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ProtonVPN review

Seriously advanced security from the ProtonMail people

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Image Credit: ProtonVPN

Our Verdict

ProtonVPN has some issues, but the unlimited bandwidth free plan, capable clients and consistent speeds at most locations won us over. Give it a try.

For

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

Against

  • Small network
  • No choice of protocol
  • Below-average speeds in US

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

The company has only 387 servers (the top providers have thousands), but they're now spread across 32 countries, a major expansion from the 14 we saw in our last review. The individual servers are owned and set up by ProtonVPN, and connected to the internet using the company's own network.

ProtonVPN's Secure Core technology routes traffic through multiple servers before it leaves the network, so 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. And there are now native apps for Windows, Android, Mac and iOS to enable using ProtonVPN almost anywhere.

Windows and Android apps have recently added support for split tunneling, a smart system which routes all internet traffic through the VPN, apart from the apps and destination IPs you define. If particular app traffic doesn't need protecting, routing it through your regular connection may improve performance, and you'll be able to access both foreign and local geoblocked content at the same time.

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, or $6.63 over two years. That's not bad, but you can get capable VPNs for less than half the price.

The company has some cheaper options. The Basic plan doesn't give you access to the premium servers, can't route traffic through multiple servers, and only supports two devices, but it's just $4 a month on the annual plan, $3.29 over two years. That's better, but big-name providers like NordVPN, CyberGhost and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited all have far more powerful plans priced under $3 a month (though you'll usually have to sign up for two or three years to get them.)

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). But 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 page which reports on 'notable legal requests' and what happened. As we write, the last request was three 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)

(Image credit: Image Credit: ProtonVPN)

Performance

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. You must 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: 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 zoom-able world map, which works more or less as expected (spin the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, left click and drag to move around). Server locations are highlighted, and we could connect to anything in a couple of clicks.

If you don't need a map, you can collapse the client down to a regular list of locations. Icons highlight servers which support P2P (five, as we write) or Tor (just three.) 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 a sort-of favorites system. The client comes with two profiles – Fastest connects to the fastest available server, whereas Random chooses a different server each time – but it's easy to create more. If you're a heavy torrent user, for instance, you could create a profile called P2P which automatically connects to the fastest server in a P2P-friendly location. Set this as the default profile and it'll be launched whenever you click Quick Connect in the main window.

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. If a location works well, you can set it as a profile/ Favorite with a click.

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 new 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.

Mobile apps

ProtonVPN's mobile apps appear quite similar to their desktop counterparts (Image Credit: ProtonVPN)

(Image credit: Image Credit: ProtonVPN)

The new 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. Overall, it's a very impressive app, especially as it's a very recent addition to the range.

Our performance tests found connection times were a little longer than usual, and we had some questions about the client's choice of 'fastest server.' During our test session, for instance, the client repeatedly selected a UK server which refused to connect. We had to manually choose another server before we could get protected.

When we were finally online, our local UK servers managed an excellent 65-70Mbps on our 75Mbps test connection. European servers were similar at 50-60Mbps, but North America was more disappointing, barely scraping 20Mbps. ProtonVPN doesn't have many servers, and when you factor in its unlimited bandwidth free plan, maybe the more popular US servers can get overloaded.

Our disappointment quickly faded, though, when we saw how well ProtonVPN's long-distance connections performed: India hit an excellent 40-45Mbp, Australia managed 24-28Mbps, Singapore 20-30Mbps, Hong Kong gave us 16-24Mbps, South Korea was 15-20Mbps. These aren't quite the fastest speeds we've seen to any of these locations, but they're better than many, and ProtonVPN scored for giving us very usable performance at all our test locations.

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. But the situation picked up when we switched to the US, and found that ProtonVPN got us in to US Netflix with its default server, no hassles at all.

The good news continued to the end, as 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 a few client and performance issues during testing. The VPN has improved hugely since our last review, though, and it's worth a look for all but the most demanding of users. Take the free plan for a spin, see how it works for you.