An ad-supported free version of the Spotflux VPN service, Spotflux Free is simple to use and demystifies the process of encrypting online activity. For users feeling jittery in the post-Snowden world and wondering how they can ensure their activities aren’t being intercepted by eavesdroppers, Spotflux Free is a one-click VPN program that gets them started quickly and securely.
Spotflux offers a premium version ($29.95 a year), which can be used on up to five devices as well as a mobile-only version ($5.99 a year), which works on iOS and Android devices. This review focuses on the free ad-supported version, which can be installed on a Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android device. I tested Spotflux Free on a Windows 7 laptop as well as a Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.4 (KitKat).
There are many paid VPN services and free VPN services on the market, such as Symantec’s Norton Hotspot Privacy, our current Editors’ Choice for paid VPN service, and CyberGhost VPN, our current Editors’ Choice for free VPN. Spotflux Free performed very well, but its features aren’t a match for with those of CyberGhost VPN. However, I have no difficulty recommending this up-and-coming service and plan to keep an eye on it as the service grows.
A Refresher on 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. When you use a VPN service, the IP address of the data center you are connected to overwrites the IP address assigned by your ISP. This is a great way to access region-specific sites, such as accessing Facebook from China, loading Netflix from outside the U.S., and watching YouTube from Germany. Many people use VPN services to tunnel past government censors in countries where Internet access is restricted.
Even if you aren’t 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, Spotflux is not intended to replace my corporate VPN to log into my work-related applications, but it can still be useful for protecting my overall online activity. However, data is protected only in transit. If the destination site is not using HTTPS, that part of the connection remains unencrypted, and attackers can use complicated timing algorithms to intercept and identify data at that point.
Spotflux Free is one of the easiest-to-use VPN programs I’ve reviewed. I downloaded the installer file from the Spotflux website and began the installation. When the process finished, it launched Spotflux, and automatically connected me to Spotflux servers. There was nothing to configure and nothing to click on or type. The program launched a Web browser and displayed the Welcome to Spotflux message. I could also see a small ad displayed on the bottom of the screen. I could easily close the ad and continue surfing. Spotflux tried opening a popup window to point me to an opinion survey, but, since I have popups blocked, it didn’t bother me.—Next: Spotflux Free Performance Results
Spotflux Free by default launches on startup, connects to Spotflux servers, and launches a Web browser to displays the Welcome page—all automatically. I could tweak the behavior accordingly in the program’s settings, which I could open by right-clicking on the system tray icon.
Spotflux Free offers access to only U.S.-based servers at this time. So if you are looking to spoof your geographic location to a region other than the United States, you are out of luck. If you want to have some control over which servers to connect to, you can’t do that, either. Spotflux Free uses a latency-based approach to connect to servers, which basically means that the software pings available servers and then connects to the one that has the shortest ping time. For that reason, I kept hitting the data center in Manassas, VA for my tests.
What Spotflux Does
The program’s interface is minimal. The main window just has one button—”enable” if I am not connected, and “disable” if I am connected. A small field displays the status, such as connecting to the server, obtaining IP address, and being connected. When connected, the window automatically minimizes the to system tray. I can right-click on the system tray icon to open up the settings, enable/disable the service, and open up the main window. When connected, the icon is green. If disabled, it’s an empty box.
Spotflux blocks dangerous sites automatically, so I don’t end up at known bad places. This layer of protection is unique among VPN services, and it’s quite handy. Spotflux also offers a “privacy test” which checks to see whether online tracking by advertisers, employers, nation-states, ISPs and digital media companies are being blocked. It checks a long list of trackers, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, InsightExpress, Quantcast, DoubleClick, Advertising.com, and Site Meter, to name a few. Popluar tracking networks use other factors to connect different IP addresses to follow your activity around the Web. This test checks to see if the VPN service you are using—regardless of which one you have— is protecting you from being tracked by these tracking networks.
Unfortunately, it turns out Spotflux Free does not block these trackers. For true privacy from online tracking, I would need to upgrade to the premium version.
Speed and Performance
I connected to each location using our two test networks, one which uses DSL and the other which uses WiMAX. I also attempted to connect to each location from the public library’s free wireless and the wireless network at a local Starbucks. I had no difficulties setting up a connection at any of the locations. Finally, I tried the tests in the late afternoon (4:30 p.m.), early evening (7:30 p.m.), late night (1:45 a.m.), and early morning (6:15 a.m.) and still had no difficulties.
I didn’t notice any discernible lag with Spotflux Free while viewing videos online or surfing the Web. There are no bandwidth restrictions, so I could stream Netflix and download torrents.
To measure network speed, I usually run the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to different cities. Since I couldn’t connect to servers other than Manassas, I just ran the test twice while connected to the VPN service, and twice while not connected. The figures below are over a wired connection, not wireless.
The performance is not shabby at all, and is on the high end when compared with other free VPN services. In fact, its performance compares very well with Norton Hotspot Privacy and VPN Direct, which are paid services.
An Up-And-Coming Service
Spotflux Free does for free VPN services what Symantec did with Norton Hotspot Privacy for paid users: It took the guesswork out of using VPN. Newbie and less tech-savvy users will find Spotflux Free amazingly easy to use, as they can let it run automatically whenever the computer is turned on. However, as a new service, it is still growing. A bit more geographic diversity would be nice. For now, CyberGhost VPN remains our Editors’ Choice for free VPN services, but Spotflux Free looks to have the makings of a strong contender among free VPN services.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc