Proxy vs. Smart DNS vs. VPN: The Major Differences

Raji Oluwaniyi  - Tech Expert
Last updated: May 9, 2024
Read time: 18 minutes
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Read this comparison of a VPN vs proxy vs Smart DNS to learn the differences between them and determine which is best for you.

THE TAKEAWAYS

Privacy has become a major concern whether you are streaming or browsing online. There are only three reliable tools to help you stay safe and secure while doing any task online: VPN, Proxy, and Smart DNS. But what sets them apart?

  1. VPN: It allows you to unblock geo-restricted content and hides your IP address.
  2. Smart DNS: It helps you unblock streaming content and sites.
  3. Proxy Server: Only hides your IP address.

Continue reading to find out more about these security tools.

VPNs, Smart DNS, and proxy servers break the barriers of geographical restriction and ensure that users’ interactions online are safe and secure. Although these technologies offer similar services – content unblocking, privacy, and security– they also have differences.

VPN, Smart DNS, and Proxy server – Quick comparison

VPN vs Proxy vs Smart DNS
Encryption

Here’s a table showing the differences between a VPN, Smart DNS, and a proxy server:

FeaturesVPNSmart DNSProxy server
Enforces the “no-log” policyYesNoNo
Doesn’t reduce internet speedNoYesYes
Protects and encrypts users’ dataYesNoNo
Guarantees anonymous browsingYesNoYes
User-friendlyYesYesNo
Protects users from third parties such as hackers, Internet Service Providers, and snoopersYesNoNo
Can change servers without wasting timeYesNoNo
Can be blocked by websitesYesNoYes
Unblocks geographically restricted contentYesYesYes

1. VPN

What is a VPN

A VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, is a tool that hides your internet traffic on public networks to protect your online identity and data and conceal your IP address. A VPN is the safest way to access content exclusive to other regions and countries.

Top VPNs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Private Internet Access hide your IP address and assign you a virtual one in a location with access to the content. For example, if you want to access a content library exclusive to Germany from the United States, a VPN gives you a virtual IP address from Germany.

There are strict censorship policies in a few countries like Russia, Iran, and China; hence, VPNs are illegal within their boundaries.

VPNs are prohibited in authoritarian states because they allow citizens to bypass the barriers and technologies constructed by the government to screen content on the internet. With a VPN, internet users can interact with confidential information and maintain anonymity. Hence, the government can’t identify users’ data and personal details.

Top VPNs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Private Internet Access also enforce the no-log policy, preventing them from keeping records of their subscribers’ activities on the internet.

Below are the pros and cons of using a VPN:

Pros
  • Top VPNs guarantee the highest anonymity level
  • The best VPN providers enforce a no-log policy
  • Easy to configure, and default settings are also safe
  • Compatible with any website and application
  • Protects users from third-party snoops, prying eyes, and cybercriminals
  • Encrypts internet activities and interactions
  • The apps and websites are user-friendly
Cons
  • Some websites have security protocols that block VPN servers
  • VPN providers offering free services keep users’ data and sell them
  • Monthly subscription fee
  • It takes internet bandwidth slowing users’ connections
  • VPNs are illegal in some countries

When should I use a VPN?

VPN usage

You should consider using a VPN to do the following:

  • Browse on the internet: It’s advisable to connect to a VPN when using the internet, especially when accessing sensitive information. A VPN encrypts your online traffic and hides your data from prying eyes or cyber criminals.
  • Access geo-blocked content: Although you can access geo-restricted content with proxy servers, using a VPN is advisable because many websites and streaming services have technologies to block proxies. This does not mean VPNs don’t get blocked. However, top VPN providers have advanced technologies to bypass geo-restriction blocks.
  • Connect to public Wi-Fi: You need premium security technologies to enjoy data privacy on a public and uncensored network. Cybercriminals often hack public Wi-Fi and can intercept and access interactions and activities over the network. A VPN safeguards your data from cybercriminals.
  • Bypass government censorship: Using a VPN can help you bypass censorship policies if you live in a country with rules against online privacy. You can use the internet without worrying about prying eyes or government surveillance.

2. Smart DNS

What is Smart DNS

Smart DNS is a technology that uses a domain name system (DNS) to unblock geo-restricted content or websites. Unlike a VPN, a Smart DNS does not encrypt your online traffic, data, or IP address. A Smart DNS uses DNS proxy servers to deceive streaming services and websites to conclude that your DNS queries are from an eligible country. It also blocks traffic that may reveal your location.

Connecting to a VPN encrypts your traffic and data and reroutes all your activities through a private tunnel. While, a Smart DNS only manages a small part of your online activity.

On the bright side, while Smart DNS doesn’t guarantee premium security and anonymity, it provides ultra-fast internet connection and speed. You also don’t experience the annoying bot and security check prompts you may get from using a VPN or proxy server.

Below are the pros and cons of using Smart DNS:

Pros
  • Limited bots and security checks
  • Ultra-fast internet speed and connection
  • Minimal service and website blocks
Cons
  • No guarantee of user anonymity
  • Zero security or encryption protocols
  • Only suitable for streaming
  • Third parties can monitor your activities on the server

When should I use Smart DNS?

Streaming

You can use Smart DNS to access geo-restricted websites and content. If streaming speed is your priority, then using a Smart DNS is your best option of the three services. With a Smart DNS, you don’t have to worry about online streaming sites or services blocking your device.

The technology only makes the website or service believe the DNS query is from a server within an eligible country. And that happens without altering your internet traffic or speed. However, you must ensure that your country has no censorship policy, as Smart DNS does not offer encryption.


3. Proxy server

What is proxy server

A proxy server offers almost the same services as a VPN. The major difference is that a VPN provides a higher level of anonymity and security. A proxy server is a technology intermediary between clients and a server. The technology transmits a client’s request and sends the server’s response. Connecting to a proxy server assigns you an anonymous IP address, where all your internet passes through. Hence, the website or streaming service believes your request comes from the proxy, not your IP address. 

Proxies are one of the best ways to unblock geo-restricted content. However, proxy servers often log and record users’ online activities and interactions, so the server can identify users while third parties cannot. The disadvantage is that this confidential information may fall into the hands of the government or cybercriminals.

Below are the pros and cons of using a proxy server:

Pros
  • Reduced bandwidth usage
  • Anonymous IP addresses
  • Limited bot checks and CAPTCHAS
  • Fast internet speed and stable connection
Cons
  • Third parties can access users’ activities on the server
  • No solid encryption
  • May not unblock some websites and streaming platform
  • Can be expensive
  • Keeps users’ activity logs
  • Setup and configuration may be challenging

When should I use a proxy server?

You should consider using a Smart DNS to do the following:

  • Use an outdated operating system: You don’t need to install any software to use a proxy server. Hence, if your operating system is outdated or slow, it does not stop proxy servers from functioning properly on your device. Unlike VPNs that often reduce browsing speed, proxy servers don’t affect your device’s performance. If you want to improve your experience and reduce bandwidth usage, you can opt for a caching proxy server that stores copies of websites you visit frequently.
  • Bypass a geo-restriction or firewall: You can access a geo-blocked website or streaming service using a proxy server. However, using a proxy server only is advisable if you’re not sharing sensitive information or don’t need to conceal your online interaction. You may need a premium proxy server, as streaming platforms like Netflix have incorporated anti-proxy technologies to block connections from popular proxy servers.

How does a VPN work?

How does a VPN work

A VPN establishes an encrypted tunnel connecting your device to the server. It protects your data and traffic so that all your ISP, prying eyes, and hackers can see is your connection from the IP address on your VPN server. Your real IP address, location, downloads, and online activities generally remain hidden.

Top VPN providers have numerous servers in different parts of the world. Hence, there’s no limit to the geo-restricted content and websites you can access.

Numerous VPN providers operate today, so it’s essential to consider some factors and compare their services before selecting one. Although they address the same issues, some go above and beyond to ensure the client’s maximum satisfaction and safety.

Consider these factors when picking a VPN provider for your online activities:

Logging policy

Typically, while nobody else can see your online interaction and access your data, your VPN provider has access to these details as the VPN server is the path that users’ data pass. Always look out for VPN providers with strict anti-log policies, prohibiting them from saving any part of users’ interaction

VPN providers shouldn’t keep users’ logs because of the potential consequences. For example, the government can make it compulsory for them to submit their records. Hence, you should only select VPN providers with a no-logs policy to be on the safe side. VPN providers with a no-log policy do not save subscribers’ records, so third parties cannot access these records if they hack the system or force the VPN provider to submit their data.


User-friendliness

You must create an account with a VPN provider, download the app, and connect your devices before you can experience its unblocking and encryption services. Although the process is straightforward, most VPN providers have step-by-step configuration manuals to help first-time users enjoy premium VPN services. Once you install the VPN app on your device and connect to a server, the VPN redirects all your traffic through an encrypted tunnel. This VPN connection covers every application and website you visit as long as your device remains connected to the VPN service.

However, different VPN providers utilize different technologies and design frameworks to develop their software. Some VPN providers focus on developing an organized and simple software app so all categories of subscribers– first-time and old– can easily navigate the configuration procedure.

On the other hand, other providers include features that make the app look jumbled and difficult to navigate. Hence, you must consider the user interface and experience of the VPN providers’ apps to select one that works best for you.


Price

You must pay a subscription fee to enjoy the premium services of a top VPN. The good thing is that they are usually affordable. You can enjoy premium unblocking and encryption services for only a few dollars. However, while it might seem pricey when you compare it with using a free proxy server, you must consider that you don’t get encryption and security with proxy servers. You can also look around for providers that offer free VPN services.

However, using just any free VPN is not advisable, as most are filled with malware. Confirm that the VPN is trustworthy and decent before connecting your device. The drawback is most of these decent free VPNs often have data and speed limits. Regardless, they still offer better protection than proxy servers.

However, if you want top-notch and unlimited protection and encryption services, it’s advisable to dedicate a few dollars monthly to a premium VPN provider. Unlike a proxy server, a premium VPN guarantees a safe and completely anonymous online interaction. Compare the prices of top VPNs to pick an affordable one.


How does Smart DNS work?

You must first understand how a domain name system (DNS) works to understand how Smart DNS works properly. A DNS functions like the internet’s contact list. It’s the foundation upon which the web operates. Here’s another way to put it– humans recognize people by their names, so they store their names and numbers on their phones. Computers, on the other hand, are better with IP addresses. So as your phone manages your contacts, the DNS system matches the domain names with their corresponding IP address.

The difference between a VPN and a Smart DNS is that Smart DNS does not hide your IP address or create an encrypted tunnel. Instead, it redirects your DNS queries to an eligible country or region server. Smart DNS is primarily useful for accessing geo-restricted content or websites. So your location can no longer dictate what you can and cannot access. If you live in Germany, you can access the content library exclusive to people in America.

Best VPN

Smart DNS also reduces the frequency of automatic bot and security checks. With a VPN and proxy server, the frequency of these automatic security prompts can be very frustrating, especially when it detects that you use a different IP address. Smart DNS doesn’t affect the internet speed, so you can stream content without worrying about slow internet. Unlike the VPN, you can run the other aspects of your internet traffic through your internet service provider (ISP).

Here are factors to consider before using Smart DNS to unblock content:   

Logging policy

Smart DNS can only log your DNS queries and the geo-blocked streaming services or websites you’ve accessed. Firms providing these services can use these logs, including your data, to advance their business or for other marketing purposes. Unless Smart DNS comes in a bundle with VPN services, the encryption and security protocols it offers are substandard.


User-friendliness

Like VPN providers, firms offering Smart DNS services develop software applications for different devices. Users can download and configure the application on mobile phones or computers to access geo-restricted content. Typically, individuals who use Smart DNS are often inexperienced. Hence, they try to make the user experience user-friendly and easy to navigate. Compare the apps for different providers to select one that’s easy to use.


Price

The subscription fee for Smart DNS is usually within the same range as that of a VPN. Depending on your preferred plan, you should spend around $3 to $8 monthly. Currently, no free Smart DNS service exists, although using one is not advisable either.


How does a proxy server work?

How does a proxy server work

Proxy servers link users and the internet using HTTP, HTTPS, or SOCKS technologies. When you connect to the internet with a proxy server, you get an anonymous IP address, and all your internet traffic passes through the proxy. This makes it seem your data comes directly from the proxy, not your device and IP address. The process helps you bypass geo-restriction protocols and allows you to browse and access restricted content anonymously.

Unlike a VPN that encrypts your data as they pass through the private tunnel, a proxy server doesn’t perform encryption services. This allows the proxy server to manage multiple simultaneous connections worldwide– usually up to tens of thousands. The drawback is that it can impact your internet connection.

Sign up for premium proxy servers or free public servers to unblock restricted content and sites. You can opt for a premium proxy server if you are okay with paying a lot, as it can be expensive. There are also numerous free proxy servers in the market. Hence, you must do proper research before connecting your device to a proxy server.

Consider the factors below before using a proxy server to unblock content:

Logging policy

A major drawback of proxy servers is that they don’t have no-log policies. Hence, users’ data does not remain safe once they connect to a proxy server. Although proxy servers help users browse anonymously and unblock geo-restricted content, they don’t have advanced security protocols to ensure users’ anonymity. This fundamental flaw is why most users opt for a premium VPN that guarantees security, encryption, and anonymity while users open restricted websites and streaming services.


User-friendliness

Proxy servers are not straightforward to use and navigate, especially for first-time users. They are not as user-friendly as a VPN app, as setting up a proxy server can be tricky. You need technical knowledge to configure the proxy server because you may not get a guide.  

The good thing is that you don’t need to install or update any software if the operating system on your device is outdated. You also don’t need to worry about bandwidth or power usage because the proxy servers use HTTP, HTTPS, or SOCKS technologies.


Price

In the same way premium proxy servers require a subscription fee, there are also numerous free proxy servers for public use. However, avoiding free proxy servers is advisable if you want to remain anonymous while using the internet. Most times, when you use a free service, there are implications you may not be aware of. For example, they can sell users’ data to a third party. Hence, if you care about data privacy and security, you should pay a private proxy server fee.

Budget a few dollars monthly for a private proxy server if you don’t want to worry about hacking, third-party monitoring, and data breaches.


Legal icon

Yes. Using a VPN, Smart DNS, or a proxy server is legal if you don’t use them for illegal activity. However, governments in some countries have restricted the use of VPNs within their territories. Hence, it’s advisable to review the laws of a country before using these services within their borders.

How to choose the best VPN, Smart DNS, or proxy?

VPN

Irrespective of your chosen service, you must trust the provider before subscribing or connecting your device, especially free service providers. You should ask what’s in it for providers offering free services, as running and maintaining these services is quite expensive. Most times, they get their profit from selling users’ data.

Here are a few things you should check before selecting any of these services:

  • A stable and reputable system: Check online for reviews from other users to determine if the provider offers quality services. You can avoid unstable and substandard services by ensuring the provider has a stable system.
  • A public and coherent privacy policy: You should suspect providers that hide their privacy policy. If they’re not doing anything shady, they should be able to publish detailed info outlining what they can access and what they cannot.
  • Customer support team: Top service providers have a support team to help users resolve any technical challenge they may experience while using the service.
  • Active contact address: There must be a visible and active address for users to contact.

How to set up a VPN, Smart DNS, or proxy?

A VPN, Smart DNS, and proxy server can work on any device, including smartphones, computers, smart TVs, and consoles. However, the setup for each device may differ. Usually, top service providers often include a guide showing users how to install and configure the service on any of their devices.

Once you follow the guide, you can quickly set up and start using a VPN or other services on any device, even if you have no prior experience using them.

Use a VPN, Smart DNS, or Proxy to access the internet freely

Now that you know the unique features and differences between a VPN, Smart DNS, and a proxy server, you can decide which is best to access geo-restricted content.

If your priority is advanced encryption services and you want to remain anonymous while using the internet, then you should use a VPN. The drawback is that a VPN reduces internet speed. Hence, if you only care about internet speed, consider Smart DNS.

Consider your priorities when selecting a service and ensure it can function effectively with your applications and devices.

Best VPN, Smart DNS, and proxy services

Finding a reliable provider offering advanced VPN, Smart DNS, or proxy server services can be challenging. Numerous service providers are available today, and finding the highest quality may be challenging. Don’t worry; we have compiled a list of top VPN services, Smart DNS, and proxy server services:

VPN services

Here’s a list of the best VPN service providers you can try:

  1. ExpressVPN: With ExpressVPN, you get the best privacy tools and unrestricted internet access. Its subscription plan starts from $8.32 monthly and comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
  2. Private Internet Access (PIA): With over 10 years of providing VPN services, Private Internet Access boasts quality networks and advanced privacy tools.
  3. NordVPN: With over 5,000 servers in about 60 countries, NordVPN can help you unblock geo-restricted content anywhere.

Smart DNS

CactusVPN

Here are our top-recommended Smart DNS service providers:

  1. SmartDNSProxy.com: It’s a good service to use to access geo-blocked content. SmartDNSProxy offers premium services at an affordable fee. It is compatible with over 300 websites and boasts a 14-day trial option for users to test the services risk-free.
  2. CactusVPN: CactusVPN is a VPN service at core. It also is a leading Smart DNS service provider offering premium services to users worldwide. You can test the services risk-free with the 7-day trial period, after which you need to pay about $4.99 monthly to continue using the service. The service is compatible with iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows.

Proxy

Multiple websites and providers offer proxy servers to let users access geo-restricted content and websites. You can try “dontfilterus” or “4everproxy,” as they offer quality proxy services.


FAQs

Yes! A VPN assigns you an anonymous IP address on one of its numerous servers and encrypts your data traffic so that third parties and ISPs cannot monitor or trace your activities online. In contrast, Smart DNS only deceives a website or streaming service into believing that your DNS queries come from a region eligible to access geo-blocked content.

Yes, the difference between a VPN and a proxy server is that while a VPN encrypts users’ data and ensures they remain anonymous, a proxy server only assigns anonymous IP addresses to users and allows them access to geo-blocked content.

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About the Author

Raji Oluwaniyi

Raji Oluwaniyi

Tech Expert
29 Posts

Raji Oluwaniyi is a well-rounded content creator who enjoys researching, writing, and editing a wide variety of content with minimal oversight. Having written tech-related and hard-core cybersecurity content for three years, he has extensive experience in this field. Currently, he is a content writer at Privacysavvy. By writing value-oriented, engaging content, he hopes to impact a wide audience.

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