StrongVPN review: A clear and easy-to-use VPN ideal for coffee shop use

If you're hiding from a nation state or trying to prevent your government from knowing you're using a VPN, StrongVPN is not for you. But if you're a regular user who wants to make sure you're safe when surfing from your local coffee shop, StrongVPN is powerful, easy, and clear.

StrongVPN is an easy to use, reasonably simple VPN. If you mostly want to protect your surfing while out and about, StrongVPN is a strong solution. 


StrongVPN at a glance

  • Servers: 683
  • Locations: 70
  • IP Addresses: 59,500
  • Simultaneous connections: 5
  • Kill switch: yes
  • Logging: no
  • Price: $10/month, or 12 months for $69.99
  • Trial: 30-day refund guarantee
  • Supported platforms: iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows, Kodi, Fire TV, routers

As we'll show, if you're hiding from a threat, or need to prevent anyone from knowing you're using a VPN, StrongVPN is not the best solution. For most users with nothing to hide, StrongVPN is a nice solution. Their website and support materials are clear and easy to understand. Their setup user interface is also intuitive and offers just the right level of explanation when you need it.

Initiating a connection

StrongVPN is more respectful than some other VPNs upon first install…perhaps a bit too much, in fact. Many of the other VPNs I've looked at add a login table entry to start the VPN automatically on login. Some even just start a connection as soon as the install is complete.

But StrongVPN doesn't do that. The only option that's on by default is showing notifications. It doesn't automatically start, auto-reconnect, connect to the VPN when it launches, or enable the kill switch by default.

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This is great from one perspective: your machine isn't radically changed by the install. On the other hand, StrongVPN seems targeted straight at the less-than-knowledgeable consumer, who might not know to immediately go to the little gear icon to set up automatic services.

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It's a simple one-button press to have StrongVPN connect to what it thinks is the most optimal server at the time you're working. What might not be obvious to all users is that the label Best Available Connection actually houses a server connection menu. This is what happens if you click on it:

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There's a nice incremental search feature that will allow you to quickly search for the city or country you wish to connect to:

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Unfortunately, StrongVPN does not have a lot of choices here. The US and the UK have a bunch of cities to choose from, but other than Canada (which has three cities) and Germany, Brazil, and Australia (which each have two cities), all other countries only offer one city to choose from.

Of our six typical test locations (United States, Sweden, Russia, Taiwan, Australia, and India), StrongVPN does not offer servers in three of them: Russia, Taiwan, and India.

Protocol options

StrongVPN does well with its protocol options:

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It offers a good selection of reasonably strong protocols. We like the inclusion of the solid IKEv2 and OpenVPN, along with the ability to scramble OpenVPN connections. This isn't 100 percent reliable (because no bypass hack ever is), but it's a strong feature.

As of the time we published this review, StrongVPN was working on a new protocol technology they call WireGuard. According to the company, WireGuard outperforms OpenVPN and doesn't have the overhead of IKEv2. WireGuard is currently in beta, but the company hopes it will increase performance with a reduced CPU and memory load. We look forward to this interesting new feature.

The other thing we very much like are the clear explanations of the different protocol options, presented right in the dialog. For folks who aren't protocol wonks, it can sometimes be overwhelming and disconcerting to be presented with a page of critically-important buzzwords and no easy way to know how to make the right choice.

StrongVPN hits just the right balance for presenting information to make a useful decision, and doesn't overwhelm with too much information. This goes to show just how helpful a little consideration in app design can be. Well done.

Performance testing

I installed the StrongVPN application on a fresh, fully-updated Windows 10 install. To do this kind of testing, I always use a fresh install so some other company's VPN leftovers aren't clogging up the system and possibly influencing results. I have a 1 gig fiber feed, so my baseline network speed is rockin' fast.

To provide a fair US performance comparison, rather than comparing to my local fiber broadband provider, I used speedtest.net and picked a Comcast server in Chicago to test download speed.

For each test, I connected to each server three times. The number shown below is the average result of the three connections.

In looking at these numbers, it's possible to get carried away by the difference in the baseline speed compared to the VPN speed. That's not the best measurement, mostly because I have broadband over fiber so my connection speed is extremely high.

Also, if you look at the baseline speeds between my reviews, you may notice that they differ considerably going to the same cities. Keep in mind that speed tests are entirely dependent on the performance of all the links between the two locations, and that also includes time of day, how active those servers are, and how slow or fast the Internet is on a given day.

I used to commute to work from Berkeley to Mountain View in Silicon Valley. At midnight, that was a 35 minute drive. During rush hour, it was a two hour drive. The same kinds of traffic jams can hit the Internet. All this is to go to the recommendation I have in all my reviews; test for yourself. More on that later.

As I mentioned above, because StrongVPN does not have a server presence in Russia, Tawian, or India, I was unable to test performance to those countries.

Here are the results of my tests:

Speed Test Server

Baseline download speed without VPN (higher is better)

Ping speed without VPN (lower is better)

Time to connect to VPN

Download speed with VPN (higher is better)

Ping speed with VPN (lower is better)

Leaks

Chicago - Comcast

387.64 Mbps

57 ms

3.7 sec

44.47 Mbps

53 ms

No DNS leak, but definite leak that you're on a VPN

Stockholm, Sweden - AltusHost

81.37 Mbps

182 ms

6.3 sec

23.69 Mbps

214 ms

It's clear you're using StrongVPN

Perth, Australia - Telstra

122.05 Mbps

216 ms

4.7 sec

30.59 Mbps

289 ms

It's clear you're using StrongVPN

When you use a VPN service, it's natural for performance to drop. After all, you're running all your packets through an entirely artificial infrastructure designed to hide your path. The real numbers you should look at are the download speed and the ping speed. Are they high enough to do the work you need to do?

Ping speed is an indication of how quickly a response gets back to your computer after a network request is sent. The lag limitations here are due to actual physics. If you're sending a packet across the planet, it will take longer to hear back than if you're sending a packet across town.

Secure connection testing

Beyond the US, I tested connections to only Sweden and Australia. As mentioned above, Russia, India, and Taiwan were unavailable.

While I was connected, I also ran DNS and WebRTC leak tests (to make sure that DNS and IP are secure) using DNSLeak.com, ipleak.net, and dnsleaktest.com. These tests are basic security tests and not much more. If you're planning on using StrongVPN (or any VPN service) to hide your identity for life and death reasons, be sure to do far more extensive testing.

At first glance, it appeared StrongVPN failed the dnsleak.com DNS leak test:

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It's not leaking DNS information, but it is leaking the fact that the connection was made using StrongVPN.  A quick lookup for the IP 205.185.206.128 using the ARIN Whois service resulted in a listing that pointed directly at Strong Technologies as the customer:

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Any organization who wanted to determine whether a connection was coming in via VPN and take some kind of action could find this out. Of more importance, if you're in a country where VPN use is illegal, this kind of usage leak could be very problematic.

The obvious next step was to change the protocol from its default IKEv2 to OpenVPN and take advantage of the Scramble feature. Since Scramble is designed to "bypass network traffic sensors which aim to detect the usage of a VPN," I wanted to see if it would properly hide the IP address that points directly to StrongVPN.

This time I tried both the best available server and the Chicago server. StrongVPN chose a Seattle server as best available. This makes sense since I'm connecting from Oregon, just south of Seattle. That Best Available VPN connection resulted in an IP address report that did not, in any way, hide that I was using Strong's product:

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Chicago connected me to an IP address just two away from the one I used when I didn't have scramble turned on. Without scramble, I'd been connected to 205.185.206.128. This time, I was connected to .126. This, too, once again resulted in the identification of Strong:

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So, at least in terms of being able to easily detect whether or not you're using a VPN, Scramble is pretty much toast.

For completionist's sake, I also tested both IKEv2 and Scrambled OpenVPN connections to Stockholm and Perth. The Stockholm connection proved even less obfuscated than the US connection. Here, the ISP listed in the dnsleak.com's test was StrongVPN:

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So was the connection to Australia:

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If you simply want to protect your surfing while you're at a coffee shop or airport, StrongVPN is fine. But if you want to hide the fact that you're using a VPN, you'll need to look elsewhere.

The bottom line

There are three really important things to know when choosing a VPN:

  1. Does it log any of your data?
  2. Does it hide you while online?
  3. Is it fast enough to get done what you need to get done?

I can't independently verify the first question, but Strong does say they don't log any data. That question is probably the hardest to answer definitively, because none of the VPN vendors we've looked at have independent audits to verify their claims.

As for the second question, StrongVPN does hide your data, it does hide your originating location, but it does not hide the fact that you're using a VPN. For most people, that may not be an issue, but for some it might be a very serious matter, indeed.

As for the third question, for the locations I was able to test, the answer is a clear "yes." You can easily move files, stream YouTube, and do all your basic work while a VPN connection is active.

I like StrongVPN and for my purposes -- making sure no one at my favorite coffee shop can intercept my surfing -- it does a great job. But I'm not you.

If security is important, take advantage of Strong's 30-day money-back guarantee and give it a complete test. The only way you can truly know if it'll work for you is if you put it to work and find out for yourself.

See plans at StrongVPN


Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission on services featured on this page. Neither the author nor ZDNet were compensated by the vendor for this independent, unbiased review.


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