If I wanted to tell you why Orchid VPN is poised to be not only the next evolution of virtual private networks but also a futuristic answer to global online privacy threats, I could tell you its cryptocurrency-fueled decentralized bandwidth market makes it a blockchain-supported VPN-Tor hybrid ready to upend even the fastest, most secure VPN on the market.
And that's what I've been saying since March, but for most people (myself included) it still sounds like I'm speaking cyberpunk marketing gibberish. So, instead, I want to tell you about bootleg whiskey and outrunning the law. Hop in.
LikeRaises the bar on VPN privacyHandles heavy media reliablyIntegrates with other VPNs
Don't LikeSteep learning curveApp interface needs improvementSlightly unpredictable speeds
Now, if you were going to do any respectable amount of moonshining in the 1920s, you were going to need more than just a bubbling still and a handshake with the sheriff -- you'd need a car. And not just any car. What you'd need is an unquestionably reliable machine with massive trunk space and hidden compartments. One that looked as unassuming as a church lady with a basket of biscuits, but one whose engine could -- at the toe-tap of a pedal -- roar to life with the fury of seven hells and leave cops wondering how to charge you with breaking the laws of physics.
Read more: The best VPN service of 2020
That's how stock car racing was born. It's also what the world of commercial VPNs looks like right now. VPN innovations are spurred by a competition to be fastest over long distances, to best hide your product (your data) and to offer the biggest bang per buck. Likewise, VPN companies can be aggressive in their hype-making -- their businesses live and die by whether they've ever been caught selling you out to a G-man and you'll find some of them bolster their reputations by swearing their competitors are all patsies.
The toughest part for you in all this, dear moonshiner, is that no matter how good a VPN might seem, you're still confronted with the core vulnerability shared by every VPN: Since you can't inspect the routes these VPNs travel and the servers through which your data passes, you've ultimately got to risk trusting one. For some of you, that trust is low-risk -- you're just looking for better online gaming or a wider streaming media library. For a slice of you, though, the stakes couldn't be higher -- evading censorship and government snooping in countries where VPNs are illegal can be a matter of life and death if you're caught.
While I can inspect the nuts and bolts of all these VPNs for you and dig up dirt on the people associated with them, even I can't see the routes nor track all the shell companies behind their owners. Caveat emptor.
So imagine my face when this latest hot shot VPN rolls into my shop and I pop the hood to find not just an engine but a fractal of engines. Imagine my jaw dropping when I realize this thing isn't just one souped-up privacy vehicle but a fleet of its competitor cars, each of which is autonomous and paid per mile in anonymized currency to carry a tiny piece of your product in a hyper-coordinated yet seemingly chaotic convoy.
That's Orchid VPN. It's changing the nature of VPNs as we know them and resisting all attempts at categorization using my normal testing and review process. No, it's not ready for the mass market quite yet: It's not as fast as our top-tier VPN speedsters and it isn't as easy to handle for new users as some of our trusted standbys. And no, I can't even give you a specific monthly cost.
But this is what the future of VPN tech looks like. And you gotta see it.
Speed: Reliable performance with data-heavy media
This is normally the part where I give you a slate of speed test scores about a VPN and compare it to its nearest competitor. But it's hard to get a lock on average speeds for Orchid because it doesn't test the same. Orchid's service is unique in that its speed, its security and its cost are all inseparable and interdependent.
My normal speed testing routine includes extended multiplatform speed score averaging across at least five countries and a few oceans. Orchid's normal client, however, isn't yet fully available for Windows, so any attempt to average the scores would start out slanted. Also, Orchid doesn't allow you to connect to a specific country the way other VPNs do. Instead, you've got to manually add a "hop" to another VPN server by pasting that server's configuration file into a screen on your Orchid app. That VPN server can be selected from either from Orchid's global pool of service providers or from your own current, non-Orchid VPN provider.
The structure looks a lot like Tor's network, which obscures your traffic by letting you hop between user-run nodes. And while a multihop feature is a security boon in any VPN, it's not going to give us an accurate baseline speed comparison.
We put the Orchid mascot's speed to the test.
What's more, anyone can set up an Orchid node on the company's bandwidth marketplace, meaning the speed of each node you connect to will vary based on what kind of connection its operator is working with. The person running the node also gets to set their node's bandwidth price.
So I threw my framework out the window and decided to see how much this thing could handle.
Aiming to find the lowest likely base speeds, I loaded Orchid onto an Android device with less processing power than my normal MacOS testing device, connected to Wi-Fi and clocked a non-VPN speed of 372.47 megabits per second. Connecting to Orchid via a single US VPN hop, I pulled 45.5 Mbps. Not as fast as I'd hoped, but a perfectly usable connection speed for nearly any streaming media that yielded zero performance issues (for context, our Editor's Choice ExpressVPN pulled an average US speed of 66 Mbps, during our last tests). Then I went beyond the default VPN connection and added another cross-country Orchid hop to California, pulling 28.9 Mbps and still streaming video.
A key feature of Orchid is that you can add a server of your choice to your list of in-app hops. So I manually configured an additional OpenVPN protocol hop which would double-ricochet my traffic from California to an OpenVPN server in London for a total of three hops. For any VPN with a multihop feature (especially one sending your traffic overseas and back), three hops should be enough to throw pretty much anything off your trail, but it will slow you down. Sure enough, I was stalled to a sputtering 2.9 Mbps.
Using 5G mobile data, I saw comparable speeds. I measured a non-VPN speed of 212.6 Mbps. With one US Orchid hop, I saw 13.84 Mbps. At two US Orchid hops, I saw 9.82 Mbps. Replicating the same trio of hops described above, I still pulled 1.83 Mbps.
While you might be able to get some streaming services to work on the slower of those speeds, you shouldn't count on it. I managed to get HBO Max playing on the slower of the two-hop connections, but it took a few tries. That may have been related to Orchid's sluggish pace at making that first connection. There's more lag than you normally find in a VPN app. Two-hop connections were even more touch-and-go about video calls, though voice calls and music apps held steady compared to what you'd see with other multihop VPNs, and I was able to play Netflix.
I was impressed. So, naturally, I tried to kill it.
Working on mobile data only, I took an elevator underground until I was directly beneath 290 feet of continuous-pour reinforced concrete framing enclosed by an aluminum curtain-wall system (in a very chic shade of 1960s turquoise blue), straining my connection until non-VPN test speeds were repeatedly under 60 Mbps. From this location, I kicked on Orchid, opened every data-sucking app I had, loaded media-intensive sites across multiple tabs in all the browsers and ran some tests.
No IP leaks. No DNS leaks. This version of the app may have its glitches, but even when I dragged Orchid all the way down to 0.7 Mbps and taunted it with intermittent signal disruptions, it never exposed my identity and I could still listen to Spotify before the VPN finally guttered out. Never mind speed. That's performance.
Security: Brilliant combo of Tor privacy and VPN flexibility
One reason I was able to get streaming content on a multihop connection is Orchid's own home-brewed protocol. While the backbone of its encryption is in the blockchain, Orchid's protocol is specifically designed to travel on the back of WebRTC -- the same technology your browser uses to facilitate high-quality video and audio calls. Not only does this give Orchid an advantage in streaming media content that you'd never be able to get using Tor, but it also makes your autosurf traffic exchange look like just another video call.
Some privacy advocates will tell you that, given how opaque VPN corporate ownership is, you might as well just write off consumer VPNs altogether and stick to using Tor. They're not entirely wrong. Decades have passed without government entities fully cracking Tor's core technology and exposing users at will.
Tor has its limits, though. Tor traffic makes you stick out like a sore thumb to your ISP and network administrators. Sites can see it too and are often quick to block in-bound Tor traffic. Likewise, the CIA, NSA and FBI have all been known to camp out in Tor exit nodes or set up their own. If that weren't enough, you can't transport nearly as much data via Tor as you would a VPN, making voice and video calls nearly impossible over Tor's network of volunteer-run nodes.
On the VPN side of security, the encryption we normally test with (and which we consider the minimum security you should expect of a VPN) is OpenVPN protocol. It's generally considered by privacy gurus to be a healthy mixture of speed and security, and its popularity among consumer VPNs makes it a great control variable in testing. But OpenVPN is also getting up there in Internet Years, and has a history of being somewhat vulnerable if not deployed carefully.
Orchid's protocol is similar to OpenVPN but based on blockchain and, as a decentralized network, Orchid is built to adapt to different types of protocols. Normally, I wouldn't recommend any US-based VPN company, but decentralized blockchain encryption changes that altogether. Decentralized VPNs, in general, are the next step in end-user privacy tools because their nature prevents any single, central company from being able to keep logs of all of your activity.
And Orchid isn't the only one out there. Mysterium, Kelvpn, Tachyon, BitVPN and Lethean are all decentralized, peer-to-peer style VPNs aimed at resisting censorship efforts by creating a nearly subpoena-proof network of bandwidth providers over which your traffic is scattered. Orchid is ahead of the field here in several notable ways, among them its contracts with other VPN companies, which allows users to travel on its partner VPNs' networks.