Disclaimer: The below review is my opinion, which I will try to provide as many examples for and as much evidence as possible to support. Readers can learn more about how I intend to conduct my reviews, my methodology, etc – here. More information on review badges here.
This review’s roll was #12 (currently BlackVPN).
Last Updated Jul 13, 2016
Signing up for the service: BlackVPN’s website appeared quite “busy”, between a mix of feature marketing, and toggles to select which set of servers you wish to purchase access to. This hodgepodge of information also included some positive reviews from affiliate advertisers posted like impartial testimonials, which is a little annoying as paid advertisers have a distinct conflict of interest with the researching customer. Finding where to purchase service was fairly straightforward at least. Signup allowed me to purchase 1, 3 or 12 months of service, which is fairly standard. Overall, signup was quick and painless.
Configuring the service: BlackVPN’s config files are organized much better than many others I’ve seen. Their site shows a comprehensive selection of platforms (your standard Windows and Mac OSX, but also including DD-Wrt and pfSense). When a platform is selected, the site displays a table with links by VPN protocol and method of connection. This is a great way to be able to offer lots of connection methods but still keep it easy for the user to get where they want in 2 or 3 clicks. For Linux, they had easy to find config files bundled in a comprehensive, downloadable zip (as they should be). However, Android required downloading one .ovpn file at a time (their server selection being relatively small works in the favor in this instance as the list doesn’t take long to peruse). The .ovpn files were named smartly, according to their purpose – Privacy (including downloading) or TV (including streaming). This is a nice acknowledgement that one size does not fit all when it comes to needs of a VPN user, and is a simple way to indicate intent to the one setting it up. There are, unfortunately however, no “Privacy” US servers (which could be on purpose given some common threat models, privacy philosophies, and certain political environments). In this case, the “nearest” server I used was Canada. All config files worked properly the first time and connected right away – I can’t believe I have to mention this, but given the fact that a third of the services I’ve reviewed can’t claim a working service out of the box…
Speed & Stability tests: All tests performed at non-peak times using speedtest.net, the speedtest.net app, test server was Phoenix NAP AZ Data Center for all trials. Connecting using UDP, AES-256 encryption (the default).
|Speed Tests – BlackVPN – Desktop|
|No VPN||Trial 1||10||ms||95.94||mbps||12.86||mbps|
|Comp to Bench||+130||ms||56.91%||87.03%|
|Comp to Bench||+322||ms||16.51%||55.06%|
|Comp to Bench||+280||ms||18.71%||47.57%|
|Comp to Bench||+353||ms||12.88%||35.85%|
|Speed Tests – BlackVPN – Mobile|
|No VPN||Trial 1||13||ms||74.92||mbps||14.53||mbps|
|Comp to Bench||+124||ms||12.70%||86.55%|
|Comp to Bench||+355||ms||5.09%||54.04%|
|Comp to Bench||+277||ms||9.56%||4.26%|
|Comp to Bench||+353||ms||3.01%||52.81%|
Canada’s servers remained the quickest, while the other international servers struggled a bit, only flirting with broadband speeds on desktop. Given that the default encryption was AES-256 (strong but with high overhead), it’s more or less to be expected. The slowdown is amplified on a mobile device because the hardware struggles with on-the-fly encryption more than on the desktop. Speeds were a little inconsistent on the Australia server (on desktop), and Switzerland and Netherlands servers (on mobile).
The VPN tunnel seemed stable and would quickly reconnect when forcing it from Wi-Fi to LTE and back.
Getting support: Support is one of those things that is really hit and miss with the VPN industry. I’ve found that a VPN’s first point of contact for support usually falls into one of two camps:
- Quick, but basically useless support via live chat.
- Slow, but professional support via email.
BlackVPN is one of the few I’ve ever come across that has a decent sweet spot between a quick live chat feature where the person on the other end doesn’t have a death grip on their script.
“Richard” was available almost immediately and gave thoughtful, personal answers to some probing questions I had regarding the item I had chosen to ask about – one major niggle I had regarding BlackVPN’s policy to block SMTP. For me personally, this is a dealbreaker, as I need to have IMAP email come through K-9 on my phone. I don’t want to be stuck checking it through webmail on a mobile browser, which is what they suggested to get around this. Despite me being (purposefully) pushy about it, he helpfully tried to explain that this was done to avoid abuse as they are serious about not logging and want to be sure they don’t compromise their servers because of complaints of abusers using the service. While I do think the company could implement measures to make this work (whitelisting, etc) – at no time was he condescending or defensive. Just professional and matter-of-fact. (Again, there’s a reason I mention this, as I’ve had that kind of experience with support reps from other VPN services who play games or rely on semantics to refute an issue I take with a given policy or claim). Overall, a good support experience even if I was unhappy with the policy I had been asking about. After popping in a couple of times to see if this was consistently the case, I found that evenings in western US was when live chat seemed to be up most consistently, but not the case in the mornings or during the day.
Getting a refund: Towards the end of my support session, I asked Richard for a refund of the service. He indicated that he would forward my request to the billing department and that they’d get back to me via email in a few hours. Like I was told, in a few hours, I was given my refund. I appreciate not being forced to go through a round of troubleshooting beforehand.
Overall, BlackVPN’s terms are pretty standard and simple. Only a couple standouts.
“Your Service is not limited by the amount of data that you can transfer each month, however we reserve the right to impose a bandwidth limit if the Service of other users is disrupted due to your excess usage.” This tells me that bandwidth is definitely logged. It’s one of the least offensive types of logs, but a log nonetheless – and the more that’s logged, the more exponential the chances are that a service (or entity coercing it) could identify you if they wanted.
“We may block certain kinds of usage to protect other users, to comply with legal restrictions or to minimize the threat or legal action against us or our users.” Referring to the SMTP port block I presume. Could possibly be more clear.
Final thoughts: BlackVPN is a tough nut to crack. One one hand:
- Their technical aspects (config files, default encryption, installation instructions etc) appear to be competently maintained and easy to find/setup.
- Their support via live chat manages to accomplish the rare feat of being quick AND helpful.
but on the other hand…
- They have some odd policies when it comes to port blocking for SMTP.
They rely a little too much on their affiliate program for their site marketing (a bit unethical in my estimation to use paid advertisers as testimonial quotes)
- Their monthly price is on the higher side.
However – If these are not concerns to you and you don’t have the same dealbreakers as me, I would have a much easier time recommending them. Bottom line: While not perfect and not for everyone, if it sounds like BlackVPN suits your use case, you owe it to yourself to take a closer look.
Update (6-29-2016): BlackVPN has reached out me with an update that they have officially ended their affiliate program. That’s not an easy thing to do from a company standpoint as it requires coordination between lots of parties to have websites updated and links removed from reseller sites, etc. This shows me that BlackVPN has taken this review seriously and they are absolutely to be commended for doing so. The comparison chart has been updated based on this information as well! (The outdated segments will remain but with strikethroughs).
Update (7-13-2016): BlackVPN has reached out after another round of reviews and policy changes. They have removed all affiliate testimonials on their homepage, have clarified that they do not keep bandwidth logs, and have specified their policies on SMTP and P2P better than in the terms above. I have left the original content of the review with strikethroughs.
|FROM THE VPN COMPARISON CHART|
|JURISDICTION||Based In (Country)||Hong Kong|
|Freedom Status||Partly Free|
|Logs DNS Requests||No|
|Logs IP Address||No|
|ACTIVISM||Anonymous Payment Method|
|PGP Key Available||Yes|
|Meets PrivacyTools IO Criteria||Yes|
|LEAK PROTECTION||1st Party DNS Servers||Yes|
|IPv6 Supported / Blocked||No|
|Supports TCP Port 443||Yes|
|Supports SSL Tunnel||Yes|
|Supports SSH Tunnel|
|Other Proprietary Protocols|
|PORT BLOCKING||Auth SMTP||Yes|
|SECURITY||Weakest Data Encryption||AES-256|
|Strongest Data Encryption||AES-256|
|Weakest Handshake Encryption||RSA-4096|
|Strongest Handshake Encryption||RSA-4096|
|AVAILABILITY||# of Connections||3|
|# of Countries||14|
|# of Servers||27|
|WEBSITE||# of Persistent Cookies||4|
|# of External Trackers||1|
|# of Proprietary APIs||8|
|Server SSL Rating||A|
|SSL Cert issued to||CloudFlare|
|PRICING||$ / Month (Annual Pricing)||9.03|
|$ / Connection / Month||3.01|
|Refund Period (Days)||14|
|ETHICS||Contradictory Logging Policies|
|Falsely Claims 100% Effective|
|Incentivizes Social Media Spam|
|Requires Ethical Copy|
|Requires Full Disclosure|
|AFFILIATES||Practice Ethical Copy|
|Give Full Disclosure|