If you are trying to circumvent geo-restrictions on certain websites, you have two main options. A VPN, which creates a tunnel through the Internet, or a Smart DNS which can redirect specific traffic to the regional server of your choice.
How VPNs Work
A VPN or Virtual Private Network uses encryption to conceal traffic leaving your home network. A VPN server at the other end of this encrypted “tunnel” replaces your network on the public Internet.
From the perspective of other devices on the internet, the VPN server is the device that sends and receives data over the web. This also means that the country the VPN server is located in will be recorded as your location, no matter where you are in the world.
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How Smart DNS Works
A Smart DNS is simply an alternate DNS server. DNS (Domain Name System) servers are like Internet phone books. When you type an address like “howtogeek.com”, your DNS server looks up what IP address is associated with that URL (Uniform Resource Locator).
Unlike a web address, a URL points to a specific device on the network. So your local DNS server will direct you to the regional server with the content you are looking for. The use of regional servers is especially common these days thanks to CDNs (content delivery networks) where sites are hosted by a network of servers around the world to improve speed, reliability and responsiveness.
A Smart DNS intercepts a request for a web address and instead of directing you to your local server, directs you to the server in the region of your choice, via a proxy server. The remote site sees the proxy server instead of your network and thinks the request is coming from its own local region.
Smart DNS or VPN: which one to use?
Each of these technologies has its own advantages and disadvantages. The right choice depends on what you need, what equipment you currently have, and how complex they are to operate. The good news is that there are just a few key differences between Smart DNS and VPN technology that will make it clear to almost anyone which service to choose.
VPNs Offer Privacy, Not Smart DNS
A VPN encrypts your entire Internet connection. Unless you’re using an advanced feature known as split tunneling, which routes only selected data through the VPN. With a VPN, your real IP address and internet activity are known only to the VPN provider. Most good VPN services do not keep any logs of their users’ activities. There is also no way for your ISP (internet service provider) or anyone else monitoring your connection to know what you are doing.
A Smart DNS offers no additional privacy protection. Although your individual data packets are encrypted on a site-by-site basis (assuming the site offers it), your ISP and anyone else monitoring your connection know exactly which sites you visit and what you download. If you need privacy in addition to geo-unblocking, a VPN is the right choice.
VPNs can degrade internet performance
If you’re using a VPN server that’s physically close to you, your internet performance shouldn’t suffer much, if at all. The extra encryption and routing steps add overhead, but generally your bandwidth is preserved.
Unfortunately, if you want to change your virtual location, you must use a server located in that part of the world. Inevitably, this adds latency and reduces your available bandwidth. The severity of the degradation depends on many factors, but your connection will inevitably take a hit.
Smart DNS works with virtually any device
To use a VPN, the device in question must support a VPN app or it must support VPN settings. If you want to run the VPN for your entire network, your router must be configured to use it. Most mainstream routers don’t have native support for VPNs, or at least not the most secure VPN protocols you’d actually want to use. You also need a router with a relatively powerful CPU to handle the encryption and decryption job. This is why most VPN services offer multiple connections under one subscription, as users will most likely connect to the VPN using individual apps on multiple devices.
Smart DNS, on the other hand, is simple to configure on any router. As long as the router allows you to specify custom DNS server addresses, it will work. The same goes for any device or computer. If it lets you add custom DNS server addresses, Smart DNS will work, and pretty much every device lets you do that. The only minor issue is that you have to register your IP address with the Smart DNS service, which usually requires visiting a site and clicking a button. Unfortunately, most people have internet service that uses dynamic IP address allocation, so you’ll need to do this every time your IP address changes.
Selective routing can be tricky with a VPN
One of the main benefits of a Smart DNS is that it only affects the websites you choose. After all, you don’t want your bank to think you’re trying to access your account from another country, triggering a security alert.
It is possible to use split tunneling to route only part of the traffic through your VPN, but setting up split tunneling can be complicated. Some VPN apps these days, especially those running on set-top boxes, incorporate simple split-tunneling functionality. All you have to do is specify which applications are routed. However, when dealing with specific websites or IP address ranges, the process can get technical.
Choosing the right service in a nutshell
To sum up all this information, here is who should choose a VPN as your geo-unblocking solution:
- Users with broadband connections to the remote server in question.
- Users who need privacy along with geo-unblocking.
- Users who use services on which Smart DNS does not work.
A Smart DNS is the best option in these cases:
- You have limited bandwidth or slow connection to VPN servers in the target region.
- You have a router or device that does not support VPNs.
- You don’t need VPN-level privacy.
Smart DNS services are also generally less expensive than VPN services, so if you don’t specifically need a VPN, it might be worth trying a Smart DNS first to see if the less complicated option works for you.