2021 Review: ProtonVPN
Disclaimer/Disclosure of Interest: I use ProtonVPN’s Plus plan and I have a ProtonVPN affiliate link.
What is ProtonVPN?
A VPN – or Virtual Private Network – is a service that creates an encrypted tunnel between the device – be it a phone, computer, or router – and the VPN server. From there, your traffic continues on to your desired destination – such as TheNewOil.org – like normal. ProtonVPN is a service headquartered in Switzerland and is part of Proton Technologies AG, the same company behind ProtonMail (also including in their suite of Drive, Contacts, and Calendar).
Why Do You Need VPN?
You may not, to be honest. A lot of people really hype VPNs as one of those absolutely, must-have, lifechanging things that will solve all your problems. In all honesty, while I do believe that VPNs are an essential piece of your privacy strategy, there many other free or low-cost strategies that will give you significantly more protection. A VPN these days pretty much only has two purposes: changing your IP address and protecting your traffic from local snoops. Changing your IP address is a valuable part of avoiding tracking, but it’s just one way and a VPN won’t protect you against those others like browser fingerprinting, tracking pixels, cookies, and more. Likewise, while it can be great to protect your traffic from your Internet Service Provider or a local cybercriminal, from a security perspective you’re already pretty well covered so long as you enable your browser’s HTTPS-Only mode and make sure you’re using the correct sites and not spoof sites. Having said all that, I do still consider a VPN to be a critical part of your privacy and security posture. It can bypass censorship, stop your ISP from selling your browsing data, help obscure your IP address from tracking and logging, and protect your traffic from local attackers.
Why Not Tor?
Some people prefer Tor over VPNs. Tor is definitely right in certain situations, but not all of them. For one, many essential services – like banks – block known Tor IP addresses to prevent fraud and abuse, making using those services nearly impossible. Second, Tor loses almost – if not – all of its anonymity once you login to something. If you login to your email and then your Reddit account in the same session, they’re now tied to together and you’ve lost your anonymity benefit. For this reason, I recommend reputable VPNs for any services that are tied to your real identity or sensitive and Tor for random searches or accounts that are not tied to your real identity.
ProtonVPN’s upsides are numerous. At the time of this writing, they boast 1,314 servers in 55 countries with various capabilities such as peer-to-peer, compatibility with streaming services, multi-hop, and even Tor-over-VPN. They offer connection speeds of up to 10 Gbps, a 30-day money-back guarantee, and a built in adblocker. They have open-source apps for all operating systems – Android, iOS, Debian, Mac, and Windows. They also have detailed documentation on how to install their VPN on a DD-WRT router, which is great as I whole-heartedly recommend those routers and putting a VPN on your whole network like that.
On the backend, ProtonVPN is located in Switzerland and insists that Swiss law prevents them ever keeping logs (but don’t get any ideas: they have admitted they will use real-time analysis to find people who abuse their service if they suspect you). They are also the only VPN provider I know of who offers a truly free tier that I would recommend for those who are tight on money. Last but not least, they’re the only provider I know of who allows me to change my protocol on the iOS app, allowing me to use both a VPN and a firewall at the same time. The value of that can’t be overstated, in my opinion.
ProtonVPN is not perfect. For starters, their customer service is a bit slow unless you pay for Visionary. Not painfully slow, but like “get an email back in a day or two” slow. I’ve also been having issues with split tunneling on Windows lately and their ultimate solution was basically “VPN or Antivirus. Pick one.” Disappointing considering that those solve two completely different problems. That’s like asking me to pick between coffee and chocolate. Very different things.
Another general ding is that ProtonVPN could do better on the privacy front when it comes to user signup. While they do accept Bitcoin and cash, other services like Mullvad accept Monero. It would be nice to see Proton step up to their level.
I’ve also noticed that contrary to their claims of “up to 10 Gbps,” that’s not always the case. At the time of writing, I used Speedtest.net to test this. Without a VPN, I connected to the CA Department of Education in Sacremento, CA. I had a 0ms ping, 477.76 Mbps download speed, and 416.21 Mbps upload speed (attention ISP: that’s half the speeds I’m paying for. Go figure). After reconnecting using the “fastest” option, I was connected to Proton’s TX#27, which had a 45% load. This time, I was connected to Surfshark’s server in New York, NY. My ping stayed 0ms, but my download speed fell to 329.70 Mbps, though my upload actually improved to 491.95 Mbps. Despite technically being slower, the speeds have rarely been a negative impact in my life as I’m not a professional gamer or streamer of any kind. Even with my VPN on, I still manage to upload my raw, hour-long, 1080/30 footage of Surveillance Report to send to Techlore for editing in less than 15 mins most days (never more than 30, depends on how slow the server is that day).
Honestly I don’t have too many issues with ProtonVPN, but it is important to note that no product or service is perfect. These are just a few of the issues I’ve personally noticed.
Again, while VPNs are not the magical bulletproof unicorn that some people make them out to be, I do still think they have valid and essential uses. As far as VPNs go, Proton is a very solid choice. They have a solid track record and a variety of easy-to-use features that make them incredibly easy for even the most non-techy person to incorporate into their daily lives and get comfortable with it. In fact, when I asked my partner – the non-tech, non-privacy-centric person in the house – for her notes and thoughts on Proton (which she uses regularly), she didn’t have any. The only notes she came up with are that she likes that it automatically boots up with her computer on startup, and that it does slightly degrade the battery on her phone when it’s active but not enough to deter her from using it. If even the “I'm willing to do privacy as long as it's convenient” person has no bad things to say, I think that's a pretty powerful endorsement in my opinion.
You can learn more and sign up for ProtonVPN here, non-affiliate link here.
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