For the expat, the traveller or the film/TV buff the internet can often seem to contain lots of filters and blocks on their favourite websites. This is because of something called geo-blocking or geo-restrictions (also a host of of other names) and is effectively a system used to limit access to web content based on your physical location.
So for example if you try and watch coverage of the UK election madness on the BBC website from outside the UK the geo-restrictions will stop you watching. Try and access your US Netflix or Hulu account whilst travelling and the same thing will happen. It seems that on the internet your physical location shouldn’t really matter, however it does – very much.
In fact this practice is growing exponentially, literally thousands of websites restrict access based on your location. Just browse on YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos on that site which are restricted to specific countries. It can be very frustrating, especially for those who travel a lot and inevitably people find one of two solutions to bypass these restrictions – Smart DNS or VPN.
The technology for these has been around for a long time, and both can be used to access most region blocked websites. So what’s the difference, which one should you choose?
Should it be Smart DNS or a VPN Service?
Both of these technologies are mostly effective in bypassing most region blocks, however the way they work is quite different.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) – these are services which create secure, encrypted tunnels between your computer and a specially configured VPN server. They have been used for decades to provide security by encrypting all your data and anonymity by hiding your IP address and location. When you are connected to a VPN server the website cannot see you true location only that of the VPN server.
To bypass the region locks you just need to ensure that the VPN server is based in the location that does have access. So for instance to access the BBC iPlayer you’d need a UK VPN server, a US one for Hulu and so on. The connections are made from your device on demand, so you could connect to a UK VPN from your computer or tablet and watch the BBC or ITV then disconnect and browse normally. the majority of the VPN services will offer servers based in many countries, so you can just select which one you need.
Smart DNS – is a newer technology based on using specially configured DNS (Domain Name Service) Servers. These normally just look up the IP address or name of the server you are trying to access, but Smart DNS servers offer an additional service. They are configured to intercept requests to certain region locked websites and route the connection through a server based in that particular country.
So if you request access to the Hulu website for example to watch a video, the Smart DNS server would automatically route your connection through a US based server. This means that your connection is only rerouted through a different server when it’s required to bypass a region lock.
So that’s it really – both will usually allow access to region locked websites, so which one should you choose?
Well firstly the price – you’ll find that both are relatively inexpensive however Smart DNS will normally be slightly cheaper. This is because a Smart DNS server routes through a simpler server and only incurs bandwidth charges for specific servers. A VPN service will tunnel your entire connection through the VPN server and therefore the bandwidth costs will be much greater.
Smart DNS is also easier to set up on different network devices, it requires no software or client component. You just change your DNS settings to point at the Smart DNS servers, therefore it’s simpler for things like Smart TVs and media devices where you can’t always set up a VPN connection. You can even set it up directly on your router fairly easily too, this has the advantage of applying the settings to all devices on your network. It’s not always convenient to do this, however it is essential if you want to apply to devices which have no configurable network settings. This video is a demonstration of setting up best Smart DNS directly on a router –
The VPN is the only one which provides security and anonymity. Not only is all your data encrypted, your identity is hidden too. You should always use a VPN to access secure sites like email, online banking and Paypal when using public internet access like Wifi hotspots.
The choice between smart dns vs VPN really depends on your circumstances if you have any requirements for privacy, security and encryption then a VPN is definitely your only option. Remember Smart DNS services provide no security beyond basic routing to bypass region locks. A VPN connection is also much harder to detect than a Smart DNS relay, so they generally work better with sites like Netflix which try and block the workarounds.
Here’s two options –
IDC is a full security product with a super fast VPN service for accessing BBC Iplayer, Hulu and all media sites. They have loads of USA and UK based servers so if you want to watch the BBC Iplayer service then it’s probably your best option. They do have lots of servers in the France, Germany, Australia, Canada and throughout Europe as well though. They also don’t automatically renew your subscription either which I like.
Overplay is another great little company, I like their VPN with Smart DNS which is easy to use. Lots of US servers included in the standard subscription. They also have the widest selection of servers although perhaps many won’t use most of them. If you need a server in somewhere unusual they are most likely to have them.