[Contest] Express VPN

As with any application, the user experience begins with the website and the download of the software. ExpressVPN is not just a piece of software though, it is actually more of a service. There is no way to retrieve the software or test this particular service on a Windows OS computer without first having an account. Taken from their own website here is a small Q&A snippet that addresses this:

Do you have a free trial?

We offer this only for certain mobile devices. However, we have a 30-day money-back guarantee with all subscriptions which means you can try our service for a full month with zero risk if you later change your mind.

The website has a large and clear “Get ExpressVPN” button to get you started on the creation of an account.

https://www.expressvpn.com/

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If you click that button you will be taken to the order page where you will need to fill in some information such as an email address and the type of payment you wish to use.

Starting with the standard Credit Card and PayPal options, which most sites have, it also allows the use of Bitcoin. If you expand the ‘Other’ section you will find quite a few more, some of which I have never heard of!

It seems they want to give the user a broad range of payment methods including a few anonymized services. These are great options to have available!

Once you have completed the creation of your account and access it (generally through an email link) you’ll be able to download the required files. There are a lot of options here and each one comes with a link to a tutorial page for that specific OS or device to help the user get things set up easily. These can also be found at:

https://www.expressvpn.com/vpn-setup

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Skimming over the pages I could not help but smile! They include detailed walk-throughs with pictures.

As I usually focus on applications for the Windows OS I continued with my download as seen above. Also notice part 2 of the screenshot on the right. Though blanked out above there is an activation code here you’ll want to make a copy of for later use.

I used a fully updated, but clean, Windows 7 x64 Virtual Machine as my main test bed. The download speed was quick and resulted in a fairly small installer file of about 3.4 MB’s.

The install interface was standard and simple to use. It did NOT include any extras or bundled, unrelated software, which can sadly be found in so many products these days.

HUGE Thumbs up on this choice ExpressVPN!

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Near the end of the installer there are two things worth noting. One can go by quickly and if you already have all versions of .NET installed can be ignored but in the picture below I have highlighted it.

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Upon seeing that a .NET version would be required I figured that I would need to create more Virtual Machines to properly test the installer in a variety of situations. After doing so I found that as long as your OS is up to date with more recent ‘Windows Updates’ most versions of windows will not encounter any issues.

It is important to note that if you are on Windows XP or Vista and you don’t have the .NET 3.5 framework installed you will need to add it to your computer. Attempting to launch ExpressVPN without it will greet you with an error alert similar to the one shown below.

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For easy reference the correct .NET 3.5 SP1 installers for XP and Vista are below:

Web Installer: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=22

Full Package: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=25150

After installing .NET (if you didn’t already have 3.5) be sure to check Windows Update for more security related updates!

Windows 7 comes with .NET 3.5 by default so its users will not need to keep an eye out here.

On Windows 8, a manual check is not required but the installation of .NET 3.5 might be! Thankfully instead of seeing an error you will be prompted to add the .NET 3.5 Framework.

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The next thing I want to direct your attention to is a prompt you should expect to see from Windows itself.

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This is because the ExpressVPN software makes use of an open source project called “OpenVPN” and is attempting to install the OpenVPN Network adapter driver/emulator used to route internet traffic through encrypted tunnels. Many VPN providers make use of the OpenVPN protocol so this was expected. If you are wanting to use the ExpressVPN Windows client you’ll need to press ‘Install’ or you will find that you are unable to make use of their service as the routing device will be absent. After the installation is completed and the ExpressVPN software opens you’ll be prompted for an activation code. This can be found on the same page (or email) you downloaded the software from.

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After inputting the code it will spend a few moments retrieving the required configuration files for your unique account.

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Then we will see the primary or ‘location’ screen:

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I’m not overly fond of windows that are not re-sizable like this programs. It did not prove to cause issues in this case but were the screen my virtual machine used any smaller it could have been ‘annoying’ at the least.

 

Every server in each list has a “→Connect” button beside it making choosing and starting a connection simple.

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After connecting I did a quick independent speed test from speedtest.net which happened to show up first in the browser search using the default search engine of bing in internet explorer.

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The program also has a button that will do this for you. ‘Run a speed test’ which then opens a new window and a ‘Run Test’ button which allows you to test the servers and display a report which can help aid you in your selection of the servers likely to give you the best experience.

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My next step was to download a decent sized file to see it in action. As I already had it on hand I went ahead and downloaded the Full .NET 3.5 installer from the link I included earlier. The file size was 231.5 MB’s and fluctuated between 300-800 KB /second. This was around 5 PM EST which seems to be the start of the ‘slow’ internet on my ISP end regardless of if I surf naked or not.

 

There can be a variety of factors that affect your speeds with any VPN provider. There is the connection through your ISP, (the demand on the actual ISP in your region at the time) the physical distance of the server you are being routed through (In my case this was New York) along with the number of people connecting through each server. Sometimes this can make it seem like a game of chance in order to find a fast connection though using the integrated speed test at peak usage times will likely help resolve this issue. I used Internet Explorer to download the file so it is possible that using a download manager might have boosted the speed somewhat but I opted to test videos next. I noticed a few slight hiccups but overall they played well (from youtube) without requiring me to pause them or ‘pre-load’ sections as I have needed to do with some other VPN providers around this time of day.

As I was already testing video playback over the VPN I decided to give the ‘Video Streaming Optimizer’ a try. It is not an encrypted tunnel like the standard VPN connections but could be helpful for users simply wanting to unblock certain sites by using what they call SmartDNS. The unblocked sites include ABC, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, ITV, Netflix, and perhaps more. I don’t live in an area where these or any social media sites are blocked so I was unable to test if this feature alone would allow me to access them…

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I found the grayed out ‘Back to Home’ button from the screenshot above a bit confusing. It is functional and will take you back but ‘generally’ a grayed out button means it is currently unusable so I am unsure why they opted to make it appear that way here.

After enabling it and monitoring the machine on my Primary OS’s firewall I can confirm that what they said was true, this is not done through the encrypted channels. It made direct connections from my actual IP just as they said it would. I *almost* wish I lived in one of these areas so I could better test this feature. I’d like to take a moment here to say ‘I’m Sorry.’ to all the folks who have to deal with such silly censorship! =(

I decided to test the service further by using a variety of servers and a torrent application to download an even larger file which allowed me to switch through various VPN servers without losing my download progress. For this test I downloaded an iso file of about 907 MB’s for the free privacy oriented ‘Tails OS’. The speeds I got here once again varied but overall they were very promising getting as high as 1MB/s at times but usually at least 600-800KBs after giving it a bit of time to gear up!

At this point I was satisfied with the speed tests and decided to call it quits then continue on with other features of the software itself. The main ‘Location’ interface is a bit cluttered for my tastes but there is no denying that they made it so simple my grandmother could use it! I believe they’ve done an outstanding job in that regard.

One of the few sections left to cover is the options button which will open another window with some important selections.

This screenshot shows the options before I messed with them manually.

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Each option is pretty self explanatorily as long as you understand what a DNS, ISP, VPN, etc.. is. According to ExpressVPN’s own site, ideally the Change Protocol selection would be on Automatic, unless you need to set it manually but, for some reason here it was on UDP.

 

The ‘Only use DNS servers by the VPN ‘and ‘While connected to the VPN, prevent any non-VPN connections’ selections are both related to potential leaks that can occur during the use of any VPN if a connection is dropped/interrupted. They are both nice privacy options to have selected where possible and I was happy to see them checked by default.

 

That said, I did take a quick peak and while they removed the default gateway as expected, I was surprised that they used google DNS servers!

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I’m sure this is not something unique to ExpressVPN but it did make me pause. Not everyone likes or trusts Google so it is something to keep in mind at the very least. Personally, I have no qualms with them and use their search engine often. I was assured that they were already in the process of moving away from using the Google DNS Servers but not all of the older locations have been updated.

 

Another tab of note is the gray‘All’ next to ‘Recommended for you’.

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Once again I found myself a bit confused as grayed elements tend to be reserved for currently un-selectable/non-usable things. Despite being gray in color, the button is usable and will show a longer list of servers which you may select from.

This brings me to the final part of the interface. The friend referral sections.

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There are two sections on the location and options windows that serve the same purpose. The one near the top blends in well and were it by itself I would only have mentioned it as I liked the idea. As it stands they seem somewhat redundant and wasteful so it would be nice to see a future version without two of these.

Both the “Learn How” and “Get Started >>” buttons open the same page in a browser.

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This feature is a nice touch as generally if people like an application, or in this case a service, they will tell friends about it. This offer could be helpful to current and future users alike with free time for doing something they’d be doing anyway. Big thumbs up on the opportunity presented here!

While I believe this concludes the software review portion, as I’ve mentioned before, this is not just a software product but a service! As such I’d like to continue rambling for a moment and point out another area I believe the website could use a minor improvement. Some users may make use of multiple VPN providers. If they do ~ they likely don’t install a multitude of vendor specific softwares but instead are likely to rely on the OpenVPN client alone. Strangely enough there is not a Windows OVPN section. There is a Linux section for these and a quick test on my end showed they were usable on the windows version as well. I’ll admit once again that if users are already using OpenVPN they are likely to be more advanced users and may be aware this is possible but it would be nice of you to add a subsection for Windows OpenVPN just in case as any user without this information could wrongly dismiss your service after glancing at the support page prior to testing it.

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Conclusion & Final thoughts:

Be sure that you have .NET 3.5 installed before attempting to run the software and I believe your experience will be as equally as pleasant as mine.

I’m not overly fond of paying before I try something and tend to avoid such solutions. In this particular case I think it could actually prove to be a boon. Without having servers bogged down by trial users the bandwidth is available only to customers. While they could certainly run trial specific servers, it would not give users a true measure of the service and could negate the purpose.

The software itself, while the interface is not up to my specific tastes, is very easy to use. Aside from the potential exception error on launch with certain OS’s due to not having .NET 3.5 installed I found no errors and experienced no crashes while using the software.

A little reworking of the colors of the ‘All’ and ‘Back to Home’ buttons away from gray to avoid potentially confusing simple folk ‘such as myself’ by making them think that they may not be currently usable will be a nice touch.

The options to protect your connection from leaks is a huge plus and not one that every VPN offers, even less so by default… Great choice here ExpressVPN!

Now for perhaps the most important part:

While it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any VPN to match the speeds of your ISP, I found the speeds with the ExpressVPN service to be more than acceptable and faster than some services I have tested. More often than not they were on the fast end. Keep in mind that your choice of servers (distance and number of users/time of day) can affect your speeds so it is possible your results will vary. Continue testing as they have many servers to choose from!

There is nothing about the service that has prevented me from using it and I can think of a few friends whom it might be perfect for. It’s certainly a worthy service to consider if you are hunting for a solid VPN provider!

I’d like to end with one last Q&A snippet taken from their support page:

Do you log my data?

We are a privacy-focused service and have a strict no logging policy! We do not track or monitor user activities while connected to ExpressVPN. For more details, view the Privacy Policy section in our Terms of Service.

Reviewer: byte

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