There’s an expectation of security when you’re using an iPhone. Malware coders focus on the low-hanging fruit, Windows and Android. In addition, iOS has a focus on security from the ground up. But when you connect to a foreign network, all bets are off. Apple’s walled garden can’t protect your internet traffic. If the network is insecure, either by ineptitude or design, your data is at risk. That’s why you need a virtual private network, or VPN, just as much on your iPhone as on any other device. The price for the PureVPN iPhone app is a bit above the average, but it offers advanced features and an impressive collection of servers all over the world.
What Is a VPN?
Office workers reading this may recognize the term VPN as referring to “that thing you need to log into to work from home,” but a VPN is much more than that. When you use a VPN, your web traffic travels through an encrypted tunnel to the VPN service’s secure server before heading out into the wider internet. This means that any bad guys monitoring the network you’re using—be they hackers, advertisers, or government spooks—won’t be able to see your web traffic, or trace your movements on the internet back to you. Any time you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, like the one at your local coffee shop, you should fire up a VPN to make sure no one is snooping on your movements.
VPNs protect your privacy, but they can also unlock restricted content. In countries with oppressive internet policies, activists and journalists use VPNs to sidestep government control and contact the outside world. You can also use a VPN to access region-locked content, such as BBC and Netflix streaming services, but note that doing so may break terms of service you have agreed to (and even local laws). Many streaming companies are starting to fight back against VPN cheats. More on this below.
While using a VPN is a great step toward better security, it’s important to know the limitations of VPNs, too. If the site you’re headed to doesn’t use HTTPS, malefactors might intercept your traffic as it goes from the VPN server to the site and back. On the plus side, a VPN can help secure your data from your ISP, lest it be sold.
Features and Pricing
PureVPN currently offers neither a free version nor a free trial of their product. There is, however, a seven-day money-back guarantee. If you’re unwilling to plunk down cash for a VPN, consider the numerous excellent free VPN services on the market.
We like that PureVPN doesn’t lock features behind different price tiers, instead offering the same capabilities with different billing cycles. PureVPN costs $10.95 per month, though there are usually discounts in play. You can also opt to pay $59.04 for a one-year subscription, or $69.12 for a two-year term. Subscription payments can be made via just about every means you could desire: credit card, AliPay, Bitcoin, Cashu, PaymentWall, or PayPal. The service also accepts nearly a dozen other cryptocurrencies. You can even pay with gift cards from popular stores. If you ever wanted to use your Starbucks gift card to buy a VPN service, this is your chance.
PureVPN has a monthly price slightly above the current average, which is roughly $10.50. It’s worth noting that Editors’ Choice winner, NordVPN, costs one dollar per month more, but that it offers specialized servers for specific needs. Our other Editors’ Choice for iOS VPN, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone), costs just $6.99 per month.
An additional $1.99 per month gets you a simple Network Address Translation (NAT) firewall, much like the NAT firewall that comes free with Golden Frog VyprVPN (for iPhone). You control the PureVPN firewall by logging in to your account, and it affects all devices. Another $1.99 buys a dedicated IP address, which may be more useful on the desktop than on mobile devices. Note that these are promotional prices, and subject to change.
Whichever you choose, you get five licenses to spread across all your devices. In addition to the iPhone edition reviewed here, PureVPN has clients for Android, Linux, macOS, and Windows. PureVPN also offers software for routers and streaming devices. TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) sells routers and Apple TVs with its software preinstalled, as does Private Internet Access. Running VPN software on your router can be a smart way to extend protection to every device in your house at no additional cost. Of course, a VPN on your home network’s router does you no good when your mobile device leaves that network.
Other benefits may not be as valuable on an iPhone. PureVPN offers P2P file sharing and BitTorrent access via VPN on more than 200 of its servers, but in our experience those features are more valuable on a desktop computer. Note that the split tunneling feature from PureVPN’s desktop editions doesn’t show up on the iPhone.
On the iPhone, you can choose either the IPSec protocol or the newer IKEv2 protocol for your VPN connection. There’s also an option to use L2TP, but this requires manual protocol installation. To change servers with L2TP, you must visit PureVPN’s server list online and manually edit the VPN settings, something few users would choose. Other platforms get more choices, among them OpenVPN. We recommend that people use OpenVPN when possible, because of its speed, reliability, and open-source status. However, Apple makes companies jump through extra hoops to get approval for VPNs using OpenVPN. VPN Unlimited is one of the few apps offering OpenVPN.
Your Privacy With PureVPN
A VPN is intended to improve your privacy, but that only works if the company providing the service takes steps to make sure that your information is secure. After all, if a VPN is keeping tabs on what you do, it’s no better than a spy that you’re paying for, or an ISP.
A company representative for PureVPN told us that the company only gathers revenue from subscription sales. That’s good, as some VPN companies have intercepted user web traffic to insert ads. Still, others have sold anonymized user information, a practice by ISPs that many use a VPN to prevent in the first place.
PureVPN has its headquarters in Hong Kong. This is a bit ironic, given how repressive some of China’s internet regulations are. Hong Kong doesn’t have mandatory data-retention laws, however, so PureVPN doesn’t have to store data on users or their behavior. We’ll have to wait and see if it survives China’s efforts to ban VPNs. We invited representatives from PureVPN to explain in detail what efforts the company takes to protect user data while operating in China. PureVPN representatives pointed out that Hong Kong has a special legal relationship with the rest of China. Indeed, the city is an “autonomous territory” within China. As such, a company representative described it as “the best place in the world to keep anything hidden.”
Hong Kong may be semi-independent, but the extraordinary circumstances of China’s online censorship require an extraordinary explanation from PureVPN. We are disappointed that when we asked for more information, PureVPN declined to provide it. As a rule, however, we don’t think it’s possible to make a judgment on a VPN company’s privacy practices based solely on the location of its headquarters. To do so would be xenophobic at the least. We do think, however, that PureVPN needs to make a stronger effort to explain itself.
Hands On With PureVPN
As with other iPhone VPNs, installing PureVPN on the Apple iPhone SE we used for testing was quick and simple. We had a little trouble logging in at first, because we forgot that the login credentials to manage the account are different from the credentials for the VPN itself. The logic is that it separates your usage and payment identities, allowing for greater anonymity, which makes sense. But if it confused us, we assume it will confuse others. We’d like to see PureVPN handle this more elegantly.
A VPN doesn’t need to communicate tons of status information. Are you connected? Where’s the server? What’s the current IP address? Anything beyond that is gravy. IPVanish fills the leftover space with a graph of traffic. TunnelBear, VPN Unlimited, and NordVPN (for iPhone) display a world map. PureVPN used to fill the space with pictures from around the world; in the current edition, you just see a big Connect button, along with the selected mode.
PureVPN operates in five modes: Stream, Internet Freedom, Security/Privacy, File-Sharing, and Dedicated. You can tap the current mode to switch modes as needed. Depending on what you select, PureVPN delivers a customized experience. This is smart organization, but we wonder how helpful it will be for someone who just wants to get online. Hide My Ass VPN (for iPhone) does something similar, although its approach is a bit more straightforward.
When you tap the pulsing green Connect button, it connects right away to a server it selects automatically. Once it’s connected, you see a red Disconnect button instead, with the server location below it.
You can tap the location icon to select available servers by country or city, with the option to run a Ping test and put the fastest servers first. You can also tap the Purpose icon to select the best servers for about 20 purposes, among them Social Media, VOIP, and watching the BBC. The edition we reviewed previously filtered the purpose entries depending on the mode selected; the current version doesn’t seem to do so. For the dedicated user aiming to get the perfect VPN experience, these choices are amazing. For the average user, not so much.
PureVPN offers users more than750 servers across 140 countries in 180 different locations. The list includes servers in Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America, Europe, North America, and South America. Note that PureVPN also offers servers in China, Russia, and Turkey. That puts PureVPN among the top contenders, based on servers and locations alone. But keep in mind that Private Internet Access VPN (for iPhone), NordVPN, and TorGuard have more than 3,000 servers, meaning you’ll easily find a server close to you no matter where you go.
On the desktop edition of PureVPN, you can choose servers on a global map. The iPhone edition simply offers a list, with the option to view by city or country, or see only those you’ve marked as favorites. Note, too, that the iPhone edition doesn’t report session duration or bandwidth usage the way the Windows product does.
Like IPVanish VPN (for iPhone), PureVPN lets you enter a list of domains for which it forces a VPN connection. But why bother? PureVPN doesn’t cap bandwidth, so you might as well leave the VPN on.
As noted earlier, streaming services don’t appreciate those who use a VPN to get access to region-locked content they didn’t pay for. Netflix, in particular, is cracking down on such rogue access. However, VPN makers work hard to evade this crackdown. Indeed, when we tried streaming Netflix video this time, it displayed without any problem. During our previous review, streaming attempts simply resulted in a network error message. It’s quite common that a VPN that works with Netflix one day may not work the next.
Gravity and the Ozone Layer
PureVPN offers two distinct but somewhat overlapping sets of add-on features. Gravity is the simpler of the two. Gravity takes over handling DNS (Domain Name System) requests on your device. The main thing DNS does is translate human-readable URLs like pcmag.com into numeric IP addresses. Gravity takes the additional step of blocking access to unwanted or dangerous URLs.
By default, Gravity blocks sites that might pose a security risk. This includes phishing sites, botnets, and compromised sites. You can choose to have it block several other categories. For example, the Legal Liability category includes sites with nudity, child abuse images, and illegal software, among others. There’s an option to block high-bandwidth site types, or sites that reduce productivity, among others. Blocking is blacklist-based; there’s no real-time analysis.
Gravity can also block ads on downloaded pages. As the tool itself points out, this can speed page-load time and reduce bandwidth. Private Internet Access, VPN Unlimited, and a few others also offer ad blocking. Finally, you can enable Safe Search, which blocks explicit results from popular search engines. Gravity settings affect all your devices.
Ozone is a bit different. To start, its icon only appears in two of the five modes. If you’ve selected File-Sharing mode, tapping the Ozone icon lets you turn on P2P Protection and Content Filtering. The former aims to filter out malware while you’re torrenting, while the latter filters “unwanted web content,” without defining what that means or allowing configuration.
Ozone comes into its own in the Security / Privacy mode. You can turn on Content Filtering, and enable Antivirus protection. The IDS/IPS setting attempts to detect and prevent attempts at intrusion into your device. URL Filtering offers content filtering similar to what you get from Gravity, with the same collection of categories to block. But where Gravity works at the DNS level, Ozone examines the traffic that’s going through the VPN server.
App Filtering proved a bit confusing. The main PureVPN interface says this feature controls which apps are allowed to run. However, when you go online to configure the feature, it says it controls which apps are allowed to access the internet. The latter is correct.
Lost in the Ozone?
With all these security features, PureVPN takes on some aspects of an antivirus product. That being the case, we did our best to put those features to the test.
We set Gravity to block all the Legal Liability categories, which includes porn, nudity, and tasteless sites. We terminated PureVPN and launched it again, to be sure it caught the latest settings. And we tried visiting porn sites. We did not observe any kind of content filtering. The sites all loaded without interference from PureVPN, including the well-known PornHub which, ironically, now offers its own VPN product. We added a URL to the user-defined blacklist, but Gravity didn’t block it.
A support agent indicated that Gravity doesn’t work when the VPN is turned on, which seemed odd, but we turned off the VPN connection and tried again. No joy. The agent said turning on Gravity should change the device’s DNS address. It didn’t, so on the agent’s advice we manually added the appropriate IP addresses. And as before, Gravity did nothing to block unwanted sites.
For another sanity check, we turned on all the Ozone features and navigated to the feature test pages on the AMTSO (Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization) website. PureVPN did not prevent us from visiting the antiphishing test page. That might be excused, since the page is not actually fraudulent. But it also did not prevent downloading the EICAR antivirus test file. In use for many years, this is a non-malicious file that antivirus vendors worldwide agree to detect as malicious. It serves as a simple way to make sure your antivirus is active.
Digging further, we captured a list of suspected phishing websites and launched them in a browser protected by long-time phishing protection champ Symantec Norton Security Premium. Each time Norton detected a site that was clearly fraudulent, we typed the URL into the iPhone protected by PureVPN. Alas, of the 10 samples, PureVPN detected precisely none. You can see a couple of fake bank sites in the image above. The support agent confirmed that if Ozone had blocked a site, we would have seen a notification, not just a browser error.
We also spun up a month-old version of the malicious URL feed kindly supplied by MRG-Effitas. We used an old feed to give PureVPN the best chance at detection. After verifying a dozen sites that definitely hosted malware, we launched those sites on the test iPhone. PureVPN didn’t prevent this.
To test App Filtering, we set it to block all business-related apps, including Gmail. Gmail made the expected whooshing sound on sending a message, but it never arrived, nor did the test iPhone receive mail sent to it. When we turned off the App Filter, the messages that had been blocked came through.
In short, while the Gravity and Ozone features sound really useful, we could barely see them in action. They didn’t block explicit search results, didn’t prevent visiting porn sites, and didn’t fend off fraudulent and malicious URLs. We contacted a PureVPN representative about these problems, and received acknowledgement of the message. But after more than a week, that’s the last we heard.
VPN Speed Tests
Regardless of which VPN you use, your speed performance will likely take a hit from the extra security measures. Most of the time this is just a mild annoyance; it’s hardly like going back to the days of modem screeches and dial-up performance. For testing mobile VPNs, both Android and iOS, we turn off the volatile cellular connection and rely strictly on Wi-Fi. On an iPhone, that’s easy enough—just enable airplane mode and then turn Wi-Fi back on. For the actual testing, we rely on Ookla’s internet speed test tool. (Note that Ziff Davis, PCMag’s publisher, also owns Ookla).
We start by running the test multiple times and averaging the results. Immediately after that, we turn on the VPN and repeat the process. Averaging and comparing the two sets of results yields the percentage of change. Do bear in mind that networks are volatile. The same test in a different location, or on a different day, might yield different results. Still, this test gives us a snapshot of VPN performance.
Ookla reports three figures, download speed, upload speed, and latency. This last statistic is simply the time it takes for your device to ping an external server and receive a response. PureVPN’s latency score is quite good; it increased latency by just 6.1 percent. The best score in this test goes to CyberGhost VPN (for iPhone), which increased latency by only 3.7 percent.
PureVPN slowed downloads by 16.5 percent, which is right in the middle of current products. TunnelBear did quite a bit worse, slowing downloads by 34.4 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite (for iPhone) managed to increase download speed by 76.1 percent. My contact at that company explained that their proprietary connection protocol includes numerous tweaks to speed downloads, among them using multiple channels and taking advantage of the fact that they control both ends of the connection. A source at Ookla confirmed that their researchers are aware of these speed-demon techniques.
High latency can cause trouble for lag-sensitive activities like gaming. Slow download speed can affect streaming. For most users, upload speed is the least important of the three stats. Even so, none of the current iPhone VPNs put a serious drag on upload speed. Once again, Hotspot Shield had a positive effect, speeding uploads by 4.3 percent. PureVPN came next, slowing those uploads by 2.4 percent. Even the worst score, shared by TorGuard and Private Internet Access, slowed uploads by just 8.5 percent.
On the iPhone, PureVPN speed scores range from acceptable to excellent. You won’t notice a drag on your connections.
If you’re looking for iPhone VPN performance that’s perfectly tailored to your needs, and are willing to fiddle with a few settings to achieve that, PureVPN may be for you. Select from the five modes, choose the purpose you have in mind, and let it find the very best server for you. In testing, it also didn’t slow things down appreciably. It also boasts some impressive security add-ons, and an updated user interface. However, no matter how much we tried, the security add-ons didn’t do anything in testing. PureVPN has its virtues, but you should also consider our iPhone VPN Editors’ Choice selections, NordVPN and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.