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The Domain Name System (DNS) is the internet’s phone book or Yellow Pages. When you type in a website in the address bar (like, DNS makes it possible to connect to its associated IP address (like 192.182.x.x) so you can load up the web page.

Every website (or domain name) has an IP address where you can access the webpage or any associated information. Of course, for a human, it is not possible to memorize IP addresses linked to various websites. So, this is handled by a DNS server.

Sure, if you are a genius, and can choose to remember the IP addresses, you can ditch the DNS servers! 😉

Just like the phone book records need to be updated to keep up with an individual’s latest home address or number, DNS records need to be maintained by the DNS servers.

And, sometimes, choosing a specific type of DNS service can make a difference in accessing a web resource seamlessly, even when its IP address has changed. Similarly, if you use custom DNS servers, you can notice faster browsing and get more abilities.

You can check out our article on how the Domain Name System works for details.

What Are Your DNS Options?

Well, there are three different types of DNS that you can go for:

  • The default DNS servers are set by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
  • A custom DNS server with features to filter/block traffic, such as enforcing parental controls in your network.
  • Smart DNS with VPN-like abilities to filter and bypass geographic restrictions.

Personally, I prefer to use a Custom DNS (and, at times, Smart DNS).

Here, I shall tell you more about them, how they differ, and the difference between a Smart DNS and a VPN (which is often confusing).

What is a Custom DNS?

A custom DNS service allows you to filter traffic and add an allowlist or blocklist. It can be another ISP’s default, a different DNS service, or a smart DNS.

Overall, it can be a reliable, secure, and privacy-friendly option compared to your ISP’s DNS.

I use a custom DNS to filter traffic and block certain domains (malicious/gambling/pirate sites) to allow my parents a safe experience.

Fret not; anyone can change to a custom DNS; it is that easy. It is more or less a couple of clicks, summarized.

You may read our resource on how to change DNS servers to get a quick grasp of it.

Once you know how to set up a custom DNS for your internet, you should try out some top DNS content filtering services.

What is a Smart DNS?

A Smart DNS is a type of custom DNS that gives you VPN-like features. You can use it for DNS filtering, blocking/unblocking access to services, and fighting censorship.

Along with the feature set you get with various DNS services, a Smart DNS stands out with the integration of proxy servers.

In other words, with Smart DNS, you can make yourself appear as connecting from another location (like a VPN). I like the versatile nature of a Smart DNS. In some cases, it eliminates the use of a VPN, makes it easy, and lets you save money as well.

Not just limited to that, you get various other features (depending on the service you use), like blocking access to certain apps, blocking known malicious websites, getting rid of website trackers, and more.

Custom DNS vs. Smart DNS

You can use a custom DNS service or a Smart DNS to get a better internet experience over your ISP’s default.

But how are they different?

If you have carefully read the above descriptions, a Smart DNS offers “extra features” in general.

Curious to know more specifics? No problem, let me highlight more about it:

  • Smart DNS can fight censorship, but other DNS services cannot.
  • Smart DNS has a noticeable impact on your internet speeds, but other DNS services may not.
  • Both offer a reliable internet experience when compared to ISP’s default.
  • Smart DNS is not free, but other custom DNS services can be entirely free (or have optional paid packages)

How Are They Different From a VPN?

Considering both are DNS services, they have differences with a VPN.

Sure, for features like unblocking geographic restrictions, some users might confuse it for a VPN replacement. But, is it?

Let me tell you more about it:

A DNS service does not hide your real IP address for all network interactions. While it helps make your internet experience private and secure, it is not a tool to keep your browsing activity information hidden and encrypt all the data.

Some metadata or query information might be visible to your ISP or anyone snooping on your network.

A VPN provides an encrypted tunnel that gives you privacy and security from all angles. If someone tries to snoop around your network, they cannot find anything about your internet activity if you have a VPN enabled.

With a VPN, you get enhanced security features like split tunneling, kill switch, and more. Most DNS services do not let you select a proxy location, but with VPNs, you can pick the server location.

Custom DNS vs. Smart DNS vs. VPN

Custom DNS Smart DNSVPN
AnonymityNoneNonePartially | Full (with Tor integration)
PrivacyThe DNS requests may not be encrypted. So, your ISP can see all of your browsing activity.Smart DNS encrypts requests to provide privacy protection. Minimal information leaks when traffic is inspected by your ISP.VPNs encrypt your entire network activity. So, your ISP cannot see anything you do, except the fact that you are using a VPN.
SecurityNo special security features are available out of the box.

It cannot protect your network on public Wi-Fi.
Smart DNS may offer features to detect/block malicious websites.

It cannot protect your network on public Wi-Fi.
VPNs provide the ability to block malicious websites and trackers.

It can keep you protected on public Wi-Fi.
LogsSome DNS services may collect your data.Some Smart DNS services may collect your data.A good VPN service (with independent security audits) does not collect your data.
PriceMost are free to usePaidFree or Paid
SpeedIt can help boost internet speed.It can help boost internet speed.A VPN tends to slow down your internet speed (varies as per the server location you choose).
AppYou do not need an app.You may need to use an app (but it is not as the same as a VPN).You can configure it on a supported router or install apps on compatible devices.
ExamplesOpenDNS, Cloudflare, Dynu DNS, and Google DNSControlD, NextDNS, and UnlocatorExpressVPN and NordVPN

When Should You Use a VPN, Custom DNS, or a Smart DNS?

Now that you know the differences, what could be the use cases for using any of them?

Let me give you some ideas:

#1. Custom DNS: If you want to make your internet experience more responsive (a tad bit faster) with some added privacy without spending a penny, you can use a custom DNS server.

Moreover, if you would like to enforce any filtering rules on your network to keep your family safe and restrict kids from online resources, you can use a custom DNS.

#2. Smart DNS: If you want a faster privacy-focused DNS server with filtering rules and features like unblocking access to certain services, a Smart DNS should help.

Some Smart DNS services also let you select the proxy location while giving you fine-grained controls to tune it as an effective network firewall. So, if you want to access services like Netflix from any country or resist censorship in your country, a Smart DNS can be a good pick.

#3. VPN: If you want complete network protection, hide your IP address, and prevent your ISP from learning about your browsing habits, a VPN is the best tool.

While VPNs slow down your internet speeds, they give you features like blocking trackers to make your web experience privacy-friendly. Some VPNs also offer Tor network integration, which could keep your browsing activity more private.

When Do I Use It?

In my use case, I keep on moving/switching between them as per my requirements.

For instance, to unblock sites and prevent my ISP from snooping around to some extent, I use a DNS service that encrypts all the requests (and supports DNS-over-HTTPs) like NextDNS.

I already have access to a VPN service, but I still choose a Smart DNS over it when I need fast internet speeds and a little bit of privacy. Sure, I know that a Smart DNS cannot replace a VPN’s security, but not everyone needs to have a VPN enabled all the time.

I avoid using a VPN when utilizing online banking or payment services.

Sometimes I use the VPN to get access to streaming services for a different content library. I also find it handy to download something faster when your default download speed for a particular file is incredibly slow.

You just need to change the server location and re-try the download to potentially get a faster speed.

Not to forget – the VPN usage is mostly for my desktop, and I use it rarely for my smartphone, considering it drains a lot of battery. So, I would suggest sticking with a good privacy-focused DNS for your mobile if you want a better battery life and a bit of enhanced protection.

Of course, if your threat model (your appetite for security) is demanding, you should consider using a VPN over anything else.

Considering you have an idea of all the different tools that help you enhance your digital privacy and security, let me highlight some popular services:

Dynamic DNS Providers

With a Dynamic DNS, you can use an easy-to-remember name where you need to point to dynamic IP addresses. Tailored for webmasters and users with security cameras, multiple access points, and more.

#1. Dynu

Dynu is a totally free-to-use dynamic DNS service with a control panel.

It is perfectly suitable for webmasters to use with their website to ensure good uptime.

#2. No-IP

No-IP is yet another free dynamic DNS provider for users who want to set up a security camera or to remotely access a computer.

It also provides a separate VPN offering if you are interested.

Smart DNS Providers

These DNS services offer you the best features you can find in a Smart DNS:

#1. Unlocator

Unlocator is an impressive Smart DNS that provides all the goodies you need for a private web experience. You can get an enhanced internet speed experience with it.

While it is not geared toward adding filtering rules, it helps you unblock streaming services or channels.

The service supports all the major platforms, including Android, iOS, Windows, Amazon, and macOS.

#2. KeepSolid

KeepSolid is focused on unblocking video streaming sites. So, you can be sure that it aims to provide a faster internet experience.

You can opt for a trial to get started. All you need to do is install its app, available for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows.

VPN Providers

You can expect the best of VPN security and privacy with some of these platforms:

#1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPN providers for its speed and server locations.

Compared to most VPNs, ExpressVPN manages to have a minimal impact on your internet speeds while providing a secure and safe experience.

In addition to the big list of server locations, it supports a wide range of devices, including routers and Linux.

Not to forget, ExpressVPN is known for its prompt customer support when you need it.

#2. NordVPN

NordVPN is a feature-rich VPN with abilities to detect malware and block trackers.

While it does not offer 24×7 customer support, you get plenty of deals on the service throughout the year.

You can also set it up on a router or install it on devices like iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Wrapping Up

If you have never used a custom DNS or VPN, I suggest you start by using a free privacy-focused DNS like Cloudflare or Quad9. And then explore other options available.

If you require dynamic IP addresses, you can go with our suggested options above.

For users who want to unblock restrictions to access streaming services, any Smart DNS should suffice.

But, if you want complete protection for your network and digital privacy, a VPN like ExpressVPN is a must-have.

Next, You may also explore some best VPNs for business to safeguard your network and your data.

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  • Ankush Das
    Ankush is a computer science graduate with a passion to explore and write about Security, Linux and Privacy. When he’s not writing, it’s usually his cats who keep him busy.
  • Narendra Mohan Mittal

    Narendra Mohan Mittal is a versatile and experienced digital branding strategist and content editor with over 12 years of experience. He is a Gold Medalist in M-Tech and B-Tech in Computer Science & Engineering.


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