[Update via CactusVPN]
Currently, Netflix is still blocked to users who are trying to access the service when using a VPN. CactusVPN are aware of this and are currently working on it. However, here are some new services that are now unblocked from overseas visitors when using the CactusVPN Smart DNS Service:
Starz – USA
Encore Play – App for Starz
Travel Channel – USA
Video Star – Poland
beIn Sport Connect – USA
Sundance – USA
London Live – UK
Teleboy – Switzerland
Fubo – USA
Freeform – USA
I am writing this review for CactusVPN as my previous article for their VPN service was written back in 2012 and since then, there have been a lot of changes in regards to what they now offer.
Firstly, the GUI (Graphical User Interface) has completely changed and has made it extremely simple to use the VPN service making it a far less scary application to use for people who may be new to using a VPN service. CactusVPN do support P2P usage, but only when connected to their NL (Netherlands) servers and continue to not keep any user logs. They have also added a Romanian server which also allows P2P usage.
CactusVPN also have another service called Smart DNS which can be used as a separate service and is mainly for people who just wish to access previously geo-restricted sites (like Hulu, Netflix US or ABC from the UK or iPlayer and Netflix UK from the US) but does not give the benefit of the security and anonymity that a VPN service can grant them. In this article though, I will be looking at both of the services offered by CactusVPN, checking certain sites to see if I can indeed access them using their software, plus I will also show some speedtest results when using various servers in different countries to see how much of a speed hit you may see.
First, lets look at the prices for each of the services they offer and which ones are P2P friendly.
- UK VPN – $4.99 per month. Includes 4 servers in UK (London, Maidenhead)
- US VPN – $4.99 per month. Includes 4 servers in USA (Los Angeles, Kansas City, Wilmington, San Francisco)
- Liberty VPN (P2P/BitTorrent VPN friendly) – $4.99 per month. Includes 5 servers in Netherlands (Amsterdam)1 server in Romania (Bucharest)
- CactusVPN + Smart DNS – $6.99 per month. 15 servers in USA (Los Angeles, Kansas City, Wilmington, San Francisco),UK (London, Maidenhead), Netherlands (Amsterdam),Romania (Bucharest). Smart DNS service included.
- Smart DNS – $4.99 per month. Unblock US, UK and Polish media websites. DNS servers are located in US, UK and Asia.
As you can see from the prices above, CactusVPN are very competitive and offer quite a bit for either one of the services you end up choosing depending on your needs. For me personally, I use the complete package which grants me access to all available servers in each country, as well as their DNS service. All of CactusVPN services also allow the user to connect using various security protocols including, PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN and SSTP. If you are a Windows user you can connect to CactusVPN account through SoftEther client which gives really amazing speeds. The downside of this protocol is the fact that it is not yet integrated in CactusVPN software, but CactusVPN guys promised to do so as soon as it is possible. (Windows instructions here, instructions for other OS’s are available on the CactusVPN site) If you require a basic explanation as to which one is more secure and why, then check out their article here. However, for the basic user who is looking for decent internet security whilst using a free wi-fi connection or their home connection, then the default PPTP will suffice. You can switch to either one of the other secure protocols whenever you like. Also, CactusVPN do not retain user logs, which is a major benefit to people who require anonymity for their surfing habits as well in their daily lives.
CactusVPN has upgraded all of their servers to use Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) which is a huge upgrade in user security. PFS encryption is better because encryption keys change every time you start a VPN session (ephemeral encryption). So even if an attacker was to ‘crack’ one VPN session (steal the encryption keys) that information would not help them decrypt any past or future VPN sessions. PFS is the strongest encryption practice available.
There are some useful set up tutorials here for the operating systems and devices that are supported. The set up tutorial for Mac OS users can be found here, and the program can be downloaded here. If you want to connect your CactusVPN service (recommended for when using free untrusted wi-fi connections when out and about) to your Android device then see my older article here.
- Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7, 8 and 10)
- Mac OS X
- iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch)
- DD-WRT Router
Right then, lets take a look at how to download the program and start to use it. Firstly, head to the main CactusVPN site and select the Pricing tab at the top of the page which will let you choose which package you wish to get. Once you have ordered the package you require, you will be emailed with you user log in details. You will need these to sign in after installing the software. Please note that during the install you may see a warning regarding the TAP-Win32 Adapter. You are perfectly safe to click Continue Anyway, and finalising the install.
Once you have installed the software, you are ready to begin. Enter your Username and Password that you were given in your purchase confirmation email from CactusVPN, check the box to remember your password if you like and hit Sign In.
As you can see, the interface is very user-friendly, making it dead simple to see which country you wish to connect to as well as which protocol you want to use. As I said before though, for the average user, PPTP is perfectly fine for most users and will be used by default. To select a country to use, lets say the US. simply click on US under Country, and hit connect. If you want to switch to another server in that country, then use the drop down menu under City, and select a different server. You will find that your speeds will be marginally better when connecting to a server that is geographically closer to your actual location. You will also find that when using a VPN service that offers multiple servers connections, that some will get more congested than other due to more people connecting to it. If you find this is the case then simply select another server in that country. There are 4 servers to choose from when connecting to the US with CactusVPN and I have never really noticed any issues in the 2 and a half years that I have used CactusVPN. You can switch between the various servers as well as many times as you like as there are no switching limitations for CactusVPN. You can also use CactusVPN on multiple devices as well. I use mine on my laptop, PC and mobile phone.
Speedtests, including using P2P software with CactusVPN
As I said earlier in the article, CactusVPN do support P2P usage, but only when connected to their NL (Netherlands) servers. There are 5 to choose from and each of them are fast enough to max out your normal connection, so you shouldn’t see any noticeable speed disruption when connecting to any of those servers. Below are some speedtests that I did for when connecting to each of the countries available to users as well as my standard, non-connected, speeds. I ran these tests on my Windows 7 machine, using Chrome as the browser of choice and Speedtest.net as the app for testing download/upload/ping speeds.
Not connected to CactusVPN
When connected to US server in Wilmington
When connected to UK server in Maidenhead
When connected to NL server in Amsterdam
When connected to Romanian server in Bucharest
As you can see from the results above, you really won’t notice any speed hits (slowness of your speeds) when connecting to the various servers. They will obviously be slightly slower though when connecting to a server that is physically further away from your actual location, but that is simple physics and is the same for any VPN service out there.
Speedtest when using your P2P program like qBittorrent or uTorrent with CactusVPN
For many users, this is a major concern as having the ability to download files via P2P safely and efficiently is their no.1 priority. To test this, I downloaded a legal and free film, TPB: AFK, to test my speeds. The torrent itself was well seeded and easily maxed out my normal actual downloading speeds of 2.5MiB/s. Note that if you are going to use the VPN service for P2P usage, then make sure that you connect to a NL server, of which you have the choice of 5 currently.
Another benefit when using CactusVPN is that you have the ability to kill a program that is connecting to the internet should the VPN connection drop out, which will expose your true IP address to any nefarious company or government that may be tracking internet usage for certain sites or torrents. To use the App Killer as it is called, simply head to your Apps Killer tab in the client and click on Add app.
Once you click on the Add app button, you will be asked to browse to the .exe for the program in question. For me personally I will use this for Chrome, my main browser and qBittorrent, which is my P2P client of choice. Locate the .exe which is normally in your Program file, or sometimes in your Roaming folder %appdata% (this folder is hidden by default, but very simple to enable) and then hit Open.
If you want the program to re-start when the VPN connection connects again, check the applicable box as shown below:
You may find that some of the available settings are of use to you as well, like running the VPN at start-up, automatically signing you in when starting CactusVPN or reconnecting the service should it drop out at all etc. To see and use these, go to your Settings tab and turn any of them on or off as you wish. I personally only have the Reconnect if connection dropped one turned on and just leave the rest, but that is up to you, and can be changed at any time.
Using CactusVPN to access sites like Netflix, Hulu and the iPlayer
One of the main reasons though, apart from having a secure connection to the internet, is the ability to use services in other countries that are normally blocked to people living out side of those countries. By this I mean sites like Hulu in the US that actively blocks non-US residents from accessing their site, the iPlayer that is only available for users located in the UK or other sites like Facebook that is blocked to users in various countries as well as many other sites like Skype and even CactusVPN in some parts of the world. One thing to note here though, is that Hulu are very active in trying to block VPN workarounds for their site, so if you are trying to use Hulu with CactusVPN, you can only do so by connecting to the LA server in the US section as the other US servers are blocked. If you bought the full CactusVPN package for $6.99 a month/$54.99 per year, then you will also have Smart DNS included. That is another way to easily get around these blocks. Lets take a look at Netflix US, Hulu and ABC working when connecting from the UK.
Netflix is one of the best streaming services out there and one that I have happily paid for now for many years. However, there is quite a big difference between the Netflix films and shows depending on which country you are in. For example, in the US, they have quite a few TV shows that aren’t available on the UK version of Netflix. The same if for the UK version of Netflix for people in the US or Netherlands, as each country has slightly different content. If I wanted to watch AMC’s The Walking Dead on Netflix, or Arrow, using the UK version of Netflix, I would be out of luck as they are not available to me. So instead I just connect to my VPN, select a US server and refresh the Netflix page and voilà, the TV shows are now available to watch.
Watching The Walking Dead on Netflix US
Watching Gotham on Hulu in the US from the UK
Watching Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D on ABC networks from the UK.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that if you bought the full VPN package that granted you use of all the currently available servers from CactusVPN, that you also were given access to their Smart DNS service. This is a useful package for people who aren’t overly concerned with using a secure connection to the internet and anonymity, but still want to be able to access geo-restricted sites from where they live. It can also be purchased as a separate program should that be the only reason you want it. For me though, having the added security of a properly encrypted connection when using various sites or free wi-fi connections, as well as having decent anonymity when surfing, is something very worth paying for, especially these days.
Using Smart DNS
Firstly, instead of signing in to your VPN service, select the Smart DNS tab. Now enter your Smart DNS key, which you can get in your Clients Area, selecting Package and then clicking on your Package details.
Next, choose which DNS server you wish to connect to and click Enable Smart DNS. There are 3 DNS servers to choose from which are:
You also have a separate settings area for Smart DNS, so change these as you wish.
I have been using CactusVPN now for approximately 2 and a half years pretty much on a daily basis on my mobile phone and various computers and have never actually come across a site that is blocked to be, nor have I ever had any issues with the service. It is in my opinion a must these days for people to be able to at least use a VPN service, be it paid for or any of the free (and much slower/limited) ones out there. I am very impressed with the updated GUI that they released quite a while back now, as it is far less intimidating for users new to VPN’s to start using them. I have been recommending CactusVPN to most of my friends and family for a while now, and so far I can’t fault them. The big pluses though for me is the App Killer, the updated GUI and the plain and simple ease of use; the latter of which is missing from quite a few of the VPN services out there.
For the price, you will find it hard to get the security, ease of use and support anywhere else.