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ProtonVPN review: A good privacy-focused VPN that goes the extra mile

Stuart Andrews
29 Oct 2019
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
4
per month

Not as fast or user-friendly as some top-tier VPNs, but ProtonVPN deserves a niche as one of the best privacy-focused options

Pros 
Strong privacy and security features
Good short-range connection speeds
Slick user interface
Cons 
No 24/7 live chat support
Mixed long-range VPN performance
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There’s something very Swiss about ProtonVPN’s core proposition. While other VPNs focus on unblocking streaming services or protecting your data when you’re using public Wi-Fi, Proton VPN is all about privacy and security, with the advantage that it’s based in a country with a history that respects both. What’s more, ProtonVPN has the technology to back it up, having been developed by the same team that built ProtonMail, one of the leading encrypted email services.

While it works much like other VPNs by letting you set up a secure, encrypted link to a remote server and disguising your real location and IP address; ProtonVPN also provides additional protective measures. These include the option to bounce your traffic through special Secure Core servers that mask your online activities even if the VPN servers themselves are under surveillance. This isn’t the only way in which this service goes the extra mile.

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Proton VPN review: What you need to know

Many people come to ProtonVPN for its free VPN Service – one of the few you can use without major usage restrictions and without constant upselling messages and annoying ads. This delivers high levels of security and privacy protection but the paid-for service takes both to another level.

The Secure Core servers are just the start. You can also route traffic through the Onion network for an additional layer of obfuscation, while the AES-256 encryption uses cyphers based on Perfect Forward Secrecy, a complex system that makes it near-impossible to capture encrypted traffic and decrypt it later, even if you can get your hands on an encryption key.

Even the physical security of the firm’s core data centres emphasises the focus on security. The one in Switzerland is located in a former Swiss army fallout shelter one km below the surface, while the Iceland servers are located in a former military base. And because these data centres are based in countries that prioritise privacy over the needs of corporate or state surveillance, there’s a level of assurance that neither your activities nor your data will end up in the wrong hands.

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Proton VPN review: Price and competition

The only confusing thing is that the service operates over four tiers. The free option gives you most of the features, but with access only to a small selection of free servers in three countries: USA, Netherlands and Japan. Above this, ProtonVPN offers a Basic service ($4/month, $48/year), without access to the fastest servers or the Secure Core and TOR servers, and with only two simultaneous VPN connections supported.

Subscribers to the Plus tier ($8/month; $96/year) can use ProtonVPN on five devices simultaneously and get access to the full range of servers, while subscribers to Visionary get all that Plus offers, as well as the high-end version of ProtonMail. The Visionary service comes with a hefty premium ($24/month; $288/year), though, so it’s more suited to business customers with a need for private correspondence than your average joe.

At its Basic level, ProtonVPN really isn’t that expensive but choosing this package means doing without some of the faster servers and privacy protections, so we’d still advise going all-out on the $8 per month/$96 per year Plus plan if both are paramount to you. This is still good value in comparison to many other VPNs, including our top choice, ExpressVPN. However, it’s a little more expensive than our second choice VPN, NordVPN, especially if you’re willing to sign up for a year or more in advance.

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Proton VPN review: Setup and basic use

ProtonVPN’s app can be a little bit intimidating but you have to love the way it looks. With its minimalist map and green triangles representing server locations, it looks like it belongs in the latest Bond or Mission Impossible films, dispatching agents towards targets rather than setting up a secure network link.

In fact, you can ignore the map during everyday use, as you’re more likely to reach for the Quick Connect button or the server list that sits below. There’s also a data readout on your current session below the map, indicating the time you’ve spent online using the VPN, the upload and download data that’s come through it, and the connection speed in both directions.

The server list could do with a ping or speed estimate but it expands and collapses to show you all the available servers, country by country, with a switch to toggle between standard, direct and Secure Core connections. It even lists which Secure Core locations your traffic will be routed through. Along with that, there’s a useful colour-coded circle to show you how busy each server is. If one’s in the red and in the 90%-plus range, you should look for a green server with more available capacity.

If you find you use specific servers for specific purposes, say Netflix streaming, then you can create and customise your own profiles, including the country, server and VPN protocol used. And while the general Settings tab doesn’t go beyond how the app starts, when it auto-connects and the default protocol, the Advanced tab allows you to turn on the VPN Killswitch, IPv6 Leak Protection and Split Tunnelling. The latter allows you to select specific apps to route through the VPN with the option to use specific apps outside the VPN if you select Exclude.

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Proton VPN review: Privacy and Security

ProtonVPN’s privacy focus is reflected in its operations and its policies. It doesn’t log, track or record your VPN activity. Because it’s based in Switzerland it operates under Swiss law – which, distinct to EU law – only cooperates with Swiss law-enforcement agencies. If a foreign government wants to access to ProtonVPN’s records, it’ll have to go through the Swiss authorities first, and, even then, ProtonVPN will only cooperate once a Swiss court has approved a criminal case.

There’s no formal audit of the service as of yet to back this up, but the firm wins points for a permanent transparency report page where new cases are highlighted. The last one available, in January 2019, covers a data request from a foreign country approved by the Swiss court system, but as ProtonVPN hadn’t stored the customer IP information requested, it couldn’t deliver anything. This is a good sign that the company values customer privacy above all else.

In our tests, we found ProtonVPN delivers excellent levels of privacy protection and privacy-checker website DoILeak.com reflects this claim accurately. For additional security, you always have the Secure Core and TOR server options if you ever need them.


Proton VPN review: Performance and speed

ProtonVPN is a mixed bag when it comes to performance. Armed with a 30Mbits/sec download and 10Mbits/sec Wi-Fi network, we noticed that some connections through its Plus-grade servers can be really fast, especially in the UK and Western Europe, where the speed loss can be as little as 7%. Go further afield, though, and it’s not so speedy, with connections to Australia, India and Japan falling to around 8Mbits/sec. Apart from ExpressVPN, most VPNs suffer this drastic speed drop over long connections.

Connection speeds to US servers will be more important for many users – especially if you’re planning to watch stateside streaming services. Here, though, we found that performance was really up and down. Connections routed through Chicago weren’t bad, at an average of 16Mbps, but connections through the free New Jersey server could be anywhere between 8Mbps and 13Mbps depending on the test run, and we saw similar performance peaks and troughs on a Plus New Jersey server through the Android app. On the plus side, we had no problems watching US Netflix through the Chicago server, not to mention Comedy Central and The Daily Show. Ditto for watching BBC iPlayer through a UK VPN link.

Not surprisingly, using the Secure Core links can have an impact on performance. The average speed for a Belgian VPN routed through Iceland was under 4Mbits/sec – far below the level of a direct UK to Belgium connection. However, this isn’t always the case. A UK VPN routed through Switzerland was only 20% slower than our standard, VPN-free connection speed, which is not bad at all.

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Proton VPN review: Mobile apps

The ProtonVPN Android and iOS apps are in sync with the Windows desktop version, with the same dark backgrounds and map displays, though the interface defaults to a straight server list. There’s no Killswitch – though the function is enabled by default in the Android app – and the only protocol available is IKEv2. While you can create your own VPN profiles for different purposes in both apps, some advanced features, like split-tunnelling, are only available on Android.

Both iOS and Android browsing speeds are broadly similar to what you find on Windows, but we did spot one odd discrepancy. For some reason, US connection speeds to a Plus-grade, New Jersey server were faster on iOS than either the Android or Windows versions. We’ll take this with a pinch of salt because this might be a connection anomaly rather than a wider trend.


Proton VPN review: Customer Support

Support is primarily online through a thorough knowledge base which covers a broad range of topics, a Reddit forum and an email contact form. Using the last option, I was notified that a response may take one or two days. However, when I sent off fairly basic questions about features or which settings I should use, I had responses within just two hours – and good, polite, knowledgeable responses, too. While phone support or 24/7 live chat would be quicker for dealing with urgent problems, I could live with this level of support for everyday use.

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Proton VPN review: Verdict

ProtonVPN has a lot going for it, including a good, honest approach to privacy and security, a strong set of features and respectable speeds. It doesn’t leak, is good for streaming and it has extra privacy protections should you need them. Performance isn’t quite in the top draw and rival VPNs are slightly cheaper, but if privacy and security is your focus, this is a solid, well-designed VPN.

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