Google released the Android operating system, which is based on the Linux kernel, in 2007 to a lukewarm reception. Since then, Android has skyrocketed to become the most widely used operating system in the world. Android is primarily a mobile operating system, targeting mainly smartphones and tablets. It is also being used on desktops, TVs, game consoles, and other electronics, as well as watches and cars.
Android’s global dominance is a bit misleading, Windows still dominates desktops and laptops. But with the proliferation of mobile devices and Android’s dominance in the mobile sector, Android now holds a larger user base than any other operating system. If the past few years of mobile growth, are any indication that dominance will only increase.
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Android is an open-source operating system, although most manufacturers include many proprietary drivers and software in their systems. One of the main reasons for Android’s popularity is that there is an app for everything. As of the beginning of 2015, Google Play topped Apple’s App Store, with a whopping 1.43 million apps compared to Apple’s 1.21 million.
There is quite a bit of contention about viruses and malware when it comes to Android. Android utilizes a sandbox design, and unless you have rooted your phone, the user-level rights are limited enough to protect the system. In other words, on a stock system, apps should not have enough rights to infect your system. But you may have noticed that when you install an app from the Google Play Store, the app will request permission to access areas like your camera, microphone, or contacts.
Most Android malware has targeted explicitly given rights. For example, you may provide an app access to your messenger, and the app might send messages to a premium-rate telephone number, which will then bill your account. Anti-virus companies argue that there are many malicious apps out there and that you should use their services, while Google claims they are very rare indeed. In my experience, only installing apps from a trusted source and being vigilant about what I am installing has kept me safe so far.
Android, as to be expected, integrates nicely with Google services. Such as Google Drive, keeping your data synced and available in the cloud. The operating system has excellent memory and power management, tailored to mobile devices. Free development tools allow anyone with the inclination and talent the ability to develop apps. While access restrictions keep the casual user safe, those who are technically inclined can root many devices, allowing them full control over the device. Although, this typically voids the warranty and should only be attempted by those willing to chance bricking their device.
Security and Encryption
Since Android is primarily used on mobile devices, VPN services are almost a requirement. Imagine you are sitting in your favorite coffee shop, and not wanting to burn up your data plan, you are utilizing the coffee shop’s open Wi-Fi. At this point, all your unencrypted transmissions are open to anyone with a little technical expertise. For most of us, this is an unsettling thought, and this is where a VPN comes into play.
It should also be noted that while 4G data is encrypted from your device to the base station, once your carrier transmits your data out onto the Internet, it is in clear text unless you have taken measures to encrypt your data.
Android has the ability to configure VPNs natively in the popular L2TP/IPSec and PPTP protocols. However, PPTP is not considered secure, and since the Snowden revelations, L2TP/IPSec’s security has come into question.
However, many open-source, free, and proprietary apps support the OpenVPN protocol on Android.
VPNs have uses beyond protecting your bank account passwords, identity, and web traffic. One such feature is that of geo-unblocking. Imagine you are traveling from the UK to the States, and you do not want to miss all your favorite BBC shows. But to your dismay, you discover that the BBC iPlayer can only be accessed from the UK. Not a problem, just fire up a VPN to a server with a UK based IP and soon you will be streaming all your favorite shows.
Perhaps you are on a business trip, and you need access to your work’s file server. But only computers connected to your businesses LAN have access to that server. Not a problem, fire up a VPN to your business, and you will appear to be on your LAN and able to access your files. Maybe you left your favorite photos on your file server at home, and you want to bore Aunt May with them. Connect to your router’s VPN server, and you are good to go!
Android Apps & VPN Providers
Although a lot of convenient VPN client apps are available in the Google Play Store, many VPN services provide their own custom apps. Often, these provider apps simplify VPN setup and offer other value addition, such as secure IP or server changes.
Strong encryption is often computationally intensive. As mobile devices are not usually as powerful as desktops, the efficiency of the encryption apps and ciphers can be a throughput bottleneck. I have personally seen my entry-level Android phone unable to achieve the throughput of my desktop due to processing limitations.
An issue with proprietary VPN apps is that providers often do not follow the same quality assurance you will often find in open source or commercial apps. We have analyzed the apps and VPN services with Android mobile computing in mind, and here is what we have found:
[Price $9 per month / $6 for 6 months / $4.80 for 12 months]
VPN.AC is a technically impressive VPN provider based in Romania. As Romania has declared EU data retention laws unconstitutional, VPN.AC is not required to log your data. They keep very minimal logs for support purposes and do not log any user connection information. They support the highest encryption standards in the industry. Their Android app has a simple but effective configuration. I like that unlike other providers, they allow you to choose from their many protocols and ports, as well as their server locations. Their app might not wow you with a bunch of eye candy, but it will impress you with its no-nonsense, easy to use, and extensive configuration capabilities.
What a pleasure reviewing their service and interacting with their support has been. Most providers offer online chat support, VPN.AC is one of the few to provide email support. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they also supply a GPG key for their email, and they know how to use it! My email correspondence has been encrypted end-to-end, and their replies prompt, courteous, and well informed. They offer more protocols and encryption levels than most providers. Their network is not nearly as vast as some of the big players, but what they lack in a sheer number of servers, they more than make up for in the quality and speed of their service. Their network status and load are informatively displayed on their website.
Their Android app is available on the Google Play Store. Their app allows you to select a server based on location, protocol, and port. Many of the apps I have reviewed had overly simplistic methods of choosing the VPN server that often did not provide me with the best server. VPN.AC is one of two VPN providers who utilize Elliptic curve cryptography (ECC). ECC uses much smaller key sizes as compared to RSA for the same cryptographic strength. Thereby making ECC more efficient, which is particularly important on mobile devices.
Their app is clean and straightforward and gives you most of the information you need to know. The one thing I would like to see is a report of the cipher and key strength. The feedback in the status bar is excellent, including the typical key icon when you are securely connected to a VPN. It also displays current throughput and total data transferred. Their app is a slightly modified version of the open-source OpenVPN for Android app, which I will cover more later in this article.
The only con I can find is that they have a smaller network than many top VPN providers. Still they have servers located strategically around North America and Europe with a smattering in Asia and one in Australia. They offer a one-week trial account for $2 and a 7-day money-back guarantee on regular accounts. They allow three simultaneous connections, P2P traffic, no speed limits, 2 TBs per month of data, secure DNS, and no connection logs. PayPal, Bitcoin, CashU, Credit/Debit cards, and other payment methods. Their online chat support is not 24/7, but their email and ticket response is excellent. They also provide one of the best web client portals I have used. VPN.AC is doing it right. Fast, reliable, inexpensive, I can not recommend them highly enough.
[Price: $12.95 per month / $9.99 for 6 months / $8.32 for 12 months]
ExpressVPN offers a one-day free trial when you download their app from the Google Play Store. You can choose a VPN server from their vast network of global servers, or allow the app to find a server for you. The recommended servers can be chosen based on different criteria, such as the fastest, geo-unblocking, security, etc. Like most automatic tests, the results are varied. I found the app picked a reasonable choice, but typically not the best choice. The app has a pretty simplistic interface, but it gets the job done and reports throughput and total data transferred. It does allow you to chose between the TCP and UDP protocols but not port numbers. ExpressVPN also allows the manual setup of PPTP and L2TP/IPSec on Android. Speeds and latencies are reasonable.
They offer chat, email, and contact form support. Their website is excellent and offers many tutorials and troubleshooting. They have a no-log policy, offer a 30-day money-back guarantee and accept debit/credit cards, Bitcoin, PayPal, and other forms of payment. The only information they offer on their encryption is that they use “256-bit encryption”. I contacted support asking for specifics about their ciphers and key lengths, but they replied in kind that they offer “256-bit encryption”. A nice bonus is that I was able to move their app to my SD card without having to root my device. This was the only app I was able to do this with.
Their no-nonsense Android app just works. With their reasonable pricing and support of many other platforms, there is little not to like. If you are looking for a more established player, you can’t go wrong with our second top choice for Android VPN providers.
[Price: $9.99 per month / $5.00 for 6 months / $5.00 for 12 months]*(note: TorGuard has tiered pricing based on services. This pricing reflects their Pro VPN Service)
TorGuard’s Android app is available in the Google Play Store and is easy to install and configure. Their app offers something not found in the other apps reviewed here, that should be standard, reporting the protocol and the cipher being used. However, it does not indicate key size. The bad news is they are using the BF-CBC cipher, which as I have mentioned before, is not as efficient as the AES cipher. Still, their speed tests came out as one of the fastest of the services I reviewed on my Android phone. One of the first things I noticed after signing into a server was a banner message “no torrents allowed”. If you want to do P2P, you will need to find one of their servers that allows it.
Something odd I also noticed is that my status bar had two key icons in it. I am running the older Android Jelly Bean, but I didn’t have any issues with other provider apps. When I checked my notifications, I saw that OpenVPN and TorGuard VPN both have a status. The OpenVPN status displays the current throughput. This is only a mild distraction, and there was no harm that I could see. I suspect their app is a modification of the OpenVPN for Android app which behaves similarly. The main TorGuard app screen gives your information on your local and public IP.
TorGuard is also a major VPN provider with a vast global network. There is no automatic server selection, but they do offer a nice list of the servers by location and the service they are optimized for, such as torrent, stealth, etc. TorGuard allows five simultaneous device connections on a wide variety of platforms. So, if you are looking for a global provider to use on multiple devices, TorGuard might be your ticket. Their Android app supports their Stealth VPN service. If you connect to one of their “Stealth” servers, it will mask your traffic to look like normal HTTP traffic in order to bypass restrictive firewalls and Deep Packet Inspection. TorGuard does not log activity and supports a wide variety of platforms.
[Price: $7.95 per month / $7.15 for 6 months / $6.91 for 12 months]*(note: ibVPN has tiered pricing based on services)
Invisible browsing VPN offers a 15-day free trial when you register with their Android app. No credit cards required, so you have nothing to lose by trying them. You are limited to one simultaneous connection, but that is fine for evaluation purposes. You also have a limited number of servers you can connect to, but again you can not really complain for the price. 🙂 My speed tests were better than some of the premium services that I have tested. They are another provider with a very nice client portal. They are a Romanian based corporation and, for the moment, are not subject to EU data retention laws. One thing I did notice is that if you run a second app, it will fail and not detect the currently running app. However, by using the pull-down status screen, I was able to access the app and then hit configure to get back to the running app. The app is pretty simplistic, you can choose port, protocol, and server location. It looks like they are using the BF-128 cipher, and I am unsure if this is just on their test accounts. One thing I really liked about their app was its status logs. Which is something I think all the apps should offer?
Hide My Ass!
[Price: $11.52 per month / $8.33 for 6 months / $6.55 for 12 months]
Hide My Ass! is one of the top VPN providers in the world. Their Android app is available in the Google Play Store. HMA! has many servers available across the globe, allowing geo-unblocking, privacy, and security. Their app is easy to set up and use. On the downside, HMA! uses the BF-128 cipher, which is not as efficient or secure as the AES cipher. I found that my phone struggled to keep up with this inefficient cipher.
HMA! has a vast number of available servers worldwide. Their app offers a bookmark option to save your favorite servers. The app also makes verification of your IP address and changing your IP address as trivial as pushing a button. Their app also has a status line showing throughput, total usage, and server connection. HMA! is a top provider, and you can read my full review of their services via the link in the top six table below.
[Price: $9.95 per month / $7.49 for 6 months / $4.16 for 12 months]
PureVPN is one of the top VPN providers. It is a feature-rich global player with a large network. Their Android app is simplicity itself, perhaps too simple. Since my initial review of PureVPN they have updated their app. The fancy traffic meter appears to be gone in this version, perhaps to ease up on processing power. Despite this, I am still achieving much better throughput on my Android laptop as compared to my entry-level Android phone. For comparison, I connected to their service using the open-source OpenVPN for Android app, but the performance was worse than PureVPN’s app. PureVPN uses military-grade encryption with the AES-256-CBC cipher. What I do not like about PureVPN’s app is the server selection. They make it very simple, you can choose by country or purpose. However, I found that their simplistic algorithm did not choose the fastest server for me, and there was no way to override this. Still their vast network and easy to use network pushes PureVPN into the top 6 Android providers.
OpenVPN for Android App
[Price: free and open source]
*Requires a VPN service or your own OpenVPN server.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the open-source OpenVPN for Android App by Arne Schwabe. Many of the custom VPN providers’ apps are based on this code. It can be a little more difficult to configure than custom apps, but it will work on any OpenVPN service that adheres to the open-source OpenVPN protocol. It can manage many profiles from many providers all in one app. What I particularly like about this app is its logging function. While most VPN provider apps fail to tell you the ciphers and other interesting information, this app will provide complete ciphers’ details. Also, being an open-source app, it is likely to be more secure than custom apps due to the amount of peer-reviewing the code goes through.
A few providers have customized their servers for specific tasks, but these are not strictly OpenVPN protocols. Although many providers support L2TP/IPSec and PPTP on Android, all the apps reviewed in this article are utilizing the OpenVPN protocol. If you would like to know more about it, you can read my OpenVPN guide.
Top 6 Android VPN providers
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