MacPaw ClearVPN Review



ClearVPN is a new service that takes a very different approach to many rivals. Instead of choosing from a list of servers, or clicking a large ‘Connect’ button, the apps are designed around activities.

So whatever you want to do, be it as generic as ‘no snooping’ or as specific as ‘watch Justice League’, there are dozens of what ClearVPN calls shortcuts which you use to make the process as simple as possible.

With many of these, there are even more shortcuts that launch a web browser and take you to the relevant website or, on a phone, open the appropriate app, such as HBO Max for Justice League.

There are no settings to speak of, unless you count Launch on system startup and Subscribe to our newsletter. That’s in the Windows app: on iOS, you just get ‘Reconnect on Failure’. Currently there’s no kill switch, which would protect you if the VPN connection stops unexpectedly, but this is “coming soon”.

For those looking for their first VPN service and appreciate this kind of interface, ClearVPN certainly is easy to use. For example, one of the shortcuts is Regional Netflix. Tap on it and you’ll get a list of the libraries you can unblock: Australia, Canada, India, Spain, UK and USA. That’s handy, but it’s a shame it doesn’t cover some of the most popular libraries including Japan.

Currently there are apps for Windows, Android, iOS and macOS. But you’re out of luck if you want to use it on an Amazon Fire TV or any other devices. The company says it is planning to add more in future.

The other reason it’s not like other services is that it limits you to six devices, and you can’t log in to the service on any other devices until you Unlink one of the six already registered. Six is plenty, and it isn’t difficult to unregister and add a new device, it’s just different from how most VPN services operate.

ClearVPN Free vs Premium

You can choose to skip the login screen and use the free version of the service without entering any details whatsoever. That would be great if it wasn’t so limited. Almost all the shortcuts have a padlock symbol with only “Anti-Snooping”, “Block Ads While Browsing” and “No Malware” available to use.

This is where ClearVPN’s activity-based approach becomes quite confusing. Quite a few rival services offer ad-blocking and anti-malware features, but they can be enabled and used alongside the core VPN service. ClearVPN forces you to choose one or another: you can’t have them all at the same time.

And it’s not clear at all that only Anti-Snooping uses the VPN: the others don’t. Unfortunately, the same problem exists in the paid-for version. When I spoke to ClearVPN about this I was told the behaviour is intentional, but the team is considering adding a message to clarify that the VPN is not enabled when you choose those other modes.

Something else I took issue with is the ‘Full Anonymity’ claim when you first fire up the app. This is very misleading: a VPN does not make you anonymous online.

But, to be fair, with the free version you get unlimited data which is rare when you’re not paying. You can’t choose location though, so it’s only useful for protection on public Wi-Fi and general web browsing: it won’t unblock websites in other regions. From time to time the free version will have event-based shortcuts such as Formula 1, so you can use it for streaming, but you don’t get to choose what to watch.

Privacy & logging

Upon installing the mobile apps, you’re asked for your location and ClearVPN says it’s just so it knows which country you’re in. It’s also so that the DynamicFlow feature can work properly, and choose the most appropriate server for whatever you’re trying to do.

Tap on Unlock Streaming & Entertainment, for example, and it will pick what it thinks is the right server. In my case, being based in London, it picked a server in New York. And that’s probably a good guess, since many British VPN users want to unblock streaming services in the USA.

ClearVPN operates a no-logs policy and says it doesn’t collect or store your IP address and certainly doesn’t log your activity: it only knows you’ve used the service, but not which sites you visited.

Dig down further and you’ll see that quite a bit of logging is done, but it’s mostly harmless and – as many VPN services claim – done to improve and identify problems with the service itself. You can also revoke permission to collect this anonymous data. One thing you may not like is that “We need the list of all the applications you use in order to provide you with the best possible VPN connection.” So ClearVPN will have a record of every app installed on your device.

MacPaw (which runs the service) is based in Ukraine, but also has offices in San Francisco – not an ideal location for data privacy – and since the logging policy hasn’t been independently audited, you’ll have to take MacPaw’s word for it that it’s actually doing what it says it does.

Performance

In keeping with its easy-to-use ethos, MacPaw doesn’t offer many details about how the VPN operates. There’s no definitive number of servers, and you’ll only see a list of the most popular countries that you can connect to in the Premium version. We counted 20 countries which – unusually – includes Hong Kong. Despite no shortcut to unblock Netflix Japan, this is one of the countries listed.

MacPaw told me that it currently has 58 servers, and that there are multiple servers in popular locations to handle the higher loads. There are also extra locations not listed, so you can’t connect to them manually: they’re only used automatically when appropriate.

Testing a VPN’s speed is never an easy task, but in the tests I ran using UK home broadband, speeds were generally fine. Connected to a London server, I saw only a small drop in speed compared to when the VPN was disconnected.

The custom protocol you’ll see mentioned on the website is based on WireGuard, but with no way to select this manually, you wouldn’t know whether this was being used or one of the older protocols supported.

Unblocking video was hit and miss. Watching US Netflix was a doddle, and I had no issues getting the latest episodes of Pokémon Journeys.

But trying to watch UK-based services was a disaster. The BBC iPlayer shortcut didn’t work at all in the first test, then when it did work iPlayer just showed its usual error message and wouldn’t play anything.

ClearVPN wouldn’t unblock ITV Hub either. Another problem was that while some of the activities were activated, certain websites wouldn’t load at all until it was deactivated.

Facing these issues, I tried the Contact Us section in the iOS app. It looks like live chat, but I didn’t get a quick reply. Similarly, trying MacPaw’s 24/7 Customer Support via its website resulted in a five-hour wait after which I was asked for more information.

Price & plans

Refreshingly, ClearVPN prices are displayed as the actual amount you pay: a month is £9.99/ $12.99, a year £71.95/$92.95, and two years £82.95/$109.95.

Those UK prices include VAT, making the two-year plan the most affordable at £3.46 per month.

Other services like to add VAT at the checkout and display lower ex-VAT prices to tempt you in.

You can’t pay anonymously though: only by card or PayPal.

Verdict

ClearVPN’s task-based approach might work for some people, but even if you’re attracted by this, there are just too many drawbacks to recommend it. There’s no kill switch, apps for only the main four operating systems, and in our testing we had problems unblocking UK streaming services and long waits to get responses from tech support.

Considering there are so many alternative VPN services that don’t have these drawbacks, and that some of them charge less per month, ClearVPN isn’t one to put on your shortlist.

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