ExpressVPN for Mac review
For any regular internet user (which is all of us these days), a reliable VPN is becoming a must-have tool. All providers offer the same core service – encrypting the connection between your device and a server on the internet to ensure any private information stays that way. Any time you log into an online website or service while connected to a VPN means this data can’t be seen by your ISP (internet service provider), the government or anyone else who wants to know, besides the website or service you logged onto.
It’s worth understanding that using a VPN doesn’t grant you anonymity online. If you use Google, especially when signed in, there’s still a record of all the sites you’ve visited and even activity within certain websites or apps. Despite the privacy and no-logs policies of a VPN service, you can’t rely on this alone to be anonymous in all you do online.
However, you’ve probably heard a lot more about the other main use of a VPN – allowing you to appear as if you’re in another country and so access content that would otherwise have been blocked due to geo-restrictions. Think watching US Netflix or accessing BBC iPlayer from abroad.
You can get the same privacy and – to a lesser extent – unblocking from free VPN services, but they all are restricted in some way. Whether it’s reducing speeds, limiting data usage or not offering the servers you want (such as the USA). If you’re looking for a VPN for anything more than occasional usage, it’s time to get out your wallet.
ExpressVPN is one of the most well-known VPN services around. In terms of pure numbers, it doesn’t beat some rivals with 3000 servers in 94 countries. Fortunately, these are plenty good enough and there are plenty of features within a slick user interface. But how well does it work on the Mac?
For the duration of my testing time, I was using a MacBook Pro running macOS Catalina. Your experience may vary if you’ve updated to Big Sur or the new M1 Macs, but early reports suggest it runs without issue on the latter.
As I alluded to above, ExpressVPN has a huge number of servers available to paid subscribers. The 94 countries include favourites such as the USA and Australia, alongside far-flung destinations like The Bahamas and Cambodia. It doesn’t cover every single territory, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to appear to be in a destination that isn’t available.
The great thing about the service is that it’s available across all your devices. In addition to the macOS app, a single subscription gets you access via apps for Windows, iOS, Android, Linux and Fire TV. There are Chrome and Firefox browser extensions, while ExpressVPN has tutorials on its website to get the service running on Apple TV, Android TVs and NAS drives. There’s no limit to how many devices ExpressVPN can be installed on, although you can only have five active connections at any one time.
The only time that’s not an issue is if you install it on your router – Asus, Netgear and Linksys are among the models supported. The big benefit here, beyond unlimited devices, is it allows devices that don’t support VPN apps (like games consoles) to be protected.
As is the case on other devices, ExpressVPN’s Mac app has a kill switch. It’s known here as Network Lock, and means all internet traffic will cease if the VPN tunnel collapses unexpectedly. This can happen if your internet connection drops out for whatever reason, when switching between networks or if you put your device to sleep. Without a VPN connection, your data would otherwise be sent unencrypted. The role of the kill switch is to stop this as soon as possible, and ExpressVPN’s version will also automatically attempt to reconnect to the server as soon as it can.
This means none of your data is sent or received without protection, and it will automatically reconnect you to a server once internet access resumes.
Another big security feature is TrustedServer, which ensures all connections on ExpressVPN run entirely over RAM. The only data that’s stored on your hard drive is what’s needed to boot up the servers, and all the information from a session as deleted as soon as the connection is terminated. That means no user data is ever stored for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Using the Chrome or Firefox extension is an effective way of targeting a VPN connection to only the websites in that browser. It ensures all sites you visit use the secure HTTPS standard, even if the developers haven’t implemented it themselves. It would be great to have a similar extension for Safari, but fortunately this can be achieved through split tunneling.
I deliberately waited to test it feature until I’d tried out ExpressVPN’s customer support, which is available 24/7 via a live chat feature and email. Upon heading to the website, I was only waiting a few seconds before being connected with an advisor. He pointed me in the direction of an extremely helpful YouTube video, which showed just how easy it is to allow only specific apps to connect to the VPN.
However, at the time of writing ExpressVPN is still developing support for split tunneling on macOS Big Sur, so it suggests you don’t update your device if you want to continue using the feature for the time being.
Performance and ease of use
The first thing you’ll notice about ExpressVPN is just how easy it is to use, so it’s just as well suited to beginners as those familiar with VPNs. It couldn’t be easier to get started once you’ve logged in the first time – just open the app, choose one of the 160 locations and hit the main button to connect. This is even quicker if you just want a secure connection, with Smart Location offering a location which ExpressVPN thinks is the fastest and most reliable.
A big advantage over the Windows version is that an ExpressVPN icon will stay in the Menu bar for the duration of the time it’s open, allowing you to quickly connect and disconnect without interrupting what you’re doing. This is especially useful for me, as I often need to quickly switch between territories to get local pricing information.
I was using a ~30Mbps connection for the majority of my testing time, and noticed almost no slowdown when connected to one of the ExpressVPN servers. Speeds will vary depending on how far the chosen is away from you, as well as how much traffic there is on the server at that time. As such, choosing a US East server at 10am UK time will yield significantly faster speeds than 4pm.
However, ExpressVPN looks set to become capable of far higher speeds with a new feature called Lightway. Almost any VPN connection will slow your connection down to some degree, but the service says its new protocol can maintain speeds of 500-600Mbps. Many people’s home broadband isn’t anywhere near as fast as this, it indicates there will be far less of the usual slowdown. Read more about Lightway on our sister site, Tech Advisor.
For now, ExpressVPN has a speed test feature built into the Mac app which can give an indication of the speeds you can expect. Within a few minutes, it was clear that the speed in France will be around 6x faster than in Australia, but that’s to be expected regardless of which VPN you’re using. Provided you have a relatively fast and stable connection when accessing UK content, you should be able to connect to any location.
While speeds were a little slower than I’m used to, I had no problems with accessing content on Netflix US from the UK. The same can be said of many other streaming services, with the crucial exceptions of BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub. At the time of writing, ExpressVPN says it’s working hard on finding a way to access these services from abroad.
In the meantime, there is a workaround. MediaStreamer is a DNS server within the router app, designed to offer faster streaming speeds in exchange for losing the encryption the VPN usually provides. If you’re just looking to access the content from abroad, it’s your best option when using ExpressVPN at the moment.
Security and privacy
As great as all the features and speeds are, it means nothing if your VPN isn’t safe and secure. ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, a British overseas territory that doesn’t have to comply with UK laws. This is outside the ‘14-eyes’, an agreement between 14 countries to collect, analyse and share information freely between each other.
This could be considered contrary to the policy of a VPN, which seeks to maintain its users’ privacy under all circumstances. ExpressVPN would probably be fine to be based in the 14-eyes as it doesn’t log any connection or activity data, but you can see why it didn’t take the risk.
Currently the main protocol is OpenVPN, using a secure form of encryption which is exactly what you should be looking for in a modern VPN.
The kill switch stops all traffic in the event of a disconnection, regardless of which app you’re using. In System Preferences, this can be customised to allow external devices like printers to stay connected.
It also offers its service within the Tor network, which routes your data traffic through different servers all around the world to ensure maximum privacy. For most people, though, simply opening the app and connecting to one of its servers will be plenty secure enough.
Price and value for money
It’s hard to fault ExpressVPN’s service, but price is perhaps the main sticking point. A subscription costs £9.99/US$12.95 per month, or £7.71/US$8.32 when you pay for 6 months. It drops to £6.44/US$6.67 per month when you commit to a year, which gets you three months extra for free. See full pricing on the ExpressVPN website.
That still feels like a big commitment, especially when you compare it to the other services in our roundup of the best VPNs for Mac. NordVPN currently costs £2.86 per month, while Surfshark is even cheaper at just £1.95 per month, although you’ll have to sign up for two years in both cases. If you don’t value the extra security offered by TrustedServer or need all your devices to be protected, it might be hard to justify paying extra for ExpressVPN.
Check out more alternatives in our round-up of the best VPNs for Mac.
It’s widely thought that Macs are more secure than their Windows equivalents, but that doesn’t negate the need for a VPN. With that in mind, ExpressVPN is one of the most accomplished services you can buy.
Everything you’d expect from a modern VPN is here, including an effective kill switch, impressive device support and split tunneling for app-by-app protection. Although the latter doesn’t yet work on macOS Big Sur, it was extremely easy to set up and use on my MacBook Pro, with quick access via the menu bar one of the highlights.
ExpressVPN has often led the way when it comes to security, but other providers are quickly catching up. It’s no longer the only one with RAM-based servers, while solid device and tech support are the norm whichever service you use.
The new Lightway protocol looks set to deliver big increases to the speeds ExpressVPN is capable of, but as open-source technology many similar services will be able to make use of it. Many of these are significantly more affordable, including the likes of NordVPN and Surfshark.
With the introduction of Apple Silicon, there’s no doubt that ExpressVPN is more than capable of serving the next generation of Mac. It’s just probably not the only one.