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You could be forgiven for assuming that a VPN from a bunch of CERN scientists who previously built a business around secure email wouldn’t produce the most exciting VPN client for macOS. ProtonVPN surpasses expectations, however, delivering many privacy features in a smart, flexible app, that can be experienced for free or at several affordable pricing tiers. For all that, it’s an Editors’ Choice for macOS VPNs.
What Is a VPN?
When you switch on a VPN, all of your internet traffic is piped through an encrypted tunnel to a remote server, from which it exits onto the internet. This prevents anyone from snooping on your network—including your ISP or ne’er-do-wells prowling insecure public WiFi. It also makes it harder for spies and advertisers to track you online, as it also hides your public IP address.
VPNs are valuable tools for improving your privacy online, but they can’t do everything. I still recommend that everyone use a password manager, activate two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and install an antivirus app.
Pricing, Features, and Privacy
I closely examine all aspects of ProtonVPN in my review of the Windows client. I’ll summarize the most important points here, but see my other review for a more nuanced view—particularly concerning the efforts individual VPN companies take to protect your privacy.
ProtonVPN offers four pricing tiers, billed either monthly or annually. The cheapest tier actually costs nothing, but offers only one simultaneous connection and access to servers in three countries. That said, ProtonVPN’s free subscription places no limit on the amount of data you can use, making it easily the best free VPN.
The first paid tier is the Basic subscription ($5 per month, $48 per year), which allows two devices to be connected simultaneously and grants access to more of its servers. P2P file-sharing is allowed at this tier. The next step up is the Plus subscription ($10 per month, $96 per year), which unlocks all ProtonVPN’s servers and five simultaneous connections, as well as additional privacy features I discuss below. The final tier, called Visionary ($30 per month, $288 per year), doubles the number of simultaneous connections to 10 and adds the highest paid tier of the four-star ProtonMail, a secure email service from the same company.
While I am not keen on companies that lock features behind tiered subscriptions, I do appreciate that ProtonVPN provides the essential services at even its free tier. Tiers also mean you can keep costs well below the $10.80 average that a top-rated VPN costs. For this review, I tested a Plus subscription. Note that while ProtonVPN ranks its tiers with different speeds, the company doesn’t throttle connections. These are just assumptions based on the number of servers available at each tier, and not necessarily reflective of performance.
While ProtonVPN is much more expensive than the most affordable paid service I’ve reviewed on macOS—Norton Secure VPN, which costs just $7.99 per month—it’s by no means the most expensive. CyberGhost and ExpressVPN both cost $12.95 per month. Although nearly every VPN offers discounted rates for longer subscriptions, I highly recommend customers start with a short-term subscription and see if the service really fits their needs.
In addition to its generous pricing, ProtonVPN stands out for its collection of excellent privacy features. ProtonVPN offers multi-hop connections, which it calls Secure Core. This routes your connection between two intermediary servers, for added privacy. The first hop connects you to a clutch of servers personally monitored by ProtonVPN and in secured facilities including (I’m not kidding) a defunct military bunker. The idea is that even if the second hop is somehow tainted by spies, they won’t be able to tell who you are because the first hop will be secure. Both NordVPN and Surfshark offer multi-hop features, but not with such extravagant additional protection.
ProtonVPN also lets you connect to the Tor anonymization network. This routes your connection through several volunteer computers, effectively hiding your movements online. You can also browse hidden websites on the Dark Web when connected to Tor. NordVPN is the only other service I’ve tested for macOS that offers access to Tor, although you can connect to the system without the help of a VPN.
What ProtonVPN doesn’t offer is split tunneling, which lets you route the traffic of specific apps within or without the encrypted VPN tunnel. Private Internet Access and ExpressVPN both offer this feature. ProtonVPN also doesn’t provide ad-blocking. That’s a shame, but not a deal-breaker, as I advise readers to use a standalone tracker blocker anyway.
The biggest asterisk on ProtonVPN is the size and scope of its server fleet. The company currently offers approximately 517 servers in 41 countries. That’s the smallest server count of all the VPNs I’ve tested for macOS, most of whom have between 1,300 and 5,900 servers. More servers doesn’t necessarily mean better service, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Covering 41 countries is fairly respectable, and ProtonVPN does a good job of distributing its servers across the globe. ExpressVPN and CyberGhost, notably, both cover over 90 countries with their respective networks.
Determining how well a VPN company protects your privacy is a complicated task and I encourage you to read the full review of ProtonVPN. The short version is that ProtonVPN takes privacy seriously. It does not log activity, keeping only a timestamp of an account log-in to prevent brute force attacks. The company only earns revenue through subscriptions and does not seek to monetize its users in other ways. The company operates under Swiss law, and it publishes a transparency report that shows it has never disclosed information about its customers in response to legal requests. The company has not yet undergone a third-party audit.
Hands On With ProtonVPN
I tested ProtonVPN on a 2019 Retina-5K 27-inch iMac running macOS Catalina (version 10.15). This particular machine sports 16GB of RAM and a 3.6 GHz eight core Intel i9 processor. The company offers downloads of the app direct from its site.
Given its privacy and security wonk pedigree, it’s fair to assume that ProtonVPN wouldn’t…