Hardware VPN vs. software VPN: A comparative guide

Getting a virtual private network involves more than just turning up at the Internet Store and saying, “One VPN, please!” Not only do you encounter a variety of VPN suppliers, but you may even hear about a “hardware VPN.” This may sound mystifying to the uninitiated, so that’s why we’re here – to go through the differences between a hardware VPN and a software VPN so that you can figure out which one fits you the best.

Table of contents

    What is a hardware VPN?

    A “hardware VPN” is a shorthand for a VPN connection maintained by a standalone device that you have at your home or your office. These products can have names like “VPN firewall” or “VPN router.” 

    What these VPNs do is manage your connections and use their hardware resources to encrypt your traffic. At least theoretically, having a hardware VPN device that uses an inbuilt processor to handle the encryption tasks frees up the processing power of the connected devices.

    Hardware VPN feature review

    A lot of the functions of hardware VPNs are attractive to big businesses as they:

    • Allow for remote access to the company’s intranet;
    • Enable adding more VPN tunnels for more bandwidth;
    • Provide dedicated IP addresses;
    • Include powerful firewalls;
    • Don’t route data through third-party VPN servers, ensuring an additional layer of security;
    • Secure the entire office quickly by installing a single device that everything connects to.   

    What is a software VPN?

    A “software VPN” is a term for using a VPN client installed on your device, which allows it to establish a connection to a remote server. The encryption processes and such are handled on your device.

    While many devices have inbuilt VPN clients, you can download VPN apps like Surfshark.

    Software VPN feature review

    As opposed to having dedicated security hardware like a VPN router, a software VPN provides many incentives for small businesses and individual users:

    • Serves as an economical intranet replacement for those who use online solutions for data storage and sharing;
    • Secures connections when traveling;
    • Overcomes censorships and local firewalls via access to multiple VPN servers;
    • Deployed rapidly and easily by untrained users;
    • Allows securing of a home/office via installing VPN on an existing router.

    Hardware VPNs vs. software VPNs in short

    Hardware VPNs
    Software VPNs
    Pricey and slow
    Affordable and fast
    Setup and updates
    Difficult and disruptive
    Easy and seamless
    Remote access
    Not always available
    Computer load
    Overcoming censorship
    Fast and easy

    Hardware VPNs vs. software VPNs: weighing pros and cons

    Hardware VPN vs. software VPN: weighing pros and cons

    The approaches to a VPN that we have outlined – hardware and software – are two different ways to solve the need for a virtual private network. That means you can’t outright say that one is superior to the other in every way. But we can compare them and see which comes out as the better option for you. 

    1. Pricing

    Buying a hardware VPN solution means buying a new device. Depending on their capabilities, the prices may go from as low as $50 to as high as $1000 (or more). That’s the upfront cost of buying the device, to say nothing of installation and maintenance (more on that later on).

    In contrast, going for a software VPN means signing up for a service. The upfront costs are negligible. For example, a 6-month Surfshark plan costs $6.49/month, while the 24-month one goes down to $1.99/month. As the VPN supplier takes care of all the maintenance issues, you don’t have to invest in it any further. 

    1. Scaling

    A hardware VPN device isn’t limitless. Now, the issue of scaling doesn’t matter much for home users. However, if you’re a business, when a company grows, more and more connections are added, requiring more hardware VPN resources. This means either upgrading your device to a more powerful one or buying an additional one. Either way, you’re spending money again.

    With a software VPN, scaling is easy. Every software VPN subscription comes with multiple devices supported. This means that a single VPN subscription is likely to cover the entire home. A business might need to buy several subscriptions, but it’s cheaper than getting a new device. We should also note that Surfshark VPN comes with unlimited installs, which means that a single account can support a great number of devices. 

    1. Setup and updates

    A hardware VPN relies on a physical device. As such, it must be bought, shipped, and installed at your place of choosing. However, setting it up and maintaining it can be hard. Not all devices come with user-friendly interfaces or automatic updates. This is less of an issue for a company that can offload the task on the IT team (though it still puts a strain on that team) and more of a problem for individual users.

    On the other hand, a software VPN is available instantly. It is not a large download, installation is usually made as user-friendly as possible, and the operation of the client is typically easy as well. For everyday home users, it’s as simple as clicking “connect” once the application is installed, as most VPN clients automatically connect to the closest, fastest server. The updates are handled automatically as well. 

    1. Remote access

    That’s one area you could say the hardware VPNs excel in. It allows companies to set up encrypted connections to their intranet from remote locations. However, just like setting up the device itself, doing so isn’t very easy. Therefore, it’s more suitable for companies that have IT staff that can use screen sharing to set up remote access for the employees.

    Software VPNs don’t always mesh well with remote access. One of the more significant issues is with IP addresses. There’s a good chance that your IP changes every time you connect to a VPN server, even if it’s technically the same one. Some VPN providers offer static or dedicated IP addresses — these can then be whitelisted.

    1. Computer load

    Previously, one of the most important arguments for a hardware VPN was resource usage. Encryption – the process of making your data secure – takes some processing power to accomplish. Making it happen on a dedicated device with its own processors meant saving the processing power on the connected computers.

    However, that is a thing of the past. Today, software VPNs make such a low impact on processing power that VPN clients can be easily installed and used on smartphones. Surfshark is even available on smart TVs, game consoles, and as a browser extension.  

    1. Security

    When it comes to security, software, and hardware VPNs are pretty much on par. However, hackers are increasingly trying to exploit hardware VPN servers. When a brand is discovered to have a vulnerability, it poses an immediate threat to every user that has purchased that manufacturer’s devices. Patches are released, but companies don’t always deploy them in a timely manner as the update process can disrupt the day-to-day operations.

    With a software VPN, the big issue is finding a trustworthy supplier. For example, research shows that 38% of free VPNs contain malware, and 72% track your online activity. Both businesses and private users should do their research and find a reliable paid software VPN.

    However, the fact that you’re not the one maintaining the infrastructure makes it secure in a few ways. ‘Cause VPN developers have a lot more experience in VPNs and security matters than their users. They are also usually keen on patching any vulnerabilities as quickly as possible. And when a client patch is sent out, it’s straightforward to install. 

    1. Overcoming censorship

    This is where a hardware VPN really falters. If you need a VPN to access websites, apps, and services blocked in your country, a hardware VPN can’t help you. Sharing the geographical location with its setup spot, it is no more capable of accessing censored content than a regular computer.

    A software VPN, on the other hand, usually offers a variety of servers to connect to. For example, Surfshark has over 3200 servers in 100+ countries. This means checking how websites look in different locations and bypassing all sorts of government blocks is very easy.

    Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the Terms of Service of other service providers.

    When to choose which

    In the end, a hardware VPN is suitable for large companies: they have the resources and the personnel to install, maintain, and run a dedicated device. They also may not like the idea of their data being routed via a third-party server. 

    A software VPN is a better choice for private users who are looking for security, privacy, or simply access to restricted websites. It’s also a good idea for small businesses that don’t have the money, the human resources, or really the need to run a dedicated hardware VPN. So if you’re one of these users, why not try Surfshark?

    Choose your software VPN

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    Can you buy a physical VPN?

    Technically speaking – yes. A physical VPN – a hardware VPN – is a device with security-dedicated hardware and software inside of it. You can build it yourself or buy a prebuilt one.

    Is a hardware VPN better?

    A hardware VPN is better than a software VPN only in remote access scenarios. Other than that, it’s an expensive, labor-intensive, and much harder to scale up option compared to a software VPN.

    Do I need equipment for a VPN?

    Depending on what you’re after. You can have a virtual personal network in two ways:

    1. Downloading a software VPN which doesn’t require any additional hardware;
    2. Or buying a dedicated computer that has private access to it. A computer with a dedicated processor, its own firewall, and obfuscation capabilities, also known as a hardware VPN.

    Can you use a VPN on a router?