StrongVPN doesn’t have much name recognition outside of China. A common anti-censorship tool used to bypass the Great Firewall, the name will likely ring a bell among expats in Beijing and Shanghai. But compared to big flashy competitors that top Google search rankings, StrongVPN is a relatively reserved player.
Being low-key has its advantages. StrongVPN doesn’t draw much attention from those who would try to block it like Netflix and China’s advanced internet censorship system. It can fly under the radar and unblock just about anything.
A subscription costs $10 per month. By paying for a whole year up front, you can cut that price nearly in half to $5.83 per month. That’s just about average for a VPN; there are cheaper options, but we certainly wouldn’t call it expensive.
No free trial is on offer, but all plans come with a 5-day money-back guarantee, better than some but not on a par with industry leads such as ExpressVPN.
Deal alert: StrongVPN offer a 41% discount on their 12 month plan here, if you then add the coupon code ‘SAVE15’ at checkout and a further 15 percent discount is added to any plan.
StrongVPN operates servers in 43 cities across 20 countries. That’s not a huge number but it should get the job done for most users. Connect using one of four protocols: PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, or OpenVPN. We recommend OpenVPN as the most secure open-source option.
Users may connect up to two devices at the same time. Apps are available for Windows PC, Mac OSX, Android, and iOS. StrongVPN can be configured manually or with third-party apps on other devices.
Bandwidth is unlimited and there are no data caps.
When you dig into the options menu, it dawns on you just how customizable the VPN configuration can get. Most users will do fine with the default settings, but those who like to tweak settings can adjust everything from MTU size to HMAC authentication.
Among the settings are a couple noteworthy features. Disabling the “Allow traffic while reconnecting” option effectively implements an internet kill switch. That means if the VPN connection drops, no traffic will pass through your default ISP. This is an important function for torrenters and those connected to unsecured wifi networks.
There’s also an option to scramble, or “obfuscate”, traffic. This makes VPN traffic look like normal traffic. It might slow your connection a bit but it can be useful when bypassing anti-VPN firewalls.
The port list can be edited to your liking. Whichever ports you want to allow or disallow VPN traffic to travel through, just give the word.
Does StrongVPN work with US Netflix?
Yes, as of the time we wrote this review, StrongVPN could bypass the Netflix proxy error and be used to stream Netflix US. Note that we only tested Netflix in a web browser and StrongVPN may not work with a native Netflix app on mobile or streaming devices.
StrongVPN also works with Hulu as of time of writing.
Getting set up with StrongVPN is quick and painless. After registering an account and installing the software, just enter your email address and password.
The interface of the desktop client (we tested it on Windows 10) isn’t the most intuitive or well-designed interface we’ve seen. Three drop down menus allow users to choose a server, location, and protocol. Seems simple enough, but we ran into a few hiccups.
We recommend the OpenVPN protocol. PPTP is best avoided due to longstanding security vulnerabilities. L2TP and SSTP are also solid, secure protocols. Unfortunately, setting the protocol and server you want is a hair-pulling experience.
While all of the available cities are visible in the dropdown menu, another link just above this reads, “Change Location.” The option to change locations in the dropdown and in this button seemed redundant, but in fact they serve different purposes.
“Change Location” actually means “change server”. You can choose from a list of servers in a single location–say, New York–and filter them by protocol. The whole process from here gets extremely convoluted. Most VPN clients simply allow you to choose a location or server and hit connect. The protocol is set separately in the options or settings. Not so simple with StrongVPN.
When we clicked “Change Location”, a pop up gave us two options: select server by country (automatic) or manual selection. The automatic test didn’t work when we tried it. It supposedly takes a whopping 20 minutes to test all of the servers, but it seemed to just give up after a couple minutes.
So instead we used the manual selection and chose New York for our location. The only two protocol options are PPTP and OpenVPN, but in reality “PPTP” actually refers to all of the non-OpenVPN protocols including L2TP and SSTP. Once you’ve selected a location and protocol, a list of servers that fit those criteria appear. You can speed test them if you wish, but it’s a rather slow process. Just click Next and Switch to update your settings. The default server for that location will be swapped out with the new one.
Unfortunately, only one server config for a particular location can be stored at a time. If we wanted to change to the L2TP protocol, for example, we’d have to run the server switch process all over again. To make matters worse, the Windows client failed to retain the settings after switching locations. If I went through the trouble of setting up an OpenVPN connection to New York, then connected to London, and then went back to New York, the server would revert back to the default with SSTP.
If I didn’t manually select a protocol, which one I ended up connecting with seemed totally random. I could connect to London three times and get three different protocols. Even when I did use manual selection, I frequently encountered errors and servers that didn’t support the protocols listed.
If all you want is a VPN connection to a particular city or country, then there’s no need to mess with the “Change location” fiasco. But if the default server is slow or blocked, or you care about which protocol you’re using, then prepare for a tedious learning curve and a lesson in bad UX.
Once you’re connected, you’ll see your new IP address and a country flag for the server. The shield logo turns green in your system tray.
The system tray menu allows you to quickly connect or change accounts, but not much else.
The advanced options menu is full of useful tweaks and features including the internet kill switch, “scamble” obfuscation, and port list. You can also set your protocol preference, but as we’ve detailed above, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
The StrongVPN mobile app is a welcome improvement over its desktop counterpart. You can quickly adjust all of the major settings–location, protocol, scramble, and port–by clicking the slider button on the top right. Once that’s done, just click the big power button on the main page to connect.
The app is a bit cluttered. Headlines from StrongVPN’s block appear in a ticker along the bottom. Social media buttons are plopped near the bottom as well in case you want to … I don’t know … share the fact that you’re using a VPN? The server domain name, which is meaningless to the vast majority of users, is scrawled along the top.
A “Get Support” button with a chat icon gives the rather misleading impression that StrongVPN has live chat support. It doesn’t. More on customer support further down.
All that said, the mobile app (we tested it on Android) is much easier to use and configure than the desktop client.
Servers and performance
Out of StrongVPN’s 43 server locations, 10 are in the US and seven are in the UK. The rest are spread out among 18 other countries, primarily Asia and Europe. Some servers support PPTP, SSTP, and L2TP, while the other support OpenVPN. We performed all of our tests using OpenVPN over UDP. UDP and TCP are both available. TCP is more stable, but UDP is faster.
We were unable to initiate a connection with a few servers during our testing, so StrongVPN has a few duds. Once a connection is established, it’s very stable and rarely drops.
StrongVPN made short work of 1080p 60fps video. We never had to look at a buffering icon. We noticed some intermittent lag when playing Brawlhalla, a Super Smash Bros-style online fighting game, but it wasn’t enough to warrant frustration.
To test the speed more empirically, we downloaded the same 82.7MB file (compressed from 103MB) three times from three different servers at three different times per day for a total of nine tests. For comparison’s sake, we did the same without a VPN as a control group plus tests for HideMyAss, VPN Unlimited, and IPVanish. Our tester connected to servers on the East and West coasts of the US as well as one in the UK. In the boxplot below, the thick black line represents the median download time, while the red diamond represents the mean. Lower is better.
StrongVPN scored in the average range of our speed tests. The average times were pretty similar to IPVanish, a popular mainstream VPN. In particular, the US West Coast servers performed much slower than the average on HMA and VPN Unlimited, which dragged the averages up significantly.
Keep in mind that this test is not a definitive indicator of which VPN is fastest. The internet’s inherent volatility adds a significant factor of randomness, so VPN speed tests should always be taken with a big grain of salt. Our tester’s location is in Berlin, Germany where these tests are run on a 10 Mbps connection. Those with faster connections may well notice a larger discrepancy in speeds.
The OpenVPN protocol provides users with 256-bit AES encryption, a military-grade standard that’s never been cracked by brute force. The website advertises “up to 2048-bit” encryption for OpenVPN connections on the website, but a customer support representative told us that only 256-bit is available at this time.
All server IP addresses are shared, meaning dozens and even hundreds of people can use the same IP address at the same time. This adds a significant layer of anonymity and makes users harder to track, but can also make VPN servers easy to spot and block for websites and apps with anti-VPN firewalls. It seems StrongVPN doesn’t have the latter problem yet, as it seems capable of unblocking pretty much everything.
The IP addresses are also dynamic, meaning they periodically change. This also makes it more difficult to track individual users.
Customer support relies on a ticket-submission system on the StrongVPN website. There is no phone or live chat support, but staff are apparently on hand 24/7 every day of the year.
A query about the supposed 2048-bit encryption received a reply in less than five minutes, so it’s definitely speedy.
Other than some links to the company’s blog posts, the mobile and desktop apps don’t contain any advertising or promotions. We didn’t receive any unsolicited emails or other communication from the company during the test period.
The website’s knowledge base can answer a few basic questions, but doesn’t go into much depth. We found detailed information on things like encryption and the scramble feature hard to come by. A tutorial on how to switch servers–our largest complaint detailed above–would have been extremely welcome.
StrongVPN is great for users who want to unblock content like Netflix and Hulu or evade censorship like China’s Great Firewall. It falls short when it comes to design, as switching servers or protocols is a buggy and convoluted pain in the neck. There are a few server duds and download speeds were only average. The app’s kill switch and scramble features stand out among the litany of custom tweaks available in the settings. Security is top notch, but the company’s US headquarters might dissuade some users wary of government surveillance. Customer support lacks live chat, but email responses come swiftly.
If you do sign-up, use the offer code ‘SAVE15’ to get an extra 15% off the already discounted 12 month plan.