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ProtonVPN review

Seriously advanced security from the ProtonMail people

ProtonVPN
(Image: © ProtonVPN)

Our Verdict

ProtonVPN has some issues, but the unlimited bandwidth free plan, capable clients and (mostly) decent speeds make it worth a look.

For

  • Fast in most locations
  • Free plan with unlimited bandwidth
  • Unblocks Netflix
  • Quality mobile clients

Against

  • A little expensive for what you get
  • Very inconsistent speeds in US
  • Doesn't unblock iPlayer
  • No live chat support

ProtonVPN is an interesting Swiss-based VPN linked to the people behind ProtonMail, the popular end-to-end encrypted email service.

The company has a relatively small network of 464 servers (some providers have thousands), but they're well spread across 35 countries. Most servers are in Europe and North America, as usual, but there are also locations in Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea and more.

ProtonVPN owns and manages its own servers, too, and they're connected to the internet using the company's own network. Apart from giving ProtonVPN great control over how the service is set up and managed, it also shows us that this isn't just some shell company making profits from reselling other people's kit: there are real resources and expertise here.

You can see benefits from that control in ProtonVPN's Secure Core, a smart technology which routes traffic through multiple servers before it leaves the network (meaning that even high-tech snoopers monitoring an exit server won't be able to trace individual users).

Most customers don't really need that level of protection, but ProtonVPN has plenty more familiar features. The service is P2P-friendly, supports up to 10 devices, has a kill switch, DNS leak protection and built-in Tor support for accessing Onion sites. A versatile split tunneling system routes all internet traffic through the VPN, apart from the apps and destination IPs you define. And there are now native apps for Windows, Android, Mac and iOS to enable using ProtonVPN almost anywhere.

New features added since our last review include disk encryption to harden servers against sophisticated attacks, a firewall-based kill switch for macOS, and the ability to stream Netflix UK from anywhere in the world. The ProtonVPN website no longer uses Google Analytics, and although it's not here yet, OpenVPN support is coming soon for the Android app.

The ProtonVPN Plus plan delivers all the features we've described here, covers five devices, and can be yours for $10 billed monthly, $8 a month paid annually. That's not bad, but you can get capable VPNs for much less (Private Internet Access is just $3.33 a month on its annual plan).

The company has some cheaper options. The Basic plan doesn't give you access to the premium servers, won't stream Netflix, can't route traffic through multiple servers, and only supports two devices, but it's just $4 a month on an annual subscription. That's better, although still more than some of the competition (the aforementioned Private Internet Access annual plan delivers an unrestricted standard service for that $3.33 monthly outlay).

ProtonVPN does have something for bargain hunters, though, in the shape of its free plan. Okay, it covers one device only, and gives you access to just three countries (US, Netherlands, Japan).

However, the service performed well for us, with our nearest Netherlands server averaging 65-70Mbps, and, crucially, it has no bandwidth limits. No more bumping up against tiny data allowances: you can use ProtonVPN Free as much as you like. That's a big deal, and makes ProtonVPN interesting all on its own.

Privacy

ProtonVPN's Swiss home gives it an immediate privacy advantage over most of the competition. The country has very strong privacy laws, is outside of US and EU jurisdiction, and isn't a member of the 14 eyes surveillance network.

The company states its logging policy very clearly on the website: "ProtonVPN is a no logs VPN service. We do not track or record your internet activity, and therefore, we are unable to disclose this information to third parties."

Session logging is almost non-existent. The company stores the timestamp of the last successful login attempt, but that's it. This is overwritten when you next log in, so it only ever reflects the last session.

ProtonVPN associates your account with an email address when you sign up, but this address can be whatever you like. The company suggests using ProtonMail if you'd prefer to remain completely anonymous.

Sign up for the free plan and you won't have to provide any payment details. Choose something else and you can opt to pay by Bitcoin. If you use PayPal or a credit card, the payments are processed by a third-party, and ProtonVPN won't see your billing details.

There's a further bonus in a Transparency Report or 'Warrant Canary' page which reports on 'notable legal requests' and what happened. As we write, the last request was six months ago, and ProtonVPN stated that 'as we do not have any customer IP information, we could not provide the requested information and this was explained to the requesting party.'

Put it all together and ProtonVPN looks like a better privacy choice than most, but there is still room for improvement. VPNs including TunnelBear and VyprVPN have had their systems publicly audited for privacy issues, giving much more reassurance that they've living up to their promises, and we'd like to see ProtonVPN and the other big providers do the same.

Windows app

ProtonVPN's Windows client provides you with information about your connection and current server location

(Image credit: ProtonVPN)

Windows app

Signing up for ProtonVPN is easier than it used to be, although there are still a few unexpected complexities. You can pay in Bitcoin, for instance, but if you're a new user (you don't have a free plan) then you can't simply provide your details on a payment form. The form doesn't even mention any support for Bitcoin. You have to somehow know this in advance, contact support, follow their instructions and perhaps wait up to 36 hours.

There were no issues with our PayPal payment, though. After handing over the cash, ProtonVPN directed us to our account dashboard, a handy web portal with useful files and information. That includes account details, login credentials, an OpenVPN configuration file generator, a download link for the Windows client, and links to instructions for setting up Mac, Linux, iOS and Android devices.

We grabbed a copy of the Windows client. It downloaded and installed in seconds with no technical hassles. We logged in with the user credentials we specified while signing up, and the main console appeared.

The client looks great, with a professional and polished interface. It opens with a large world map which, for once, works exactly as expected: spin the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, left click and drag to move around, hover the mouse cursor over a server icon to see its location, and click to get connected.

If you don't like map interface, you can collapse the client down to a standard list of locations. Icons highlight servers which support P2P (four, at the time of writing) or Tor (just two). Expanding any location lists all its available servers, with an indication of load, and you can connect with a click.

A Profiles feature works as an unusually powerful Favorites system. This could be as simple as creating a profile which connects to a New York server, but there are many more options. You could connect to the fastest server in a country or a location, maybe choose a random server to reduce the opportunity for tracking, select the best P2P or Tor-friendly server, and optionally choose to connect via TCP or UDP.

The client gives you an unusual amount of feedback on the current session. You don't just get to see your new IP: there's also the time connected so far, data downloaded and uploaded, the server load, and the current download and upload speeds.

There's some real value here. If speeds appear slow, for instance, you can check the server load, and if it's high, reconnect to something else. A simple idea, but not one we've seen with other apps.

The Settings dialog allows you to enable or disable key features (kill switch, DNS leak protection), configure what the Quick Connect action does (connect to the fastest location, a random server, a specific server of your choice) and set up the split tunneling system. These all worked for us, but there are some options you don't get, including the ability to change protocol (it's OpenVPN-only) or automatically connect when you access an insecure network.

We finished our look at the Windows client with some in-depth kill switch tests, and found it performed very well. The client didn't leave us exposed during normal operations, such as switching to a new server while connected to another. And if we simulated a major problem by manually closing a TCP connection or terminating a VPN process, the client instantly displayed an alert and blocked all traffic until we reconnected.

Mobile apps

ProtonVPN's mobile apps appear quite similar to their desktop counterparts

(Image credit: ProtonVPN)

The ProtonVPN Android app looks and feels much like the desktop build, with a very similar map view, country list and Favorites-like Profile system. Even the Settings panel has almost identical options and controls. The only significant difference is the app uses the IKEv2 protocol rather than OpenVPN, but that's not a big deal – IKEv2 is fast and secure. At any rate, if you prefer OpenVPN, the company tells us support is coming soon.

If you're hoping to set up an OpenVPN-compatible app or piece of hardware, there is good news: ProtonVPN offers better support for this than anyone we've seen. Instead of forcing you to work with a single set of generic configuration files, or generate custom files individually, ProtonVPN's web console gives you the best of all worlds.

You're able to customize your OpenVPN files according to the platform and protocol you need, then view files by country or individual server, and download them individually, or grab the full set in a ZIP file. If you've ever had to grab 120 OpenVPN configuration files individually, by clicking a Download file for each one, you'll appreciate how thoughtful this is.

ProtonVPN

Customer support certainly isn’t speedy, but did prove helpful

(Image credit: ProtonVPN)

Performance

Our speed testing began by connecting to the fastest server from two locations (one UK, one US), then checking performance with the benchmarking sites Speedtest.net and TestMy.net.

UK speeds were consistent at 64-66Mbps, as much as we could expect on our 75Mbps test line.

ProtonVPN's speeds from our US test location peaked at 25Mbps and averaged much less, hugely disappointing when you consider that our test location could handle speeds of up to 475Mbps.

These results were so poor that we couldn't quite believe them, and extended testing from the UK did show significantly better results, with a range of 48-68Mbps.

We had positive results elsewhere, too, with Australia, Japan and Hong Kong all delivering speeds of around 20-64Mbps. There were a few disappointing locations – India and South Korea struggled to reach 5Mbps – but most VPNs have a few network low points, and overall the service performs fairly well.

ProtonVPN sells itself more on privacy than website unblocking, so we weren't expecting too much from the service. And sure enough, we found we couldn't access BBC iPlayer. US and UK Netflix are available on the Plus plan, although we found the player sometimes took a very long time to play anything, and occasionally timed out, forcing us to try again. That has to be a concern, but as it wasn't a consistent issue, we can't say whether it's a general problem, or some temporary local hiccup with the server or our own network.

With ExpressVPN and some other providers, you can turn to live chat support and get an update on the situation, maybe a recommendation of which server to use, in under five minutes. ProtonVPN doesn't have live chat support, though, and while you can send an email, the company says the response time is 'usually within 1-2 days.' Most providers reply within hours, not days.

We waited around one and a half days for a reply to our test question, so ProtonVPN's estimate was accurate. The reply was clear and helpful, though, offering multiple suggestions and asking well-chosen questions, just in case our issues weren't resolved.

The good news continued up to the end of the review, when we ran our usual set of privacy tests. All ProtonVPN servers were in the locations promised, and they all returned the same IP and DNS address, with no DNS or WebRTC leaks to give our real identity away.

Final verdict

ProtonVPN's network is small, and we had some performance issues during testing. Still, speeds are generally better than average, the apps are well-designed and we have to applaud any genuine VPN which offers a free, unlimited bandwidth plan. Give it a try.