You know to be safe when you're on your laptop, but what about your phone? Are you sure your connection is secured from snoops? Are you certain that your online movements aren't being monitored? To keep your information safe and your privacy protected, you need a virtual private network, or VPN, for your mobile. The KeepSolid VPN Unlimited app secures your Android from prying eyes looking at your Internet traffic and offers several advanced tools to keep you safe. The desktop version of KeepSolid is an Editors' Choice winner, but occasional stability issues with the Android app keep it from taking that same honor.
What Is a VPN?
When you're connected wirelessly to your home router, you can be reasonably certain that it's safe. Out in the wild, it's a different story. It's very difficult to tell if you're actually connected to the Starbucks Wi-Fi, or to a malicious network being run by a data-hungry scammer. With a VPN, you can be assured that no matter where you go, and no matter what networks you connect to, your data is always secure. That's because the VPN software creates an encrypted tunnel to a server the company controls, meaning that any prying eyes will see only unreadable ciphertext.
Once you're online, advertisers can track your movements between websites with sophisticated cookies and trackers embedded in ads, associating your traffic with your known IP address. But with a VPN, you can rest assured that your privacy is respected. That's because instead of seeing the actual IP address of your mobile device, the advertisers only see the IP address of the VPN server to which you're connected.
When you're connected over a cellular network, the situation is a little different. The 3G and LTE bands are encrypted, and considered fairly safe. But a dedicated hacker can use a Femtocell, basically a portable cell tower, to offer up an unsecure 2G network and then jam the higher bands, forcing you to fail over to the unsecure network. A VPN can help protect against these kind of sophisticated attacks, too, though it's worth noting that the chance of coming up against such a sophisticated cell hacker is very small. They're far less common than the garden-variety Wi-Fi snooper.
Pricing and Features
A month-long subscription with VPN Unlimited costs only $4.99, making it among the most affordable VPN services out there. $8.99 gets you three months and $24.99 an entire year. There's also a 100-year plan for $499, if you plan on doing some serious Web browsing over the next century. A feature of the KeepSolid's pricing that I really like is the week-long Vacation plan for $1.99, which is perfect when you're heading out of the country.
It is possible to pay even less for a VPN. TunnelBear, for example, offers an excellent free VPN option. Unfortunately, there aren't many other free VPN services for Android. Editors' Choice winner Private Internet Access costs slightly more than KeepSolid at $6.95, but offers many more features.
If you already use KeepSolid VPN Unlimited on your desktop, don't worry; you don't have to pay extra for mobile devices. They do, however, count toward your five simultaneous connections. You also get access to the service's 50 servers across 38 countries. That's not nearly as many as Editors' Choice winner NordVPN, which boasts hundreds of servers, or the thousands of servers available with Private Internet Access, but it's not bad. Hide My Ass VPN, while having fewer servers than NordVPN, does do an excellent job of matching you to the best server. Just pick from one of the scenarios presented, like Paranoid mode, and Hide My Ass does the rest.
The rest of the app's features are in play with the mobile app, including an optional static IP. You can also use BitTorrent on four of KeepSolid's servers, though why you would do that on an Android device is beyond me. NordVPN is the only other service I've reviewed that allows P2P on a mobile device.
If you're traveling (or living) in a country with restrictive information policies, you can also use KeepSolid Wise, a feature that trades speed for a stealthier connection that disguises your VPN connection as normal HTTPS traffic. This feature is available on Android, and is best used when connecting in countries that frown on the use of VPNs.
As with the desktop version, the Android app uses the OpenVPN protocol. I appreciate it when services embrace this newer open-source protocol, which gets frequent updates as needed. Some companies offer one set of protocols with the desktop app and a different set with the mobile version, an approach I don't favor.
Hands On With KeepSolid VPN Unlimited
KeepSolid sticks with its clean, minimalist desktop design for its Android app. At the center is a map, showing your current location. Tap the green bar at the top and you can select the server of your choice, although the app recommends what it thinks is best based on your location and the traffic already flowing through its other servers. I particularly like that the app shows you which servers are the most crowded, and that it lets you favorite servers for later use.
KeepSolid's app reminds me of NordVPN quite a bit, with its large map at the center. But there are a few things I prefer about NordVPN, such as specialized servers for streaming movies, connecting to Tor, and double encryption. NordVPN also allows P2P file sharing on some of its servers, which KeepSolid does not.
A toggle switch at the bottom of the screen switches the VPN on and off. You can also do this from a panel in the notifications pull-down menu. When connected, the Android OS shows a little key next to the time at the top of the screen. Note that both connecting and disconnecting can unfortunately be lengthy processes.
By default, the app always reconnects if it loses communication with the VPN server. But you can choose to have it not reconnect, only reconnect when you're using Wi-Fi, or only reconnect when you're using an unsecured network. That kind of granular control is great when you're on a mobile device. It's a feature I like, and I am disappointed that I have yet to see it elsewhere.
If lots of settings and features are what you need in a VPN, KeepSolid will get you most of the way there, but Private Internet Access has still more going on. With this tool, you can select which apps must use the VPN and which don't have to, giving you total control of how your data moves.
I spent quite a bit of time using VPN Unlimited while attending the Black Hat security conference. It, and its wilder follow-up hacker conference DefCon, are notorious venues for attacks. Pwnie Express, the makers of the Pwn Pro network sensor and penetration-testing tool, showed me a massive man-in-the-middle attack happening at the show this year. For that reason I left VPN Unlimited running the entire time I was at the show.
I was initially impressed. The app has a clean, simple interface and requires almost no fiddling after setup. I was pleased to see that it maintained my connection, even when I was using LTE. However, the app routinely crashed if I tried to call it up again to check the VPN's connection status after letting it run for several hours. Sometimes it bounced back quickly, and sometimes it didn't. My VPN connection was always maintained, as far I could tell, but I could have done without these crashes.
No matter which VPN service you choose, it will have an impact on performance. Generally, it's not a good one, although my work testing desktop VPN apps has shown that in some cases a VPN connection can actually improve performance.
When I test mobile VPN apps, I aim for a best-case scenario. First I deactivate mobile data, and then I connect to our super-fast FiOS Wi-Fi network. That's because a Wi-Fi network offers more repeatable test results than a cellular network can, and because insecure or malicious Wi-Fi networks are much more prevalent threat than complex cellular attacks. Most people use a VPN to protect their Wi-Fi traffic.
I then compare the average results with the VPN enabled to the average results without the VPN, and work out the percent change. I measure the speeds using the Ookla Speedtest.net app. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
In my testing, I found that VPN Unlimited increased latency by 415.1 percent, going from 5.3ms to 27.3ms. That might seem like a lot, but we're talking milliseconds, here. NordVPN had the smallest impact on latency I've yet seen, increasing it by only 32 percent.
You're far more likely to notice the 69.8 percent decrease in download speeds, which went from 54.9Mbps to 16.6Mbps. That's an average score for this test, but Private Internet Access only decreased download speeds by 10.3 percent.
In my testing, I found that with KeepSolid, upload speeds fell 42.6 percent from 29.1Mbps to 16.7Mbps. That's comparatively bad performance, especially up against Spotflux VPN, which actually improved upload speeds in my testing.
A Solid Choice
Though I found KeepSolid VPN Unllmited a bit unstable in real-world testing and slow to connect and disconnect, the service is simple, and the app is very easy to use. With automatic reconnect settings and a good assortment of domestic and international servers, it's virtually a set-and-forget solution. I also like that KeepSolid has kept advanced features, like KeepSolid Wise, in the mobile offering. That said, Editors' Choice Winners Private Internet Access and NordVPN have many excellent features in their own rights, and many more available servers.