Last year was a big year when it came to the best VPN services, with notable changes in terms of both the software and the industry.
We saw almost-billion-dollar sums exchanged, massive leaps forward in the underlying tech, and changes in the way external services interact with VPNs that deeply affected a number of providers and what customers can expect.
Here, we’ll be running down what happened in the VPN industry in 2021, and – more importantly – what 2022 could have in store for the cybersecurity world.
WireGuard and proprietary protocols
One of the biggest revelations of 2021 was the widespread adoption of the relatively new WireGuard protocol. Although the protocol has been in development for a few years and has been in use since 2019, last year saw larger and more established VPNs like Surfshark, ProtonVPN and IPVanish offer support, making WireGuard compatibility the norm rather than an exception.
This means connection speeds have skyrocketed, with top-tier providers clocking in at well over 800Mbps on a 1Gbps line in our testing. This has left providers only supporting older protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 in the dust, and these incredible speeds are now expected by reviewers and users alike.
WireGuard isn’t the only way providers are achieving superfast speeds, though. Proprietary protocols are nothing new, but most notably ExpressVPN developed and launched its Lightway protocol and, not much later, made it entirely open source. Lightway delivers very good (but not quite class-leading) connection speeds, along with very stable mobile connections, demonstrating ExpressVPN’s position as an innovator in the field.
On the topic of ExpressVPN, 2021 saw the biggest acquisition in VPN history – Kape Technologies’ purchase of the VPN for a massive $936 million. This followed Kape’s acquisition of Private Internet Access in late 2020 and CyberGhost some time before, showing that the British-Israeli firm is looking to cement its place as a frontrunner in the industry.
This caused quite a stir in the cybersecurity community, with some journalists and users claiming that this would impact ExpressVPN’s autonomy and privacy – and this was not least influenced by Kape’s somewhat controversial history. To learn more, read our full story on the ExpressVPN acquisition.
ExpressVPN wasn’t the only VPN to be bought in 2021, though. Free VPN favorite Atlas VPN was hoovered up by giant NordVPN, and in our recent Atlas VPN review, we saw improvements in its service immediately.
Netflix and streaming
Beyond staying private online, one of the most common reasons to download a VPN is to access geo-blocked streaming content on sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer. This is almost always combatted in some way by the streaming provider in question, but in mid-2021 Netflix went one step further.
VPNs evade geo-blocks by using domestic IP addresses in your chosen country where certain content is accessible, and before Netflix’s changes, all it would do was block access to content if that IP was linked to a VPN. After the change, though, it appeared that once Netflix identified a VPN-related IP address, the streaming giant blocked access to a huge swath of neighboring IPs.
Despite the collateral damage, this technique was incredibly effective at stopping VPN usage, and we saw many previously reliable services crumble. In our initial investigation we found that few providers could cope with the change, and while a number of providers have since managed to find ways around Netflix’s blocks (namely ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN), many still aren’t the Netflix VPNs they used to be.
What can we expect in 2022?
So, 2021 was certainly an action-packed year for the VPN industry, and we don’t expect things to let up in 2022. Here are our top predictions on what we’ll see in the year to come.
We can’t be sure what fresh innovations we’ll be seeing in 2022, but what we can be near-certain of is that one provider or another is working on something shiny and new at the moment. Our money’s on ExpressVPN – with Kape’s massive financial backing there’s plenty of cash to throw at passion projects and bleeding-edge research.
If we had our way, it’d be something along the lines of improving the consistency of Netflix unblocking. While many of the top-tier VPNs have personal privacy just about sewn up, there’s still work to be done in terms of unblocking.
Surely Kape can’t buy another VPN? Well, we wouldn’t put it past them. However, something else to consider could be NordVPN starting to splash the cash. Its acquisition of Atlas VPN has added a decent free option to its roster, and we certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it targeted a rival paid VPN to shore up its place as an industry leader.
A real surprise would be NordVPN being bought itself. While we think this is pretty unlikely, anything could happen…
Holistic cybersecurity solutions
A trend that’s starting to make itself known is for providers of cybersecurity services to start offering a more holistic package. So, for example, IPVanish and StrongVPN have long been partnered with cloud storage provider SugarSync, and ExpressVPN offers a similar option with provider BackBlaze.
NordVPN has gone one step further, though. If you want to get truly ingrained in the Nord ecosystem, the company offers the classic NordVPN, storage system NordLocker, password manager NordPass, and business VPN offering NordLayer. If Nord develops an antivirus like rival Private Internet Access has, it could be the first truly one-stop shop for cybersecurity.
Surfshark has also rolled out its Surfshark One plan, which allows users to pay an extra small monthly fee for antivirus, a secure search engine, and data breach alerts. While it currently can't quite rival Nord's offering, it's definitely a sign of things to come in the industry.
This goes the other way, too. Antivirus giants Bitdefender, Avira and Avast all offer their own VPNs, and although these are usually pretty lightweight and just white-label versions of an established independent VPN, for casual users they’re easy to access and appealing.
So, the trend is there, and we expect more and more providers to begin developing full internet security suites – even if that's only to keep their customers away from the competition.
Usage limits lifted
Another trend that we expect to see is for VPN providers to start lifting or increasing any usage limits they impose on paying customers. While just about every premium VPN allows unlimited data transfer, almost all limit the amount of devices you can use the VPN on simultaneously.
However, providers are becoming increasingly generous with these limits. For example, ProtonVPN has upped its Plus plan’s limit from five to ten, VyprVPN now offers a massive 30, and IPVanish and Surfshark have unlimited policies. Considering one of our few complaints about ExpressVPN is that it only allows five simultaneous connections, we wouldn't be surprised if providers across the board start to increase or even eliminate these limits.
Quality over quantity
The same can’t be said for server count, however. In this area, VPNs appear to be placing less emphasis on huge numbers, and more on the quality of their servers.
For example, PureVPN has significantly reduced its number of servers in order to get rid of all its virtual servers. Now, every server it runs is physically located in the country it serves, which is more secure and reliable.
Another example of this is Private Internet Access. At one point in 2021 we saw the server count spike to a faintly ridiculous 33,000 – about 25,000 more than its closest rival – but in recent months we’ve seen that reduce down to a still hefty but more manageable 15,000 or so. We wouldn’t be surprised if we saw that number deflate even further, and the fact that none of our top 4 providers offer more than 5,000 servers a piece demonstrates that the quality of a VPN’s servers is far more important than the sheer amount.
How’s 2022 shaping up?
With VPNs becoming ever-more mainstream, we can only expect providers to cater to the needs of the masses more by delivering faster connections, apps that are easier to use, full suites of functionality and, overall, better value for money.
We haven’t got a future-telling orb to ponder, so we can’t guarantee anything will happen. But what’s for sure is that the VPN hype isn’t over yet, and if you haven't jumped on the bandwagon, there’s still time to hop aboard before it leaves.
Which VPN would we recommend?
Out of all the VPNs on the market, we would recommend ExpressVPN most highly. That's because not only does it provide excellent encryption, very stable connections and great additional privacy functions, but it's also incredibly easy to use and has apps for tons of devices.
If you're looking to stream Netflix abroad, or you're looking for a torrenting VPN, Express works really well, and if anything goes pear-shaped, you've got the support of class-leading live-chat assistance 24/7. If you think you'd like to test out ExpressVPN, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee - and Tom's Guide readers can also claim 15 months for the price of 12.
However, if you're looking to upgrade from a free service with the minimum cost, at around $2.50 a month Surfshark could be your best option. While it's not as powerful as Express, it does have some very useful features and works seamlessly on pretty much any device you install it on.
With 3,200+ servers in 63 countries, you'll get a great selection of locations to choose from, plus you'll also have 24/7 live chat support. And, if you're not sure, Surfshark offers a 30-day guarantee too, so you can try before you commit.
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.