One hand holding a router, and the other holding a smartphone. Both devices have shields with check marks on them.

Hardware VPNs are physical devices that create secure connections across network devices — great for internal security and remote connection. Software VPNs are apps that encrypt connections on individual devices while connecting them to remote servers — they’re easier to connect, easier to scale, and less expensive.

Both types of VPNs offer unique benefits, but whether you find them useful and worth their money depends on what you’re looking for.

Table of contents

    What is a hardware VPN?

    A hardware VPN is a device (usually a router or a computer) that uses encryption and tunneling protocols to protect a network and all devices connecting to it.

    It has a dedicated processor and built-in firewall capabilities to filter and monitor network traffic. Some hardware VPNs have additional security features like content filtering and online traffic obfuscation.

    A hardware VPN is also a shorthand for a VPN connection maintained by a device that you have at your home or your office, like a Wi-Fi router. Hardware VPNs can have names like VPN firewall or VPN router.

    Hardware VPNs are mostly used by businesses to protect company data and employee information. However, they’re notably harder to scale up and require technological expertise both for initial setup and periodic maintenance.

    How to set up a hardware VPN

    A hardware VPN setup is setting up a VPN on a router, really — you’re building a router that will redirect your internet traffic. The general hardware VPN setup should follow these steps:

    1. Go to your router’s control panel.
    2. Install the VPN firmware on your router (you can get it from the DD-WRT website).
    3. Install a VPN app.
    4. Find the VPN tab in the router’s control panel.
    5. Enable the Open VPN Client and enter your server info.
    6. Save and Apply Settings.

    Remember, every hardware VPN provider is different, and so is their device setup. Read more on how to set up a router on a VPN, if you want a detailed guide.

    Hardware VPN advantages

    Some kick-ass hardware VPN benefits to consider:

    • Provides centralized security management;
    • Enables remote access to the company’s intranet;
    • Supports multiple secure connections with customizable limits for optimal speed;
    • Gives dedicated IP addresses for users;
    • Saves computer resources by handling processing tasks;
    • Secures the entire office with one VPN device. 
    Looking for a hardware VPN
    for your home?

    What is a software VPN?

    A software VPN is a client app on your computer that connects to a remote VPN server over an encrypted tunnel. The encryption processes and such are handled on your device. Such VPNs are often faster, easier to scale, and more affordable than their hardware counterparts.

    While many devices have built-in VPN clients, you can download VPN apps like Surfshark.

    Software VPN advantages

    Unlike dedicated security hardware like a VPN router, a software VPN offers different benefits for small businesses and individual users:

    • Provides a cost-effective alternative to traditional intranets for those who use online solutions for data storage and sharing;
    • Secures connections when traveling;
    • Overcomes local censorship and firewall restrictions through a network of VPN servers around the world;
    • Can be deployed rapidly and easily by anyone.

    Hardware vs. software VPNs in short

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

    Hardware vs. software VPNs: weighing pros and cons

    Weighing scales with a laptop and a router on either side. The laptop says Software VPN, and the router says Hardware VPN.

    It’s hard to say which is better because hardware and software VPNs are typically used in very different ways. But we can compare them and see which comes out as the better option for you.

    1. Pricing

    When you compare hardware VPN costs against those of software VPNs, you have to consider what you’re paying for.

    Buying a hardware VPN solution means buying a new device. Depending on their capabilities, the prices range 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. For example, a yearly subscription to most premium software VPNs costs between $4 and $6 a month. Given that the VPN provider takes care of all the maintenance aspects, 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 device. Either way, you have to spend money again.

    With a software VPN, scaling is easy. Every software VPN subscription generally supports multiple devices.

    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

    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 user-friendly, and using the app is easy. 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. Hardware VPNs allow companies to set up encrypted connections to their intranet from remote locations. However, just like the initial setup of the device, configuring remote access isn’t very easy. That’s why 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 integrate well with remote access. One of the more significant issues is related to IP addresses. There’s a good chance that your IP will change every time you connect to a VPN server, even if it’s the same server. Some VPN providers offer static or dedicated IP addresses — these can then be allowlisted (whitelisted)*.

    Allowlisting (whitelisting): your IP, given to you by the VPN provider, will be part of the IPs that are given access to the network you’re remotely connecting to — “You can come in because you’re on the list.”

    1. Computer load

    Previously, one of the most important arguments for choosing a hardware VPN was resource usage. Encryption — the process of securing your data — requires a certain amount of processing power. 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 have 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 who 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, it’s important to find 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. This is because 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 easy 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.

    Disclaimer: Please note that using Surfshark services for any illegal activities is strictly forbidden and violates our Terms of Service. Make sure that any use of Surfshark services for your particular activities conforms to all relevant laws and regulations, including those of any service providers and websites you access using Surfshark

    Choosing between a hardware and a software VPN

    In the end, a hardware VPN is more 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, and open internet. It’s also a good idea for small businesses that don’t have the money, human resources, or the need to run a dedicated hardware VPN. So if you’re one of these users, why not try Surfshark?

    Choose a software VPN
    You can install it on your router, too


    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 expensive, labor-intensive, and much harder to scale up compared to a software VPN.

    Do I need equipment for a VPN?

    Depending on what you’re after. You can have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in two ways:

    1. By downloading a software VPN which doesn’t require any additional hardware;
    2. By purchasing a dedicated computer that has private access to a private network. A computer with a dedicated processor, its own firewall, and obfuscation capabilities is also known as a hardware VPN.

    Can you use a VPN on a router?

    If possible, it’s always better to buy your own gear. But if your current hardware supports it, you can install a VPN on the router.

    How can I choose the best hardware VPN?

    When looking for the best hardware VPN:

    • Consider getting a pre-configured VPN router;
    • Pick a VPN service with the most available servers;
    • Consider ease of use (will it be challenging to connect to?);
    • Look for a device that supports remote access (wireless connection);
    • Find out how many devices your VPN router can cover;
    • Pay attention to the limit of VPN tunnels you can create.

    What is the best hardware VPN for travel?

    A great hardware VPN for traveling is:

    • Portable, compact, and lightweight;
    • Compatible with the devices you will use in your travels;
    • Able to support Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections;
    • Able to support a VPN service with lots of servers worldwide (like Surfshark).