(The following post was originally written by our good, cheapskate friends Tokyo Cheapo, who demanded we buy them their drinks for the privilege of them showing up at our birthday party.)
Ah, the tyranny of distance that denies we English speakers in Japan our fix of quality TV! Wait, is this 1985? Of course not, and the TV production companies don’t need to load their film reels on a coal fired steamship to get them here either. However, you would be forgiven for thinking this given the huge delays and the archaic delivery methods. Want to catch up on series 3 of Breaking Bad? Well if you’re convinced by eiga dorobo man you’d better head down to Tsutaya and hope the DVD is in stock – and good luck getting anything made in the last year.
The popular option is of course to download a torrent. Whatever your moral stance, there are two things that suck with torrents. Firstly, they’re quite illegal. Secondly, the discovery and the experience is rubbish – poor quality video, slow downloads, corrupted files, limited availability and you have to know what you want to get before you go there.
Enter the various internet TV services available in the US, Canada and the UK. Netflix, Hulu and BBC iPlayer are all fantastic services available for a reasonable price. The bad news is of course that they’re all geo-restricted so you can’t use any of them – except a watered down, slightly more expensive version of Hulu. Unless you use a VPN.
What’s a VPN and how do I use one?
You can think of a Virtual Private Network as a tunnel through the internet that makes it appear that you are connecting to the internet from a different geographical location. As well as masking your location, VPNs protect you from prying eyes (governments, crims etc.) as your connection to the server is fully encrypted.
Connecting to a VPN is unlikely to involve anything complicated. Most providers have their own apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. If you’re on Linux or the provider doesn’t have their own software, then a bit of extra config might be required, but nothing too difficult. Even if you don’t know what an IP address is (it’s a unique number that identifies all computers on the internet) you can still use a VPN.
So this post says FREE right? Yep – all the VPNs below offer free service. Some are ad supported while others offer more limited free plans in addition to their paid services. Also, being free, the service can vary hugely. Your experiences with the services below may vary hugely from ours.
The Speed Benchmark
With all these services, there is a compromise in speed. While connected, you won’t experience the same speeds you’re used to. In general, there are three measurements of importance – ping time, download speed and upload speed. Ping time measures the lag in your connection – the time until you start receiving data from a website. This is measured in milliseconds – thousandths of a second. The meaning of download speed and upload speed should be fairly obvious – although for watching video, upload speed isn’t very important. For all these tests, I did 3 tests on speedtest.net. If I got one really low result, I discarded that and tried again.
Here are my normal network speeds before connecting to a VPN.
Ping: 12 ms
Download: 40 Mbs
Upload: 28 Mbps
Sign-up for ProXPN is quick and painless. Once you have an ID and password you can use these with the client software that you can download from their site. Once started on the mac, the VPN controller that allows you to switch it on and off resides in the notifications bar at the top right of your screen.
On the free plan, you can only connect via the ProXPN server in Florida although whatismyipaddress.com had my location as Ripley, Tennessee.
The download is noticeably slow, although better than the speedtest.net results would indicate. For some reason speedtest.net kept incorrectly identifying my location as the UK but event switching to a New York based server, the indicated speeds were quite slow.
Surprisingly, even going through a VPN and using an incognito browser window in Chrome, the player on fox.com told me that I couldn’t access content as I was outside of the US. I didn’t experience this with any other VPNs, so presumably Fox has cottoned on that people use ProXPN servers to bypass geographical restrictions and has blacklisted them. On Hulu and Netflix however, I didn’t have a problem. For both it took the program I wanted to watch a minute or 2 to buffer. After a few pauses at the start, the program played smoothly and in high quality. For watching Netflix, ProXPN has become my default.
Apart from the speed, the only real downside is the constant nagging. Each time you load a new site, you’ll get the ProXPN splash page and an artificial delay before the page starts loading.
Ping: 240 ms
Download: 0.57 mbps
Upload: 0.46 mbps
VPN book doesn’t even have paid accounts – all their plans have a $0 price tag with their income from donations and the ads on their web site. Set-up is not as easy as the others as it doesn’t come with a client – you have to download an OpenVPN config bundle and then run your own OpenVPN client. The user name and password for using it are the same for everyone. Although this might sound a little daunting, there is an easy to understand guide on their site.
After connecting to a US server, my IP address displayed as Virginia.
Despite the slow download speeds, the ping time is reasonable, so after a little buffering in the first couple of minutes, streaming Hulu wasn’t a problem. I was also able to watch shows on fox.com – with lots of buffering in the first few minutes.
For UK VPNs, your mileage may vary. The first UK server I tried to connect to failed. The second was so slow I couldn’t even load whatismyip.com I connected to the third server successfully.
I was able to play things on BBC iPlayer, although there was quite a bit of buffering at the start. When I played an episode of Top Gear, it streamed fine for a short time, but then I got “insufficient bandwidth to stream this program” errors. Luckily reloading the browser started the video off from where it left off.
To use the free service, you need to enter your email to receive the PNPP login info (PNPP is a flavour of VPN). As advised on their homepage, you’ll need to check your spam folder – that’s where my email ended up. Your initial information will contain your User ID and password along with some servers that you can connect to. Note that these IP Addresses sometimes change, so keep this handy. To find up to date IP addresses you will need to login to the client area on the SecurityKiss website.
As with vpnbook, there are detailed instructions for every device you can think of.
At least when I tested it, speed was by far the best of the free VPSes. Both Hulu.com and Fox.com loaded quickly and there was no buffering at all.
There were two UK servers – one failed, while I was able to connect to the other. The UK server was definitely faster than the VPNbook server, but not quite as quick as the US one. Also, there was a couple of erroneous results with very, very low download speed – so there might be connection dropouts.
The big catch is that it’s limited to 300MB/day. So even though the streaming speed was awesome, the limit means it’s probably not practical for streaming. An episode of Doctor Who on BBC iPlayer buffered for a couple of seconds at the start and then ran smoothly without interruption.
The standard bandwidth of iPlayer is quite a bit lower than Netflix – standard quality streaming is 320 to 340MB for an hour of video while High Quality streaming is 600-640MB, so you might get in a typical TV episode before you hit your cap. If you have multiple VPNs installed you can always just switch.
Like VPNbook, JustFreeVPN is as the name suggests, an only free VPN provider. No sign-up at all is required with PPTP login information on the home page of the site.
At first the speed on the US server seemed pretty good. However, it was the only VPN on which I got a “download error” on speedtest.net. When it eventually ran, the results showed good latency (only 206ms) but low download speeds. Unlike the others, this VPN was checked in the evening rather than during the morning.
While fox.com was available, buffering took a few minutes before the video could start. Then it buffered every 30 seconds. JustFreeVPN could be a good VPN if you ever find your self behind the bamboo curtain and you need to try a few different VPNs so you can check your facebook. Hulu too spent more time frozen than playing.
Although they also have a UK server, I was unable to connect to it.
Despite what you might have heard, signing up for Netflix doesn’t require a US/Canada address or credit card. I signed up using my Japan issued Visa card and I didn’t need to enter an address.
To run Netflix, you’ll need to install Microsoft Silverlight. Do the Silverlight download before you start up your VPN to save on bandwidth and time. The silverlight install is simple, but it takes up an incredible 101MB of space!
Keep in mind that 1 hour of Netflix video is about 1GB. If you consider that a lot of free (and paid) VPN providers offer packages of 1GB or less, you can see that they’re next to useless for streaming video through Netflix. ProXPN, VPNbook and JustFreeVPN all allow unlimited free download.
Watching on your Big Screen TV
If you don’t want to watch the telly on your tiny laptop screen, your choices are to connect your computer to your TV or use a streaming box – like Apple TV, Xbox or Roku Box. If you use a streaming box, you won’t be able to set-up the VPN directly on the unit – you’ll need to pick up and configure a VPN router. Wireless routers with VPN capabilities are available from around 3,000yen. Unless you want to fiddle with settings all the time, you’d be best to buy one wireless router that is dedicated to your VPN.
Other Free Services
CyberGhostVPN – Windows App only and restricted to 3 hours continuous use per day.
TorVPN – 1GB is free but sign-up numbers are limited.
Hot Spot Shield – supported by ads so didn’t test
Okay Freedom – Windows only – 500MB a month free, you pay after that. You can also get up to 1GB if you referpeople.
My best overall experience was with the free version of ProXPN. However, these are free services so you might as well install them all and try for yourself. The advantage with this approach is that if you ever find yourself in a country with restrictions on internet use, you can try all your different VPN connections.
For more exhaustive guides on how to save big in Japan, head over to Tokyo Cheapo. But make sure you keep an eye on your wallet at all times. Those guys have sticky fingers, we tell you!