[Updated with debut of ProtonVPN iOS app. This review was originally published June 20, 2018.]
To show how serious ProtonVPN is about keeping your identity safe, the company houses some of its servers in a Cold War-era Swiss fallout shelter, 3,000 feet below the surface.
While the free version of ProtonVPN falls a bit short on speed, it delivers as much data to nonpaying customers as you'd want. Nonetheless, it's probably still too slow to be anyone's 24/7 home VPN connection. For a bit more speed, try Windscribe, which offers the best free VPN service.
Beware of Totally Free VPN Services
We can't recommend any entirely free VPN service because too many of them borrow your bandwidth, sell your browsing history or inject ads into the websites you visit. They've got little incentive to keep your private data private.
Instead, try the free service tiers offered by "freemium" VPN providers. Such offerings are just samples of what you'd get from paid service, but they're sometimes quite generous. The catch is that most cap data usage or, as ProtonVPN does, throttle upload and download speeds.
Because of those restrictions, the free tiers are best for people who use laptops to occasionally use public Wi-Fi networks such as those in airports, cafes, hotels or parks. Anyone who wants a permanent home VPN connection to protect all of their traffic should go for a paid service such as Private Internet Access or Windscribe.
What You Get for Free
ProtonVPN has client software for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, as well as a command-line tool for Linux.
Its online tutorials walk you through manually setting up Windows 10, Android, iOS and BlackBerry devices using IKEv2/IPsec instead of OpenVPN. You can also set up a router running AsusWRT, DD-WRT or pfSense firmware to tap into Proton's network.
ProtonVPN's free tier gets you an unlimited amount of data. But the network speed is slower than with the paid service, and you're allowed to connect only to ProtonVPN servers in Japan, the Netherlands and the U.S.
If you want faster speed and ProtonVPN's full array of about 340 servers in 30 countries (as of this writing), you'll have to spring for the Basic ($5 U.S. per month or $48 per year), Plus ($10 U.S. per month or $96 per year) or Visionary ($30 U.S. per month or $288 per year) plans, the last of which gives you all the security bells and whistles you could ask for.
ProtonVPN's dark main interface screen displays a map of the world, your current IP address, potential connection servers and something that all VPN-service applications should have: a fever chart of data traffic and tabular details such as time connected and total data transferred.
Based in Switzerland, ProtonVPN is theoretically out of the reach of U.S. and European Union law-enforcement agencies, although Switzerland is a member of Interpol. The company's "Secure Core" servers — its inner ring — are based in Switzerland, Sweden and Iceland, all of which have strong privacy laws; it's too bad users of the free service can't access them.
We tested ProtonVPN and eight other VPN services with a free tier — Avira Phantom VPN, Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, the Opera browser VPN, Speedify, SurfEasy, TunnelBear and Windscribe — at a suburban New York home provisioned with regular consumer cable-company broadband service.
Using Ookla's Speedtest.net service, we measured connection times, network latency (i.e., delay), upload speeds and download speeds. Each parameter was tested three times per service, then averaged. The averages were then compared to baseline network performance measurements taken before each VPN service was switched on. The bulk of the tests were conducted on an HP EliteBook x360 1020 G2 notebook.
It took us about 5 minutes to download and install ProtonVPN client software on our laptop. Along the way, the software asked if we wanted to add the encrypted email service provided by Proton VPN's sister company, ProtonMail.
Despite ProtonVPN's admonition that users of its free service will see slow speeds, the test results were not terrible overall, although it took a bit long (an average of 8.2 seconds) to connect to ProtonVPN's U.S. servers.
ProtonVPN's free service downloaded data at an average rate of 47.4 Mbps — 73 percent slower than without any VPN connection. Upload speeds averaged 22.0 Mbps — 37 percent slower than before a VPN was switched on.
Those results may sound dire, but they're actually close to the average for the eight regular free VPN services we tested, which, as a group, saw a 65-percent drop in download speeds and a 34-percent slowdown in upload speeds. (We're leaving out Speedify, which uses its own technology to dramatically boost network speeds under the right conditions.)
Only Windscribe and Hotspot Shield suffered less than a 50-percent average slowdown in download speeds. TunnelBear, the Opera browser VPN and SurfEasy all fared worse in downloads than ProtonVPN.
However, ProtonVPN's network latency — the amount of time it takes for a remote server to respond to a request — rose nearly fivefold from pre-VPN levels, from 22 milliseconds (ms) to 102 ms. That's the second-longest latency of the nine services we reviewed. Only TunnelBear was worse.
On a tablet and smartphone, ProtonVPN was able to faithfully play video and music without stuttering or slowdowns.
ProtonVPN's free tier is certainly an affordable way to secure your online world, as long as you live close to one of its server locations and don't expect superfast speeds. Of all the free VPN services we've reviewed, it comes the closest to a full-fledged paid unlimited service. But if you want more VPN speed for no money, Windscribe's 10GB monthly tier would be a better bet.
Client platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux
Protocols: OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec
Restrictions: Can use only three connection locations; speed is throttled.
Credit: Tom's Guide