CyberGhost VPN review

While CyberGhost VPN is Europe-centric with only a handful of US servers, it does the job effectively with minimal ads and without a significant performance drop. With a slick professional-looking interface and a decent selection of servers, CyberGhost VPN is the free VPN service you've been looking for. This review and rating focuses on the free version of CyberGhost VPN, which is limited to one Windows device.
Photo of CyberGhost VPN
6.60

CyberGhost VPN  is a personal VPN service that is easy to use, hides your online activity from eavesdroppers, and allows you to spoof your IP address to view content that is restricted to a certain geographic location.  While there are plenty of other VPN services on the market that offer both a paid and free version of its software, such as AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield and VPN Direct,  CyberGhost VPN (current version is CyberGhost 5) is the first one I’ve seen where the free version has everything I needed. No need to upgrade to a paid version.  That alone makes CyberGhost VPN an Editors’ Choice for free VPN services, alongside VPNBook.

How VPN Services Work
Your computer has an IP address assigned by your ISP which can be used to figure out the geographic location of your ISP’s data center. For many of us, it’s pretty close to our actual geographic location.  If you are concerned about increasing government surveillance or want to foil aggressive advertising, you may want to change your IP address so that it will be harder to trace your online activity. Or you may be trying to access a service that is restricted by geographic region. CyberGhost VPN lets you “change” your geographic location by overriding the IP address assigned by your ISP with one drawn from its pool of servers. I used CyberGhost VPN to connect to both US-based as well as international—well, European—servers.

Even if you are not trying to hide your location, using a VPN service makes a lot of sense because it encrypts all online traffic and ensures data remains hidden from third parties when on an open wireless network.  When I looked at the network traffic via Wireshark, I saw my online traffic was encrypted. Like other VPN services, CyberGhost VPN is not intended to replace my corporate VPN to access work-related applications, but it is useful for protecting my overall online activity.

The Competition
For the most part, VPN services generally all do the same things. The differences in network speed and features are most marked when comparing paid versions against free versions. Free VPN services tend to be simple to use, usually support only one device, and generally don’t have a lot of advanced functionality. Websites may take a little longer to initially load when connected to a VPN service, but it is still tolerable performance. Some free services are ad-supported, while others restrict which servers you can connect to or impose bandwidth caps. CyberGhost VPN displays ads when you connect to a server and inserts a 25-second delay before starting the connection, but other than that, it stays out of your way. While there are no bandwidth caps for the free version of CyberGhost VPN, it does disconnect you after three hours.

CyberGhost VPN comes in three flavors, free, premium, and premium plus. Being a European product, the premium version costs €4.99 per month, which is roughly $6.62, and the premium plus version costs €7.99 per month, or roughly $10.61.  The premium and premium plus versions offer better speeds, 250 servers in 20 countries, multi-device support, and the option to use OpenVPN, IPSec or PPTP VPN to connect Linux and Mac devices. The paid version offers iOS, and Android is still on the way. This review and rating focuses on the free version of CyberGhost VPN, which is limited to one Windows device.

To be able to use CyberGhost on non-Windows platforms, or to be able to use one account for multiple devices, you would need to pay for a CyberGhost VPN subscription. While disappointing, multi-device and multi-platform support is generally considered as paid-features, so it’s not surprising that CyberGhost doesn’t offer them in the free version. 

Installation and Getting Started
I downloaded and launched the client software directly from the CyberGhost website, which installed both the client and  OpenVPN’s TAP-Win32 adapter onto my test machine. I liked the fact that I could use the service right away without creating an account. The account is necessary for the paid version in order to manage multiple devices and access OpenVPN, PPTP and IPSec VPN settings but not needed for the free version.

If you decide to create an account anyway, you just  click on the Upgrade button in the client interface or go to “My Account” on the CyberGhost website. At this point, CyberGhost generates a username, a strong password, and a special key for account recovery. You copy the code and store it in a safe place. The only time you need it is if you need to reset the password.

The fact that CyberGhost generates a password and a username on the fly means users always start off with a strong and unique password. Users have the option to later change the username and password to something easier to remember, if they wish. However, the text should be more explicit about the fact that there is no way to reset the account or password if you lose that special key. Other than that, I really liked this approach to account security—Next: CyberGhost VPN Interface and Performance

CyberGhost VPN appears to takes user privacy seriously. It promises on its website that it will not log any user activity. In the settings menu (the gear icon on the top right corner of the interface), there is also a “Privacy Control” setting which lets you change the header information that browsers provide websites when visiting the page. You can remove information about the operating system, the browser version, and the browser language. You can also block requests to tracking websites and prevent social plugins like the Facebook Like button so that your Web activities doesn’t get transmitted to third-party sites. 

The Interface
CyberGhost 5 abandoned the previous version’s cartoonish appearance and slightly confusing options in favor of a more professional look. The window shows a world map with a big red balloon showing the IP address of my “real location.” There is a “power” button in the middle, flanked by two drop-down menus. I can use the left menu to select the country I want my geographic location to be, use the right menu to select a specific server, or just click on the button to connect and let the software automatically assign me to a server.

The free version connects users to 20 servers in 14 countries. If you are looking for a server in Asia you are out of luck with CyberGhost VPN. Considering how popular these services are in Asia, I hope CyberGhost will start focusing on that region. I was also surprised to see the lack of Canadian servers.

The animation of the balloon moving to the new location was cute. When connected, the word “Connected” appeared to the right of the window, the balloon showed the city and IP address from my “simulated location,” and the CyberGhost VPN icon in my systray turned yellow with a green checkmark.  When I disconnected, I saw a “disconnected” message to the right, the red balloon went back to my home location to display my real IP address, and the CyberGhost VPN icon turned gray.

The software exhibited strange behavior when I left the dropdown menus alone and just clicked on the button to connect me automatically. First, I saw the red balloon move and the “Connecting” message. Then I saw the red balloon come back to my location and the “Disconnected” message appear, with an explanation that I wasn’t on a protected connection. That message changed on its own about 20 seconds later to “Connected!” However, the red balloon still displayed my original location, even though a quick check showed that I did have a new IP address. As bugs go, it was confusing, but at least it was working. Another minor bug was the fact that clicking on the Help icon loaded a blank page. 

Speed and Performance
To measure network speed, I ran the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net. I connected to each server and compared speeds for that location with the VPN turned off. The figures below are over a wired connection, not wireless, on a basic DSL line. I also ran each test twice and picked the higher value. You can see the performance speeds by location if you click on the icon below.

Performance was consistent and I didn’t see any significant lags or issues that would make it difficult to use the free version. Being a European company, I wasn’t surprised the speeds were better for European servers, but the US servers still turned in decent performance. It’s clear that some of these servers were doing some bandwidth compression, which would explain the tremendous boosts in download and upload speeds.

Performance was also consistent and on the high-end in comparison with other free VPN services. In fact, these kinds of performance boosts are generally seen in paid services, not free ones. 

Free Is Good Enough, Why Upgrade?
If you are looking for a free VPN service, CyberGhost VPN is by far the best one I’ve seen. The current Editors’ Choice, VPNBook has great performance and doesn’t require additional software since you can just use the built-in VPN client on most modern operating systems. If that level of configuration is too complicated and you want a simple tool to download and go for your Windows machine, CyberGhost VPN is exactly what you need. The ads try to upsell you to the paid version, but unless you need Mac/Linux support or want to use the VPN on multiple computers and devices, I don’t see any reason to bother. Performance is solid and the software can be minimized to get out of your way. CyberGhost VPN is our second Editors’ Choice for free VPN services.

Specifications
Tech Support chat, website
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7
Type Personal, Professional
Free Yes

Verdict
While CyberGhost VPN is Europe-centric with only a handful of US servers, it does the job effectively with minimal ads and without a significant performance drop. With a slick professional-looking interface and a decent selection of servers, CyberGhost VPN is the free VPN service you've been looking for. This review and rating focuses on the free version of CyberGhost VPN, which is limited to one Windows device.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc