June 23, 2024


Sapiens Digital

ExpressVPN – Review 2020 – PCMag Asia

14 min read

If you’re ever concerned about who might be peeping over your virtual shoulder, then consider a virtual private network, or VPN. An excellent entrant in the field of consumer VPNs, ExpressVPN has a wide distribution of servers across the globe, ensuring one will likely be close at hand. It has also invested heavily in creating and explaining how it operates a safe and secure company. While it has improved the value of its offering, it’s still on the expensive side for what it offers the average consumer.

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 free Wi-Fi is phony and designed expressly to steal information from anyone who connects to it. Out on the web, governments and advertisers are keen to get your data. Even your ISP is looking to profit from selling your anonymized data.

When you’re connected to a VPN, 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’s server also effectively spoofs your location.

Pricing and Features

ExpressVPN has three subscription options: $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. The company accepts payment by all major credit cards, PayPal, and other services such as Alipay and WebMoney. ExpressVPN subscriptions can also be purchased with Bitcoin. 

The current monthly price of a VPN service averages around $10.10, which is quite a bit below ExpressVPN’s $12.95 asking price. Many VPNs come in well below the average. Mullvad, for example, costs just $5.54 per month, making it one of the cheapest VPNs available. 

The only thing cheaper than cheap is free, and ExpressVPN does not offer a free VPN subscription. That’s unfortunate, because the best way to tell if a VPN will work for you is to try it out at home. TunnelBear VPN does offer a free trial, but limits you to 500MB of data per month, while HotSpot Shield’s free subscription cuts you off at 500MB per day. ProtonVPN, on the other hand, places no data restrictions on its free subscription and has a flexible pricing structure that can get you started for $5.00 per month.

Previously, ExpressVPN limited you to just three simultaneous connections from different devices. I’m happy to say that the company has improved its offering to match the industry average of five simultaneous connections. That welcome change comes a little late as several VPNs challenge that expectation by offering less restrictive plans. NordVPN offers six connections, and CyberGhost seven, while TorGuard VPN lets you choose how many connections you’d like with a simple slider that goes from five to 205. Avira Phantom VPN, Encrypt.me VPN, Ghostery Midnight, Surfshark VPN, and Windscribe VPN don’t even bother to limit the number of simultaneous connections.

Window showing a successful connection

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 configure the router yourself. The advantage of a VPN-enabled router is that it protects every device on your network, including those that can’t run VPNs on their own, and effectively lets you connect an infinite number of devices. ExpressVPN notably provides apps or installation instructions on a dizzying number of platforms, so you’re sure to find something that meets your needs.

VPN Protocols

VPNs are a mature technology and as such there are a lot of different ways to create a VPN connection. I prefer OpenVPN, which is an open-source project. That means its code has been picked over for vulnerabilities. ExpressVPN, happily, supports OpenVPN UDP/TCP on Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, and Windows. It also supports configuring routers to use OpenVPN.

ExpressVPN also supports the older L2TP protocol on macOS and Windows, and the much less secure PPTP on Windows only. I don’t recommend using either, unless you absolutely have to for some obscure legacy reason.

Two app windows, showing the available VPN protocols

It’s notable that ExpressVPN supports OpenVPN in its iOS app. Apple makes app developers that wish to use OpenVPN jump through additional hoops, so some developers don’t bother. ExpressVPN also supports the IKEv1/2 protocols on iOS, which is my next-best choice of VPN protocol after OpenVPN.

The Wireguard protocol is the heir-apparent to the OpenVPN throne. This open-source project has been long in development and just recently left its experimental phase, leading some VPN companies to adopt it. In my limited testing, I have found this new technology to be extremely fast. I hope ExpressVPN follows suit, but it’s not a major issue for the moment.

Servers and Server Locations

Part of what you are paying for with a VPN subscription is access to the company’s fleet of VPN servers. These are the machines through which your web traffic will flow. Generally speaking, it’s good to have a diverse distribution of servers, since this will ensure that you’ll be able to find one close by, no matter where you travel, and likely get better service because of that closeness. It also gives you more options for spoofing your location.

ExpressVPN offers 160 server locations across 94 countries. Among my top-rated VPNs, ExpressVPN offers the best balance of hardware and virtual servers in the most countries (more on this later). It has held this distinction for a long time, but  CyberGhost is catching up, offering servers in 90 countries. In addition to having the most server locations, ExpressVPN also excels in geographic diversity, with several in Africa and excellent coverage across South America—two continents often underserved or completely ignored by other VPN companies. ExpressVPN also maintains servers for some countries with repressive internet policies, including Turkey, and Vietnam.

A long list of available VPN servers

Some readers have expressed concern about virtual servers. These are software-defined servers, meaning that one piece of hardware can host multiple virtual servers. Virtual servers can also be configured to appear as if they are in a country other than where that physical hardware is located. Virtual servers aren’t necessarily bad, but the idea that your data may be heading to some country other than where you want it to go can be unnerving.

ExpressVPN is transparent about its use of virtual servers. An explanatory page says that less than three percent of servers are not physically located where they appear to be, and lists their true location. A company spokesperson confirmed this information. ExpressVPN explains that part of why it uses virtual servers is to provide better performance, but also for improved security. You wouldn’t necessarily want a VPN server within a dangerous country, as it could be tampered with, potentially revealing private information about its users. ExpressVPN’s Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam servers, for example, are all virtual. This sounds reasonable.

The only other VPNs that boast better coverage are PureVPN and HMA! VPN, which cover 140 and 190 countries, respectively. These companies, however, are heavily reliant on virtual server infrastructure. Of PureVPN’s 140 locations, 77 are virtual. Of the 190 countries of HMA!, only 56 are physical locations. I think ExpressVPN has a better approach, and one that feels more honest to customers.

That said, most consumers probably do not need a lot of server locations—virtual or otherwise. What they probably need are as many servers as possible, as near as possible to their homes. The average person probably doesn’t have a reason to tunnel into 90+ countries. This really cuts into ExpressVPN’s value proposition. The company offers an excellent service all around, but its best feature is really geared toward the frequent traveler, the business person, or someone with very specific needs.

Most VPN companies will spin up servers as needed (virtual or otherwise) to meet demand. As such, the overall number of servers is influenced by how many subscribers a company can boast. But a large server fleet also means you’re more likely to find an uncrowded server, potentially getting you better performance. ExpressVPN has over 3,000 servers at its disposal, placing it among the largest collection of servers we’ve seen. ExpressVPN, Hotspot Shield, Private Internet Access, and TorGuard all have over 3,000 servers but CyberGhost and NordVPN are at the top of the heap with well over 5,000 servers.

Your Privacy With ExpressVPN

When you use a VPN, you’re entrusting it with access to your web traffic. If the VPN company were lacking in morals, it could easily monetize your personal information much the same way an ISP can. The VPN might also be targeted by law enforcement to hand over information relating to its customers. This is why it’s important to read and understand a VPN’s privacy policy. Don’t worry, I’ve read the fine print for you. I’m happy to say that ExpressVPN goes to impressive lengths to protect customer privacy and secure its data and infrastructure. It’s one of the few companies whose claims have been tested by crisis, and clearly makes the effort to do well by consumers.

To its credit, ExpressVPN’s privacy policy is a reasonable length, though it could stand to be much easier to read. TunnelBear does an excellent job of being transparent to customers in an understandable way and more companies should emulate its efforts.

ExpressVPN is clear about the limits of its data gathering. The company says it stores no logs of user activity, originating IP address, the VPN IP you connect with, the session duration, nor a connection timestamp. That’s what you want to hear from a VPN company. Better still, ExpressVPN makes it clear in its policy (and verified to me) that it only generates revenue through the sale of VPN subscriptions. The company does not sell user data.

The company does, however, collect some information. It gathers the aggregate amount of data transferred by each user. It logs the most recent date, but not time, a successful connection has been made.  The company also notes which VPN location you connect with—but not a specific public-facing IP address. ExpressVPN stresses that this information is not sufficient to identify a specific individual, since it would be identical to many other users. Still, customers should always be skeptical of anonymized data, since it doesn’t always stay anonymous.

These policies have also been backed up by practice. A company representative proudly pointed out that when Turkish authorities seized an ExpressVPN server, investigators, “could not find any server logs that would enable investigators to link activity to a user or even determine which users, or whether a specific user, were connected at a given time.” Perhaps it is a good thing that ExpressVPN now uses a virtual server to cover Turkey.

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 would only be honored if the crime under investigation would be punishable by at least a year in prison in the British Virgin Islands. The hope is that this would slow down frivolous, or intrusive, investigations that would encroach on your privacy.

Some VPN companies have begun releasing the results of third-party audits in order to validate the security of their services. NordVPN commissioned an audit of its no-log policy, and TunnelBear has committed to releasing annual audits of its entire process. In 2019, the company released a third-party audit of its browser extensions, which did little to shed light on how the company handles data. In February 2020, ExpressVPN announced an audit from PricewaterhouseCooper that looked deeper at the company’s code and practices. Unfortunately, this report was not made available to the general public (as is often the case with PwC reports), but it’s a strong endorsement that ExpressVPN is keeping its word.

ExpressVPN is one of the few companies that told me it uses RAM only servers. That means servers are completely rebuilt at reboot, removing any nasty software hiding inside. It also makes them difficult to confiscate. Several companies, such as NordVPN and SurfShark, are moving toward diskless operation, but ExpressVPN has been there for some time. ExpressVPN also says it uses a cryptographic key scheme that assigns unique keys for each server and does not store those keys on disk, making it much harder for an attacker to impersonate an ExpressVPN server. Those servers, ExpressVPN says, are in third-party data centers that limit access to servers.

While I am satisfied with ExpressVPN’s efforts to protect customer privacy, you may feel differently. If you don’t feel you can trust a VPN, for any reason, I strongly suggest choosing a different service.

Hands On With ExpressVPN

I had no trouble downloading and installing the software on an Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH (Bean Canyon) desktop running the latest version of Windows 10. One quirk of ExpressVPN is that you don’t log in with a username and password, or a generated username as you do with Private Internet Access. Instead, you use an activation code found on the ExpressVPN customer portal. This might be confusing for some people, but it is certainly easier than having to enter it manually.

Once you’re logged in, ExpressVPN presents a minimal interface. The simple main window lets you connect and disconnect quickly, with a large, clearly marked button. It’s very straightforward, and, provided you’re not too put off by the odd login experience, very easy to intuitively understand. On all the successful connections after the first, ExpressVPN shows a list of shortcuts to apps and websites. You can edit this list from the settings, or turn it off completely.

ExpressVPN’s highly functional minimalism certainly helps give it a timeless look, but it’s not slick by any measure. SurfShark and NordVPN have some of the best looking and most engaging apps in the VPN industry, while TunnelBear doubles down with powerful bears and a bright yellow color scheme.

Additional windows let you sort and save preferred servers but I wish the app showed more information about each server, such as overall usage. 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. These test results tracked closely with my own.

ExpressVPN eschews specialized servers and upsell features, opting to instead offer a rock solid product out of the box. Everything you’d expect is here, like a Kill Switch to prevent apps from connecting to the Internet if the VPN is disconnected. Other network security features like integrated ad-blocking and anti-malware are not, but they’re not missed. Stand-alone options are generally better.

ExpressVPN also offers a rarely seen feature called split tunneling. When active, this lets you designate which applications send their data through the VPN’s tunnel or travel outside the tunnel, without encryption. If you have certain activities that are blocked when you use a VPN or are affected negatively by poor network performance, split tunneling is a useful workaround.

Windows showing the available VPN protocols

The ExpressVPN app falls into an unusual spot where it offers more features than just a set-and-forget operation, but not enough to really tweak your experience. The technically savvy and adventurous may even be frustrated.

If a VPN is configured incorrectly, it can potentially leak your real IP address, your ISP, or your DNS requests. I confirmed that my IP address was hidden and my ISP obscured. Using the DNS Leak Test, I found that ExpressVPN redirected all of my requests to the right spot, without leaking any information. Note that I only tested one server; other servers may be incorrectly configured.

ExpressVPN and Netflix

Streaming media is incredibly important for consumers, but streaming services like Netflix will sometimes block your access when you use a VPN. This is often in order to protect distribution agreements for streaming companies.

Fortunately, I was able to connect to Netflix while ExpressVPN was in use. Keep in mind that you may find yourself blocked, however since VPNs and Netflix are in an ongoing arms race over access.

Beyond VPN

Some VPN companies include additional features to help differentiate them from competitors. For example, NordVPN attempts to block advertising at the network level. Other companies attempt to block malicious URLs, or provide static public IP addresses. ExpressVPN does not offer these extras.

Speed and Performance

A perennial concern with VPNs is that using one will slow your internet connection to a crawl. While it is true that using a VPN will increase latency and reduce upload and download speeds, it’s usually a bearable experience. To get a sense of the impact a VPN has on your internet experience, we run a series of tests using the Ookla speedtest tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) I run through the nitty-gritty of our testing elsewhere, so be sure to read that if you’re curious about my methodologies.

Keep in mind that network connections are mercurial things, and your individual experience will probably differ from mine. Think of these results as more of a snapshot for comparison, rather than a final verdict on performance.

In my testing, I found that ExpressVPN performed well, increasing latency by only 65.2 percent. This beat out a median of 69.6 percent. My tests showed that ExpressVPN decreased download speed tests scores by 71.8 percent and upload speed test scores by 76.3 percent. The median result for these two categories is 68.5 percent and 63.6 percent, respectively. ExpressVPN cut fairly close to those figures.

You can see how ExpressVPN compares in the chart below with the top nine performers among the nearly 40 services we tested.

Table showing the nine fastest VPNs

According to my testing, Hotspot Shield VPN is the fastest VPN based on its comparatively small impact on download speeds and latency. Surfshark, however, is close behind, racking up a peerless upload score and narrowly missing Hotspot Shield’s download score. That said, I believe that features and overall value are far more important than speed, and discourage readers from judging a VPN solely off these results.

ExpressVPN on Other Platforms

ExpressVPN offers apps for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. I highly recommend that people use an app with a VPN, since it is easier to use, requires no manual configuration, and grants access to additional features. ExpressVPN also supports Linux users with a command line tool.

ExpressVPN also has plug-ins available for browsers, including Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. Note that browser plug-ins function as proxies, letting you change the apparent location of only your browser traffic, and don’t apply the same encryption found with VPN protocols.

ExpressVPN provides Fire TV and Kindle Fire apps, and instructions for using the service on Apple TV, PlayStation, and Xbox devices.

Tough Competition

ExpressVPN is the premiere service for frequent travelers, or anyone who absolutely must have a server in a specific location. Its small reliance on virtual servers and emphasis on secure hardware set it apart from other VPN services that boast big server distributions. It has made a strong commitment to the privacy and security of its customers, and has worked to make its product a better value by allowing the industry average of five devices. 

Despite its achievements, Editors’ Choice winners TunnelBear and ProtonVPN shine brighter, but not because of any failing on ExpressVPN’s part. These services simply offer a lot for less, making them more attractive to the average consumer. If you’re on the road often, require VPN access to a specific country, or are enticed by ExpressVPN’s privacy setup, however, ExpressVPN will not disappoint.

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