[Updated Sept. 20, 2018 with support for custom OpenVPN configurations. Originally published April 5, 2018.]
VPN services protect your internet connections from prying eyes, such as those of your internet service provider, hotel staff or even the person sitting next to you at Starbucks. They also can help you watch video streams from faraway lands.
Windscribe was only an average performer among VPN services when we first tested it, but it got much faster after a change in VPN protocols. It's now one of the fastest VPNs out there.
Its free service gives you up to 10GB of usage per month, but Windscribe's paid Pro service has about 500 connection servers worldwide, no data cap and many more setup options. The software includes a firewall for extra protection.
While you can sign up and pay for Windscribe nearly anonymously, and the Canadian company is theoretically beyond the reach of American jurisdiction, you can't customize the service's most important protocol and encryption settings.
Windscribe has hardware in more than 50 countries. With a connection point in Russia (but not China) and a wide variety of both popular and offbeat server locations, it is a good service for travelers.
Costs and What's Covered
At $9 per month, Windscribe Pro sounds expensive, but if you sign up for its $49 annual plan, the monthly cost drops to $4.08. That's just a little bit more than Private Internet Access' (PIA) $3.33 per month.
Through StackSocial, Windscribe offers an inexpensive lifetime subscription for $69 — one of the industry's best bargains. You can also get five years of Windscribe Pro at StackSocial for only $40, which doesn't make sense when subscribing through Windscribe's own site costs so much more. (Windscribe told us StackSocial helps it reach many more potential subscribers.)
You don't need to use your real name to sign up for Windscribe, or even provide an email address. You can make subscription payments with credit cards, PayPal or Paymentwall. Those who want a bit more anonymity can use bitcoin.
Windscribe's free VPN service is perfect for occasional travelers. It lets you connect to servers in 11 countries and use up to 10GB of encrypted data per month if you provide your email address; otherwise, it's just 2GB per month. If you're feeling frisky, you can get extra free data by letting Windscribe mine cryptocurrency using your computer.
While the free service includes Windscribe's firewall, it doesn't let you use third-party client applications or set up "native" support without any client software at all — you've got to stick with the Windscribe client software.
Both service tiers allow an unlimited number of simultaneous VPN sessions on a single account. Most other VPN services allow only five (or fewer) concurrent connections.
Windscribe's dedicated Windflix servers try to make U.S. and U.K. Netflix content accessible from anywhere, anytime.
This feature makes Windscribe perfect for customers with large families, or small businesses. But such customers might do even better by paying for Windscribe Pro and setting up VPN service on their routers, which protects all devices on the network with a single external connection.
Windscribe's paid Pro service has VPN infrastructure in 52 countries and 90 cities, about the same as CyberGhost. On the downside, Windscribe's collection of about 500 connection servers is a fraction of the more than 3,000 PIA offers. But Windscribe says that its servers really are spread across the globe, while some competing VPN services "simply fake the location with false IP WHOIS data."
Netflix has been cracking down on customers using VPNs to disguise their locations and watch Netflix content available only in other countries. But Windscribe's dedicated "Windflix" servers — available only to paying customers — try to make U.S. and U.K. Netflix content accessible from anywhere, anytime. Still, there are no guarantees.
Client Software and Options
Windscribe's VPN client software supports PCs (Windows XP through Windows 10), Macs (OSX 10.8 or newer) and Linux systems (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and CentOS). The Linux software is command-line only for now; we preferred Private Internet Access' graphical Linux applications. If you're really hard-core, you can download Linux .deb or .rpm binaries, which will let you set up Windscribe on other Linux distributions.
There are Windscribe mobile apps for iPhones and iPads (iOS 8 or newer) and Android devices (version 4.2.2 or newer), including Amazon Fire devices.
You can use Windscribe's VPN browser extensions for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera, which include ad- and tracker-blocking. But each will encrypt only data handled by a single browser, leaving other online applications unprotected.
The Amazon Fire TV can use the Amazon fork of the Windscribe Android app, while the Nvidia Shield set-top box and Android-based Kodi devices can use the regular Google Play store app. Windscribe told us that smart TVs running Android should be able to use the app, too.
Linux-based Kodi devices can use either an open-source VPN manager posted on Github, or one of the regular Linux clients.
To set up a router with Windscribe, you need to be a Pro subscriber. The setup scripts work with DD-WRT and Tomato open-source firmware, as well as with regular Asus routers. Windscribe even sells a preconfigured DD-WRT Netgear Nighthawk R7800 X4S router for $350, about $150 more than the router would cost without the free firmware.
Pro users can provision Synology and QNAP network-attached-storage (NAS) drives with Windscribe VPN connections. Anyone with a Windscribe account can set up a Windscribe SOCKS5 proxy in a BitTorrent client to disguise his or her location.
Windscribe uses the newish but very secure IKEv2/IPsec VPN protocol by default for its Windows, Mac and iOS client software. On Android, it uses the equally secure but older OpenVPN protocol.
Windscribe doesn't support the ancient, unsecure PPTP protocol at all, which is no great loss. However, it doesn't support L2TP/IPsec, either, which still sees wide use and is fairly easy to set up "natively" (without a client application) on most operating systems.
For native support, Windscribe Pro subscribers can get configuration scripts and login instructions to set up IKEv2 connections in Windows and macOS. Ubuntu Linux users can get native support with OpenVPN. Users of the Windows and macOS client software can add their own custom OpenVPN configuration scripts.
Mobile users can run third-party apps with a Windscribe Pro subscription. Android users can set up either IKEv2 or OpenVPN apps. iOS users can also employ an OpenVPN third-party app. Even Windows Phone users can manually set up their devices to use Windscribe.
Features and Interface
Windscribe has a small interface for the PC and Mac. While the Mac has a "W" icon in the Menu bar, the PC version has a system tray item.
The dark-blue window that pops up when you click either of these items takes up about one-twentieth of the screen. You can move it around, but you can't enlarge it. It has a prominent on/off button on the right for connecting and disconnecting.
This button opens up the program's main window, which is only slightly larger but includes a world map and connection details. The window is tight, and squeezes in your IP address.
Click on your current location, and the window doubles in length to show a roll-down menu of connection possibilities, organized by geography.
The three-line hamburger-shaped icon in the upper left of the small main interface window leads to the Preferences section, where you can customize Windscribe. You can set the service to launch when the system starts, or choose either automatic protocol selection or manual selection between UDP and TCP data-transfer protocols. But there's no way to customize the encryption techniques used.
The Proxy tab lets you set up an unencrypted server connection for streaming video or music, while the Share section is where you create a proxy server. The Debug tab lets you examine the program's log file, disable IPv6 and choose between a generic TAP driver (essential for VPN connections) and Windscribe's own driver.
For those who think this sounds a little too tech-heavy, the interface has explainers for most of the jargon, and they do a good job of describing what each item does.
Both the iOS and Android Windscribe mobile apps have on/off buttons and list connection points. Oddly, one server (Windflix, U.K.) showed up as inactive on the Android interface but worked just fine for iPads and iPhones.
The Preferences section is different on each mobile platform. The Android app is deeper, with the ability to pick between UDP and TCP, as well as to select a port. On iOS, you can do these tasks in the VPN section of Settings.
Android users can choose between always being connected or turning on VPN connections manually to save battery power.
Windscribe lets you create an account directly on its website. You need to make up a username, but you don't have to submit an email address.
Unlike PIA, Windscribe won't let you change the encryption methods it uses. But Windscribe's default configuration is very strong, using a SHA-512 cipher for authentication and a 4096-bit RSA protocol for the "handshake" that sets up the secure connection. All transferred data uses AES-256 encryption.
The PC and Mac Windscribe clients add a software firewall to eliminate data leaks. It augments the default Windows firewall and has three modes: Automatic (which kicks in when you connect to a VPN server), Manual (to toggle it on and off) and Always On.
Windscribe doesn't have a kill switch, which would disconnect all internet-enabled applications should the VPN connection be lost. The service's website explains that Windscribe's firewall works better than a kill switch.
With headquarters in the Toronto suburbs, Windscribe is theoretically out of the reach of American authorities. But if you remember the old adage about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, aka the Mounties, they always get their man (or woman).
Canada is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement, which also includes Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. That One Privacy Site generally approves of Windscribe, except for its Canadian location and the fact that it logs user bandwidth usage (as most commercial VPN providers do).
Speaking of user logs, Windscribe insists that user bandwidth usage is the only user activity it tracks and that it deletes those logs every month.
Some VPN services are owned by shell companies in offshore tax havens, and getting information about who really owns and runs them is difficult. That's great if you're a customer trying to evade the law, but it doesn't tell you who you're actually dealing with or who's seeing your data.
Windscribe isn't that evasive, but it isn't completely transparent, either. The Windscribe website lists Windscribe Ltd. as the company name, with a location as Richmond Hill, Ontario, but it doesn't provide a mailing address. Googling the name and city revealed a street address of 9251 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, Ontario, L4C 9T3 and a phone number of (647) 715-2124.
The company website doesn't mention any executives, but there's a Canadian tech-investment profile that lists Yegor Sak and Alex Paguis as the founders. Both men also have LinkedIn pages, so they're not living in hiding.
Sak authors many of the blog posts on the Windscribe website, and he personally responded to questions Tom's Guide sent to a generic Windscribe contact email address.
We tested Windscribe twice, first when its Windows client software defaulted to the OpenVPN protocol, and then a few months later after Windscribe had switched to IKEv2/IPsec. The change paid off, and Windscribe is now just as fast as speed leader Private Internet Access.
During the first tests, in January 2018, we tested seven VPN services — CyberGhost, Hotspot Shield, Mullvad, Private Internet Access, TunnelBear, VPN Unlimited and Windscribe — while traveling from the New York City area to the Netherlands, Germany and Azerbaijan. Windscribe was a mediocre performer whether we connected from offices, coffee shops or hotel rooms. There was a local Windscribe connection point in Azerbaijan, but its performance lagged behind other VPN providers' servers hundreds of miles away.
Windscribe is now just as fast as speed leader Private Internet Access.
At 21.3 seconds, Windscribe's average connection time was more than six times that of PIA. On the other hand, Windscribe's average network latency (how long a single packet of data takes to travel between endpoints and back again) was good, at 35 milliseconds, just behind PIA's 33.5 ms; others services had latency readings three times higher.
Windscribe' average download speed of 25.9 megabits per second (Mbps) was 56 percent slower than pretest levels, smack in the middle of the pack of seven VPN services we tested but well behind PIA's 7-percent decline. Uploads were slightly better, at 10.6 Mbps (off 20 percent). We downloaded a 780MB video file from Archive.org at 1.47 Mbps — 49 percent slower than without any VPN turned on and right in the middle of the pack of seven.
Windscribe couldn't maintain a 12-hour constant connection in January, requiring one reconnection along the way. But it let music and video files stream to a phone and iPad without skips or stutters.
Like PIA, Windscribe had intermittent driver problems, which prevented VPN connections on two occasions. Rather than reinstalling the software, you can just go to the Network Connections section of Windows and click to enable the Windscribe VPN. It takes about 10 seconds and worked when I needed to fix it.
Soon after this review was originally published in April 2018, Windscribe announced that its Windows and Mac client software had changed its default VPN protocol from OpenVPN to IKEv2/IPsec.
A second round of tests conducted in late April in Maine and the New York City suburbs showed that Windscribe could now easily held its own against Private Internet Access, the previous speed champion.
The two services came in just about even in download speeds. Private Internet Access saw an average decline of 33.3 percent from the pretest baseline speed of 62.4 Mbps, while Windscribe just edged it with a 32.7 percent decline, close enough to attribute to overall network fluctuations.
However, Windscribe clearly beat PIA in uploads, showing an average decline of just 0.7 percent from the pretest levels. Private Internet Access managed a decline of 12.5 percent. Windscribe also downloaded the video test file slightly faster, at 1.32 Mbps compared to PIA's 1.22 Mbps.
Windscribe's connection time also improved a lot, at 2.4 seconds as opposed to the January time of 21.3 seconds. However, its latency nearly doubled, to 291 percent over the baseline. (PIA's was up a lot too in the second round.) We had no dropped Windscribe connections this time around, while PIA had four.
It's not yet time to come out and say Windscribe is faster than PIA, especially since PIA's raw numbers were worse in the second round of tests than they were in the first. You could attribute that difference to random network volatility. But it's fair to say that head-to-head, Windscribe is now just as fast.
Setup and Customer Support
Windscribe doesn't care to know who you are, and you can use and pay for the program nearly anonymously. Unlike PIA and Mullvad, Windscribe lets you set your own easy-to-remember username.
The first step in getting Windscribe up and running is to download and run the 16MB installer file. After selecting your preferred language and accepting the service's license, you'll need to set up an account and type in your username and password. Providing an email address is optional.
Finally, pick your plan and arrange for payment. All told, it took me a little more than 4 minutes to get my first secure connection with Windscribe.
Windscribe has a good variety of resources on its website, including setup guides, FAQs and an extensive Knowledge Base of advice for problems you may encounter. There's a link within each interface for help. The website lets you email questions, talk to a chat app named Garry, submit a support ticket and even pose questions in a Windscribe-dedicated Reddit forum.
Windscribe allows an unlimited number of secure connections at once, has a wide range of setup options for many platforms, offers an enticing free service that should be ideal for casual users and infrequent travelers, and, at long last, is very fast.
The paid service is inexpensive if you buy a full year at once, and you can set it up and pay for it anonymously. Based in Toronto, Windscribe is technically beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities.
Windscribe has connection points in about 50 countries, but its array of about 500 servers is a small fraction of some other services' deployments. The service includes a firewall, but there aren't many protocol or encryption settings to customize.
Overall, Windscribe's unlimited connections make it an enticing VPN, and the generous free service is ideal for people who don't need a VPN for day-to-day purposes. Among paid services, Private Internet Access is still cheaper and has more servers throughout the world, but overall is has just a razor-thin advantage over Windscribe.
Client software platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux; Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions
Supported protocols: IKEv2, OpenVPN
Number of servers: 300
Number of countries: 52
Country of registration: Canada
Payment options: Credit card, PayPal, bitcoin, Paymentwall
Real name necessary? No
Encryption protocol: AES-256
Data usage: Unlimited
Bandwidth usage: Unlimited
Max. number of simultaneously connected devices: Unlimited
Customer support: Email
Credit: Tom's Guide