Private Internet Access review

VPN service PrivateInternetAccess makes it easy for users to take advantage of VPN technology to surf online privately and securely while introducing chock-full of new features that competitors don't offer, and it offers plenty of support.
Photo of Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access is a personal VPN service that manages to remain lightweight while hiding your online activity from eavesdroppers. The service’s VPN technology passes all your online activity through an encrypted tunnel from your computer to the destination website so that your data remains safe at all times. If you are on an open wireless network, using a VPN service such as Private Internet Access will keep you safe from malicious individuals after your data.

There are many VPN services on the market, some of which we’ve reviewed, such as Symantec’s Norton Hotspot Privacy which received our Editors’ Choice designation, as well as VPN Direct (Premium) and proXPN. Private Internet Access, despite its unwieldy moniker, is a straightforward one-click-to-go VPN client with several advanced features that sets it apart from the competition.

Private Internet Access comes in three payment plans, at $6.95 a month, $35.95 for six months, or $39.95 for a year. Unlike many other competing products on the market, there is no free version or a trial available for users who want to check it out beforehand. I would have liked to see a cheaper one-day pass or something, but considering the monthly plan is roughly equivalent to a grande latte at Starbucks, it’s not a bad deal.

A Refresher on How VPN Services Work
Your computer has an IP address assigned by your ISP. A geo-location lookup reveals the geographic location of the ISP or the data center containing the server assigning the address. You may want to change the address so that it will be harder to trace online activity back to you, or trying to access a service that is restricted by geographic region. VPN services override the IP address with one assigned by their networks, so that users can suddenly appears to be from a different country. Considering Facebook is blocked in China, Netflix is restricted outside the US, and some YouTube videos are blocked in Germany, being able to change where you are “from” is useful.

The service creates an encrypted tunnel between the computer and the destination website or network, and all data flows through the tunnel. This means even if you are using a coffee-shop hotspot, you can log into your email or access other accounts without worrying about someone eavesdropping or intercepting data. It’s important to remember that the data is only protected while in transit; if the destination site is not using HTTPS, that part of the connection is unencrypted. Anyone who is sitting at that point of exit can see and harvest that information, and there are fairly complicated timing algorithms out there to identify user activity.

At the time of this writing, there are rumors that all VPN services are being blocked in China.

Installation and Getting Started
I downloaded the Windows version of Private Internet Access from the Website and installed it within seconds. I received my login credentials inside the purchase confirmation email.

Starting the software for the first time opens up a settings window where you enter the login credentials and select the region server to which you want to connect. If you don’t care, you can leave it as “auto” and let the software pick. According to my tests, the app really seemed to like the New York region, but that may be because that is where I was based, and the software was simply hitting the closest server.

Like many of its competitors, Private Internet Access uses OpenVPN SSL technology to create its encrypted tunnel. It has an extensive list of servers, with options in the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, and Romania. The geographic diversity for the U.S. is staggering, with servers available in California, Denver, Florida, Ohio, Texas, “East,” “Midwest” (Chicago, Ill.), and “West.” The company is poised to roll out 45 more gateways worldwide with dedicated Gigabit ports this month.

Perhaps you are a power user and want more control over your network, or perhaps your ISP is overly restrictive and you need to tweak your settings. You can click on the “advanced” button on the settings screen. Under “advanced” settings, you can select the connection type, specify the remote and local ports to use, enable port forwarding, set up a VPN “kill switch,” and turn on DNS leak protection. I will go in detail about these options later in the review.

The software is extremely minimalistic and lightweight. Unlike most other competitors, Private Internet Access showed no actual application window when I launched the program. All I got was a tiny lock icon in the system tray, and when I right-clicked on the icon, I saw a menu listing what servers to connect to and the option to go back into the Settings screen.

No Feedback
While I like the supremely minimalist interface, I found it frustrating when I ran into trouble because there was no way to get any kind of feedback on how to troubleshoot.

Whenever I review a VPN service, I try to schedule a trip so that I can try out the software while on the road. On my most recent trip, I ran into an unexpected snag when I tried to connect. The systray icon was green and my status message said “Connected.” Yet when I tried to get to a Website, I kept getting connection errors because the browser didn’t think I was connected to a network.

After a little bit of poking around and tweaking, I changed my connection type in the advanced panel from UDP (which is the default) to TCP. It turned out the particular ISP I was connected to blocked or filtered UDP ports. Now, in general, UDP filtering is rare, so this was an edge case to begin with, but nothing in the application hinted at any problems—

Next: Performance and Features

There is no feedback about what the software thinks it’s doing. There is no logging information the way VPN Direct offers, nor can I see what IP address the service has assigned me—something practically every other product provides.

Changing Expectations
VPN services have transformed dramatically over the past few months. Just a year ago, VPN services were more or less the same—lightweight programs which encrypted your Internet connections and let you switch between several geographic regions. The primary differentiators were performance, number of servers, and whether or not there were ads. Fast forward to a year later, and while they are still lightweight, the performance gaps have shrunk. Many support mobile devices and many services have done away with bandwidth caps.

Private Internet Access is one of those over-achievers, with tons of features I haven’t seen in other tools. There is a PC version as well as Mac OS X version. Currently, there is no native Android or iOS app, although the company is currently at work on an Android app, with an iOS app coming afterwards. If you can’t wait, the site has instructions on how to get the service working with iOS using L2TP or with Android using L2TP/IPSec + PSK VPN. As in Symantec’s Norton Hotspot Privacy, one account can be used to connect multiple devices, in this case, up to three devices. This makes sense, because people generally go online using multiple devices now, and expecting them to shell out per device can get expensive really quickly.

Features A-Plenty
Networking gurus can skip setting up Private Internet Access on individual devices and just set it up on the network router. The router just has to support consumer-based VPN services, including OpenVPN, PPTP and L2TP. The site provides detailed instructions on setting up the software on DD-WRT, Tomato, and PfSense.

I can turn on the VPN Kill Switch in the settings, which automatically disables the Internet connection if the VPN disconnects for any reason. This is definitely a good feature as it would prevent users from continuing a potentially sensitive session if the connection is somehow lost. I’ve seen this feature only in proXPN.

Turning on DNS Leak Protection ensures all DNS requests are routed through the VPN. While this setting provides the highest level of privacy and security, it can cause some wonky behavior in non-standard environments. It is turned on by default on the Mac OS X client, but off by default on Windows.

Speed and Performance
I didn’t notice any discernible lag with PrivateInternetAccess while viewing videos online or surfing the Web. I connected to overseas servers, and connected to US servers while overseas and didn’t feel any noticeable degradation in performance.

To measure network speed, I ran the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net once I was back at my test bed in the U.S. The tests are designed to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to servers in different cities. I determined my location by looking up the IP address and then looked for a city closest to that location to run the test. I ran the test twice with the VPN service turned off, and again when turned on, and picked the best measurements. The figures below are over a wired connection, not wireless. 

As I mentioned earlier, paid services are generally consistent when it comes to performance across geographic regions, and Private Internet Access was no different. It’s getting harder to differentiate between paid VPN services on performance alone.

However, Private Internet Access had one surprise. No matter what I did, I was consistently getting better upload speeds on the VPN than I was when disconnected. I haven’t been able to account for the difference, but regardless of where I was testing from—on the road, on my test bed, at the coffeeshop—it was either unchanged, or higher. AnchorFree’s HotSpot Shield Elite  boosted download speeds, but didn’t improve upload speeds in our tests.

Heads and Shoulders Above the Competition
Right from the start, it was clear that Private Internet Access was unique in what is increasingly becoming a crowded market. At first, I was a little dubious about the tool, because it tried to do so many things, and VPN service is something that just needs to do one thing well. Even setting aside the performance boost for upload speeds, the sheer amount of options and settings available to advanced users is unusual. Despite having advanced networking features, the tool is still simple enough for less-savvy users and complete beginners. It’s not easy for an application to walk that fine line and succeed across both types of users.

The fact that I could share the license across three devices was nice, and I look forward to seeing mobile support coming soon. There have been several Editors’ Choice VPN services recently, as one product tops the next, but Private Internet Access out-performs and out-features the competition. With 4.5 stars, Private Internet Access sets the bar high and is truly the Editors’ Choice, trumping all our previous favorites.

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Specifications
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7
Type Business, Personal

Verdict
VPN service PrivateInternetAccess makes it easy for users to take advantage of VPN technology to surf online privately and securely while introducing chock-full of new features that competitors don't offer, and it offers plenty of support.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc