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Internet users outside of the United States are blocked from accessing the wealth of streaming video and music content available to Americans. Even Americans are deprived of international services like BBC iPlayer. Faced with this, many people choose VPNs. However, VPNs are not the ideal way to access region-blocked videos and music. There are better ways.
These services allow people outside the USA to pay for videos and music – either with money or with our attention and ads. The alternative is piracy, but we jump through hoops for the ability to access legal services. Media companies should be happy we try to bypass region blocks instead of turning to piracy, and they should be offering great services that we can pay for. As Valve’s Gabe Newell once said, piracy is a service problem.
How VPNs Work (And Why They’re Not Great)
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. When you connect to a VPN, your computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN server. When you browse the web through a VPN, your browsing traffic is forwarded through the VPN server. In other words, if you’re in the UK and you connect to a VPN in the United States, websites will see you as browsing from the United States. The VPN server acts as a sort of middleman.
This allows you to use VPNs to access Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and all sorts of other region-restricted media websites. (Although VPNs have other uses, such as connecting to a corporate network on the road.)
However, VPNs aren’t the best way to access region-blocked videos.
- VPNs are slower than connecting directly to a website. You don’t connect directly to Netflix – the data is sent through the VPN server. This slows things down.
- While connected to a VPN, all your network traffic will be sent through the VPN. This slows down all your Internet traffic.
- You’ll want to leave the VPN disconnected because it slows down your connection. When you want to watch a video, you’ll have to connect to the VPN. When you’re done, you’ll want to disconnect.
- A VPN only works with your computer. It’s a pain to connect to a VPN on your smartphone, tablet, Xbox, or whatever other devices you have hanging around – and many VPN services only allow one connection at a time.
- If you want to access media services in different countries, you’ll need separate VPN connections for each country. For example, if you finish watching a movie on the US version of Netflix and want to watch Doctor Who on BBC iPlayer, you’ll have to disconnect from the US VPN and connect to a UK VPN.
1. DNS Services: UnoDNS, Tunlr, and Unblock Us
DNS tunneling solutions are the best way to access region-blocked video and music websites.
To use one of these services, all you have to do is change the DNS server setting on your computer or your router. You can use your Internet connection at its advertised speed. Whenever you access a region-restricted media website, it will just work. You don’t have to connect to a VPN, the media-streaming happens at full speed, you don’t have to tunnel all your Internet traffic, and you can even connect to sites based in multiple countries at once – you could stream both Hulu and BBC iPlayer at the same time, if you liked.
These services work so well that they feel like magic. Configure it on your router and all your computers, game consoles, tablets and smartphones will have access to all the media you like – it’s like living in a magic bubble where no content is region-blocked. You never have to activate anything – it all happens automatically whenever you access a blocked website.
As James said in our review of UnoDNS, “anytime you access one of the many supported region-locked websites, the UnoDNS servers will perform some intricate packet-level magic that fools the site into thinking you’re located within the boundaries of applicable countries”.
I personally use UnoTelly’s UnoDNS. It’s a paid service, costing $4 or $5 a month, but I gladly pay it every month because the service works so well. Unblock Us is a similar paid service. If you’re looking for something free, you can try Tunlr. Tunlr works well, but it supports fewer services – it doesn’t support Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, although it does work with Hulu.
2. Browser Extensions: Media Hint
Media Hint is a browser extension that works in Chrome and Firefox. Install it and you’ll be able to use Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and Rdio, wherever you are. It’s extremely simple to install and extremely easy to use. It actually just works as a proxy – when you try to access one of these websites, the extension forces your browser to access it through Media Hint’s proxies. It’s seamless, easy-to-use, and free.
However, it only works on these few websites and it will be slower than a DNS-based service, as it’s just a proxy.
Hola Unblocker is another media-unblocking service that’s also available as a Chrome or Firefox extension. It only tunnels traffic to media websites (like Netflix), so it doesn’t slow down normal Internet use. Hola says it uses peer-to-peer technology to stay fast, so it shouldn’t slow down when more people discover this service. Like Media Hint, Hola Unblocker is free.
There are several free options here: Tunlr for a DNS service or Media Hint or Hola Unblocker for a browser extension. If you just want access to the websites it supports, Tunlr will work for you. The browser extensions won’t give you maximum streaming speeds, so you may not get the highest-definition video playback, but they are free and easy to use.
If you want a service that supports almost any possible media service you can think of, lets you access them at full speed, and works with all your devices, I can recommend UnoDNS. I’ve also heard good things about Unblock Us, although I haven’t tried it myself.
How do you access region-restricted videos and music online? Leave a comment and share your favorite method.
Image Credit: Planet Earth at night via Shutterstock