ProtonVPN is a very unique VPN that prioritizes security above all else. Established in 2014 by the same CERN and MIT scientists that founded ProtonMail, this Swiss-based VPN has grown a lot in the past year alone, expanding from just 14 countries and one Windows client.
Is this a niche VPN for security fanatics, or have recent developments enabled it to go mainstream? Let’s take a look.
- Above-average speeds
- Excellent Netflix access
- Good technical security
- Up to 10 connections
- 30 countries
- Easy to use
- No kill switch
- Very basic
- No torrenting
- US location
- Won’t disclose server numbers
- Poor support
Speed & Expectations
How fast is your connection going to be with ProtonVPN? VPN’s usually slow things down, and with all the security Proton provides, is this going to slow your connection down even more?
To test this we measured 3 speed metrics:
- Download speed: The rate at which data is transferred from the server to your device. This is measured in megabytes per second (mbps) and a higher number is better.
- Upload speed: The rate at which data is transferred to the server from your device. This is also measured in megabytes per second (mbps) and a higher number is better.
- Ping (or latency): Tested by “pinging” the server, it’s the amount of time it takes for it to receive and process your request. This is measured in milliseconds (ms) and a lower number is better.
First we ran tests without the VPN (a baseline test). For this we used a 100mbps internet connection in Chicago, IL.
Then we tested ProtonVPN using servers in the US, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. We also performed each test 5 times to increase reliability.
These are the results of our baseline test:
So the average baseline score was:
- Download: 60.7mbps
- Upload: 11.6mbps
- Ping: 12ms
Next we ran our tests on a ProtonVPN United States server:
US averages of the 5 different speed tests were:
- Download: 39.2mbps (35.4% slower)
- Upload: 11.3mbps (2.3% slower)
- Ping: 14ms (16.7% longer)
(You would expect these speeds to be the fastest since this is the closest server location to us).
Next we tested Europe:
Europe’s averages were:
- Download: 30.4mbps (49.9% slower)
- Upload: 9.8mbps (14.9% slower)
- Ping: 109.2ms (810% longer)
Asia’s averages were:
- Download: 27mbps (55.5% slower)
- Upload: 9.3mbps (19.5% slower)
- Ping: 232.8ms (1840% longer)
Next, South America:
South America’s averages were:
- Download: 13.7mbps (77.4% slower)
- Upload: 6.8mbps (41% slower)
- Ping: 154.2ms (1185% longer)
Finally, we tested Africa:
Africa’s averages were:
- Download: 27.9mbps (54% slower)
- Upload: 8.2mbps (28.9% slower)
- Ping: 254ms (2016.7% longer)
Next, we compared the results to other VPNs we’ve tested previously.
First up, let’s take a look at download speeds:
|AVG Secure VPN||-56%||-87%||-69%||-75%||-68%|
Download speeds are fast overall. They are well above average for Europe and Africa, above average for the US and Asia, but below average for South America.
Next, how did upload speeds compare?
|AVG Secure VPN||-19%||-58%||-75%||-80%||-77%|
Upload speeds are consistently very fast: they are well above average for every region except South America where it’s just above average. The US result is particularly impressive with just a 2% drop in speed.
And finally latency:
|AVG Secure VPN||1021%||1111%||2419%||3560%||3336%|
ProtonVPN also does well with latency; they’re well above average in all regions.
ProtonVPN has fast speeds overall, particularly upload and latency speeds.
Performance & Features
In this section we take a look at the main features all VPNs offer and see how ProtonVPN stacks up.
Number of servers: 385
How many active servers are available to connect to across all countries, regardless of their physical location.
This is low-medium as far as other VPNs go. It’s a respectable number of servers, but can’t compete with the top VPNs that offer 2,000 or more, such as PureVPN.
Number of countries: numbers: 32 (3 on free version)
How many countries the total number of servers cover, regardless of how many are located in a single country.
This is pretty low; the top VPNs generally offer 60+. Normally this means that only the most popular countries will be available. However, whilst most VPNs just go for quantity, ProtonVPN is more selective about servers and tends to go for countries with stronger privacy laws.
Number of connections allowed: 2-10 (1 on free version)
How many devices can be connected to a server (or number of servers) based on a single VPN account or subscription.
Unlike most, Proton’s number of connections differ across its plans. There’s 1 for the free version, 2 for Basic, 5 for Plus and 10 for Visionary. 5 is the average number across VPNs, which tallies with their Plus version.
Torrenting allowed: 43 servers in 4 countries.
ProtonVPN is torrent-friendly, but it does remind users that Swiss law “only permits file sharing for personal, non-commercial use.”
It also restricts torrenting to 43 servers in just 4 countries: Australia, Netherlands, Singapore and Sweden. Again, these are carefully selected as neutral ‘safe’ countries.
However many others, such as ExpressVPN, allow torrenting on all their servers.
Kill switch available: Yes (Windows and Mac).
Whether the VPN software can disable your connection to the network in the event you disconnect from the VPN server. This prevents your IP address from being exposed.
ProtonVPN has kill switches for desktop apps, but not mobile. This is sadly common in the VPN world, but I’m surprised ProtonVPN doesn’t go the extra mile since it markets itself so heavily on security.
To be fair, they do have an Always-On feature as an alternative for Android and iOS, which will quickly re-establish a connection.
Performance and Features (Summary)
ProtonVPN is adequate but definitely doesn’t overwhelm with features. It’s got a respectable but not high 366 servers in a low number of countries. Torrenting is restricted to 43 servers in just 4 countries. Connections range from 2-10 depending on how much you pay.
However, ProtonVPN does have stringent security standards so is more select in their choices. But given this, I’m surprised kill switches are only available on desktop clients.
Privacy & Security
ProtonVPN prides itself on its security, so let’s see how it performs in this section.
First let’s look at the technical aspects:
Protocols/Encryption: AES-256 encryption with OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPSec protocols
You won’t be surprised to learn ProtonVPN uses
top-level AES-256 encryption and OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPSec protocols.
Some do offer other protocols for more flexibility, but ProtonVPN refuses to include these due to their decreased security.
They also use Forward Secrecy, which generates a new encryption key each time and ensures that past sessions can’t be decrypted.
They also offer Secure Core architecture, special servers which first routes your connection through a secure server in a privacy-friendly country, making you very hard to trace.
We also test for various leaks, which can accidentally reveal your IP address despite using a VPN, as well as viruses.
DNS leaks: None found.
IP leaks: None found.
WebRTC leaks: None.
Viruses/Malware: None found.
ProtonVPN didn’t reveal any leaks, viruses or malware. No surprises there.
Jurisdiction: Switzerland. A VPN users haven, Switzerland isn’t part of the EU or 14-eyes, and is very privacy-friendly. It’s passed many pro-privacy laws relating to copyright and internet monitoring issues. And if the Swiss government do snoop around for your data, they have to inform you and give you the chance to appeal.
Logging policy: No logs.
It only logs a timestamp of when you were last connected.
It also logs standard things like your email address and aggregate data from analytics software.
I really like the way it goes into detail about what they collect and why, as many VPNs gloss over these things.
They also have a transparency report, where they list any new notable legal requests. Currently it’s showing a data request from January 2019, but states they couldn’t provide any information since they don’t log anything.
They’ve also published a Threat Model which honestly outlines what they (and all VPNs) can and cannot guard you against.
Privacy and Security Summary
It’s no surprise that ProtonVPN scores top marks in this section. It’s both technically and legally secure, with top-level encryption, only the best protocols, and no leaks or viruses. It’s located in privacy-friendly Switzerland, and has a great no logs policy and transparency report.
This section looks at the following aspects:
- Overall UI/UX
Many people download VPNs to trick streaming services like Netflix into thinking they’re in another country so that they can watch their favorite shows.
However, Netflix is working hard to detect and block all VPN usage, and it’s doing a pretty good job.
So we tested ProtonVPN against all major streaming services in the US, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.
- Netflix: Partially detected. Netflix worked on Plus US servers only. All other countries were blocked.
- Hulu: Undetected. Again this worked, but only on US servers available to Plus users.
- YouTube: Undetected. YouTube worked fine on all servers.
- Kodi: Undetected. Kodi worked fine with ProtonVPN.
Here we look at what devices and platforms ProtonVPN currently supports. ProtonVPN has come a long way in the past year, so let’s see where it stands.
We tested everything from Tor, iOS devices, Android devices, Smart TV’s, Amazon Firestick, Mac, Windows, to routers:
- Tor browser: Supported. ProtonVPN works with Tor. Plus/Visionary plans also include 3 Tor over VPN servers which let you use Tor automatically.
- iOS (iPad, iPhone): Supported. ProtonVPN recently released an iOS app in November 2018.
- Android: Supported. ProtonVPN supports Android. The Android app was aso released in 2018.
- Smart TV’s: Not Supported. Unfortunately ProtonVPN doesn’t currently work with Smart TVs.
- Amazon Firestick: Not Supported. ProtonVPN also doesn’t currently offer any support for Firesticks.
- Windows: Supported.
- Mac: Supported.
- Routers: Partially Supported. TomatoUSB and DD-WRT routers can be configured to work with ProtonVPN.
Finally, what’s ProtonVPN like to actually use?
We tested the desktop version first.
The Windows interface is a lot busier than most VPNs.
It has both a list and map of servers. I generally prefer lists, but I must say this map is one of the easiest to navigate I’ve come across.
You can also actually minimize the map if you prefer, leaving you with a much smaller interface.
There’s the usual Quick Connect option, which connects you to what ProtonVPN thinks is the best server for you.
When connecting, it actually shows you its progress via a loading bar, which I like. Connection times were generally pretty short.
Once connected, a lot of stats appear across the panel, including your new IP address, server load, server speeds etc. These may seem overwhelming to beginners. However, you can generally ignore them.
Everything is taken care of from the main panel or simple pop-ups, which keeps the UX simple and efficient. You can also change servers instantly with one click, which I really like. Some VPNs make you disconnect from the current server first.
The server list is sorted alphabetically by country. You can either connect to the fastest server in that country automatically, or click on the arrow dropdown to view a choice of servers.
The circles on the left give an indication of server load. Green is low, orange is medium and red is high. If you hover over the circle, it shows you the exact server load.
I found the list a little bit awkward to use, given the small space and particularly short scrollbar.
There is a search bar, which is handy, but disappointingly there’s no sorting or filtering options.
Special servers like P2P, Onion over Tor and Plus servers are also a problem. They’re denoted by icons, but you have to dig through the list to find them. There’s no shortcut here. Usually VPNs list them separately under their own categories.
There’s also the option to create Profiles, which are really just elaborate Favorites.
Ironically when you create a profile, it shows you the special servers in different categories.
However, you can only select one server per profile.
Once you’ve created your ‘profile’ (i.e. favorite), it appears in the Profiles tab.
There’s also the Secure Core option. Turning this on shows only Secure Core servers, in which your connection first goes through a secure server in a privacy-friendly country.
Settings are accessed by the hamburger icon in the top left, producing a pop-up.
Here you can choose to auto-connect to one of your Profile servers, which not many VPNs offer.
You can also choose your protocol, but this is limited to either OpenVPN UDP or TCP.
In the Advanced tab, you can turn on the kill switch, enable DNS leak protection, and enable split tunnelling. Split tunneling is rare for a Windows app.
Overall I found the Windows app sleek and easy to use, aside from the issue of finding the specialist servers.
Next, we moved onto the mobile app (we tested Android).
There’s three tabs for Android: Countries, Map View and Profiles. That’s right, it still ambitiously includes a map version.
Again, this is actually still pretty easy to navigate, even when using a mobile screen.
The server list is very similar to the desktop version, sorted alphabetically by country and showing server loads.
There’s still no easy way to find specialist servers, though.
Once connected, a pop-up shows you all your connection stats.
However, this can be easily minimised, bringing you back to the server list.
Settings are again accessible from the hamburger icon. Again you can connect to the fastest server or a Profile server, activate DNS leak protection, and enable Split Tunnelling.
However, you can’t change your protocol, which is set to IKEv2, and there’s no kill switch. Instead there’s an Always On feature.
Overall the app was a seamless transition from the desktop version. It was still easy to use even though it had almost all the same functionality on a smaller screen.
ProtonVPN can access US Netflix and Hulu (Plus users only), but nowhere else. All the standard compatibility is there and some router support, but nothing out of the ordinary (no Smart TVs of Firesticks). Both the desktop and mobile apps were a joy to use, aside from no shortcut for finding specialised servers.
Proton VPN Pricing & Refunds
ProtonVPN offers a free service as well as three levels of paid subscription.
This is an unusual pricing model; most VPNs just offer their full service with the price dependent on the length of commitment.
This makes ProtonVPN’s pricing more complicated, but more flexible as well.
The free version gives you 3 countries on 1 device. It also has no bandwidth limits, which is very unusual. As a permanent free version, this is very generous, especially considering all the security you’re getting.
However, other comparable free versions are available, such as Windscribe, which gives you 10 countries and P2P servers. There is however a 10GB monthly bandwidth limit.
The Basic version gives you all 32 counties as well as P2P servers and 2 connections.
The Plus version gives you 5 connections, Plus Servers, Secure Core Servers, Tor Servers, and Secure Streaming.
The Visionary plan includes ProtonMail.
The price for the Basic version is about average across VPNs for a yearly commitment, but the Plus version is definitely expensive.
Unfortunately streamers will have to go for the Plus version.
ProtonVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee of sorts, but you only get a refund for the days you haven’t used.
Refunds take up to 30 days, which is the standard for VPNs.
At first, Proton seems to only offer two payment options: credit card or Paypal.
No crypto for such a privacy-friendly company?
It turns out there is actually a crypto option, but it’s only available for existing accounts. So get the free version first, then upgrade.
Disappointingly though, it only offers Bitcoin, and this takes up to 36 hours to process.
ProtonVPN has a free version, as well as 3 pricing tiers. The Basic plan is average price, the Plus plan is expensive and the Visionary Plan is a ProtonMail bundle.
There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee, but you only get refunded for the days you haven’t used. Payment options are limited to Paypal, credit card, and Bitcoin if you upgrade from an existing account.
Unfortunately ProtonVPN has only one form of support: email support via a ticket-based system.
You then get a notification telling you they will respond ‘usually within 1-2 days’.
We fired off requests and received responses 24-48 hours later.
When you do receive a response, most of the time they are pretty relevant and helpful, and it’s obviously from a human rather than a robot.
They do also have a subreddit which they occasionally respond to.
Personally I think they should offer a live chat or phone service to at least Plus and Visionary users, who are paying top-dollar.
Let’s move onto their knowledgebase.
Although it seems to cover all the bases at first glance, it’s actually a lot more sparse than expected.
There’s actually only a handful of articles for each of the above headings.
For example, Access content has only 2 articles.
There’s 13 setup guides, but this doesn’t even include one for it’s iOS app.
This just doesn’t compare with knowledgebases like PureVPN or ExpressVPN which have guides for every version of Windows, Mac, Android or iOS, as well as manual setup guides and workarounds for things like Smart TVs.
The troubleshooting section has the most articles, but most of these aren’t very technical.
We also found a couple of errors, which with it’s small size there’s not really an excuse for.
For example, it states under the Netflix article that Netflix US currently doesn’t work on mobiles, but it worked fine for us.
It does have a useful search button that works well, but you can navigate around
pretty quickly due to the lack of articles.
They did allow comments on their articles, and they did respond to these comments, but these appear to have been disabled since October 2018.
Overall, I would say the knowledge base is adequate. It covers most of the basics. However, it’s certainly not extensive.
It’s quite a letdown that given the slow email support, they don’t at least attempt to make up for it with a stellar knowledge base.
They also have a blog, which has important service updates.
I really like that this blog has a search function and categories, so that you can find the service updates quickly without having to trawl through all the general info articles.
ProtonVPN Support (Summary)
ProtonVPN loses big points in this section for its extremely disappointing support. Support is email only and is slow, generally 24-48 hours. It’s knowledge-base is also pretty bare-bones, with the basics covered but nothing else.
What Do Other Reviewers Say?
They thought the free version was excellent, one of the best available.
Also like us, they thought the UI/UX was slick and accessible.
Unlike us, they praised the P2P-friendly servers. They generally liked how P2P friendly it was.
One liked the customer service, but many complained about the lack of live chat and relatively slow ticket-based system.
All reported that it unblocked Netflix, though some said only on one server whilst some said a few. One said that other streaming sites weren’t successful.
Speed reports were ranged from fast to average, though most agreed the connection was reliable.
Most liked its Switzerland base, citing its location outside 14-eyes and the EU, as well as strong privacy laws. However, one was concerned as they stated Switzerland has a history of cooperating with other countries.
On the other hand, they really weren’t impressed with the low server selection. They said it was difficult to find the fastest servers and they didn’t like that full access to servers and features only came with the higher pricing tier.
Most thought the pricing was high, except one who called it low-cost and liked the flexibility of the pricing, including offering ProtonMail as a bundle.
They particularly didn’t like the lack of device support, but a lot of these were outdated; they don’t take into account the recent apps for Mac, Android and iOS.
Overall most agreed that though it was fast and reliable but due to the price and low server numbers, there were generally better options out there for less money. However some thought it was good value for those who prioritised security.
What Do Other Reviewers Say (Summary)
Reviewers generally liked Proton’s security, UX, speeds and reliability. However they weren’t impressed with the low server numbers, high pricing, lack of live chat and lack of device support, which is now outdated information.
Most thought the free version was excellent, but there were better paid options out there. However, some thought it was good value for the level of security on offer.
The high-end security features, honest ethos, no-logs policy and Swiss location give ProtonVPN a uniqueness not many VPNs can offer. In the sometimes murky world of VPNs, this is probably the most trustworthy-looking VPN out there.
It’s also surprisingly fast and the software is a joy to use.
Aside from this however, ProtonVPN is adequate but doesn’t stand out in most other areas. It hasn’t got high server numbers, outstanding streaming or torrenting access, or great device compatibility.
Support is a major let-down, with slow email support even for Plus users, and not even a great knowledgebase.
It also doesn’t have a kill switch on mobiles, which I found disappointing given its priority on security.
Having said that it’s come a long way in a short space of time, and more developments are probably in the pipeline.
It’s free version is generous, with 3 countries and no bandwidth limits.
But is the paid version good value for money? If you’re not a streamer, then you can get away with the Basic option, which is average price. However, if you want streaming (which a lot do) and access to the secure servers, then you need to go Plus, which is expensive.
It all depends on your priorities. Personally I think access to an ultra-secure, fast and easy-to-use VPN is worth the money, however it depends on what your priorities are and this VPN still won’t be for everyone.
The lack of a live-chat service for even Plus users also loses it a few points. Therefore we give ProtonVPN an overall rating of 4.4 out of 5 and we would recommend it.
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