Betternet is a hugely popular Canadian VPN which claims to have more than 38 million users around the world.
The service is best known for its largely unrestricted free plan. This has no limits on bandwidth, no need to register or hand over your email address, you can just download a client – Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Firefox or Chrome extension – and get started right away. There’s support for OpenVPN encryption, and you’re even able to use P2P.
Too good to be true? Well, maybe. The free version provides US servers only. The clients have no significant features beyond the Connect button, and there’s very little support to help out if you run into problems.
The free plan inserts ads into websites, too, perhaps allowing advertisers to find out more about what you’re doing.
Lots of free VPNs use similar ad-related tricks, but a 2016 Australian report on the privacy and security risks of Android VPN apps found that Betternet stood out in particular. The report authors checked each app for embedded tracking libraries and found Betternet had more than anybody else.
The report also notes that 13 of around 50 antivirus engines at VirusTotal highlighted the app as malicious, although we suspect that’s a lesser issue. Our guess would be that these engines are picking up on the app’s low-level adware-like functionality, and although 13 is a high number of VirusTotal positives, the vast majority of engines are still saying there are no problems.
If you’d rather not take the risk, you could opt for Betternet’s Premium plan. This doesn’t include ads, so the concerns about tracking libraries and VirusTotal scores don’t apply. It also offers improved performance and more locations across 10 countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, Singapore, as well as the UK and US.
Betternet Premium’s one-month pricing seems high at $11.99 (£9.60), but pay for a year upfront and this plummets to an effective $2.99 (£2.40). There’s also a welcome bonus in a free seven-day trial, although you must hand over your payment details first, and if you forget to cancel your subscription, it renews at the most expensive $11.99 a month rate.
The document points out that the free Betternet service may be used by third-party companies to display “generic ads… in front of certain apps or websites.” Betternet doesn’t share your personal information or browsing history with these companies, but “advertisers may be able to connect certain information independently from you or your device when serving ads… including your device’s advertising ID, IMEI, MAC Address and wireless carrier.”
A separate warning related to the free plan says “advertisers may also place cookies in your browser that may allow them to collect certain information about your browsing history.”
Another section highlights issues with both Betternet’s free and premium plans.
The document says the company checks your IP address when you log on, collects device-specific information – hardware model, operating system, browser, language, wireless and mobile network – and may try to derive your “approximate location”. The IP isn’t recorded after the end of your session, though, and the other details can’t identify you specifically.
The service also collects “anonymous, aggregate data about the websites you visit and which apps you use”, apparently using Kochava’s analytics on our test Windows system. This data isn’t associated with any user account, so it doesn’t mean the company can call up your ID and see exactly what you’ve been doing recently. There’s not enough information here to guarantee that a browsing history couldn’t be reconstructed with the help of other logs, though, and this is still an extra logging element you rarely see elsewhere.
A more technical section of the page explains that traffic is encrypted using “TLS 1.2 with perfect forward secrecy (ECDHE), 128-bit AES data encryption, and HMAC message authentication.” That’s not the best, particularly with only 128-bit AES, but it’s enough for basic applications.
Getting started with Betternet’s free product is just about as simple as it’s possible to be. You don’t have to create an account, hand over your email address, come up with a username or remember a password: just download and install the app and you’re ready to go.
The Windows client is just as straightforward. Hit the big Connect button, and you’re connected to a random US server in a few seconds. Hit Disconnect to close the session when you’re done. That’s essentially it.
Experienced users might be worried by the lack of settings. There’s no kill switch, no leak protection options, no startup control or anything similar. The most we could find was a ‘Reconnect automatically’ checkbox, but that didn’t seem to work. We could check it, but when we left the menu screen and came back, it was clear again.
The client has an Upgrade screen which allows buying the Premium plan in 1, 6 or 12-month flavors, with the option of a free 7-day trial.
We took the trial option and were asked for our email address and card details. There’s no support for PayPal, Bitcoin or anything else when paying through the desktop (mobile users can pay via their app store as usual).
Handing over card details is a particular concern here as Betternet doesn’t provide any central way to manage these payments. You don’t have an account with Betternet, so you can’t log in to the website, view payments, check invoices, change your payment plan or cancel the service.
The website points out that mobile users can cancel subscriptions direct from the website, but offers no advice for anyone who has paid via a desktop client. If you’re taking the trial and paying by card, we would suggest doing all your testing in the first two or three days, giving you plenty of time to contact support and organize cancelling, if necessary.
It only took us a few moments to upgrade, but the results weren’t impressive. We connected to the UK server multiple times but got DNS errors whenever we tried to access something. The client repeatedly failed to connect to the New York server, too.
This wasn’t some short-lived temporary network issue. We tried the next day and faced almost identical connection problems. Going by this experience, Betternet doesn’t seem like a service you can rely on.
We normally check a few streaming sites – Netflix, iPlayer, Comedy Central – to see whether a VPN can bypass geoblocking. Betternet made this more difficult than usual, as the apparently broken UK connection meant we couldn’t test iPlayer, and some of the US servers were so incredibly slow that sites refused to load properly. But when we found a server that worked (Seattle), we managed to view Netflix and Comedy Central without any problems.
Our performance tests* showed very mixed results. The free service was terrible, with our UK to US connection struggling to reach 0.5 Mbps, one of the worst figures we’ve seen. We would expect other services to give us 10 times that, even when connecting over the very longest distances.
Speed tests don’t always precisely reflect real-world experience, so we tried some general browsing tests. The connection was usable for simple tasks, including browsing basic websites and streaming video up to 720p resolution (with some quality loss and occasional stuttering). As the service is free, with unlimited bandwidth and no registration required, it’s probably unfair to expect anything more.
Betternet Premium did much better, at least in some ways. Our UK to Netherlands connection managed downloads of around 64-68Mbps on a 75Mbps line, almost as good as we could expect. But there were major problems with other European servers. UK and Germany servers both appeared to connect but then gave us DNS errors, and we couldn’t connect to the French server at all.
It was a similar experience in the US. Betternet promises no less than seven locations, but we couldn’t connect to New York or Virginia, and Chicago and Los Angeles gave us constant DNS errors. Salt Lake City and Atlanta connected but delivered horrible performance at under 1Mbps. Seattle was the only usable location, and even that was hugely inconsistent, with downloads ranging from 30 to 60Mbps and uploads typically under 2Mbps.
We saw the best results by going long-distance, oddly. After some initial disappointment with Australia (the endless DNS errors problem again), Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong delivered excellent speeds ranging from 28 to 44Mbps. Maybe they’re not as overloaded by users as the most popular UK and US servers? Whatever the reason, Betternet’s Asian locations proved top performers.
The positive note continued with our final privacy tests. We checked the service with ipleak.net, doileak.com and other sites, but our Windows system had no issues with DNS, WebRTC or other leaks.
Betternet is a poor VPN with unreliable servers, feeble support, virtually no features and multiple privacy concerns. It might just about be acceptable for unblocking streaming sites, but if you need to protect anything of the slightest importance then we’d look elsewhere.
*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.