Affordable pricing. Unlimited devices, even in the free version. Allows P2P and BitTorrent. Excellent data logging policy. Works with Netflix.
Inelegant desktop client. Few servers and server locations. Lackluster speed test scores. No ad-blocking capabilities.
- Bottom Line
Avira Phantom VPN is a simple, affordable tool to anonymize your web browsing, but it's light on features and likely won't please speed-conscious users.
By Max Eddy
When you browse the web, it's easy to make sure no one is actually looking over your shoulder. But attackers could be intercepting your data without your knowledge, while advertisers and your ISP are certainly engaged in similar activities. With a virtual private network, such as Avira Phantom VPN, you're protected against a host of network threats. This subscription service is easy to use and priced affordably, but leaves a bit to be desired in the performance and features departments. If you're looking for speed, our Editors' Choice there is PureVPN. Co-winner Private Internet Access might not be as fast, but it is packed to the gills with advanced features.
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What Is a VPN?
Without a VPN, your data flows more or less freely between your computer and the collection of servers and computers that make up the internet. This leaves you open to a number of threats. At the local level, someone could be monitoring your web activity by tapping into your Wi-Fi network, or even creating a bogus network intended to trick you into connecting and exposing your data.
At a higher level, your web traffic is visible to your internet service provider. And, thanks to the geniuses in Washington, those companies can now sell anonymized bulk user data. Finally, on the web, advertisers and three-letter agencies can track your movement between websites by noting your IP address.
When a VPN is active, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server operated by the VPN company. Your data flows through the tunnel, protecting you from hackers on the network and shielding your activities from ISPs' prying eyes. Because your web traffic appears to be emanating from the VPN server, anyone watching sees the server's IP address instead of your own. It also allows you to make it appear as if you're physically located with the VPN server, hiding your true location.
Journalists and activists have long used VPNs to circumvent restrictive internet policies. You can use the same technology for something a little less pressing: streaming region locked content. Free streams from the BBC and MLB, among others, are available if you're within a particular country. Just hop on the right server, and you're free to stream. Do note, however, that major streaming players, such as Netflix and Hulu, are very aggressive about blocking VPN users.
Pricing and Features
Avira subscriptions start at $10 per month, which is average for the industry. Alternatively, you can fork over $78 once a year for a subscription, which is a good value. Editors' Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited slides in at just $6.99 per month, however. Avira is also one of the few VPN companies that offers a mobile specific plan, charging just $5.99 per month to protect a single mobile device if you're convinced you need nothing else.
Of course, you don't necessarily have to pay for VPN protection, as there are many free VPN services available. For its part, Avira does offer a free version, with only a handful of restrictions. The free version, for example, does not include the Kill Switch feature, which prevents your apps from communicating with the internet should your VPN become disconnected. Free users also don't have access to Avira's technical support. There's also a data limit on the free version of 500MB per month, which is par for the course.
An Avira subscription lets you protect as many devices as you like. The industry average is five, although some companies may offer more or sell additional licenses. That alone makes Avira a remarkable value, and an excellent choice for any home with numerous devices. That said, smart devices, such as your smart fridge and garage door opener, can't run a VPN on their own, but still communicate with the internet. To protect these devices, consider adding a VPN at the router level. Some companies, like TorGuard, offer routers with their software preinstalled, while others provide instructions to install it yourself.
Avira offers clients for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. Of those, the Windows and Android clients use our preferred VPN protocol, OpenVPN. It's new, fast, secure, and open-source, which are all good things. The macOS and iOS clients use the respectable IPSec protocol to secure traffic. Security wonks won't appreciate the lack of options for VPN protocols, but the average person is unlikely to notice. HotSpot Shield Elite and other VPNs also offer browser plugins, which is a tidy and less intrusive solution.
For the price of your subscription, you get access to Avira's 40 servers across 20 countries. These include: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and these United States. That's a pretty good list, but the total server count is very low and leaves out all of Africa and the Middle East.
The number of servers available matters because the more servers there are, the more likely you are to be placed on a less crowded server, which in turn translates into better performance. Server location matters not only because it means more opportunities for location spoofing, but also because a nearby server generally means better speeds. The more server locations there are, the more likely you are to find one nearby, wherever you go. NordVPN has 733 servers across 58 locations, and Private Internet Access has the most robust network I've yet seen with more than 3,000 servers in 25 countries.
A company representative told me that Avira does not differentiate between types of traffic. That's great for privacy, but it also means that you can use BitTorrent and P2P file-sharing services to your heart's content. Most other VPN services only allow this kind of traffic on specific servers. TorGuard, on the other hand, is all about BitTorrent, offering access to high-bandwidth connections and static IP addresses for improved performance.
In addition to the basic VPN protection, Avira includes the aforementioned Kill Switch along with DNS protections. DNS is basically a phonebook for the internet, turning human-understandable URLs into machine-understandable IP addresses. By maintaining its own DNS service, Avira ensures that no one could monitor your DNS requests to send you to phishing sites or infer your web activity.
Currently, Avira does not offer an ad-blocking service as part of its VPN offering. Many VPNs have begun adding ad-blocking, including KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, Private Internet Access, HotSpot Shield Elite, and TorGuard. TunnelBear has a unique solution, offering an excellent browser plugin to handle these issues.
Avira is based in Germany, a country which enacted new data retention laws, according to reports from 2016. This means that the company may be required to hold on to identifiable data in order to comply with local law. We prefer when companies work under more friendly legal frameworks, such as how NordVPN operates out of of Panama.
However, Avira makes it clear that it does not track the websites you visit, your apparent IP address, your real IP address, or "any information that can link you to any action, such as downloading a file, or visiting a particular website." That's excellent, and goes a long way toward allaying concerns about local data retention laws.
Hands On With Avira
I tested Avira on a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running Windows 10. Installation went without a hitch, but I was wary of the Avira Connect Dashboard that was installed along with the VPN client. This lets you manage all of your other Avira subscriptions, including the company's antivirus product. That's all well and good, but why this needs to be a separate piece of software is beyond me. It seems bloatware-ish.
At first blush it appears slick and modern, as a grey rectangle with a large button that reads "Secure my connection." Once connected, the large WiFi icon glows green, and a counter ticks off the amount of data you've sent over Avira's network.
But the facade of high design quickly falls apart. To change server locations, you have to open the settings panel and select from a pull-down list. Most VPN clients put server location at the forefront, since it's good to know where your data is headed. The app also doesn't tell you critical information. It does not, for example, display your actual and apparent IP address. Nor does it show the load on any of the servers, making it harder to choose one. I much prefer NordVPN and TunnelBear's friendlier, more informative designs.
In terms of advanced features, Avira has little to offer. The app can also be configured to launch at startup. Power users looking for maximum customization would be better served with Private Internet Access, although the learning curve for that service is rather intense.
I really like it when VPN apps include a tool for automatically connecting and disconnecting depending on context. TunnelBear, for example, lets you define trusted networks and switches the VPN off when you're in safe setting, and back on when you move out of range. Avira does the opposite: You create a list of untrusted Wi-Fi networks and Avira switches on VPN protection when you connect to one of them. I don't like this simply because the number of trusted networks is likely comparably small to untrusted networks (read: every other network on earth).
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Netflix loaded content while connected to an Avira VPN server in the US. Netflix has taken steps to block the use of VPNs, so how long Avira will continue to evade them is an open question.
Speed Test Results
No matter the VPN you choose, odds are that it will have some impact on your web browsing experience—and probably not a good one. There are, admittedly, some rare occurrences when a very fast VPN service improves performance, as is the case for PureVPN. But generally, you'll see increases in latency, and decreases in upload and download speeds.
To test VPN performance, I use the Ookla speed test tool over two rounds of testing. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) In the first round, I compare the average results of several tests both with and without the VPN active to find a percent change. For the second round, I do the same thing, but using an Ookla test server in Anchorage, Alaska, and a VPN server in Australia. The first test puts emphasis on speed and reliability, while the second is a stress test and simulates the strained performance over great distances.
In my domestic test, I found that Avira increased latency by 50 percent. That's a large increase, but not the largest I've seen. The best score goes to Hide My Ass, which increased latency by only 5.6 percent. Avira performed similarly in the download test, where it reduced speeds by 9 percent. PureVPN wins this category, with its unprecedented ability to increase speeds by 346.4 percent. In the upload test, Avira reduced speeds by 12.7 percent. Again, pretty high, but not the highest. PureVPN takes top marks in this test as well, reducing speeds by just 4.9 percent.
In the international test, Avira fared less well. It has the worst score for the latency test and the second worst for the upload test. I found it increased latency by 399.5 percent, and reduced upload speeds by 41 percent. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite has the best latency score, increasing ping time by only 155.4 percent. AnchorFree also eked out a win in the upload test, where it improved speeds by 1.4 percent. Avira did earn a respectable score in the download test, where it reduced speeds by only 11.8 percent. PureVPN, again, has the best score in this test, improving speeds by 403.8 percent.
Overall, Avira's speed tests were not good. It performed the worst in some categories, and among the worst in others. That said, I argue against using speed as the only, or even the most important, differentiator when buying a VPN. Especially since networks can change so quickly and your experience will almost certainly vary from mine.
Solid Overall, but Not the Best
For $10, Avira offers much of what we're looking for in a VPN at a reasonable price. The fact that it allows an unlimited number of devices per account, has no problem allowing P2P or BitTorrent on any server, and offers a free version are all excellent enticements. Its clear data logging policy is also reassuring. That said, the app is in need of a visual overhaul, and its server offerings are far from robust. If you have a lot of devices in your home, or do a lot of torrenting, definitely take a look at Avira. For now, we continue to recommend our Editors' Choice winners, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and PureVPN.
Other Avira GmbH Encryption
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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