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For the internet free spirit who wants full access to the web without restrictions, filters or logs then using a proxy or VPN is pretty much essential. I say that, although the use of proxies is pretty much in terminal decline at least as far as bypassing blocks such as the region restrictions applied by big media sites. A proxy or VPN server operates in a very similar way fundamentally by acting as a buffer to forward and receive requests to hide your location. This means that whatever web sites you visit they will only see the proxy/VPN and never your real location additionally your ISP will only log the visit to the proxy not the end destination.
However a VPN server crucially adds an additional layer – that of encryption which protects the data being transmitted and is almost impossible to detect. The problem is that nowadays even the most cleverly configured proxy server is fairly easy for web sites to detect, if the site enforces region locking it will normally just block access from a proxy. A VPN though is much more difficult to detect and most sites cannot directly detect the use of a VPN although they can use other methods. So if you want to hide your identity from a snooping government, or want to watch Hulu from outside the USA, you’re going to need a VPN service not a proxy. Ignore the hundreds of free proxies available online, most are completely useless now and are often used to steal user credentials and passwords!
A VPN (virtual private network) service is somewhat more sophisticated than a proxy so will need an additional service to make it run. A proxy can be used simply by configuring it’s settings in most standard web browsers but that’s because it merely transparently forwards and receives data without protecting it in any way. A VPN actually sets up an encrypted tunnel between the client and the server which obviously needs some software component to run. Most VPN providers will provide some client connection software to establish the connection on their PC, you can see an example in this video:
If you watch the whole video it shows you the difference between a proxy and a VPN, demonstrating the client software of a program called Identity Cloaker in action.
How Does a VPN Work on other Devices?
This is what often confuses people, after all how does your smart phone or tablet use a VPN after all it’s the platform that many of us use to watch TV or movies sites. You can of course still configure a proxy on these devices but as mentioned these are largely useless now and should be avoided unless you have a specific need (and technical knowledge). For most of these devices there are only two options – use an application specifically designed for the device to enable the VPN connection or use the device’s own operating system to establish the connection.
It’s generally better to use the second option, that is to manually connect to your VPn service using the devices own operating system. This for example is how you connect a VPN using an iPad in this post. All you need as you can see is the login and user authentication details, input them into the VPN configuration screen and save the connection. You can then enable the VPN connection whenever you wish.
It’s worth remembering what actually happens when you establish a VPN connection either through some client software or as illustrated on a computer tablet manually. Firstly an encrypted tunnel is established, making sure all your data is hidden from view, secondly your IP address is effectively hidden all web sites will only see the address of the VPN server. This is what allows people to bypass the myriad of region blocks on large media websites – the ability to use the IP address of the VPN server rather than your own. This is why most VPN services offer a range of servers in different countries so that you can use a UK one for the BBC iPlayer, a USA one for Netflix and Hulu and so on.