ExpressVPN Lightway: A New Path For 2020?

Jacob RoachJacob Roach
By Jacob Roach (Writer) & Jacob Roach (Writer)
— Last Updated: 2020-06-19T03:35:07+00:00

Over the past year, ExpressVPN has been hard at work on a new protocol: Lightway. Boasting faster speeds, better handling of network changes and modern encryption options, Lightway looks like the VPN protocol the market has desperately been looking for. Although it’s still in beta, we took Lightway out for a spin to give you some initial impressions. 

For some context, ExpressVPN is the best VPN service we’ve tested, as well as the fastest. Over the past few months, though, it’s fallen behind other services boasting impressive, proprietary protocols, such as NordVPN’s NordLynx. Lightway looks to change that. 

We’ll give you some impressions of the protocol here, but make sure to keep an eye on our ExpressVPN review for when the protocol officially launches. 

What Is ExpressVPN’s Lightway?

ExpressVPN’s Lightway is a new protocol designed specifically to increase the speed and reliability of a VPN connection. Following the trend of NordVPN, VyprVPN, Hide.me and a handful of other VPNs, ExpressVPN is pushing the envelope with a lightweight protocol designed for modern VPN usage. 

That said, Lightway isn’t what we expected out of ExpressVPN. Over the past couple of years, WireGuard has been all the rage in the VPN space. It’s an extremely lightweight protocol with excellent encryption standards, which sounds an awful lot like Lightway. To our knowledge, Lightway is something different, though. 

Presumably, it’s a take on WireGuard with better handling of user privacy. ExpressVPN has been very vocal over the past year or so about the privacy risks associated with WireGuard and the fact that the protocol is still fully in development. Though we still don’t know the full details of Lightway, it’s probably inspired by WireGuard, just with the privacy angle handled.  

How VPN Protocols Slow Your Connection

The big deal with Lightway is that it was designed specifically for VPNs like ExpressVPN. Eventually, the code will go open source, and other VPN companies will be able to adopt Lightway or something similar. 

VPN protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 can be used with modern VPN services — i.e., VPN services aimed at providing online privacy — but they’re designed to support a wider range of applications. A narrower focus means more efficiency, and it looks like that’s what Lightway is pointing toward. 

Currently, Lightway is beta on Android only. If you want to give it a shot, all you need to do is download the ExpressVPN Android app and opt into the beta. After that, you’ll have access to Lightway. 

Benefits of Lightway

Now that you know a bit about Lightway, let’s talk about how it’s different from other VPN protocols. 

Efficient Code

Like WireGuard, Lightway is built on an efficient code base. Less code usually means a faster connection, but it has other benefits, too. These include faster reconnection times and less processor load. Lightweight code also helps in the security department, allowing security researchers to audit the code efficiently. 

Handles Drops Well

In practice, the streamlined code means that Lightway handles drops well. As we’ll get to in a moment, Lightway secures your device almost instantaneously. So if you’re using ExpressVPN on your mobile device and are experiencing dropouts, Lightway can keep up with the fluctuating network. 

This is where Lightway gets interesting. Even when your device is switching networks — say from LTE to WiFi — the Lightway session remains. That means once you have internet access, ExpressVPN is ready to go, no need to renegotiate the connection. 

We have some security questions about this process, but we’ll have to wait until ExpressVPN has more technical documentation on Lightway. Given ExpressVPN’s track record, we’d imagine everything is fine on that front. 

Modern Encryption Options

AES-256 has been the standard for a while, and it works wonders in most cases (read our description of encryption for more). However, there are modern alternatives that haven’t caught on in the VPN market. Namely, ChaCha20, which offers similar security to AES-256 while handling network changes with ease. 

Lightway uses the wolfSSL cryptography library — a well-known library with plenty of research backing it — to support AES and ChaCha. Although we like ChaCha a lot, we appreciate that it and AES are both a part of Lightway. OpenVPN supports AES, WireGuard supports ChaCha, but there aren’t any widely adopted protocols that support both. 

Our First Impressions

We signed up for the ExpressVPN beta on Android, downloaded the app and took Lightway for a spin. We’re not going to get too scientific here — we’ll wait until Lightway is out of beta and on desktop to run a full range of speed tests — but here are some numbers we pulled while testing on Android. 

On an unprotected WiFi connection, we had a download speed of 53.26 Mbps and a latency of 14ms. With OpenVPN, our speed clocked in at 35.17 Mbps with a latency of 24ms.With Lightway using AES, our download speed was 31.12 Mbps with a latency of 29ms. 

We reran the Lightway test with ChaCha20, but our results were mostly the same (a download speed of 31.01 Mbps with a latency of 29ms). 

Take our numbers with a grain of salt, though. Lightway is not only still in beta, it’s only available on Android, so we can only test with a wireless connection. 

Lightway is on par with OpenVPN, at least when it comes to WiFi. On LTE, OpenVPN was much faster than Lightway. Again, though, this is purely based on a wireless connection, which is never a good starting point for testing. 

Reconnection Shines

We did note much faster reconnection times with Lightway, though. As any VPN user knows, there’s a few seconds between starting the connection and actually being secured by the VPN tunnel. In our experience with Lightway, the connection was pretty much instantaneous. It may not seem like a big deal, but it makes a huge difference, especially on mobile. 

On LTE and public WiFi, where dropouts are a dime a dozen, fast reconnection is essential. Lightway handles the job much better than OpenVPN and even IKEv2. Plus, Lightway supports ChaCha20, offering a huge boost to devices that don’t support hardware-accelerated AES encryption. 

Right now, the speeds are fine, and we expect ExpressVPN will improve them throughout the beta trial. Our first impressions are fairly high, and it seems that Lightway would work well for mobile devices and older devices without AES hardware acceleration. We’ll save our judgement on speed, though, for when Lightway is on desktop. 

Final Thoughts

Lightway is an impressive new protocol, even if the speed numbers don’t jump out immediately. In particular, the reconnection times are unmatched. If Lightway is able to deliver on speeds faster than OpenVPN when it officially launches, there’s no question that it will be a superior choice in almost all cases. 

For now, we can just wait. Let us know what you think about Lightway in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.