ExpressVPN has been gaining enormous amounts of traction and popularity among privacy advocates the world over. The provider, which operates out of California (though, for legal reasons, registered in Switzerland) has become a major hit among VPN users, in part, thanks to its flexible, efficient and very speedy network of encrypted servers, which extends out to countries such as Peru, Australia, Mongolia. Also to many standard locations in Europe, Asia, multiple endpoints in the United States and other spots across our busy globe.
But, in addition to the fast performance that the service offers – and our ExpressVPN review showed its Europe servers to be capable of matching up to 76% of our original bandwidth speed, the provider also ensures that VPN users of all platforms are well taken care of, thanks to its custom-built, native desktop and mobile applications. In this review, we particularly wanted to take a look at the ins and outs of the ExpressVPN app for Android devices. To test the service out, we used a relatively no-thrills LG smartphone and a 20 Mb/s wifi connection for establishing our VPN connection.
Installation and login
Having downloaded and installed the app onto our device from the Google Play store, we were expectedly prompted to enter our login details. These had been sent to us by email. After following our unique user link, we were taken through to the ExpressVPN setup web page, from where we clicked on the recommended option for Android; specifically versions 4 and 5 – for which the app is compatible (Android versions 2 and 3 require configuration through the device’s built-in VPN client).
This brought up our VPN login details, which we were then able to enter at the authentication screen, and after a brief message notifying us that the account was now active on this device, we were taken to ExpressVPN’s lengthy list of server locations. But before we chose a server, we wanted to see what could be tweaked in the settings in order to optimise the connection for our needs.
Under the hood
Having tapped the burger stack in the top right-hand corner of the screen, the app unfolded four choices for navigation, including My Account; Settings; Contact Support; Help.
My Account: Not a great deal going on on this page. It does display some basic information about our subscription plan; i.e. when it expires, along with a big blue button titled “Refer Friends”. This link takes the user out of the app and into the web browser, opening up a promotional page on the ExpressVPN website with details on a promotional offer, allowing existing customers to earn a month’s (30 days to be precise) worth of free VPN service for each referred subscription.
Settings: The app’s configuration menu gave us the option to make some basic customisations to our VPN prior to activating the connection. At the top, we can set the preferred OpenVPN protocol, choosing between of UDP and TCP. As we have previously mentioned in our OpenVPN guide, TCP can cause throughput degradation to our connection, meaning it isn’t really recommended above UDP, unless our aim is to, say, bypass a firewall. For this test, we are going to go with UDP, because this protocol sends a continuous packet stream, and is therefore considered to be 3-5 times faster than its counterpart, which, on the contrary, is designed to transmit packets in multiple sets to accommodate for better reliability. In terms of encryption, the app implements 256-bit AES keys, and sadly, their support team is known for not really wishing to specify much more than that.
The second option within Settings – Auto-launch, when enabled, will launch and connect the VPN as soon as the device is booted. If we tap into this section, we are taken to a secondary screen where we can configure a default connection for this particular setting, based on our preferences. Options range from the aforementioned protocol selection – between Automatic, UDP and TCP, followed by choice of server location. Having configured auto-launch how we would need it, we can then tap Save at the bottom of the screen, so the next time our Android device is rebooted, the app will automatically establish a VPN connection.
The rest of the settings panel doesn’t really offer anything else in terms of configuration, and only provides external links to follow their blog; rate the app in the Google Play store; one more link to refer the service to our acquaintances, followed by a non-navigational label displaying the current version of the app (in this case – version 4.0.285), along with a button to log out altogether.
Contact Support: This section lets us send a direct message to the ExpressVPN technical support team within the app itself. While many other providers’ mobile apps would normally navigate the customer away to their websites, this client gives us the option to compose a troubleshooting inquiry internally. In our experience, ExpressVPN usually respond on the same day, or at the very latest on the next day. Once written, the message can be submitted by tapping the small paper airplane icon in the top right-hand corner.
Help: This is basically a brief knowledgebase and quick tips guide that includes snippets of info on topics such as choosing recommended locations, selecting a suitable server chiefly for privacy and unblocking geo-locked content. These topics have evidently been identified by the provider as to be related to the most common purposes for mobile VPN usage. Nevertheless, if this section does not provide the necessary information required, we always have the option to contact tech support or hop over to the main website to see if we can find our answer in the FAQ section.
Now we can move on to the more interesting part – exploring servers and choosing a location for our VPN connection. Because ExpressVPN have servers in a pretty wide range of countries, the list is naturally pretty big. The app provides several ways that will help us decide where we would like to connect to. For some, the obvious choice, at least to achieve the combination of anonymity and performance, would be to choose a local server. Usually in the same country, if it is listed. For instance, at the top of the screen, the default sorting – “All Locations” brings up every available location. The servers are not actually listed in alphabetical order. In fact, even a few endpoints from the same country seem to be randomly dispersed across the list
To narrow things down, we can tap All Locations and filter the list down to Recommended locations. The top few suggestions returned some of the nearest servers, including those based in the United Kingdom, Germany and Netherlands. Also, further down the list, we can see Sweden and Switzerland, which are relatively close, at least in terms of the world map. Saying that, nearer locations such as Isle of Man and Belgium didn’t show up at all, while servers in the US, Canada and Russia did, despite being a whole lot further away in geographical distance.
Luckily, we have the option to try out one more nifty tool before connecting – the Ping Test. By tapping the little speedometer icon found at the top, we are able to see which ExpressVPN servers returned the lowest ping latency. Expectedly, UK-based servers notched the best results, including 59 ms and 61 ms respectively. We did notice, however, that our second and third tests returned some interesting locations, to say the least. Among the top was India, while US servers still showed faster responses than the Isle of Man or Belgium, neither of which even made it into the top results.
It is for this reason precisely, that we can’t really trust all of these results to decide which closest server is best to connect to. The closest locations are likely to be capable of reaching better download and upload speeds; though this also depends on whether the VPN provider sells access to servers with consistent bandwidth capacity. When it comes to speed, though, ExpressVPN rarely disappoint. In addition, the very top recommended servers returned the fastest ping. This is why we are going to test out the connection through a server in the county of Kent, UK.
Connecting to server
Once we tapped the chosen server, the app began to connect our smartphone to the VPN. The process took little more than twenty seconds to establish the connection. Actually, it’s quite useful that the app very clearly displays the connection status prior to showing the green light. We have seen many other apps in the past, desktop clients included, the design of which made it quite hard to tell as to what is going on once we hit that all-saving Connect button. And as evident in the second screenshot below, our Android VPN connection went from initiation to up and running.
Before we check the difference on the browser side, it’s worth mentioning that the app now displays some basic information about our active connection. Although there are no viewable connection logs within the app,, which would have been useful to view as a user, the main screen does show how much inbound and outbound data has been transmitted through the VPN tunnel.
In the top left-hand corner, we can also see an icon of a key; this is Android also telling us that the VPN is connected. Lastly, we hopped over to our web browser (which meant that the app was commencing work in the background) to check that our IP had changed successfully. That it did, and as the screens below show, we were now virtually accessing the internet from a location in Kent. Following this, we ran a basic speed test using Ookla’s Android application and a 10 Mb/s broadband wifi connection. With the VPN connected, the result showed just under 6 Mb/s in download speed, meaning this server was able to match up to around 60% of our original speed. Anything less than 50% would have failed to meet expectation, but 60% was certainly enough for us to be able to browse in comfort.
At this point, we were pretty confident about putting the VPN into a practical scenario. So we opened up YouTube and started watching an episode of one of our favourite 90’s cartoons. Although the buffer meter wasn’t instantly loading the entire video, we experienced no issue whilst watching the clip in its entirety. In addition, we also attempted to skip the video to various points in order to check how quickly buffering would resume, and much to our satisfaction, the episode did not halt to load at any point. A great outcome overall, and two episodes were watched on our Android smartphone without a hitch.
You can find out more about ExpressVPN by visiting their website via the link below. And if you have used their app for yourself, we’d like to hear about your experience with the provider – leave your feedback in the comment section below.