This week, I gave WiTopia's VPN a try. And to be quite honest, it wasn't exactly the experience I was hoping for.
As I discussed in my first post on this topic, Virtual Private Networking offers ways for users to safeguard their data in public situations, when looking for privacy on their desktop computers, and when location shifting.
I started my tests as a complete VPN noob. I wasn't sure what I was getting in for, or how well VPN would work with my setup. I resolved to test VPN in various situations and see how well I could still accomplish my goals. Bill Bullock of WiTopia was kind enough to sit down with me and introduce the service before I pulled out my credit card and signed up for an account.
"If you're on public WiFi, you should be using VPN," Bullock told me. "It's a matter of education." I decided to test it both in the public situation, the most common VPN experience, as well as on my personal system.
Don't forget to switch on the VPN
My first lesson was this: using VPN must be a conscious choice. Although iOS makes VPN incredibly easy to use, it doesn't work until you switch it on. Remembering to do that while you're out must become a habit, one that I really struggled to master.
When active, a VPN icon appears at the top left in your status bar. This lets you instantly check if you've enabled the service. If you see the icon below, you have.
Setting up VPN
The set up process was amazingly easy. I just added a new VPN entry, and entered my account credentials as instructed. (Hint: you need to add backslash W before your email.) Total set up could not have taken more than a minute. After that, my account was ready to use whenever I desired -- all it takes is a simple click to get going.
What I didn't expect is that various servers provide differing performance levels, presumably based on general load. WiTopia offers dozens of servers. I found that the local Aurora-based server offered iffy response times, but by connecting to Kansas City (just a bit further east), I could obtain far more responsive Internet. Your experience will vary, of course. Because you're directing all your traffic through a server, a slow one can really limit your device's responsiveness.
WiTopia offers a help article to assist with slow connections and offers 24/7 customer phone support. Bullock points out, "Another item to remember is you probably retain cookies and other identifiers to iTunes, etc. and that may have had something to do with slowed downloads. We have customers streaming Video all over the world (which is very bandwidth-intensive and finicky) , so if downloads were significantly slowed, beyond what may be normal because we're encrypting all the data, it is likely something that could be tweaked."
You can location shift
One feature a lot of TUAW bloggers were interested in was VPN place shifting. When you select a server, your location becomes that location. Use a Canadian server, you're in Canada. Use a UK server, you're in Britain. (Attn pedants: I checked and didn't see any for Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, etc.)
What did this mean? I was able to install and use the BBC iPlayer app and sample a variety of offerings. Geolimited shows that would not normally play back on my iPad were there for the viewing. (Attn Pedants: We at TUAW do not encourage or discourage geoshifting. The BBC website states "You need to be covered by a valid TV Licence if you watch or record TV as it's being broadcast", which does not cover replays. Consult an international lawyer to determine whether you should or should not engage in this behavior.)
Location shifting, as much as it delights the heart of those whose home-team basketball game is blacked out, is not without its risks and frustrations. After finishing my tests and reverting to the United States, App Store kept giving me a hard time until I completely rebooted my iPad.
These kind of problems were, however, much more frequent on my Mac versus my iPad -- probably because I use my Mac in a much more rigorous way.
VPN on my Mac
Setting up VPN on my new Mac mini was just as easy as on my iPad and geoshifting even easier -- mostly because I didn't have to type anything once I was all set up. To change locations, I just selected a server from a menu and connected.
For the most part, I tried to stay connected to Kansas City -- although I did test out London and the BBC.
VPN on a desktop computer is primarily about privacy -- keeping your activities, especially your searches, anonymous. Unfortunately, I found that VPN service often interfered with the tasks I was trying to accomplish.
For example, I regularly ran into Google errors like these. Google was convinced that I was some kind of automated bot trying to compromise their service.
A search on my IP address found it blacklisted due to use by spam bots.
I also ran into difficulties working with iTunes Connect (as I was rushing to get out both an update and a new app), with IRC (which often would not allow connections on irc.freenode.net), and with my email server (which I fixed using a WiTopia help page, but I couldn't send email for several days).
Downloads ran slower -- especially when trying to move massive quantities of data, including the latest Xcode beta for iOS 6.1, upgrading gigabytes of apps (mostly due to TomTom's 1.3 GB update), and re-downloading movies that iTunes "helpfully" removed to the cloud.
After a point, I simply turned off VPN so I could finish my downloads sometime this century.
After doing my VPN tests, I am totally behind the VPN idea -- regardless of which reputable provider is used. However, for someone who lives by bandwidth and needs reliable Internet access, I'm not entirely sure I would use it 24/7. That's not because I wouldn't want to -- having my searches protected really appeals to me -- but because at least in this configuration, my work day was impacted enough to make it more of a use-with-public-WiFi scenario.
My entire VPN experience is, as you can tell, quite limited. So please join in the comments with your person reflections on providers and work flows.