PureVPN review

A feature-packed value VPN with some irritating flaws

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Our Verdict

PureVPN is loaded with nifty features and we saw decent results on the performance front. It's good value as well, but usability issues with the apps might put you off.

For

  • Loads of features
  • Apps and setup guides for everything
  • Good value
  • Unblocks Netflix

Against

  • Clients have many issues
  • No free trial

PureVPN has been providing VPN services since 2007, so it's not surprising that it now claims a lengthy list of features: 2,000+ self-managed servers across 180+ locations, a wide choice of protocols, torrent support, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, a smart kill switch, five devices allowed and payment via Bitcoin if you need it.

Unusual extras include 'split tunneling' (you decide which traffic goes through the VPN, and which uses your ISP) and the ability to create an instant Wi-Fi VPN hotspot on your laptop, and connect even more devices through that.

The company offers dedicated apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Linux, extensions for Chrome and Firefox, and more downloads and tutorials to help you set it up on routers, Kodi, Android TV, Amazon's Fire TV Stick and more.

The monthly plan is average value at $11 (£8.40), but the annual plan is only a monthly $2.99 (£2.30), a really good deal.

This drops to a monthly $1.32 (£1) if you pay for five years upfront, a total of $79 (£61). We wouldn't normally recommend signing up for that long, but the price is so low, you might think it's worthwhile. Private Internet Access offers a decent two-year plan for $2.91 (£2.24) a month, for instance, but that's still $70 (£54) in total, not much less. Even if you only use PureVPN for two or three years, you're getting decent value.

The company spoils this good impression a little by employing some marketing trickery. Each plan has a 'last sold' indicator which tells you when someone last signed up, and usually it's just a few minutes ago.

This is presumably intended to show you how popular the service is, but we're not sure that the figures are genuine. We refreshed the page a few times, and visited in different browsers, and the 'last sold' figures varied widely. They behave as though they're chosen randomly, rather than corresponding to any real world events.

PureVPN doesn't advertise a trial on the website. We dug deep and found a page for something called a '3-day trial account', but that's a little misleading. It's really just a commercial plan where you pay a non-refundable $2.50 (£2) for 3 days of service.

There is a 31-day money-back guarantee for the regular commercial plans, which is more generous than many. PureVPN's refund policy used to include some sneaky conditions where you wouldn't get your money back if you'd connected more than 100 times, or used more than 3GB of data transfer, but we were happy to see these have been dropped. It's now advertised as a 'no questions asked, risk-free, stress-free' money-back guarantee, so if you're unhappy, just send an email and ask for a refund.

PureVPN

Privacy and logging

In a previous review, we pointed out that PureVPN made a big deal of its 'zero log' policy, explaining that this meant the company didn't record what you did online. But the small print said there was some session logging, which appeared to include the time you connect to a server, your incoming IP address and the total bandwidth used.

This isn't a minor detail. In October 2017 reports appeared of a man being arrested on suspicion of conducting "an extensive cyberstalking campaign", in part based on PureVPN records showing that its services were accessed from originating IPs including the accused man's home and workplace. The 'zero log' VPN kept some kind of logs, after all, and these were able to help connect internet actions to a specific account.

PureVPN sort of responded to this in a blog post, where the company pointed out that it didn't keep full logs, such as your browsing history, and it hadn't done anything to violate its privacy policy, where the session logging was mentioned.

This doesn't address the issue of why the company described itself as keeping 'zero logs' in the main part of the website, though, when this turned out not to be entirely true. That's also not a trivial point. Logging policies are based almost entirely on trust, and a VPN isn't likely to be trusted if it's seen to mislead users or bury the reality of a situation in the small print.

PureVPN has at least updated its privacy policy, which now includes probably the most explicit no-logging sentence we've ever seen: 'We DO NOT keep any record of your browsing activities, connection logs, records of the VPN IPs assigned to you, your original IPs, your connection time, the history of your browsing, the sites you visited, your outgoing traffic, the content or data you accessed, or the DNS queries generated by you.'

The policy also explains the minimal connection data it does record – 'We know the day you connected to a specific VPN location and from which Internet Service Provider' – and covers plenty of other important issues in a clear and readable way.

The good news, then, is that PureVPN's current privacy policy looks good and says all the right things. It's far better than most of the competition. But the catch is that the previous logging story will understandably lead some folks to question whether they can trust what the company says. We can't tell you what to believe, but it is worth checking out both PureVPN's original blog defense and its current privacy policy before you make up your mind.

PureVPN

Apps

Handing over your money to PureVPN is unusually easy, as the company supports just about every payment format there is: credit card, PayPal, Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies (via CoinPayments), AliPay, assorted gift cards, and more than 150 other payment methods via the Paymentwall platform.

After parting with your cash, download links point you to apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, the browser extensions and more. We grabbed the Windows client, and as it was downloading, a welcome email arrived with login details.

Installation was easy, and after a speedy launch, the Windows client prompted us to pick one of five modes: Stream, Internet Freedom, Security/Privacy, File Sharing and Dedicated IP. We suspect most people will wonder whether to choose Internet Freedom or Security/Privacy, and there's no immediate guidance to explain the difference.

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The support website told us that selecting a mode would optimize PureVPN's settings for that task. For example, choosing Security/Privacy would prioritize security above all else, but the Streaming and File Sharing modes would optimize for speed.

VPN novices might appreciate this approach as it means they don't have to understand and tweak the underlying settings. But experts are less likely to approve, as there's no obvious indication of what each mode does. There's nothing wrong with task-based mode selection, but we would like a clear display of the low-level settings for each mode, so that experienced users can understand the consequences of their choice.

After selecting a mode, you're able to pick locations from a dashboard. This has plenty of functionality, allowing you to browse locations by cities or countries, search by name, see ping times, or create favorites for speedy recall later.

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Alternatively, choosing a Purpose option displays a list of tasks you might want to carry out – unblocking Netflix or other streaming sites, using VoIP, accessing social media sites or whatever – and you can in theory choose one of these, and allow PureVPN to select a server for you.

Connect to a server and the client displays your connection status. There's also an optional bandwidth chart showing your data transfers for the last few seconds. You almost certainly won't need it, but it's good to see PureVPN making the effort.

The client makes smart of use of notifications to make sure you know what's happening. Choose a location and as long as the Windows client is the foreground application, it won't waste your time with desktop notifications. But if you switch to another application, the client notices, and a pop-up window appears to let you know when it connects and disconnects.

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A bonus Gravity feature blocks access to known malicious sites. We would always prefer to buy this kind of feature from a specialist security company, but Gravity is a lot smarter than most of the VPN-related competition. As well as blocking dangerous links, it can turn on Safe Search for the main search engines, block entire categories of website, whitelist sites you always want to access, and blacklist sites you don't. Oh, and it can block ads, too.

The Settings box is a highlight, particularly for experienced users, as it's absolutely stuffed with unusual and interesting extras.

The client doesn't just have options to launch on system start and auto-connect, for instance. It can automatically open your default browser once you're protected.

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Need a different protocol? PureVPN allows you to choose from OpenVPN TCP/UDP, PPTP, L2TP, SSTP and IKEV. There's also an Automatic option which the client suggests offers the best security and speed, but from what we can see, that's not true: it just cycles through the other protocols until it finds one that works.

Split Tunneling allows you to send only the traffic of specified apps through your VPN. That takes more time to set up, and you have to be very sure which apps you need to redirect, but it can also optimize performance by limiting your data transfer needs.

The VPN Hotspot is an unusual extra, configuring a wireless hotspot which effectively turns the host computer into a limited VPN router. Once it's enabled, you'll be able to use your phone, tablet or other devices to go online via the host's PureVPN connection.

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And the list goes on, with IPv6 leak protection, an unusually configurable kill switch, and a multi-port option which intelligently chooses the best port, avoiding any closed or throttled options. You can opt to use a non-NAT network to get a unique IP address, port forwarding is available if you need it, and a Support section doesn't simply link to the website: it facilitates creating a support ticket from within the client.

Although there's plenty of power here, the interface is a clumsy and inconsistent mess. There are standard buttons, radio buttons, links, icons and sidebars, they don't necessarily work as you'd expect, and although we figured out how to navigate around the system, it never felt natural or comfortable.

Still, the client did a decent job for us, blocking DNS and WebRTC leaks, with the kill switch successfully killing our internet access if the VPN connection dropped. If you'll use some of the client's many extra features, it might appeal.

We took a look at PureVPN's Android app, and it was much the same story as the Windows version. After choosing a 'Mode' (still not sure why), we were able to select countries, cities, or choose a Purpose (optimized for China, unblock this or that streaming service, and so on). It's more awkward to use than the average VPN app, but you'll figure it out easily enough.

What's maybe more interesting is that the Android app doesn't drop most of the desktop's settings and options, which is what we normally see. It has a very similar feature set, including a choice of protocol (OpenVPN TCP/UDP or IKEv2), a kill switch, split tunneling, port forwarding, Gravity URL filtering, and more. Again, if you'll use some or all of that functionality, it's well worth a try.

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Performance

Our normal performance tests involve running custom software which connects to multiple servers, checking download speeds, ping time, location and more. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this working with PureVPN, or figure out why (whether that's our fault or theirs, we can't be sure).

But even if we did, an unusual warning in the small print explains that users aren't allowed to have more than 200 sessions a day. That won't concern most people, but it does become an issue when you're running intensive VPN benchmarks across a large number of servers.

We fell back on our older manual method of connecting via clients and checking the results from various speed checking websites, including SpeedTest.net, Fast.com and TestMy.net. This doesn't give us as much data to work with, but there's still enough to get a feel for what the service can deliver.

Our local UK servers varied a little more than usual, but still gave us very acceptable download speeds of 50-65Mbps on our test 75Mbps connection.

Near European speeds were also mildly below average. Netherlands connections can often deliver much the same speeds for us as UK servers, but here they were typically 35-45Mbps.

US performance ranged from around 30Mbps on the west coast, to 50Mbps on the east. That's far from the fastest we've seen, but unless you're planning 24 hours of intensive torrenting, it's probably not going to cause you any issues.

As usual, speeds tailed off drastically for the more distant or less common locations. For example, New Zealand averaged 12Mbps, Vietnam was 10Mbps, Taiwan barely reached 1Mbps, and China ranged from 3Mbps down to such a slow speed that the web benchmarking sites often stalled mid-test. That puts the size of PureVPN's network into perspective (having loads of servers doesn't matter if many are unusably slow), but if you're only planning to use the major locations, it won't matter very much.

On a few occasions, our PureVPN Windows client wasn't able to connect to our chosen test server. That's not unusual, but the problem here is that the connection didn't time out for several minutes, and the Cancel button didn't work.

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Netflix

PureVPN makes more of an effort to support website unblocking than most of the competition. The company doesn't just make airy promises on the website and then forget about them later, it includes specific support for streaming within its apps, in theory allowing you to access Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer and a host of other services from wherever you are in the world.

We double-clicked the BBC option, and watched as the client connected, our default browser opened, and displayed an 'err-network-changed' message. What? This looked like a serious problem, but the browser had just detected the change in our network settings as the client connected, and once this was complete, the BBC iPlayer site opened and streamed content as usual.

It was much the same story with Netflix. The client launched our browser before the connection was complete, so we saw the same error message, but this disappeared automatically, and we were free to browse and stream whatever Netflix content we liked.

You're not restricted to the services built into PureVPN's apps, of course. YouTube wasn't included on the list, for instance, but connecting to a US server in the usual way got us in.

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Support

PureVPN has a large support site with a huge number of tutorials and troubleshooting guides. The opening page points you to categories like Getting Started, Setup Guide, Troubleshoot, For Users in China and How to watch Netflix US, for instance, and most of these sections include more content than you'd expect.

The Setup Guide has subsections for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Smart TV, Routers and Other Devices, for example, and even some of those individual sections have more content than the entire support site of lesser VPNs.

Although it's an impressive amount of work, we're unsure how effective and reliable it might be. We checked the manual OpenVPN setup guide, for instance, and found it failed completely. OpenVPN wasn't installed correctly, there were no PureVPN configuration files, and there was no troubleshooting information in the guide to help us figure this out.

If the website can't help, you can send an email or raise a support ticket from within the client. We took the ticket route and the service performed very well, with the support team sending us a friendly and helpful answer to our test question in barely more than an hour.

Alternatively, you can use live chat on the website. We found it could take a minute or two to get a response, and even then, the agent didn't give us the same level of help as we'd received to our email query. PureVPN couldn't get close to the level of chat support we'd received from top competitors like ExpressVPN, then, but we're still glad the option is available. And with speedy email support to hand, any live chat issues you might have probably aren't too important.

Final verdict

PureVPN comes bundled with a pile of powerful features, which is surprising looking at the price. These don't always work as you might expect, though, and there are lots of usability issues with the apps – but demanding users who'll use this level of VPN power should give PureVPN a look.