What is a Smart DNS?
SmartDNS is essentially a proxy that many companies sell as a media unblocker. Companies sell access to proxy servers that users can access to unblock media websites like Netflix, BBC, or Hulu.
SmartDNS generally works differently than a normal proxy, however, since the user’s actual IP address doesn’t get changed. SmartDNS reroutes a user’s normal geographical location data through a proxy server to trick websites into giving the user access.
SmartDNS only makes your IP look different for some services and websites they have specifically marked. In the end, it’s a DNS trick.
Just to make it clear, SmartDNS doesn’t change a user’s IP address, or actually, encrypt any of the data provided. At most, SmartDNS can be a semi-effective way to access media websites without any form of speed loss due to encryption (but even successful media access has faltered with SmartDNS providers–with many SmartDNS providers failing to provide consistent access to Netflix users).
SmartDNS proxy servers don’t provide security to users to protect them from deep packet inspection or snoopers.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private network. When you connect to a VPN, you essentially change your original IP address to a new one and encrypt all forms of internet traffic coming out of your computer.
When you use a VPN, no one can read your information–whether a governmental agency or your internet service provider (however the strength of encryption as well as security of a VPN can vary wildly).
Most people use VPNs for privacy reasons, but there are also a good number of people who use VPNs in a similar fashion to SmartDNS. Since a VPN changes your IP address, you can effectively get around geo-restrictions–whether through Netflix, Hulu, or even HBO Go.
In that sense, a solid VPN can accomplish the same things that SmartDNS can. However, there could be some drawbacks depending on the VPN you pick.
Some VPNs will be noticeably slower than SmartDNS, while the best ones allow you to customize your cipher strength depending what you need the VPN for.