VPNs are jam-packed with benefits and important security-enhancing features – but what about VPN routers? Can anyone purchase and use a VPN router, or are they better suited for businesses and die hard privacy advocates?
We'll take a look at the difference between VPN routers and VPN apps in this guide, and compare some of the most popular router firmware, so you can decide whether you'd like to take the plunge and invest in a router!
What is a VPN router?
You'll get a basic router whenever you sign up with an internet service provider (ISP). These handy little boxes that connect us to the internet are commonplace in most homes (propped up on shelves or the TV unit) – and VPN routers are pretty similar.
The one key difference is that VPN routers have VPN software installed on them, which makes connecting to, and using, a VPN service that much easier. With a standard router, you'll need to install VPN software on each of your internet-enabled devices before you can connect to that VPN's network.
A VPN router, on the other hand, will cover all the gadgets in your home as soon as you've configured it. This means that you and your family can use multiple devices simultaneously with very little hassle, and enjoy the same VPN encryption you'd expect using a VPN app. We'll cover this (and some additional benefits) a little later.
If you're curious about how a VPN works, we've got some great jargon-free guides that cover the basics! Essentially, a VPN creates a secure tunnel that connects your device to the wider internet via a secure server, and any traffic passing through this tunnel will be unreadable to snooping third-parties. This includes hackers, your ISP, and even your government.
VPN router vs VPN app
If you've decided that you'd like to try a VPN for yourself, you'll need to decide whether you opt for a VPN router or a VPN app. Each has its own list of pros and cons, of course, and we'll dig into them below.
VPN router vs VPN app: the pros
- Secure all of your devices – As we mentioned earlier, a VPN router makes it easy to protect all of your devices. Installing VPN software on each of your gadgets is a tedious task, and most VPN providers also limit the number of devices that you can cover with a single subscription (with the industry standard sitting at roughly five). This isn't the case with a VPN router. With one, you can cover a plethora of devices, no matter when you're using a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection.
- Device compatibility – VPN apps aren't always compatible with every platform – something that Linux users can certainly attest to! VPN routers can share VPN access and secure any device with Wi-Fi functionality. This also extends to non-native devices that don't work with VPN apps, either, like games consoles and smart TVS.
- Unblocking geo-restricted content – VPNs excel at accessing geo-restricted content that's unavailable in your current location, and VPN routers are just as good at unblocking international libraries from around the world. By spoofing your location with a new (and temporary) IP address, you'll be able to unblock Netflix US and other sites with geo-restrictions from the comfort of your couch.
- Total convenience – You're going to need to log in to your VPN app each time you want to use it. VPN routers eliminate this extra step, though, so you'll only need to input your credentials once as you set up your connection. Then, you're up and running, and won't need to slow down to login multiple times a week.
VPN router vs VPN app: the cons
- Steep price point – Don't expect to pick up a VPN router cheap! They come with a hefty price tag – especially if you're interested in one of the more advanced models available on the market, which can cost upwards of $100. This investment might be a little too steep for folks after a more casual commitment.
- Complex setup – Some VPN routers can be tricky to set up – particularly if you're new to the tech or haven't got much experience changing firmware. The process is also notoriously risky. If done wrong, flashing a router can result in bricking it entirely, leaving you with an outrageously expensive, useless lump of plastic.
- Speed loss – It's common to experience a slight loss of speed if you have lots of devices connected to your VPN router. As a result, you might need to prioritize which gadgets stay connected depending on what you're using them for! This drop in speed can affect page loading times, cause buffering, and slow downloads – which will be a problem if you've got gamers and avid streamers in the house.
- Not very flexible – The VPN server you joined whilst setting up your router will be the only server you can access… unless you want to reconfigure the router to select a different one. This is doable, but complex, and far more involved that simply selecting a new VPN server via an app.
So, should I use an app or a router?
VPN apps are flexible and come with tons of features, so you'll get a full toolkit to play with. Setting up these apps on your devices can be time-consuming, however, so we'd recommend VPN apps to folks who don't need to be connected to a server all the time. If you plan to use your VPN to unblock geo-restricted content, do some torrenting, or secure your browsing sessions here and there, then a VPN app is a better fit.
VPN routers can connect a broader spectrum of platforms to the VPN network, which is ideal for homes jam-packed with gadgets and smart devices! VPN routers are stable and offer round-the-clock coverage, which could be ideal for those working from home during the pandemic, and if you don't mind missing out on a few extra features, then a VPN router is a great pick.
VPN router firmware
Firmware refers to the operating system used by your router, and it's possible to install alternative VPN router firmware yourself for more granular control and customization! There are plenty of options available, however, and it might all seem overwhelming to tech novices.
To that end, check out our rundown of the most popular and reliable VPN firmware out there.
DD-WRT is an enduringly popular router firmware that's compatible with a variety of routers and also supports OpenVPN. You'll need to configure it yourself, if you're not opting for a pre-configured router, but there's an excellent online community of users available to help you through the process. DD-WRT is also free and open-source, so you can take a peek into its code yourself if you're so inclined.
Just like DD-WRT, Tomato is popular, free, and open-source, and can be installed on most routers. Tomato is considered a more advanced option, as its mass of customization options will need a deep knowledge base to make the most of – and it's not the easiest thing to set up. Tomato has some prominent offshoots, too, including Shibby, and even boasts OpenVPN support.
DD-WRT and Tomato are the two most popular firmware
Sabai is a smaller name, but a reliable one, although Sabai OS isn't currently open-source. You'll be able to install this firmware on any router you buy from the brand – and yes, as you might've guessed, it's not available for free. Sabai is based on Tomato (and also supports OpenVPN), but seeing as it's pre-configured to install seamlessly, you won't need to be a digital savant to get it working on your router.
pfSense also boasts a huge and supportive online community, full of folks who are happy to help you with the install process or even share advice on how to build your own router. pfSense is free and open-source, compatible with OpenVPN, and can even block ads at the router level! This is a nice bonus, as is the fact that you can use pfSense to turn an old PC into a router – though it's hardly an energy efficient method.
VPN router or VPN app? The question crops up time and again as more folks discover just how a VPN service can benefit them. Figuring out whether you really need a VPN router can be a tricky process – and you'll need to consider your own specific use case! However, if you have a lot of devices in your home, need a stable VPN connection around the clock, and want to take your digital privacy seriously, then a VPN router could be an ideal solution.