Proton VPN Review
Proton VPN is among the best free VPNs available today, but that’s not all it has to offer. This VPN provider has a killer interface, good speeds and great streaming access, but a weak server network and threadbare customer support. Get all the details in our full Proton VPN review.
As one of the few free VPNs without a data limit, Proton VPN occupies an important niche in the VPN world. No matter what you want to do with a VPN — be it streaming, torrenting, video chatting or just browsing online — you can do it on Proton VPN without paying a cent. Our Proton VPN review covers all the upsides and downsides of this model.
- With no data caps, Proton VPN Free is one of the best free VPN plans on the market, rivaled only by Windscribe.
- Proton VPN’s speeds have vastly improved over the last year, especially on nearby servers.
- The paid plan is a bit expensive for what it offers. However, you can get more for your money by signing up for a full Proton Unlimited plan.
- The biggest drawback of Proton VPN is its customer service, which feels like an afterthought.
Proton VPN the best free VPN services, having overtaken Windscribe (read our Proton VPN vs Windscribe guide to learn more). However, on our overall best VPN list, it drops down to number seven. Does that mean Proton VPN is only viable for the budget-conscious, or is there value in its paid plans?
Our comprehensive review of Proton VPN goes into detail about every aspect of this VPN provider, including its features, user interface, speeds, security and privacy, plus some surprising details about its origins at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
By the end, we hope you’ll be ready to decide whether to make Proton VPN the nucleus of your online security.
09/15/2022 Facts checked
Review updated to mention new features, include a new speed test and highlight Proton VPN’s simplified pricing.
Yes. In fact, since it’s the only VPN that doesn’t restrict your data usage on the free plan, we’d go so far as to call it the most free VPN on the market (though Windscribe is the superior product overall).
NordVPN is unquestionably better, as you can see in our NordVPN vs ProtonVPN comparison. NordVPN has more servers, faster speeds and better customer service, and its paid plans are cheaper. ProtonVPN can only compete on features, user interface and the quality of its free plan.
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Proton VPN Review: Strengths & Weaknesses
- No data limits on free plan
- Well-organized, intuitive UI
- Unblocks all streaming apps
- Great speeds on most servers
- Verified no-logs policy
- Windows & Android split tunneling only
- No obfuscated servers
- No browser extensions
- Few good support options
- Paid plans are expensive
Proton VPN doesn’t drown users in features, preferring instead to carefully curate a smaller range of well-built options. Every Proton VPN feature is fundamental to its mission of providing better security. Nothing feels tacked-on or gimmicky.
Proton VPN doesn’t have apps for as many different platforms as some of its competitors. It has the basics covered — macOS, Windows, iOS, Android and Linux are all here, and there are also apps for Chromebook and Android TV. However, there aren’t any browser extensions, nor specific apps for any other smart TVs.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what devices a VPN supports, as long as you can install it on a router. Proton VPN supports router installs, but doesn’t make them nearly as straightforward as the apps on our best VPN for routers list. Installing Proton VPN on a router requires some technical knowledge of OpenVPN clients, especially if the router isn’t explicitly VPN-friendly.
Proton VPN’s free plan only allows one user to connect at a time. You can get around this limit by having that one user be your router, protecting every device that gets online from your home. If you upgrade to a Plus account, you’ll get 10 simultaneous connections. That’s connections, not installs or logins — you can install Proton VPN on as many devices as you like.
Secure Core Servers
One of Proton VPN’s more unique offerings is its Secure Core servers. Only available on paid plans, Secure Core takes inspiration from Tor by running connections through multiple servers before sending them to an exit node.
If someone breaches the exit server’s security, they won’t be able to find out user IP addresses because of the other layers of encryption.
One other great thing about Secure Core servers: Unlike almost every other VPN, Proton VPN specifically mentions physical security. For example, the Iceland Secure Core data center is a refurbished military base. Physical security is so often overlooked by teams obsessed with digital security, and can be a massive weak point — but not here.
Secure Core servers also draw on a wholly owned network of proprietary IP addresses, and have a private Local Internet Registry (LIR).
Malware Blocking, Kill Switch & Split Tunneling
Next up, there’s NetShield, a built-in ad and malware blocker. This feature is also exclusive to Plus plans.
Like most VPN-based ad blockers, NetShield doesn’t have the sophisticated machine learning algorithms that dedicated antivirus software employs to detect malware before it strikes. Instead, it checks every DNS request against a blocklist database of websites known to be sketchy. This works reasonably well, but you should still have a separate antivirus running.
Continuing along the row, we’ve got the kill switch, an essential component of any VPN. A kill switch is a safety measure in case your VPN connection suddenly drops. If that ever happens while the kill switch is active, it cuts off your internet connection as well, preventing you from broadcasting an unprotected IP address.
The kill switch is included with Proton VPN’s free plan, and comes standard with the Windows, macOS, iOS and Linux apps. Android users can get the benefits of the kill switch by selecting “block connections without VPN” in the app’s settings page.
Note that if you have the kill switch active on iOS, you will not be able to access internet-capable devices from your local network.
Proton VPN also offers split tunneling, a feature that protects certain apps in the VPN tunnel while leaving others unprotected. Speed is more important for some activities (streaming, video chatting) while security takes precedence for others (banking, torrenting, using public WiFi).
Unfortunately, only Windows and Android users get access to split tunneling.
The final main-page feature of Proton VPN is “profiles,” a feature similar to NordVPN’s presets (learn more in our NordVPN review). With the profiles tab, you can save certain combinations of settings under an identifiable name, so you won’t have to set them manually every time you need them.
The feature comes pre-loaded with two profiles. “Fastest” automatically connects you to whichever server offers the fastest connection, while “random” connects you to a completely random server, helping to disguise your location.
You can create your own profiles with unique names and colors. Custom profiles can automatically connect to specialty servers, connect to the fastest server in a particular country, or auto-connect to a specific server regardless of speed. For example, you could set up a BBC iPlayer profile that always connects to the fastest server in the U.K.
It’s not the level of control you get from CyberGhost’s Smart Rules, but few VPNs can compare to that (as you can read in our CyberGhost review). There are also no website shortcuts like both ExpressVPN and NordVPN offer (see our ExpressVPN vs NordVPN matchup if you want to know who does it better). Still, it’s a handy feature to have around.
Proton VPN Specialty Servers
A brief word on specialty servers: Many VPNs have special servers designated for certain tasks, such as torrenting and P2P file sharing or Onion over VPN. Proton VPN has three types of special servers.
We’ve already talked about the Secure Core feature, which bolsters VPN security by running connections through extra servers. P2P servers are optimized for torrenting, though torrenting is allowed on every Proton VPN server — in fact, Proton VPN is the top free option on our best VPNs for torrenting list.
Finally, there are Tor servers, which are for paid users only. These run all your connections through the Tor anonymity network, but with added VPN protection providing a measure of safety from malicious nodes. If you don’t want to go all the way and use Tor Browser, Proton VPN’s Tor servers are a good way to get your feet wet.
One thing missing that we’d like to see is obfuscation servers, like we see with NordVPN, or obfuscation built into all its servers, like we see with ExpressVPN. This would mask the fact that you’re using a VPN at all, which helps for using a VPN in high-risk countries where VPN use might be restricted or illegal.
Proton Mail, Proton Calendar and Proton Drive
Proton VPN is part of a suite of products, all developed by the same Proton team and designed to work together. The Proton project was born in 2014 when a group at Switzerland’s famous CERN laboratory — worried about the privacy options available to journalists and dissidents worldwide — teamed up to create Proton Mail.
Proton VPN was their second project, followed by Proton Calendar and Proton Drive. All four are open source — you can find Proton VPN’s source code on Github — and have a free version supported by premium plans.
Proton Mail is an email service with end-to-end, zero-knowledge encryption. Not only are your emails fully encrypted from the moment you send them until the moment they arrive, but the encryption is such that the Proton team can’t even break it.
A Proton Mail Plus account adds more email addresses and custom email domains, and removes the 150-per-day message send limit. Your sending limit is instead based on your account’s reputation.
Proton Calendar is an end-to-end encrypted day calendar that keeps outside parties from spying on your daily activities. If anyone sends you an invitation from a non-encrypted calendar, Proton Calendar encrypts it automatically.
Unfortunately, Proton Calendar doesn’t have its own paid plan, but a Mail Plus subscription integrates with Proton Mail to let you send calendar invite links from your inbox (much like Gmail and Google Calendar). You can also have 20 personal calendars, while the free plan allows only one.
Proton Drive is an encrypted cloud storage app that’s still in beta (learn more in our Proton Drive review). On a free Proton account, you can store 1GB of files. A Plus account upgrades that to 15GB, or 500GB on Unlimited. Both accounts come with the same zero-knowledge encryption you get from Proton Mail, plus sharing links and permissions similar to what you’d get on Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive.
All three services are great, but Proton Mail and Proton Calendar offer more unique support for the privacy conscious — there are plenty of other options for encrypted cloud storage. No other Proton services are necessary to use Proton VPN.
Proton VPN Features Overview
|Payment methods||PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, cash|
|Supports split tunneling||Windows & Android|
|Free trial available|
|Worldwide server amount||1700+|
|Desktop OSes||Windows, MacOS, Linux|
|Mobile OSes||Android, iOS|
|Can be installed on routers|
|Can access Netflix US|
|Can access BBC iPlayer|
|Can access Hulu|
|Can access Amazon Prime Video|
|Encryption types||256-AES, RSA-4096, ChaCha20, HMAC-SHA384|
|VPN protocols available||OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard|
|Enabled at device startup|
|Passed DNS leak test|
|Malware/ad blocker included|
Pricing with Proton VPN is a mixed bag. We understand that a paid plan has to be proportionally expensive to serve up such a robust free plan (we observed a similar effect during our Windscribe review). However, we still wish the annual plans offered steeper discounts.
Proton VPN recently condensed its pricing down to only two options: free and paid. Instead of a confusing matrix of tiers, perks and durations, it’s now a simple choice: Spend money and get more, or don’t spend money and get less (but still a lot).
- Unlimited GB
Paying for Proton VPN Plus unlocks several perks, including the full server network, better speeds, 10 simultaneous connections, and features like NetShield, Secure Core servers and Tor over VPN.
One month of Proton VPN Plus is cheaper than a month of NordVPN or Surfshark. However, those two providers offer steep discounts if you commit to a longer subscription (see our Surfshark vs NordVPN matchup for details), while Proton VPN only drops its price by about 50%. More disappointing, signing up for two years instead of one saves you just $1 per month.
There is one way to save serious money if you need a full security suite. Proton Unlimited, technically a pricing tier of Proton Mail, gives you access to the highest levels of Proton VPN, Proton Mail, Proton Calendar and Proton Drive. All that costs $11.99 per month, $9.99 per month if paid annually, or $7.99 per month if you pay for two years up front.
Sadly, it’s no longer possible to access Proton Visionary, a high-tier account for early backers of the Proton Project.
Is Proton VPN Actually Free?
Yes, but with limitations. No VPN is totally free. Freemium VPNs always restrict something to induce you to pay up, whether it’s bandwidth, monthly data, features, servers or something else. Proton VPN is one of the few free VPNs not to cap bandwidth or monthly data — you can use it as much as you want without paying.
Instead, Proton VPN Free limits access to features, VPN connections, speed and servers. Free users can’t use NetShield, Tor over VPN or Secure Core servers. They also can’t access the full server network, being restricted to three countries: the United States, the Netherlands and Japan.
This has the natural consequence of limiting free speeds as well. The more users on a server, the slower it performs, like forcing a crowd of people through a single doorway. The free servers have more users fighting for their bandwidth. Unless you pay up, you’ll never get the best speeds from Proton VPN, only “medium” speeds.
Finally, the free version also restricts it to one VPN connection at a time, while the paid version allows up to 10 VPN connections.
Free Trial & Money-Back Guarantee
ProtonVPN used to offer a seven-day free trial of its Plus tier, but as of 2022, that’s no longer available. You can still take advantage of a no-questions-asked, 30-day money-back guarantee to test out Plus.
Proton VPN doesn’t make its payment methods available on the initial pricing page, so deciding how to pay can be tricky. You can pay with a credit card or debit card, PayPal, bank transfer or Bitcoin (but no other cryptocurrency).
Cash is also an option, though not at retail outlets. You’ll have to mail cash directly to Proton VPN’s headquarters in Geneva, along with a note containing your username. It’s inconvenient, and a little more expensive, but totally anonymous if you’re willing to forgo a return address.
Proton VPN’s interface looks complicated at first glance, but once you get started, everything falls into place. Its design pulls off a deft balancing act. Practically all its features are on the front page, but for the most part that page avoids becoming cluttered or overcrowded.
Most VPNs aim for as much simplicity on the front page as possible, at the cost of cramming everything into the “preferences” menu like toys shoved under a bed. In contrast, Proton VPN shunts very little off to the side. It’s a refreshing design choice that makes for one of the few UIs we like as much as ExpressVPN.
Download and Installation
Let’s start with the download process. Proton VPN lets you download right off the bat, but it’s easier (and free) to create an account first. That way, you can see all the available client apps on your personal user page — helpful if you want a VPN for multiple devices.
Proton VPN holds your hand all the way from download to installation. Follow the instructions, and you’ll soon see the main control panel on your device of choice.
Connecting to Servers
You can select servers by scrolling down through the list or choosing one from the map. We love that the map starts fully zoomed out, eliminating the need for tedious clicking and dragging. The only thing we don’t like about the server list is that there’s no way to pick out the specialty servers without looking through the selection for each country.
You can enable most features, including profiles, Secure Core, the kill switch and NetShield through the server list. The “preferences” panel is well designed (it’s nice that it fits Proton VPN’s dark-mode aesthetic), but mostly used for a few miscellaneous toggles.
The Preferences Panel
You can use the “preferences” panel to toggle whether Proton VPN opens immediately as soon as you log in, decide where and how it auto connects upon launch and determine exactly what the “quick connect” button on the homepage does. There’s also an option to get notifications, including when you’re on an unprotected WiFi network.
You’ll also find the option here to change your VPN protocol on Windows, Android or iOS (or, if you’ve done the necessary homework, on macOS). This is where Proton VPN loses user-friendliness points for Mac users, despite how much we love the UI. If you don’t go through a separate install, you can’t even see which protocol you’re using, let alone change it.
The Proton VPN mobile app is very similar to the desktop app. Instead of all being laid out in a single window, the features are organized by tabs at the bottom of the screen. Navigating between them is easy, and few tasks require more than one click.
Proton VPN is not one of the eight services we selected for our VPN speed comparison, so for this review, we ran the tests manually.
VPN speed is almost as critical as security and privacy. Thanks to rerouting and encryption, any VPN will slow down your internet connection (though you might get some speed back if you happen to have suffered ISP throttling that the VPN circumvents).
However, a VPN won’t keep you safe if it’s too slow for you to actually use. The world’s safest car has no wheels, but it won’t get you very far. Knowing that, we look for VPN providers that impact browsing speed as little as possible.
We measure three factors. Latency measures the time in milliseconds (ms) that it takes data to move from an origin server to a destination. Download speed measures the amount of data in megabytes that a device can download per second (Mbps). Upload speed measures how many Mbps the device can upload.
For our test, we checked Proton VPN’s speed on all six continents, using an ISP server in Portland, Ore., USA. We used the fastest server in each location, as selected by Proton VPN. Expect latency to increase and download speed to decrease the farther the server is from the western United States.
Proton VPN Speed Test Results
In our previous tests, we haven’t found Proton VPN to be among the fastest VPNs, but this test showed a marked improvement. Proton VPN may not yet be able to stand up to a speed champion like Surfshark (see its speeds in our Surfshark review), but it’s turning into a contender.
Latency was Proton VPN’s weakest category. Closest to us, it was incredible, with an almost negligible increase on the United States server. However, it leapt to almost 300 ms on the U.K. server, and never dropped back below.
Proton VPN is a great choice for real-time activities like gaming, as long as you don’t need to spoof a location in another country. Stay on the nearest server and you’ll enjoy a smooth, lag-free experience.
Upload speed was better, except for a big dip in Singapore. Given that our speeds increased again in Australia, which is just as far away from us, we’re inclined to think that was a server problem. A good upload speed makes it easier to post content or send messages online.
Finally, there’s download speed, where Proton VPN performed admirably. On the closest server, our browsing speed only dipped about 3%, a barely noticeable change. Even in South Africa, where we saw the highest latency, we still retained well over half of our unprotected speeds.
As long as you have more than 10 Mbps of download speed to begin with, Proton VPN should be more than fast enough for everything you do online, including streaming and torrenting.
What Is VPN Accelerator?
Proton VPN claims to boost speeds through a house-built technology called VPN Accelerator that can increase speeds by over 400% “in certain situations.” To simplify, VPN Accelerator involves running multiple VPN processes in parallel, reducing the load on each one and streamlining connections.
VPN Accelerator debuted in 2021, after our last review of Proton VPN. We can’t say for sure whether it’s responsible for the speed improvements we saw — VPNs often claim they’ve discovered some secret sauce for speed — but it certainly hasn’t hurt.
Moreover, VPN Accelerator is enabled by default on most apps, so it’s not something you’ll have to bother with much.
Proton VPN’s security can be obscure, thanks to its reluctance to tell you what protocol you’re using on macOS. However, this service doesn’t support weak VPN protocols or broken encryption, and its VPN security passed all our DNS leak tests. Mac users can feel safe while connected, even if they don’t know all the details.
Proton VPN only supports three VPN protocols: OpenVPN, WireGuard and IKEv2. These use only the two strongest encryption algorithms, AES-256 and ChaCha20. OpenVPN can toggle between the faster UDP and the more consistent TCP. Windows users can’t access IKEv2, and users of the Proton VPN Linux app only get OpenVPN.
In general, it’s an extremely strong selection of protocols. There’s no proprietary protocol, but the open-source options work well enough. It’s worth noting that when we last reviewed Proton VPN, it hadn’t implemented WireGuard yet — another sign that this service is always improving.
Another cool security option is “smart protocol,” which automatically detects the safest protocol for using the internet in oppressive countries like China and Russia. However, it would be nice to see obfuscated VPN servers for beating censorship, like you see on our best VPNs for China.
Proton VPN operates on the principle of perfect forward secrecy, which means that every security measure it takes defends your personal data against future exploits along with current ones. If a hacker somehow gets their hands on a key to one transaction, they won’t be able to see others that happened in the past.
Finally, there’s DNS leak protection, a feature that’s always turned on by default. It encrypts all DNS requests, making sure your ISP can’t even see which websites you visit, let alone what you do on them.
When using a free VPN, be especially skeptical about its approach to privacy. Many free services treat their users’ personal information as a commodity, reasoning that they’re free to sell it because subscribers don’t pay for the service. Fortunately, Proton VPN is not among them.
Proton VPN claims it will not log any information about you, including your browsing history, IP address, messages, location or even how long you’re connected. It can promise this because the VPN is based in Switzerland, which guarantees a right to privacy in its constitution — pushing it out ahead of the already pro-privacy European Union.
Previous Audits and Subpoenas
In April 2022, Proton VPN guaranteed its no-logs policy with an audit by European security-testing firm Securitum, which apparently revealed no issues. The code is also fully open source, allowing volunteers to search for logging programs (none have been found).
Proton VPN also points to a 2019 legal case in which a Swiss court obliged a request from “a foreign country” to subpoena data logs from a Proton VPN server. Proton could not comply because the logs did not exist. That seems to have been the end of the case.
In summary: Thanks to multiple corroborating guarantees of its no-logs policy, Proton VPN is about as private as a VPN service can get. If privacy is your main reason for using a VPN, this is a top choice.
As one of the top uses for a VPN, streaming carries a lot of weight in our reviews. We left Proton VPN off our most recent best VPN for streaming list because of its formerly lackluster speeds.
Now that they’ve improved, we’re confident in calling Proton VPN a strong streaming option. It’s capable of unblocking all major streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, HBO Max and Disney+.
You can use a VPN to access streaming libraries in other countries. However, due to the patchwork travesty of international copyright law, streaming companies can get in trouble if you watch a show in the wrong country. They’ll try to block all VPNs with a firewall to avoid this trouble (that’s how you get the netflix proxy error).
Despite its lack of obfuscation, Proton VPN is a beast at getting around streaming firewalls. Use it to check out another country’s content, or stream your favorite shows from home while traveling.
|Amazon Prime Video|
Is Proton VPN Good for Netflix?
It’s not just good — it’s one of the best VPNs for Netflix, as chosen by our reviewers. As long as you have a relatively fast internet connection, you can stream Netflix content from anywhere in the world with Proton VPN.
As a comparatively new VPN service, Proton VPN hasn’t yet built a VPN server network wide enough to compete with the likes of Private Internet Access. It has over 1,700 VPN servers spread across 89 locations in 64 countries and territories. However, it makes up some of the gap with a more even worldwide distribution.
Why is a broad VPN server network important? As we saw in the “speed” section, a VPN gives you lower latency and better speed when you’re closer to a server. If a VPN wants to be useful everywhere in the world, it needs at least a few servers on every continent. Despite this, some VPNs still ignore Africa, South America, Central Asia and other areas where it’s harder to place servers.
On the other hand, a huge server count isn’t necessarily meaningful. VPNs often inflate their total server counts, so they can put big numbers on their websites, neglecting to mention that the servers are mostly in data centers that don’t need more processing power. ProtonVPN’s servers are well-distributed among its locations, making for more consistent performance.
Proton VPN has six server locations in South America, three in Africa and three in the Middle East. Central Asia is the only region not well represented, but few VPNs have servers there yet.
Physical vs Virtual Servers
Another reason the network is relatively small: Proton VPN has chosen not to use any virtual servers, opting instead for “bare-metal” servers it can own outright and fully configure.
Services like HideMyAss often use virtual servers to inflate their numbers (see our HideMyAss review to learn more). Others employ them for more noble reasons, such as to continue operating in India while skirting its new requirement to keep logs (as discussed in our best VPN for India list).
However, virtual servers come with some risks. Users might get slower connections than expected if a VPN is not located where it claims to be. Virtual servers are also vulnerable to certain exploits that can’t touch bare-metal servers.
While we applaud Proton VPN’s decision to not use virtual servers, there may come a time when it’s forced to choose between virtualizing its India locations and pulling out of the country altogether. So far, the company hasn’t announced any decision about the new law.
Customer service isn’t a priority for Proton VPN. It’s not the worst tech support we’ve ever seen (that would have to be BolehVPN) — you just won’t find nearly as many conveniences here as with some other providers.
Options from the desktop Proton VPN app are a little vague. Proton VPN gives you the option to submit a bug report, but it’s not clear whether this will actually get you help, or if it’s just for the team’s purposes.
A better way to get help is to visit the online support center, which is also accessible from the Proton VPN app. However, the knowledgebase left us wanting a lot more. None of the categories contains more than five articles, some of which are duplicates from other categories.
The articles are competently written, but will be difficult for a beginner VPN user to parse. It seems as though Proton VPN only adds an article to the knowledgebase when a user reports a specific problem. There’s no indication that the help center was built from the ground up to be as helpful as possible.
Even worse, there’s no live chat option on the website. The only way to get personalized help is to use the bug report form in the app, or a support form that’s very well hidden on the website (scroll to the bottom, click “show details” under the “contact” heading, then click “support form”).
We submitted a simple question to the form and got a response the same day, though it did take a few hours.
Those who are comfortable with forums might have better luck taking their queries to the Proton VPN subreddit. It’s a fairly busy community that the Proton VPN team actively monitors and often posts responses. We understand, though, that Reddit isn’t always the friendliest environment for newcomers.
Proton VPN and its cousin apps play a vital role in the security landscape. It’s clear that the CERN team is acting out of a noble concern for people’s privacy, and they’ve built an app to match. Proton VPN’s interface is nearly a work of genius, its speeds are constantly improving, and there’s very little you can’t do with the free app.
If Proton VPN has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that the paid version is never quite good enough to stand out from the crowd. Its most unique offering is its Secure Core servers, which is essentially a glorified multi-hop connection. That isn’t enough to make up for the small server network, weak customer service and lack of obfuscation or universal split tunneling.
We’re glad Proton VPN exists. Along with Windscribe, it’s a clear leader in the free VPN world (frankly, nobody else comes close). However, for those willing to pay, we’d recommend other VPNs first.
With that said, Proton Mail is a killer app for privacy that’s going to be copied for the next decade. Take our word for it.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with Proton VPN or any of the other Proton apps. If you think we got anything wrong, or have a story or recommendation of your own, sound off in the comments. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you for the next VPN review!