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PureVPN review: A good VPN hamstrung by security concerns

10 Dec 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
inc VAT per month

PureVPN is fast and inexpensive, but other VPNs do a much better job of covering their tracks

Good balance between features and ease-of-use
Strong global coverage
Zero logging policy
Slick Chrome extension
Telltale signs of VPN use leaking through
Mobile apps missing features

PureVPN is one of the ten-tonne gorillas of the VPN world. The company claims that over three million customers have used its 2,000 plus servers in 140 countries around the globe. It helps that PureVPN has been in business a long time – it started running VPNs back in 2007 – but it also promises a strong set of security and privacy protections along with support for streaming and file sharing and high-end performance.

What’s more, it’s consistently one of the cheapest VPNs around, as long as you’re happy to sign up for a year or more in advance. While the service never seems short of quick cut-price sale, it’s pay-monthly pricing isn’t quite so tempting. In other words, PureVPN works best if you’re happy to commit to a long-term plan, but is that a commitment worth making?

PureVPN review: What you need to know

Based in Hong Kong, PureVPN delivers VPN services through clients for Windows, Mac OS, Android, iOS and Linux, though it also has proxy plug-ins for Chrome and Firefox. On top of this, you can install it on a router or use it on Kodi, Roku and Now TV boxes, Android TV devices or the Amazon Fire Stick; where apps or plug-ins aren’t provided you can expect clear and detailed manual configuration instructions.

PureVPN is also worth looking at if you want a balance between ease-of-use and more advanced features. You get a choice of protocols, a Kill Switch and different modes for different requirements, but if you prefer a fuss-free, single-click connect approach, then that works too.

One of the reasons that PureVPN can offer so many servers in so many countries is that it uses a mix of servers physically located in the listed locations and virtual servers that mimic one location but are actually based somewhere else. This isn’t unique to PureVPN by any means, but the company is more honest about it than some providers and makes it clear when a server is virtual in the server list.

PureVPN claims there is no practical difference as far as end-users are concerned beyond speed of access and reduced downtime. Our tests seem to back this up, though found enough evidence under Connection type to suspect that we were using a VPN, thanks to an unusual number of hops with the virtual servers tested. Our true location and IP address, however, was effectively disguised.

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PureVPN review: Setup and basic use

Once you sign up to PureVPN and download the client, you can have the service up and running within minutes. Unlike most VPNs, the app takes a mode-based approach, first asking you to select between different options for Streaming, Internet Freedom, Security and Privacy, File-Sharing or Dedicated IP – the latter involves a $1.99 per month add-on.

After making your choice, you can start the VPN just by clicking the big green Connect button, or clicking in the Location box above it to either select or search for a different server. You could argue that this means taking two clicks before you can connect to a VPN, but the app remembers what you chose last time when it launches again, and you’re getting a VPN optimised for a specific purpose.

PureVPN also wins extra brownie points here for giving you useful information about the different locations. You can see whether servers are real or virtual, whether they support peer-to-peer traffic, and whether they’re suitable for VoIP services like Skype or Whatsapp. Most importantly, you get a Ping time to give you some idea of how fast or slow the connection is likely to be. This isn’t a real-time speed meter, but there’s a setting to get this information refreshed every time you start the app.

It's a shame that the location list isn’t easy to navigate. The view is split into countries or cities and clicking on a country doesn’t always get you the nearest server or the one with the fastest ping time, so it’s not long before you start picking individual cities. Here, however, you face a massive list that isn’t broken down country by country. It’s confusing and doesn’t make much sense.

Otherwise, the app gives you the usual settings to launch on startup and disconnect on exit, plus a handy option to launch the default browser on connection. Further down, there are options to enable or disable 256-bit encryption, enable IPv6 leak protection and a killswitch. You can also have port forwarding running through the VPN (though it’s another paid-for add-on), or opt into PureVPN’s beta testing program if you’re willing to take a little instability for access to the latest app and features.

PureVPN review: Privacy and security

PureVPN is based in Hong Kong, putting it within reach of the Chinese authorities, but not the Western five-eyes alliance. More importantly, Hong Kong has no mandatory data retention laws, which makers PureVPN’s No Logging policy easier to maintain. The company has a pretty thorough and transparent privacy policy covering exactly what this means, stating that they don’t track what you access, browse, upload or download, or keep any information that can identify at what time you connected, or what IP address you were assigned. They even claim they don’t maintain any logs that could be used to identify a user personally.

Part of the reason the company has adopted such a robust policy is that, in 2017, the company was involved in an FBI case where it emerged that PureVPN had both logged user data that could be used to identify a user and passed that data on to the FBI. This obviously dented user trust in PureVPN, but the company has attempted to turn this around, publishing new policies and bringing in an independent auditor, Altius IT, to check that it conformed with them in practice. However, while the company’s privacy record might be improving, we’re not 100% convinced by its protective measures.

While we couldn’t pick up anything consistently through, we found several examples, both in the Windows and iOS clients, where’s tests spotted suspicious patterns that might point to use of a VPN or proxy service and/or a discrepancy in timezones between the browser and the VPN. These aren’t leaks that could be used to divulge your true location or identity, but we don’t see them with other high-profile VPNs, and they leave you wondering if PureVPN has any other flaws.

Interestingly, previous releases of PureVPN had two headline features – Ozone and Gravity – that were designed to enhance Internet security and leak-proof DNS requests. It turns out that these were removed in early 2019 due to user complaints about the difficulties of configuring the features and their impact on performance.

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PureVPN review: Performance and speed

On the whole, PureVPN is one of the faster VPNs out there. In our tests, download and upload speeds for a UK to UK VPN were between 4.4% and 3.7% of native, non-VPN speeds, and were only slightly slower when connecting to the Netherlands. Further afield speeds take more of a tumble, with download speeds halving when connecting to the US and dropping by 18% when connecting to Germany. VPN links to Singapore and Australia remained usable, but still roughly one-quarter of the speed of a VPN-free connection. The impact on connection speed isn’t unusually high, but the likes of NordVPN and ExpressVPN are faster.

PureVPN had no problems streaming video from the BBC iPlayer over a UK to UK VPN, so there’s good news there if you want to be able to keep up with your favourite BBC programmes while you’re abroad. At first, we couldn’t get US Netflix to stream while connected to a VPN in Streaming mode using the Windows app. Just as our content was about to start playing, the pesky ‘Proxy detected’ message would pop up, scuppering our plans.

However, a request to PureVPN’s tech support resulted in advice to clear out the Chrome browser cache and run Chrome in Incognito mode, which quickly did the track. What’s more, we could get Netflix working without these measures using PureVPN’s Chrome extension. We’ll cover this in a bit more detail in a minute.

PureVPN review: Mobile apps

PureVPN’s iOS app couldn’t be much more spartan. It’s dominated by a big green Quick Connect button and you can switch to a specified Country or City – and that’s about it. On the plus side, it’s very easy to use and you can switch between modes via a link at the top. The Android version has a few more features, including Split Tunneling and an Internet Kill Switch, plus support for Port Forwarding if you’ve paid up for the add-on. You can also switch protocols between Automatic, TCP, UDP and IKEV.

The performance is a little odd, to say the least. Connection speeds to UK VPNs is roughly in line with the Windows app, but UK to US VPNs are much faster on both apps, getting within 5% of native, non-VPN speeds. The most obvious explanation is that the US VPNs the mobile apps connect to are actually based outside the US – and closer to home. Either way, there’s no immediate indication that you aren’t connecting from outside the US, which is the important thing – though on connecting to a server in Canada and using, we got the same timezone discrepancy warning we talked about earlier.

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PureVPN review: Chrome extension

PureVPN also has a Chrome extension that is faster and more convenient than the stand-alone-app. What’s more, it streamed US Netflix when the app would not. While most of the features are stripped out, you can still switch locations to another city or country, and speeds and security don’t appear to be any different. You can also use it for a free 7-day trial, though you can only access three locations.

PureVPN review: Price

PureVPN is priced to sell to a big audience, though only if you’re prepared to commit to a year or longer. Pay month-by-month and you’re looking at $10.95 (£8.31) per month, but pay for a year upfront and that figure shrinks to $69.72 (£52.93) or $5.81 (£4.41) per month. However, there’s little reason to do so when you can shell out for $69 (£52.38) for three years in advance and pay as little as $1.92 (£1.46) a month. PureVPN also has sales throughout the year, allowing you to pick up other bargains.

PureVPN review: Customer support

Customer support comes via email (which is also integrated into the Windows app), a support centre with setup guides and faqs and – best of all – 24/7 live chat. A request from the in-app email support got us an answer just over half an hour later, and while the English wasn’t perfect the reply was very courteous and the instructions were clear and useful.

PureVPN's live chat support was equally responsive. Requests for help were answered within two minutes and our questions were met with polite and authoritative replies. And if you need to go through something in more detail at your own pace, the setup guides are genuinely useful and cover configuration processes step-by-step.

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PureVPN review: Verdict

There are good reasons why PureVPN has been so successful, but also some concerns that keep it out of the ranks of the very best VPNs. The mobile apps are easy-to-use but limited in features, speeds are good rather than excellent and there are a few rough edges here and there. Most seriously, the app seems to let some telltale signs of VPN use leak through that other VPNs do a better job of hiding. In short, PureVPN is a decent VPN at a very affordable price, but you could find something better.

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