Diverse geographic distribution of servers. Allows P2P and BitTorrent. Simple interface. Supports OpenVPN protocol.
Expensive. Fewer than average simultaneous connections allowed. No ad-blocking or advanced features. Lackluster speed scores.
- Bottom Line
ExpressVPN packages VPN protection and BitTorrent support into a simple interface, but it is expensive and lacks advanced features.
By Max Eddy
You never know who might be virtually looking over your shoulder, so it pays to use a virtual private network (VPN), like ExpressVPN, to secure your web browsing against scammers, three-letter agencies, and, well, everyone else. ExpressVPN has a wide distribution of servers and a slick interface, and it allows BitTorrent and other P2P services. But few features and fewer licenses makes it hard to justify its comparatively high cost. Instead consider Editors' Choice winners: NordVPN, which provides an overall robust and friendly experience; Private Internet Access, which has an incredibly robust network of over 3,000 VPN servers; KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, which offers flexible pricing; or PureVPN, a service that provides peerless speeds.
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What Is a VPN?
When you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network at the local coffee shop, you're not safe. An unscrupulous person could snoop on your web traffic, or perhaps the network itself is phony and designed expressly to steal information from anyone who connects to it. Even out on the web, governments and advertisers are keen to get your data.
That's why you need a VPN. When you're connected to one of these services, your data travels through an encrypted tunnel to a server operated by the VPN company. From here, it exits onto the web. While in transit it can't be intercepted, stopping sleazes at the coffee shop from snooping on you. Out on the open internet, your real IP address can't be discerned because your traffic appears to be coming from the VPN server.
Routing your traffic through the VPN service's server also effectively spoofs your location. This is handy if you're looking to stream region-locked content. Note that Netflix is getting wise to this, as are similar services.
VPNs have many other important functions, too. Every day, for instance, they help journalists securely share their work, and connect people living under oppressive regimes to the wider world. Recent changes in the US mean that your ISP can potentially sell your data, making a VPN all the more attractive.
Pricing and Features
ExpressVPN has three pricing tiers: $12.95 billed each month, $59.95 billed every six months, and $99.95 billed annually. Like most services, the only difference is for how long you commit. There is no free trial, but there is a 30-day money back guarantee.
These prices put it among the most expensive VPN services I've reviewed. Editors' Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited costs only $5.99 a month. Of course, if you're strapped for cash, there are many excellent free VPN services available. Lack of money isn't an excuse for failing to secure your information!
ExpressVPN limits you to three simultaneous connections from different devices, which is a bit stingy. Other services typically offer between five and six simultaneous connections. Hostwinds VPN goes so far as to let you connect as many devices as you like. Three connections might be enough for one person, but probably not one household, and it's an especially hard pill to swallow at $12.95 per month.
Alternatively, you can spring for a router preloaded with ExpressVPN software, thanks to a partnership between ExpressVPN and FlashRouters. Or you can follow ExpressVPN's instructions and install the software on a router yourself. TorGuard offers a similar deal. The advantage of a VPN-enabled router is that it protects every device on your network, effectively letting you connect an unlimited number of devices while using just one license. It's a great way to secure not just your computers and mobile devices, but anything that needs an internet connection, such as your game console, smart TV, or even your fridge.
Like TorGuard and IPVanish, ExpressVPN allows P2P and BitTorrent on all of its servers. Best of all, ExpressVPN places no limits on how much you use these services. Of course, downloading files via these means may cause you to run afoul of other regulations. Note that Editors' Choice winner NordVPN also allows P2P traffic, but only on specific servers. Like most VPNs, ExpressVPN does not keep user logs. Information about your web traffic and activity is yours and yours alone.
In addition to its stated no-log policy, ExpressVPN has its headquarters in the British Virgin Islands, which has no data retention laws. The company points out that any request for user information would have to be issued from a local court, and the company's network is designed so that it cannot match users to IP addresses. Additionally, a company spokesperson pointed out that the British Virgin Islands are not part of the so-called 14 Eyes intelligence alliance.
A major concern for users is finding a VPN service with servers in a particular geographic area. ExpressVPN has over 1,000 servers in 145 locations, covering some 94 countries. These include China, Russia, and Turkey, three countries that have notably repressive control over the internet. I like the geographic distribution of ExpressVPN's servers, which cover Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America.
ExpressVPN offers a good range of servers and locations, but some competitors do even more. Editors' Choice winner Private Internet Access boasts more than 3,000 servers and hundreds of server locations. The number of servers is important, since the more servers there are, the more likely you'll be able to find one that's not too crowded. Server locations are even more important. If you want to spoof your location, more locations mean more options. Numerous VPN server locations also means that no matter where you travel, you'll always be able to find a nearby server, ensuring better speeds and a more reliable connection.
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ExpressVPN supports several VPN protocols: IPSEC, OpenVPN (TCP and UDP), L2TP, PPTP, and SSTP. OpenVPN is my preferred method of connecting. It's newer, open-source technology and generally grants better speed and reliability. It's available for nearly all the versions of ExpressVPN's client regardless of platform. L2TP and PPTP are legacy standards, available for Mac and Windows, and SSTP only on Windows. IPSec is used to secure the iOS app.
In the past, some VPN companies have injected advertisements into users' web traffic in order to earn extra cash. A company representative told me that, "we would never inject ads or profit from our users' data." That's a solid reassurance.
Hands On With ExpressVPN
You can configure just about any device to work with ExpressVPN's servers, but the company also offers client software for Linux, macOS, and Windows. There are also apps for Android and iOS devices. I had no trouble downloading and installing the software on my Lenovo Thinkpad T460s running Windows 10.
Installation and setup were a breeze in my testing, and I was quickly using ExpressVPN's lovely, minimal interface. The simple main window lets you connect and disconnect quickly, and additional windows let you sort and save preferred servers. The large buttons make it easy to connect and disconnect, and the overall look felt very at home in Windows 10. I especially like the speed test window, which performs a quick test across all ExpressVPN's available servers to help you pick the best one. That said, it takes a long time to complete all of the speed tests.
ExpressVPN also squeezes in a few advanced features, like a Kill Switch that prevents apps from connecting to the Internet if the VPN is disconnected. ExpressVPN goes further than most with the additional option to allow communication with local network devices—such as printers and other computers—when the VPN is disconnected. I also like that ExpressVPN chooses the protocol that will deliver the best speed and performance by default.
Note that ExpressVPN offers its own DNS service. That's handy, since clever attackers can monitor DNS requests to try and track you across the web.
Unfortunately, I was unable to connect to Netflix while ExpressVPN was in use. That's disappointing, but not too surprising. VPNs and Netflix are in an ongoing arms race over access. I could access Netflix while using only a handful of VPN services, and who know how long the streaming service will still be available on those.
My tests didn't reveal catastrophic speed reductions when using ExpressVPN, but they weren't a stunning success either. According to my testing, the fastest VPN is PureVPN, which can provide a dramatic boost to download speeds.
To determine how much impact a VPN has on your browsing experience, I first average several Ookla speed test results without a VPN running. (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag's publisher, Ziff Davis.) I then compare this baseline to several tests taken while connected to a nearby VPN server, and then I calculate the percent change. This represents how most people will use a VPN, since using a nearby VPN server provides the best performance. I perform a second set of tests, using an Ookla test server in Anchorage, Alaska, and a VPN server in Australia. This is a stress test, seeing how the VPN performs while connecting over vast distances. Note that networks can change at the drop of the hat. So keep in mind that your mileage may vary.
In my domestic tests, I found that ExpressVPN increased latency by only 15.1 percent. That's very good, but PureVPN increased latency by only 6.7 percent. Unfortunately, ExpressVPN reduced download performance by 19.3 percent, and slowed uploads by 20 percent. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite VPN and PureVPN actually improved download speeds, the latter by a whopping 346.4 percent. PureVPN also had a stand-out upload test score, too. It slowed the connection by only 4.9 percent. Even discounting PureVPN's standout results, ExpressVPN is on the slow side.
ExpressVPN didn't fare much better in the international test. It increased latency by 319.1 percent. Hotspot Shield Elite increased latency by only 155.4 percent in this test. Express VPN also slowed downloads by 31.9 percent, and reduced upload speeds by 24 percent, which is on the slow side. PureVPN bested the competition in the international download test, improving speeds by 403.8 percent. Hotspot Shield edged out the competition for international uploads, improving speeds by 1.4 percent.
ExpressVPN has the basics: multidevice support, lots of servers, a solid number of server with a good geographic distribution, BitTorrent support, and a slick interface. But it's expensive, and it doesn't offer nearly as many simultaneous connections as more affordable VPN services. It's very good, but Editors' Choice winners KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and PureVPN have better all-around offerings at lower prices.
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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