Pricing and Plan features
CactusVPN has three servers, one each in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. You can subscribe to any one of these for $4.99 per month, or gain access to all three, plus CactusVPN’s SmartDNS service, for $6.99 per month. You can also purchase the SmartDNS service on its own for $4.99 per month.
Those who like to try before they buy will be pleased know that a 24 hours free trial is on offer, giving you full access to the range of services offered by CactusVPN during the trial period. While nowhere near as generous as that offered by some providers, this is still very welcome, and allows you to test the service out before handing over any hard earned cash.
Every VPN package allows you connect to via PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, SSTP and by Proxy. A nice bonus feature is AutoProxy (which we will discuss in a bit).
P2P downloading is fine, as long as you do it through the Netherlands server, but port forwarding is not offered.
CactusVPN has a slightly unusual policy when it comes to how many devices can be connected at once. Basically, you can only connect one device to each server, so while you can’t connect two devices to the NL server for example, you can connect your laptop to the NL server to do a bit torrent downloading, your tablet to the UK server so you can watch iPlayer programs, and your phone to the US server for a bit of Pandora streaming.
While not as good as the unrestricted-by-server multiple connections offered by some other providers, this is a big improvement on the no simultaneous connections limit imposed by many. Of course, if you choose one of the cheaper one server only packages, then you miss out on this feature.
The website and customer service
The CactusVPN website is very smart and professional looking. The support area provides beautifully presented setup guides, and has a FAQ area that while good at answering general VPN account questions, left nus having to contact customer support to find out details such encryption type used, country of jurisdiction etc. Customer support did, however, respond to these queries in a helpful and timely manner.
We also had some technical issues, which at the end of the day appear to be the fault of our ISP. CactusVPN’s support response was, again, prompt and helpful, so top marks.
Privacy and Security
On the privacy front, CactusVPN looks pretty good, as they keep no logs about what you do on the internet or what you upload and download., although connection logs are kept for 3 days for troubleshooting purposes. We prefer a ‘no logs whatever’ policy, but think this compromise is quite acceptable. Unfortunately CactusVPN does not accept Bitcoins (or the like), so anonymous payment is not possible. This is a shame, because even if you don’t want to pay using the crypto-currency, accepting it is a sign that a VPN takes privacy seriously, and is a hallmark of a good provider.
CactusVPN operates under the jurisdiction of Moldova. Despite considerable efforts, we have been unable to determine what this means in terms of data retention laws, accountability to DMCA takedown notices (and similar), or government surveillance. However, the very difficulty of obtaining this information strongly suggests that there is very little legal oversight of VPN providers in Moldova, and that it is therefore a good place for a VPN provider to be based.
On the technical security front CactusVPN also does very well, offering 256-bit AES encryption with 2048-bt key authentication on OpenVPN connections, 256-bit SSL key encryption on SSTP, and 128-bit to 256-bit (selectable during manual setup) encryption on L2TP/IPsec connections.
Other than not accepting Bitcoins, we are generally very happy with CactusVPN’s regard for customers’ privacy and security.
Signing up for the free trial takes seconds, and all that is asked for is a name and email address. If you go forward and purchase the service, then a few more details are required.
As we noted earlier, CactusVPN does not accept Bitcoins, but it does accept a variety of other forms of payment.
The Windows Client
The client is very smart looking, cleanly laid out, and easy to understand. The main tab lets you choose server location and protocol, although we don’t see any reason to use any protocol other than the highly secure OpenVPN.
The settings menu has the usual sort of things you might expect…
What we really love though, is the ‘Apps. Killer’, which goes one better than the ‘internet kill switch’ found on some clients, by only closing specific applications (which you choose), rather than shutting off the entire internet for your system in the event of VPN connection failure.
We tried this feature out using uTorrent, and it worked well. It will even restart the closed application when you reconnect!
There is an OSX version of the custom VPN client, and some great guides to manually setting up Windows (PPTP, L2TP/IP sec, OpenVPN and SSTP), OSX (PPTP, L2TP/IP sec and OpenVPN), Ubuntu (PPTP and OpenVPN), and DD-WRT routers (L2TP/IPsec only).
Mobile device owners (iOS and Android) will have to make do with guides for PPTP and L2TP/IPsec, although there should be nothing stopping them using OpenVPN Connect / OpenVPN for Android with the service.
Tutorials are also provided for SmartDNS (see below) and Proxy setup.
We tested the OpenVPN service using our 20Mbps UK broadband connection.
Connected to the UK VPN server
Connected to the NL VPN server
As you can see, these are cracking results.
We also checked to make sure there was no DNS leakage by going to DNSLeaktest.com.
We were connecting from the UK to CactusVPNs NL server, so it gets a clean bill of health
In addition to its VPN service (and bundled in with the more premium but still low cost VPN package), CactusVPN offers its own DNS service.
This means that CactusVPN resolves your browser’s DNS requests when you access web pages (i.e. it translates the www.whatever.com into a numeric IP address used by computers). This allows you to ‘fake’ your geolocation in order to make it look as if you are accessing the internet from the US (great for Hulu, Pandora and the full Netflix catalogue) or the UK (great for iPlayer and 4oD).
The main use for this is to access geo-restricted media services. You can do this using VPN, but as no encryption is involved the connection is faster (which is very useful when streaming media from a large distance away).
Setup is a little tricky, involving going into your internet adaptor settings, but the process is well explained in the setup guides.
Once you change the adaptor settings, you can toggle your ‘Netflix region’ from within the client area of the CactusVPN website.
In general we found SmartDNS worked well, although some sites refused to play ball, so in reality you would probably want to change your DNS setting back to their usual settings when not using the service, which is a bit of a pain.
Accessing Hulu from the UK before applying SmartDNS
Accessing Hulu from the UK after applying SmartDNS
To be honest, unless all you want to do with your internet is access US or UK TV or music services from abroad (which VPN does just fine), then we wouldn’t really bother mucking around with the DNS settings. This is not a problem with CactusVPN’s implementation as such, and is therefore no reflection on them, it’s just that whole the whole idea is a bit lame.
Like many similar services, CactusVPN offers a proxy service. We don’t normally spend much time discussing this we are VPN review site, and VPN is usually a superior option anyway. However, CactusVPNs AutoProxy deserves mention because it is rather nifty
Rather than changing your IP for every site you visit (as most Proxy services do), AutoProxy allows you to configure your browser so that your IP will only change for a list of certain websites (such as BBC, Pandora, Spotify etc.). This allows you to seamlessly access many of the most popular geo-restricted sites, while leaving the rest of your internet browsing experience alone. Very nifty.
- Low cost
- No usage logs
- P2P downloading
- 256-bit AES OpenVPN and SSTP encryption
- Blazing fast
- Neat client with Application Killer
We weren’t so sure about
- Simultaneous device connection policy is better than some, but is still quite limiting
- We would prefer it if no logs of any kind were kept at all
- No OpenVPN support for iOS or Android
- No port forwarding (a problem if you need it, not if you don’t)
- SmartDNS works well for what it is, but the whole concept is a bit lame – use VPN instead!
- No Bitcoin option
This touches on perhaps a bigger problem with the service – that you can only connect one device to each server. This is not such an issue in Europe, where you could at least have 2 devices connected to nearby servers (UK and NL), but in say the US, you would have to connect additional devices over a very large distance, which is not great for connection speeds.
Another issue is the lack of a Bitcoin payment option, so those wanting total secrecy should look elsewhere. These are nevertheless quibbles, and overall we are very impressed by CactusVPN.