It's easy to keep your desktop computer consistently connected to a safe and secure wireless network. It's much harder to do the same for a laptop, and nearly impossible for a mobile device. Wi-Fi is an essential part of the mobile experience, however, so when you're not on a trusted network, you should be sure your wireless mobile traffic is protected with a virtual private network (or VPN) like Spotflux. This affordable service not only secures data, but also guards against trackers and can block advertisements. But it makes too few servers available for mobile connections, and it's plagued by a sluggish, unreliable interface.
What Is a VPN?
When you connect to a public Wi-Fi network at, say, a coffee shop, there's no way to know if your connection is really secure. Someone on the same network could be snooping on your traffic. Worse, the Wi-Fi network could have been set up by an attacker looking to scoop up all your data. If you think it sounds far-fetched, Pwnie Express saw exactly this kind of attack at the Black Hat 2016 security conference, and it successfully fooled some 35,000 devices.
With a VPN, all of your data is sent through an encrypted tunnel that connects your phone or tablet to the VPN service's remote server. From there, it heads out onto the wilds of the Internet, unmolested while in transit. Exiting through the VPN server has another advantage, too. It successfully misdirects advertisers and nosy Website trackers. That's because, to the rest of the world, your device appears to have the IP address of the VPN server to which it is connected.
That's over Wi-Fi, but what about cellular? While certainly safer than Wi-Fi, there are still risks associated with cellular networks. The faster and more modern wireless standards like LTE are safely encrypted, but the code protecting data sent over 2G has long been broken. Clever criminals can set up a phony cellphone tower called a Femtocell, jam the LTE and 3G bands, and force phones to connect via the less secure 2G. Just like when an attacker controls a Wi-Fi access point, a bad guy (or a spy) can use this setup to vacuum up your wireless traffic without your realizing it. This is a much more exotic attack than Wi-Fi snooping, but does happen. Fortunately, VPN protection works over cellular connections, too, and most are smart enough to handle the hand-off between cell towers and when you move from cellular to Wi-Fi.
Corporatons and inviduals use VPN services every day to secure data, and the technology is also used in countries that have strict control over Internet access. With a VPN, it's possible to circumvent some of these controls.
Closer to home, VPN services are sometimes used to circumvent another kind of restriction. The ability to stream some content is tied to your location. Free streams of BBC TV shows for UK citizens are one example. And some paid streaming content, such as Netflix, can only be viewed in the region in which you paid for it. With a VPN, you can spoof your locations and watch to your heart's content. But some streaming media organizations, including Netflix, are starting to get wise and block VPN connections.
Pricing and Features
Spotflux is among the very few VPN companies that also offer a free VPN service on the desktop. While it is one of the better free services, it's not available for mobile devices. If you want to use Spotflux on your Android, you theoretically get a three-day free trial when you install it, and then you have to purchase a plan. Unfortunately, I had trouble using the free plan, as you'll see.
Paid Spotflux subscriptions start at $4.99 per month or $37.99 for a year. Alternatively, you can spring for the mobile-only account, which costs $29.99 per year. I'm disappointed that a limited free account isn't available for mobile, but I do like that the company offers a discounted rate for people who only opt for mobile protection. That said, it would be better if the service had more flexible pricing tiers for mobile devices.
Most other VPN services charge in excess of $10 per month, making Spotflux among the most affordable. But it has a lot of competition in the lower end of the price spectrum. Editors' Choice Winner NordVPN, for example, costs $8.00 per month. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a mobile VPN service for $4.99, too, but it includes more features than Spotflux for the same fee.
The mobile version of Spotflux also blocks ads and trackers, preventing you from having to see ads or having advertisers track your movements online. Unlike Apple's and its iOS ecosystem, Google has resisted allowing ad-blockers like 1Blocker into the Google Play store. Spotflux also uses a data-compression system to lessen the data load on your device, which might end up saving you money if you're using a prepaid service.
KeepSolid and Editors' Choice winner Private Internet Access also offer ad blocking. I'm still surprised, after having reviewed so many VPN services, how few offer this feature.
On the desktop, Spotflux lets you choose from among 10 servers—three in the US and seven in other countries. The mobile version I tested has fewer servers available, offering only two US servers, one on each coast, as well as one in London and another in Frankfurt. If you were hoping to use Spotflux to watch region-locked content, or connect to a specific region, you should probably look elsewhere.
Private Internet Access has over 3,000 available servers, which is by far the most of any VPN service I've tested. It also boasts many more countries and locations than Spotflux. No matter where you go, Private Internet Access will likely have a nearby server, and that means a faster, better VPN experience. NordVPN has several hundred servers spread across the world, plus specialty servers that let you connect to the Tor anonymization network, stream video over super-fast connections, and download files using P2P services. Spotflux just doesn't compare.
Hands On With Spotflux
The Spotflux app took only a few seconds to install on my Google Nexus 5x. The app uses a gradient blue color scheme that is charming but dated. The app consists of seven hexagonal buttons arrayed in a flower-like configuration. The center button toggles your VPN connection on and off.
Around the center button are buttons for location information, VPN server locations, settings, the days left in your subscription (or free trial), statistics about ads blocked, and a link to rate the app at Google Play. It's a good-looking interface, but I prefer KeepSolid's minimalist approach. Hide My Ass VPN, too, has a bold color scheme and easy tools for selecting a server that puts the Spotflux UI to shame.
Spotflux isn't a very informative app. Tapping the Info button, for example, simply displays the server's location and current IP address, but nothing else. NordVPN and others display the current load or latency on servers to help you choose the best one.
When you tap the center button, it takes quite some time to connect. So does opening the Server Information, Location Information, and Stats sections. Sometimes, these sections wouldn't load at all in my testing. The entire experience is sluggish and does not inspire confidence, especially since every other VPN service I've tested has been snappy and responsive. Performance is important for these apps; if an app's interface itself is unreliable and unresponsive before you even connect to the VPN, it's already far behind the eight ball.
By default, Spotflux automatically reconnects if it loses contact with the VPN server for any reason. It also offers the option to force a TCP connection, thought most people probably won't use that feature. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited provides more—and more useful—options, such as only reconnecting when you're on a Wi-Fi network or only reconnecting when you're on an unsecured Wi-Fi network. I prefer this kind of granularity, though it's worth noting that Spotflux is meant to be left on all the time to provide continuous protection.
Spotflux indicates your connection status outside the app with a tiny icon in the top left corner. When you're connected, it's blue. When you're disconnected or connecting, it's red. There's a notification in your pull-down tray, too. KeepSolid also has a notification tray entry, but that one lets you connect and disconnect without having to open the app. I much prefer KeepSolid's approach.
Regardless of the VPN service you decide to use, you're going to see some kind of impact on your Internet connection. From my testing desktop VPN apps, I found that in rare cases a VPN can actually improve your download and upload speeds. PureVPN, for example, boosted performance by 166 percent! But that's the exception, and you're far more likely to see a drag on upload and download speeds.
When I test mobile VPN apps, I aim for a best-case scenario. In my tests, I deactivate mobile data and then 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, 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. The speed test results are gathered using the Ookla Speedtest.net app. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
When I began testing Spotflux, I tried to take advantage of the three-day free trial. In two attempted tests, performed weeks apart, I found the free version of the app to be completely nonfunctional. Activating the VPN cut off all Internet communications. I relayed this information to my contacts at Spotflux, who told me they plan to address the issue. In the meantime, I continued testing with a Premium account, which worked fine. I'm glad I was finally able to test the app, but I'm disappointed that the free version doesn't work.
In my testing, I found that Spotflux increased latency by 1,125 percent, going from 8ms without the VPN to 98ms when the VPN was active. That's a significant increase, but one that still might go unnoticed by most users. Milliseconds are small things, after all. NordVPN, on the other hand, increased latency by only 32 percent.
My testing also found that using Spotflux reduced download performance by 70.3 percent, dropping download speeds from 32.4Mbps to 9.6Mbps. Private Internet Access performed far better in this test, reducing download speeds by only 10 percent. That said, Spotflux's performance on this test is average among Android VPNs I've evaluated.
But VPN apps don't always negatively impact performance. I was surprised to find that, in testing, Spotflux's mobile app actually improved upload speeds by 6.5 percent, going from 18.4Mbps to 19.6Mbps. I've yet to find another mobile app that improves upload speeds in testing. Of course, while this is an impressive result, the average user is far more likely to care about (and, indeed, notice) changes in download speeds.
Pay the Price
Spotflux deserves a lot of credit for its speed-test scores, which show that it actually improved upload speeds when activated. It also includes ad and tracker blocking, which are both rare features I would like to see more of in Android. But those good attributes don't balance out the trouble Spotflux caused in testing. The free version was nonfunctional and the interface was sluggish and even unresponsive. The fact Spotflux only offers a few servers to choose from greatly reduces its appeal for some VPN use cases.
If you're looking for a VPN on Android, consider PCMag's Editors' Choice winners, Private Internet Access and NordVPN. Both offer better Android clients, more servers, and a wider array of features.