Disconnect Review

Disconnect has a line of products that block trackers, encrypt your traffic, and help you maintain your privacy online from any device.

The Verdict

Disconnect is a complex service. It’s difficult for people to understand which product they need, and even when they do, platform support is fragmented and surprising. Most users will probably end up with the Premium product, which is the most expensive, and the one with the broadest platform support.

Author: @smartprivacyio | Updated: May 24, 2019

Affiliate Disclosure

If you’ve looked into digital privacy tools, you’ve probably come across Disconnect. The company and its suite of products are well branded and well designed. They’re popular and widely reviewed, with consumer behemoths such as the New York Times picking them as their favorite online privacy tool (multiple years in a row, apparently).

According to the official site, Disconnect is currently used by over 50 million people. That’s a pretty significant number. It’s unclear how many of those users are paying members, and which version of the product they use.

I would wager that a large amount of those users come from their blocking list partnerships. For example, Mozilla Firefox relies on a list curated by Disconnect to power its anti-tracking features.

Anyway, let’s hop in and see how Disconnect performs.

How Disconnect Works

When we talk about Disconnect, we’re really talking about a platform for two distinct services.

Blocking technology is included in each version of the product and is the core anti-tracking technology that blocks trackers as you browse online.

I used the product in Google Chrome for about two weeks. In that time, I visited thousands of websites, and it seems to work fine.

The extension doesn’t have much in the way of customization or settings. By default, you’ll see a label on the icon that numbers how many trackers were blocked. Clicking on the icon produces the list view:

If you select Visualize Page, you get an interactive view of the trackers:

The other products have another feature: encrypted mode. The encrypted mode is the Disconnect VPN. This is available in the Privacy Pro, and Premium versions.

The Disconnect VPN

Disconnect provides two distinct VPN products, and it can be challenging to ascertain which one you should be using.

First, there’s the SmartVPN mode, available in the Disconnect Privacy Pro macOS and iOS apps.

Note that the SmartVPN is not a full VPN, but rather a “narrow VPN”, which provides security for unencrypted HTTP connections only. It won’t hide your IP address, it won’t unblock Netflix, and it won’t encrypt HTTPS connections. It does, however, encrypt all DNS connections.

Then, in the Premium version, there’s a full VPN that encrypts all traffic, masks your IP address and allows for some light geoshifting.

Installing a VPN on a mobile device can be disorienting to new users. It’s always a pain - you have to edit configurations, and they constantly reconnect as your device switches from network to network. This isn’t a problem with Disconnect in particular, but it’s something you should be aware of if you’re going to use the product.

Basic, Pro, and Premium

Basic - includes tracking protection for your desktop or mobile web browser. This is the basic anti-tracking service and works at the browser level. As soon as you install the extension, you’re redirected to an “honor system” page, which asks you to donate some amount of money once, monthly, or yearly. This is optional though.

Privacy Pro - includes tracking protection and the SmartVPN feature. When you first install the app, you’re hit with a 7-day trial, that concludes with a $4.99 monthly charge, but you can dismiss this and pay $25 per year, or not at all (and not get the service).

Premium - Includes all of the above features, but adds Full VPN service. When you first install there is an offer for 7 days free, followed by $11.99 per month (or $50 per year).

Both apps are unusable unless you’re on the trial or paying for the subscription. Almost every tap brings a popover to subscribe. That said, if you are going to use one of these apps and pay for the service, I’d recommend the Premium for the Full VPN, as it includes the minimum of VPN protection that I’d consider viable.

Platform Support

Understanding platform support on the Disconnect products can be difficult. The basic version is a browser-based extension, so it’s mostly operating system agnostic. The Privacy Pro version is an app that runs on iOS, MacOS, and Samsung devices. Premium is an app that has the broadest operating system support and runs on MacOS, Windows, iOS, and Android.

When in doubt, I’d say to search your App Store of choice for Disconnect and see which products are available for you.

Conclusion

Disconnect is a complex service. It’s difficult for people to understand which product they need, and even when they do, platform support is fragmented and surprising. Most users will probably end up with the Premium product, which is the most expensive, and the one with the broadest platform support.

The products are also pretty obtrusive and insistent on monetization. Disconnect really seems to want you to pay them for using their technology. I don’t necessarily have anything against that, but I do feel a little uneasy when companies market free products that have mandatory in-app purchases.

The problem with hybrid products is that they’re rarely better than standalone versions. Privacy and security are areas where sacrificing flexibility for inclusivity can have very real implications on the efficacy of the technology. In most cases, I’d recommend skipping Disconnect entirely and going with a standalone blocker and a standalone VPN, which offer vastly more configuration options and are often available at a better price point.

Features

  • Blacklist
  • Whitelist
  • Blocks First Party Trackers
  • Blocks Third Party Trackers
  • Open Source

Operating System Support

  • Windows
  • macOS
  • iOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Browser Support

  • Safari
  • Firefox
  • Chrome
  • Edge