When researching for this Betternet review I discovered that this (mainly) free VPN service makes many bold claims on its website. Such as “out of 3.3 million apps overall, we have become in less than one year the #1 VPN app in Google Play Store and AppStore.” And that is has “more than 38 million users all around the world.”
I have never even really heard of Betternet before. I have worked in the VPN industry for quite some time now, so this comes as something of a surprise! That said, the Android Play store lists 10,000,000 – 50,000,000 Betternet installs. So what the hell do I know!?
Whatever the case, Betternet is a free or very low-cost VPN service that is aimed mainly at mobile users. When compared to “proper” VPN services, Betternet does not fare well in any department. But as long as you expect to get what you pay for (i.e. not much), then Betternet provides a decent service.
Pricing & Plans
Betternet is primarily a fee VPN service for iOS, Android and Windows. Importantly, free users are not limited in how much data they can use, which is great. Betternet promises that it will not change the terms of this free offer at any point in the future.
Free users can usually only connect to “optimal” servers chosen by Betternet. In my experience these are invariably located in the United States.
Interestingly, however, the Olympic Games are on as I write this review. In response, Betternet is currently offering free mobile users access to servers that will allow them to watch the games via TV broadcasts from BBC, NBC and Telemundo.
I tested the free Olympics BBC server, as BBC iPlayer is trying to ban VPN users. Playback via iPlayer’s mobile website is a little clunky, but it did work when connected via Betternet
This is great for sports fans, but I will not factor it into this review. This is because the offer is presumably limited to the duration of the Games.
iOS and Android users (but not Windows users) can upgrade to a premium service. This costs approx. $5 per month, or $2.50 per month if paid annually (prices converted from UKP). Premium users enjoy the following advantages:
- Access to Betternets’s servers running out of 10 counties: US (many locations), France, Australia, UK, Canada, NL, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Although not a huge number of countries, this does cover the most popular locations. It will therefore be more than sufficient for most users.
- “Faster” internet access. How much faster is not quantified by Betternet, but do check out the performance tests later for my findings.
- No ads
- 5 simultaneous connections
- Free or very cheap
- Permits P2P
- No data limits
- BBC iPlayer available
- 5 Simultaneous connections
- No customer support
- Connection logs
- Not fast
- Canada is terrible for privacy
Betternet’s service is not packed with bells and whistles. But this is hardly surprising given that the service is primarily a free one. Interestingly, though, Betternet does permit P2P downloading using its free service.
“If we ever receive a DMCA takedown notice or valid court orders, we fully comply with the notices without disrupting or jeopardizing any clients privacy. As mentioned earlier, we don’t save any logs, IPs, ports, user information or timestamps. Hence, in order to satisfy legal requirements from bandwidth providers we do not disclose any user data to the authorities. So far we have not received any valid court order that has required us to provide something we do not have.”
It is the only free VPN service that I am aware of to allow this. This is because the hassle of dealing with DMCA notices and other harassment by copyright holders is simply not worth the trouble for most providers. Especially then users are not even paying for the service!
Torrenting on a free VPN is certainly a very attractive proposition, and is arguably the primary draw for Betternet. It does, however, beg the following question…
How does Betternet make money?
VPN services are expensive and time-consuming to run, so no-one is going to do it for free. As already noted, Betternet does offer a Premium plan to mobile users. This seems rather oddly downplayed, however.
Betternet says that it also makes money in the following ways:
- “By offering free sponsored apps. There’s an “Install an app” button inside our mobile app. When you click on this button you are offered other apps for installation. For each app installed, Betternet earns money from the app publishers.”
- “By offering videos. By clicking on the “Watch a video and connect” button inside the Betternet app, you can watch a short video. Every time you watch a video, you help Betternet earn money.”
When using the mobile (not desktop) app I was indeed occasionally offered the opportunity to install free apps (mainly Android Pay) and watch ad videos. I was a little surprised, however, about how easy it is to simply dismiss these “offers”.
From a user-experience point of view this is great. So great, in fact, that it is difficult imagine anyone actually agreeing to look at the apps or watch the ad videos! Which begs the question again – how does Betternet make money? According to Betternet,
“Is this model working for us? So far it has worked very well, thanks to the support of our wonderful users. We have many daily emails from our users, who share their love with us by telling us they have installed our recommended apps and find them useful.”
Hmm. Perhaps I am being over-suspicious, but Betternet’s funding model worries me a little…
Betternet is registered in Canada, which is generally still considered ok for torrenting purposes. But Bill 11 was passed in 2015, and may soon put an end to this freedom. It also mandates that ISPs maintain internet records, although how this applies to VPN providers remains unclear.
Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act, 2015) has yet to become law, but is a sweeping piece of legislation. Among other things it gives government departments, the police, and CSIS (Canada’s version of the NSA) unprecedented powers to share information about individuals or groups between departments. It also lowers the threshold required for proof of arrest in suspected terror cases, allows, and gives Canadian spies the authority to “counter-message” or “disrupt” “radical websites (even outside Canada).
Furthermore, Canada is a member of the Five Eyes (FVEY) spying alliance, comprising the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Intelligence is shared across FVEY borders. This allows intelligence agencies to do each other favors by obtaining data legally from another member of the alliance that it would otherwise be illegal to obtain about its own citizens.
As for technical security, the following information is all that is available on the website,
“For ensuring your full privacy, we offer OpenVPN with AES256 encryption and 128 bit AES-CBC for IPSec. All user traffic is distributed between hundreds of shared IPs ensuring that our you (sic.) blend in with the crowd and no one knows about your identity.”
I presume that IPSec is used for the iOS app. As noted below, I have attempted to contact the Betternet team in order to learn more, but have received no reply. So I cannot comment on RSA handshake key encryption size, authentication method, or whether Perfect Forward Secrecy is used for OpenVPN connections.
If I ever do hear back from Betternet about my quires, I will be very surprised if the answers impress me.
The website is a little amateurish in design, but is perfectly functional. Its primary purpose, however, is to act as an ad for its product. And other than some bold claims made about the app’s popularity, plus some info on how Betternet can afford to operate its free service, hard facts are kept to a bare minimum.
Perhaps most important is that support is almost non-existent. There is a short and largely uninformative FAQ, and a “Knowledge Base” that can be searched. Unfortunately, this does not appear to contain much useful information (although YMMV with this).
The only way to obtain direct support is by sending a ticketed request to the knowledge center. After waiting four days, I have still received no reply to a question I sent, so I think it same to assume that none is likely to be forthcoming.
Betternet’s free mobile apps can be downloaded from Apple or Play Stores. And its Windows app directly from the website. Premium subscriptions are available via in-app purchases (iOS and Android only). Note that this means your VPN subscription is tied to your Apple or Google ID.
Premium signup requests an email address. this allows you to use your Premium account on other devices by authorizing them through the email confirmation email.
The Betternet Windows VPN Client
The Windows VPN client is very basic, and has no features such as a kill switch, port forwarding etc. There is, however, an auto-reconnect option. And DNS leak protection appears to be built-in (no DNS leaks were detected).
There is no premium desktop option, so you must connect to a server chosen by Betternet. These are invariably located in the US
I tried to watch content via the US Netflix website, but use of a proxy was detected and this was blocked.
Betternet is primarily aimed at mobile users (Android and iOS), and the Premium service is only available on those platforms. I tested the Android app, which is very easy to use and works well. As with the Windows client, it is almost completely lacking in bells and whistles.
Premium subscriptions must be cancelled via the Apple or Play Store interfaces. Instructions for doing so for Android devices are available here, and here on iOS device here. For an Android subscription, at least, this process proved easy and painless enough.
Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC and IPv6 Tests)
Speed tests were performed on a 50Mbps/3Mbps UK broadband connection. Tests on the Premium service were performed on a Galaxy Note 4 connected via WiFi (802.11ac 5G) to the same broadband connection. Tests were performed using TestMy.net.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, using the free service incurs a big performance hit when accessing the internet (at least on download speeds). Download speeds for the Premium service are much better. But these still average less than half the performance when connected to a nearby server, compared to not using a VPN.
This is a much bigger hit than is reasonable for a Premium VPN service. Many others can provide 80 percent to 90 percent of full internet connection speeds when connected to a nearby server. Curiously, upload speeds are much better using the free service than using the Premium one. I have no explanation for this. But these are the results I obtained.
As already noted, I detected no IPv4 DNS leaks. This is great, but Betternet provides no protection against WebRTC leaks. If using the service, you should therefore fix this problem yourself immediately. Unfortunately my ISP (Virgin Media) does not support IPv6 connections. I therefore am unable to test for IPv6 leaks on the desktop. This issue should not affect mobile devices).
Other/ Free Services
As already noted, Betternet sells an Anonabox-like device. This acts as a portable VPN and Tor-enabled router. Betternet also offers free “VPN” browser add-ons for Chrome and Firefox.
These work well, as long as you as you don’t mind connecting to a US server. Note that UK Olympics server was also available at the time of writing this review. A quick check on Testmy.net show similar speed performance results to using the full free VPN service.
Note that Mac OSX and Linux users can access the free Betternet service using these browser add-ons.
Betternet Review Conclusion
- Free service is very usable and has no data limits
- Premium service is cheap
- P2P permitted (even on free service!)
- Free browser add-ons are also available
- No DNS leaks (but WebRTC leaks)
- BBC iPlayer available
- 5 simultaneous connections (Premium)
- No usage logs, but…
I wasn’t so sure about
- Connection logs
- Performance for both free and Premium services is uninspiring
- Encryption is almost certainly meh
- Pricing model worries me somewhat
- US Netflix blocked
- Customer support is effectively non-existent
- Canada is terrible for privacy (but is probably ok for P2P for now)
As we can see in this Betternet review, the service needs to be judged on its own terms. It is a cheap (or free) and cheerful VPN service. And most of its failing can be somewhat forgiven on this basis. If you want a VPN that will do a good job of protecting your privacy or that implements strong security measures, then look elsewhere. And be prepared to pay properly for it!
If you just want to geospoof your location, bypass simple firewalls and site blocks, or protect yourself while using public WiFi hotspots, then Betternet just about does the job. Although its free service is rather slow for torrenting, the fact that Betternet does permit P2P using its free service will no doubt be a very attractive feature for many of you out there.
In conclusion then, Betternet is a decent free and very cheap VPN service, as long as you are fully aware that you get what you pay for.