Steganos Online Shield

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Steganos Software is a Berlin-based developer which has been producing quality software since 1996. Current products include a password manager and encryption package, and recently the company extended its range with Steganos Online Shield, a VPN.

The service has clients for Windows, Android and iOS, but not Mac, unfortunately. There’s support for up to 5 simultaneous connections, though, so you’ll probably be able to use all your other devices as you like.

Steganos Online Shield is aimed more at the ordinary user than VPN experts. Apart from a brief mention of IPv6 compatibility, the website mentions nothing about protocols, encryption, DNS or anything low-level. Instead, the talk is of bonus privacy-related add-ons: ad-blocking, protection from social media tracking, automatic cookie deletion when a session closes.

There’s no one-month plan on offer, so you have to sign up for a full year, but that’s reasonably priced at £46.70 ($59.99, AU$77.90), equivalent to £3.90 ($4.90, AU$6.50) a month. You can sample the service with a 500MB/month free plan – that’s not much of an allowance, but at least there are no server or speed limits – and there’s a no-risk 7-day trial for the full Premium plan.

Privacy

Steganos Online Shield’s privacy policy is longer than some, but does include some important details, and it’s reasonably easy to find the information you need.

A thorough no-logging statement explains that there’s no recording of the addresses you access, the content you download or the IP address associated with an action. Or, as the document puts it: “It is not possible for Steganos to determine what contents Steganos Online Shield calls up. Neither the IP addresses of the users nor the IP addresses of the called server is saved.”

The service doesn’t require personal details such as an email address. Instead it generates a ‘pseudonymous User ID’ based on the public key of your computer MAC address.

If you do provide an email address, the company has an opt-in system for sending mails, but you can unsubscribe at any time and the address is never sold or traded with anyone else.

There are some familiar clauses about the company website, and how it uses Google Analytics and cookies – not ideal, but very similar to other providers, and not something which impacts on the core service.

Elsewhere, the only oddities we noticed were in the ‘stuff you’re not allowed to do’ list. Steganos explicitly bans “sending data not desired by the recipient” (be careful what you email), using programs “that automatically read data”, like “crawlers”, or engaging in the “promotion of illegal activities”, including – bizarrely – gambling.

Performance

The Windows client was simple and straightforward to set up on our test system, with no problems or hassles at all.

Basic operations are also very, very easy to carry out. At a minimum, you could launch the program, click Protect Connection, and Online Shield automatically connects you to the fastest server. A tiny flag shows you where that is, or you can click the icon, choose another country and switch immediately (there’s no need to manually disconnect from one location before moving to another).

If you need more control, tough: there are barely any advanced options at all. No choice of protocol, no change of ports, no DNS control, no kill switch or firewall.  Just a checkbox to block WebRTC leaks and the ability to add email exceptions, enabling sending emails while you’re connected.

The bonus add-ons – ad and tracker blocking, automatic cookie erasing, anonymising browser type – did little to win us over. The ad blocker does remove some banners, for instance, but we found free competitors like Adblock Plus were more effective.

Our performance tests* gave mixed results. Short UK-UK connections achieved a capable 30-35Mbps, but with a relatively high 45ms latency. Switching to the US gave us a usable 20-25Mbps, but a UK-Japan connection saw downloads drop to 10Mbps or less, and other server speeds were a little unpredictable. Russia managed 35Mbps, France barely 10-15Mbps.

It was a similarly uncertain story with our privacy tests. Steganos Online Shield passed our WebRTC leak test, even though we hadn’t checked the ‘Prevent WebRTC IP leak’ option, but the service didn’t manage to hide our ISP’s DNS address.

Final verdict

This one might be useful for VPN newbies who just need basic protection for browsing, emails, and light downloads. But if you’re after lots of locations, maximum speeds, configurability or anything faintly advanced, look elsewhere.

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

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