ExpressVPN (for Android)
Using your cell phone can put you at risk, but not in the way most people think. TV and movies tell us about sophisticated hackers going after us personally, but malicious Wi-Fi networks hoovering up data from anyone who happens to connect to them are a far more common risk. To protect against this very real scenario—and others—are virtual private networks, or VPNs, such as ExpressVPN. This Android app secures your connections, over Wi-Fi or cellular, to make sure no one is spying on you. This particular service offers a thousand VPN servers across the globe, but is otherwise a relatively basic and high-priced offering. ExpressVPN is a solid offering, but it does not unseat my picks for the Top Android VPN services: Editors’ Choice winners NordVPN and Private Internet Access.
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What Is a VPN?
Antivirus software will protect you from malicious applications eager to steal your data or force you to pay a hefty ransom. But few of us probably think about the security of the data flowing to and from our phones. That’s where a VPN comes in.
When you’re connected to a VPN service, the app creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server. That means that anyone snooping on the Wi-Fi network you’re using can’t see any of your information. Because your Web traffic enters and exits the open Internet from the VPN server, it has the same IP address as that server. Trackers embedded into advertisements and spies watching your movements online will have a much harder time keeping tabs on you.
VPN services also let you circumvent restrictions placed on Internet access. For political activists and journalists working abroad, VPNs are a critical tool for freely accessing and relaying information. But you can use the same technology for more entertaining ends, like streaming BBC shows in the US, or signing in to Netflix from abroad.
Whenever I write about VPNs, I’m usually writing about how they can protect your data when you connect to public (and potentially bogus) Wi-Fi networks. But similar attacks can be carried out over your cellular connection as well, though these are fairly exotic and rarely seen. To do it, the attacker sets up a portable cell tower such as a Femtocell and then jams the LTE and 3G bands, forcing phones to connect to the phony tower with a 2G connection. For those who are unaware, the encryption protecting 2G data has already been cracked. With a VPN, your data has an additional layer of security.
Pricing and Features
I did a thorough examination of the ExpressVPN service, its pricing, and its core features in my review of the Windows client. Be sure to read that review to get a complete picture of the ExpressVPN experience.
The company has software for Windows, Mac, iPhone, Linux, and Blackberry devices, in addition to Android. You can also purchase a Linksys WRT1200AC/WRT1900ACS with ExpressVPN software preloaded. The advantage of a VPN-enabled router is that every device connected to your wireless network will get the benefit of VPN protection—that includes things like smart fridges and game consoles.
That might be important because ExpressVPN only allows three devices per account. This might be enough for one person, but it’s certainly not for a large household. Even a two-person household is likely to need more than three licenses to protect all its PC and mobile devices. Most other services allow at least five devices. Three is disappointing, especially considering that ExpressVPN’s $12.95 per month price tag is on the higher end for VPN services. You can also purchase a six-month subscription for $59.95, or a yearlong plan for $99.95.
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited is far less expensive, at only $4.99 a month. There are also several excellent free VPN services available for Android, if you’re not into that whole capitalism thing. ExpressVPN does not have a free version, but it does offer a 30-day money back guarantee.
With ExpressVPN for Android, you can access VPN servers in 87 countries) and 1,000 servers across the globe. Unlike some VPN services, ExpressVPN gives you full access to the same servers on the desktop as on the app. It’s still a good assortment of servers, but note that Private Internet Access, has thousands of servers spread across hundreds of locations, and can even block ads.
ExpressVPN does allow BitTorrent and P2P file services, but NordVPN goes further. With the NordVPN Android app, you can choose from specific servers for activities like high-speed video streaming, and accessing the Tor anonymization network.
Hands On With ExpressVPN
I had no trouble downloading the ExpressVPN Android app from Google Play onto my Nexus 5X. All I had to do was log in, and the clean, simple app was ready to connect me. The interface consists of a large button you click to connect to the VPN, with the option to change your VPN server below it. By default, it connects you to what the app believes is the fastest server.
A hidden tray lets you adjust a few settings, such as choosing UDP or TCP (by default, the app selects the protocol automatically). Beyond that, there’s not much in the way of advanced settings. If you opt to select a specific VPN server, perhaps to view region-locked content, ExpressVPN has some tools that can help. A search bar at the top lets you search by country or city. A handy ping test next to that adds latency times to each of the servers listed on the page and color codes them by speed. If you have a server you use often, you can add a star to place the server in your Favorites list.
I like how ExpressVPN handles server selection, but the NordVPN app provides a superior experience. Its map view is more interactive, and feels a lot more like a mobile app. It also clearly shows its specialized servers, such as those for high-speed video streaming and BitTorrenting. ExpressVPN has some fast servers and allows P2P or BitTorrent, but it doesn’t mark its servers clearly or seem to maintain specialized ones.
One thing that confused me about the ExpressVPN app is a link at the bottom of the screen offering to install a mobile version of the ExpressVPN app. Tapping it opens a webpage with a link to ExpressVPN in Google Play and a link to a downloadable APK of the ExpressVPN app for side-loading. It’s a confusing little wrinkle that might throw off some users. It certainly gave me pause.
No matter the VPN service you chose, it will have some effect on your Internet speeds. That’s just the nature of the beast. Usually, you’ll experience lower download and upload speeds, as well as increased ping time (a measure of the latency measured in milliseconds, or time it takes to hear back from a server you contact). In some rare instances, as with PureVPN, you may experience improved speeds, likely because of powerful network infrastructure overseas. Your mileage will vary.
While most of the discussion around VPNs centers on Wi-Fi networks, a VPN can protect your cellular data as well. But when I perform my speed tests, I deactivate mobile data and only use the Fios Wi-FI network within the hallowed walls of PCMag Labs. This lets me control for more variables, as mobile devices have a tendency to jump between different cell towers. If the VPN app automatically selects the best server, I use that one for testing. If not, I select the server closest to my actual location.
I perform several speed tests using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app with the VPN active and without (note that Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis). I then average the results and calculate a percent change from the baseline test. Keep in mind that this is just a snapshot of performance at a particular moment in time. Networks are notoriously finicky, and your mileage may vary.
My testing revealed that ExpressVPN had minimal impact on latency, resulting in ping times that were 83.3 percent longer than my baseline. The best score for this test is the NordVPN app, the use of which resulted in 32 percent longer ping times.
For download speeds, I found that ExpressVPN slowed downloads by 65.8 percent, which is more or less par for the course. The Private Internet Access app has the best score in this category: It slowed downloads by just 10.25 percent. That performance didn’t extend to uploads, where ExpressVPN now holds the dubious distinction of causing the most impact of any service I’ve yet tested. It slowed uploads by 66.97 percent. The best performer in this test, SpotfluxVPN for Android, actually improved upload speeds by 6.49 percent.
In addition to speed tests, I take some time to browse the Web and access Netflix through the VPN. For regular Web browsing on Wi-Fi, ExpressVPN had little to no impact on my browsing—even on pages with numerous media elements. Unfortunately, I was not able to access Netflix while ExpressVPN was enabled. The service also does not provide ad-blocking, meaning that you’ll have no respite from annoying mobile advertisements.
ExpressVPN does a great job of offering an easy, simple app that grants access to numerous VPN servers. The company boasts more than 1,000 servers, putting it into a unique class of VPN service. The app makes sifting through those options a breeze, which I really appreciate.
But beyond that, ExpressVPN offers few additional services. It also costs significantly more than other, more feature-rich offerings. With that in mind, I recommend my Editors’ Choice winners, NordVPN and Private Internet Access, for anyone who wants to keep their Android Wi-Fi and cellular traffic private.