StrongVPN made many much-needed improvements in 2018, including a complete overhaul of its apps. What used to be a buggy, tedious, and confusing interface is now a clean, intuitive experience. But will it be enough to keep up with the competition in a crowded market? That’s what this 2019 StrongVPN review aims to find out.
Features and pricing
Prospective customers can choose from two plans, both of which offer the same service and come with a 30-day money-back guarantee. The only difference between the two plans is whether you pay monthly or yearly. The monthly plan costs $8 per month and the yearly plan $4.66 per month. Those prices are fairly middle-of-the-road when it comes to VPNs.
StrongVPN accepts all major credit cards, PayPal, Alipay, and bitcoin. The only other information needed to sign up is an email address. If you want to anonymously purchase a subscription, you could use a burner email and properly mixed bitcoin.
A single subscription enables you to connect up to five devices at one time. Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. Linux and other devices that support VPN protocols can be configured manually.
StrongVPN supports L2TP, SSTP, OpenVPN UDP and TCP, IPSec, and IKEv2 protocols. It’s good to see that the provider dropped support for PPTP, which was simple to set up but inherently insecure. We recommend using OpenVPN or IKEv2 for optimal speed and security.
StrongVPN doesn’t limit bandwidth or impose a data cap. P2P filesharing is tolerated on all servers.
An internet kill switch and DNS leak protection are both included. More on those in the security section.
StrongVPN utilizes its own private DNS servers and even offers a standalone smart DNS proxy service, dubbed StrongDNS. We won’t delve too much into the StrongDNS service in this review, suffice to say you can use it to unblock geo-locked content but won’t get the privacy or security bundled with the VPN. If your device doesn’t support VPN apps but does allow you to alter the default DNS servers, this could be a good alternative for unblocking geo-locked content.
Does StrongVPN unblock Netflix?
Yes, StrongVPN unblocks US Netflix. Netflix has blacklisted most VPN servers, resulting in a playback error that most providers can’t bypass. We tested it on Netflix in a web browser and on the Netflix mobile app for Android. Whereas most VPN providers struggle with the Netflix app, StrongVPN unblocked US-only content with ease.
We were able to unblock Netflix on the first server we tested, but that’s no guarantee that they all work. We recommend contacting the live chat customer support service to ask which servers work with Netflix if you’re struggling to find a compatible server.
In addition to Netflix, StrongVPN unblocks Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and BBC iPlayer as of the time of writing. Like Netflix, finding a server that works depends on a bit of trial and error or asking customer support.
Does StrongVPN work in China?
Yes, StrongVPN works in China. It should bypass the Great Firewall on any device, but the desktop apps offer traffic obfuscation that makes OpenVPN traffic more difficult to detect. This obfuscation feature is called “Scramble” and can be toggled on in the settings.
StrongVPN will unblock censored sites like Facebook, Youtube, video streaming sites, and western news sources from mainland China. Likewise, it should work in other countries that censor the web.
Note that the StrongVPN website is blocked in China, so be sure to sign up and download the apps ahead of your visit.
Setup and interface
StrongVPN went from being one of the most overly convoluted VPN apps to being one of the simplest, almost to a fault. For the purposes of this review, we’ll be using the Windows and Android apps.
StrongVPN desktop app
To download the StrongVPN desktop app, go to the home page and click Account, then go to StrongVPN Client. From there, you can download the app and install it with a simple install wizard. You don’t even need to restart your computer to start using the app.
The desktop app features a world map that’s there for aesthetics more than anything else. You can’t click on a country in the map to connect to it. Instead, clicking the location button beneath it brings up a list of server locations sortable by city or country. The default option is “Best Available”, which automatically selects a location according to proximity and server load.
The servers aren’t labeled according to use case, which makes finding one for a specific purpose a bit tedious. For example, you just have to guess which ones unblock Netflix or contact customer support to ask. There’s also nothing to indicate latency, bandwidth, or current server load and capacity.
Once you’ve selected a server, the main page will display your assigned IP address and the duration of the VPN connection. Again, information about the connection is limited: there’s no readout of upload or download rate, in particular. For most people, though, the barebones interface won’t really matter.
Clicking the cog icon at the top right of the app brings up a settings menu with five tabs: Options, Protocol, Information, Diagnostics, and Updates.
- Options include general settings such as starting the app on system boot, auto reconnect, and the kill switch. If you’re having trouble connecting, you can click the button to reinstall the TAP driver, which resolves many issues.
- Protocol enables you to choose a VPN protocol.
- Information is where you’ll find account and app version info.
- Diagnostics is a local connection log file. This is mainly used for troubleshooting.
- Updates lets you check for updates, set the frequency of update checks, and opt into the beta version of the app.
If you close the app window, the StrongVPN process will keep your VPN connection alive by running in the background. A system tray icon can be used to quickly connect and disconnect without opening the app.
StrongVPN mobile app
The mobile app looks almost identical to the desktop app with smartphone dimensions. It’s available on Google Play and the Apple App Store for Android and iOS, respectively. You get the same map, time connected, IP address, and location picker as the desktop version.
The settings menu is simplified so it only uses a single page instead of five tabs. Here you can see account information, change protocol, alter connection settings, and choose a remote port number.
The app is very lightweight and easy to use. For most people, the simplified interface is all you’ll need to get up and running, but more advanced users might find it a bit limited.
Servers and performance
StrongVPN operates more than 650 servers in over 20 countries, which is on the low end when compared to many of its rivals. Most of the servers are in North America and Europe, with a smattering in Asia and South America, and nothing in Africa.
StrongVPN performed well in day-to-day use. We encountered no issues or mid-playback buffering when streaming 1080p video. We were also able to play fast-paced online games with very little to no lag when connected to to the default “Best Available Location” server.
We aim to be as empirical as possible when testing VPNs. Normally, we manually configure the VPN to be used in our automated testing service, but due to some technical limitations, this was not possible. Instead, we went with old-school manual testing. Our tester downloaded the same file (~100MB) from a server in Oregon at three different times of the day using three sample VPN servers. We compared the results to other VPNs that were tested in the same manner as well as a control test without a VPN. The tests were performed from Toronto, Canada using servers in the US West, US East, and the UK. In the boxplots below, the thick black line represents the median download time, while the red diamond represents the mean. Lower is better.
StrongVPN’s average download speed landed it in the middle of the pack between Ivacy and NordVPN. Overall it was a bit more volatile than Ivacy but more stable than NordVPN, indicated by the smaller box.
Note that these tests aren’t definitive and can only serve as a general indication of the performance you might experience. The inherent volatility of the internet adds a significant factor of randomness, so these tests should be taken with a grain of salt. They were run while using a 60 Mbps connection, so you’ll likely see discrepancies with a faster or slower internet connection.
Privacy and security
StrongVPN is based in the USA, which might put off some prospective users worried about the NSA and FBI spying on them. That being said, StrongVPN says it does not store any traffic or connection logs of any kind. If a government or other entity requests customer activity data from StrongVPN, it will have no information to hand over.
StrongVPN recommends using either the OpenVPN or IKEv2 protocol in the latest versions of its apps. IKEv2 is growing in popularity across the industry, especially on mobile devices. IKEv2 can get connected and reconnect very quickly, and doesn’t suffer from any known security vulnerabilities. If you want a solid open-source protocol, however, then go with OpenVPN.
StrongVPN’s new apps use the following security parameters with OpenVPN in TLS mode:
- AES-256-CBC channel encryption
- 2048-bit Diffie Hellman RSA key
- SHA256 authentication
- Perfect forward secrecy
IPSec’s Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) provides data integrity, encryption, authentication, and anti-replay attack functions on IKEv2 connections:
- AES-256 channel encryption
- 8192-bit Diffie Hellman MODP key
- SHA512 authentication
- Perfect forward secrecy
Both protocols and their associated encryption suites will provide more than enough security for the vast majority of users.
The old app and manual configuration files likely won’t utilize the most up-to-date security standards. StrongVPN as of late has focused its efforts on improving its apps for popular devices and operating systems—Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. The company has moved away, at least for now, from unsupported devices like routers and set-top boxes that require manual configuration. You can still set up StrongVPN with the old configs, but be aware that they might not use the most up-to-date encryption parameters.
An internet kill switch is built into the desktop apps, but not the mobile apps. Furthermore, it can only be enabled when using the OpenVPN or L2TP protocols. The kill switch will halt all internet traffic going to or from your device if the VPN connection unexpectedly drops, preventing unencrypted data from leaking outside the VPN tunnel. This is particularly useful for P2P filesharing when you don’t want to expose your real IP address.
DNS leak protection is not explicitly listed, but StrongVPN did not leak any DNS or WebRTC traffic during our tests. Securing WebRTC is particularly notable, as many VPN apps fail to prevent WebRTC leaks. WebRTC is a protocol used for voice and video chat and is enabled by default in many browsers. Even with microphone and camera permissions granted, StrongVPN did not leak WebRTC on either desktop or mobile.
StrongVPN offers live chat and email support on its website, and staff are available to answer questions around the clock.
It took about 10 minutes to get a support rep on the live chat, despite being the first person in the queue. After asking a technical question about encryption, I was immediately redirected to a technician, which took another 10 minutes or so. The technician was competent and able to answer most of my questions but was rather secretive about certain encryption parameters used in the apps. We found the lack of transparency a bit disconcerting; we didn’t ask anything we thought to be sensitive. A tool designed to improve privacy and security should be as transparent as possible about such things.
The website contains manual setup guides, troubleshooting tips, and an FAQ section. These are a bit lean and really only scratch the surface of a few basic support topics.
StrongVPN’s recent overhaul breathes new life into this veteran VPN provider. The deskop and mobile apps are far more user-friendly than the older versions, and the security has been significantly upgraded on all fronts. You can use StrongVPN to unblock Netflix and many other streaming channels that most other VPNs can’t access, even from China.
Speed was good but not great on the whole. It should be enough to satisfy most customers, but those with fast fiber-to-the-home connections will probably want a bit more bandwidth. We found customer support to be somewhat lacking—StrongVPN could benefit from faster response times and more online resources—but in the end we got the answers we sought.
While StrongVPN has made strides in some areas, it’s falling behind in others. Many of its rivals operate servers in triple or even quadruple the number of countries. While the simplified UI of the apps is definitely an improvement on that of their predecessors, it might be too simple for some who want more customization and details about their connection. Finally, we wouldn’t recommend StrongVPN for devices that don’t support the apps and require manual configuration.