60 frames per second, without noticeable delay.
Netflix (Android, iOS) also behaved well, delivering Planet Earth II in sharp and vibrant 1080p without much fuss. We could skip around on the seek bar with no more delay than we experienced when connecting without a VPN. According to Netflix's Fast.com connection speed testing tool, our regular Wi-Fi operated at around 35 megabits per second during this test. With IVPN and WireGuard, we saw roughly the same speeds.
Office Wi-Fi being what it is, though, testing from one moment to the next produced speeds ranging from 11Mbps to nearly 50. About the only difference we noticed between regular Wi-Fi and WireGuard was that the latter took a few additional seconds to get up to full speed. This may turn out to be inherent to WireGuard, but it's far too early to know for sure.
With Amazon Prime Video (Android, iOS), we tested a couple downloads of TV shows like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," the disarming period comedy-drama whose second season just arrived. Downloading a 1.82GB version of the premiere episode with the WireGuard feature in IVPN took a little over three minutes, averaged across three consecutive attempts on the office Wi-Fi. Switching over to a direct connection produced an average download time that was 10 to 15 seconds faster.
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If we switched over to IVPN's default OpenVPN tech, Amazon Prime instantly failed with an error cryptically labeled HTTP_PROXY_ERROR. The streaming option also became grayed out. We didn't encounter this error in Netflix or YouTube when streaming with the IVPN's OpenVPN protocol. Switching back to WireGuard restored streaming and downloading to normal in the Prime Video app.
We spoke to an IVPN representative about the error, and he said, "It's not a bug, rather that Amazon [is] blocking VPNs in general. The most likely scenario is our WireGuard servers are not on the specific lists for this yet -- probably they will be.
"Generally," he adds, "our focus is privacy and security, and if there is any access to video streaming services who protect against bypassing geo-location restrictions, it is a bonus and not a feature we guarantee."
Either way, our time with WireGuard indicates that it will be an upgrade over OpenVPN for the average user. Of course, Wi-Fi speeds can vary down to the square foot and the hour of the day, and IVPN clearly states that the WireGuard may be packed with problems. So your experience may considerably differ from ours. But if you're an IVPN subscriber, it's worth checking out, as long as you're cool with using code that's still under construction.
- IVPN, a popular VPN service, has added WireGuard as an alternative to the OpenVPN protocol, though it's in a very early testing stage.
- WireGuard can connect faster, and it has much less programming code than OpenVPN. Less code makes it easier for privacy-minded techies to inspect the DNA of the app for bugs and other potential issues.
- Facebook's Onavo VPN app gets yanked from App Store for violating privacy guidelines
- ProtonVPN virtual private network app now available for iPhones and iPads
- Google's Project Fi mobile service now gives 24/7 VPN connection for your privacy
- Best mobile VPN services for 2018 (CNET)
- Many free mobile VPN apps are based in China or have Chinese ownership (ZDNet)
- How to use Cloudflare encrypted DNS on Android (TechRepublic)