June 23, 2024


Sapiens Digital

Private Internet Access VPN – Review 2020

13 min read

A VPN is the best tool to ensure that your web traffic isn’t monitored by spies, crooks, advertisers, or your ISP. Private Internet Access has long been atop our list of the best VPN services we’ve tested, but it has struggled to remain competitive. It still offers a robust collection of features, a slick interface, over 3,000 servers, and 10 simultaneous connections. While the competition has stepped up its game, Private Internet Access simply doesn’t seem as unique as it once did.

What Is a VPN?

When you connect to the internet, you might assume that your activities aren’t being observed. That’s an unsafe assumption, and it’s especially dubious when you connect to the web from a public Wi-Fi network. Anyone snooping on your network (be it at home, the airport, or at the office) can see what you’re up to. When you use a VPN, your traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a server controlled by the VPN provider. It also prevents your ISP from monitoring your activities—which it is keen to do to make some quick cash. Because your data is emanating from the VPN server, and not your home router, your IP address—and therefore your geographic location—is also hidden.

While VPNs are useful tools for improving your privacy online, they cannot protect against every threat. We highly recommend using standalone antivirus to protect your computer, engaging a password manager to create unique and complex passwords for each site and service, and enabling two-factor authentication wherever it’s available.

Features and Pricing

Private Internet Access has three billing options, starting at $9.95 per month. Some readers will recognize that this is significantly higher than the company’s longstanding bargain-basement price of $6.95. You can also buy six months of service for $35.95 or a year for $39.95. I like that all the tiers provide the exact same features, and don’t reserve advanced tools for higher-paying customers. I like the significant and sudden price jump a lot less.

Despite that increase in pricing, the new monthly fee is still less than the average price of the VPNs we’ve tested, which currently sits around $10.10. Its annual fee, too, is significantly less than the $73.06 per year average.While some VPNs charge more than the average, services like NordVPN and Surfshark offset that increase with goodies like additional privacy features, or numerous servers. Notably, many VPNs are doing more with less. Mullvad VPN costs a mere $5.46 (converted from €5).

Disconnected app

Private Internet Access may not be as affordable as it was, but there are still many worthy inexpensive and even free VPN services to choose from. TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield offer free subscriptions with data limitations (500MB per month and per day, respectively). ProtonVPN, however, is the best free VPN we’ve yet tested, in large part because it places no data restrictions on free users.

You have several choices for purchasing a subscription to Private Internet Access. The company accepts credit cards, Amazon payments, Bitcoin, Etherium, PayPal, and many more besides. Private Internet Access also accepts gift cards from different retailers. Buy one of these cards with cash, and your payment becomes reasonably anonymous. Should you ever tire of Private Internet Access, your account page has a large Cancel button, which is handy.

Previously, a Private Internet Access subscription let you use up to five devices with the service, which is average for the industry. After increasing its price, Private Internet Access VPN also increased the number of devices you can use simultaneously to 10, beating NordVPN’s six and tying with IPVanish. The industry, however, might be moving away from this model entirely. Avira Phantom VPN, Encrypt.me VPN, Ghostery Midnight, Surfshark VPN, and Windscribe VPN all place no limit on the number of simultaneous connections.

(Note that Encrypt.me is owned by J2 Global, which also owns PCMag’s publisher Ziff Media.)

If that’s not enough devices, you can opt to purchase a router with Private Internet Access software preinstalled, or you can install it yourself. Doing so lets you protect every device on your network at the cost of just one license for the router. Some services go even further. TorGuard VPN, for example, sells Apple TV and Roku streaming boxes with its software preinstalled.

Connected app

Private Internet Access doesn’t offer much in the way of add-ons. You won’t be able to purchase static IP addresses as you can with NordVPN. Nor can you add additional device connections, as you can with TorGuard VPN. That’s fine, since Private Internet Access VPN offers just about everything the average user would want from a VPN and doesn’t ever upsell you because it has nothing to upsell. 

The company does allow the use of P2P file-sharing networks and BitTorrent on its VPN servers. Better yet, Private Internet Access does not require that you limit your torrenting to specific servers. That’s convenient. The service also provides split tunneling, which allows you to designate which apps send their data through the VPN and which travel in the clear. This can be handy for high-bandwidth but low-security activities, like streaming video. That’s the end of Private Internet Access’s additional features, however. The company does not offer access to the Tor anonymization network via VPN, nor does it offer multihop connections. This routes your VPN connection through an additional server, making it harder to intercept or block. ProtonVPN offers all these features. 

In addition to everything Private Internet Access has to offer, it also garners a lot of customer loyalty. In PCMag’s first-ever Readers’ Choice survey for VPNs in 2019, Private Internet Access beat out the competition for overall customer satisfaction. 

VPN Protocols

VPN technology comes in a handful of flavors, with different protocols used to create the encrypted tunnel. I prefer OpenVPN, which is open-source and therefore examined by volunteers for potential vulnerabilities. 

Private Internet Access supports OpenVPN and the older L2TP/IPSec. I don’t recommend using these other two if you can help it, but it’s good to have options. The VPN industry will likely shift to the new WireGuard protocol very soon. Private Internet Access offers WireGuard as a beta feature, as of March 2020.

Settings panel for OpenVPN and WireGuard

Servers and Server Locations

Numerous server locations mean you have more choices to spoof your location and a good chance of finding a server near wherever you happen to be when you connect to the internet. Private Internet Access has a good mix of locations, with servers in 30 countries. That’s acceptable, but it could use improvement. Private Internet Access only offers one server location in Africa, and only two options in all of Central and South America. That’s still better than many competitors, who ignore those regions entirely. ExpressVPN, notably, has a stellar collection of server locations, covering some 94 countries.

The total number of servers is not a great indicator of performance, since a VPN will probably spin servers up and down as needed. Still, it’s worth noting that Private Internet Access has over 3,000 servers. Only ExpressVPN, Hotspot Shield VPN, and TorGuard VPN can boast cracking 3,000 servers, while CyberGhost and NordVPN have over 5,000 each.

Cities with VPN servers available

Some VPN services make use of virtual servers, which mimic a server in a given country but may actually be located somewhere else. While the practical upshot is the same—your traffic appears to be coming from the country you select—consumers may have legal concerns about where their data is actually going. Not every country has agreeable data and privacy protection laws, after all. Previously, a company representative told me that it does not utilize virtual servers at all. A recent announcement from the company says that Private Internet Access will include clearly marked virtual locations, for the purposes of providing access to regions where servers cannot be hosted safely.

Your Privacy With Private Internet Access

VPNs come with risks. When you route your traffic through a VPN, the company could have enormous insight into what you do online—the kind of insight that your ISP has and that you’re probably using a VPN to prevent.

A company representative explained that Private Internet Access
does not keep logs of user activity and does not profit from user data. The company says it only generates revenue from user subscriptions. 

Unfortunately, the company’s lengthy privacy policy has precious little to say about what information is gathered during the use of its product, on top of being enormously difficult to read. The company’s Terms of Service are far more understandable, although also lacking in information about how the product operates. Private Internet Access should make it easier to understand what it gathers, why it does so, and how that information is handled.

While Private Internet Access does not appear to be profiting off user data, or collecting egregious logs, it does gather some information. A company representative said that Private Internet Access gathers, “username, IP address and data usage,” and deletes that information as soon as you disconnect from the service. That’s pretty good, but other companies are managing to gather less information and move faster to remove what information is collected.

Private Internet Access is based in the US and operates under US legal jurisdiction. The US does not have any mandatory data retention laws, but Private Internet Access is required to respond to court orders from the US government. That’s not the case for companies like NordVPN, which is located in Panama. The company’s annual transparency report confirms that the company has provided no data in response to warrants, subpoenas, and court orders.

Private Internet Access VPN is owned by Private Internet Access, Inc, which is in turn owned by KAPE Technologies. This purchase raised some eyebrows, because a previous incarnation of KAPE peddled aggressive browser toolbars. But until something nefarious comes to light, this is just a historical footnote. KAPE also owns CyberGhost VPN and Zenmate. Private Internet Access, however, will continue to be a standalone product with its own infrastructure separate from other properties. 

Private Internet Access has not released the results of any independent audits. While audits are far from a guarantee of security excellence, they can help shed light on VPN’s behind-the-scenes operations. TunnelBear, for example, has issued annual audits for the last three years. It has, however, conducted an audit of the underlying OpenVPN technology and released the results to the public and the OpenVPN developers.

A company representative tells me that Private Internet Access does not own its server infrastructure. While that does raise the potential issue of third party access, it’s not necessarily a problem as most VPNs don’t own all their servers in every location. The company says its further hardening servers, which is good to see. Other companies, like NordVPN and SurfShark are working to take their servers diskless, making it far more difficult for the hardware to be seized by nefarious forces.

I encourage everyone to read a VPN company’s privacy policy for themselves. If you feel uncomfortable, look elsewhere. Trust, after all, is paramount when it comes to security companies.

Hands On With Private Internet Access

I downloaded the Windows version of Private Internet Access from the company’s website and installed it within seconds on an Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH (Bean Canyon) desktop running the latest version of Windows 10.

I received new login credentials in the purchase confirmation email, a practice I am told provides extra anonymity but may be confusing for novices. ExpressVPN uses activation codes for its apps, and Mullvad does away with personal information altogether by assigning customers random ID codes.

For years, I characterized Private Internet Access as technically proficient but a usability nightmare. It lacked any kind of client, and seemed to intentionally avoid anything approaching, well, approachability. I’m happy to see that Private Internet Access has since addressed this issue and released a much friendlier client app. You can still control the entire app from within the system tray, however, if you’re into that sort of thing.

App in windowed mode

When you open the app, you’re greeted by a large Connect button. Click it, and you’re immediately connected to the best server available. This is exactly what the average user needs: a straightforward path to getting secure immediately. Clicking the location box below the connect button lets you jump to a different VPN server with ease. You can choose either a country or a city within that country, but not a specific server. For most people, that should be fine. If there’s a particular region you need to use, you can add it to a Favorites list.

Clicking the caret at the bottom of the app expands the window to the top of the screen, revealing a host of other tiles for quickly connecting to servers in specific countries, real-time performance graphs, usage statistics, toggle switches for key settings, and your current subscription status. Clicking the Bookmark icon adds these tiles to your default view, letting you customize your experience. It’s an excellent approach, and other VPN companies should take note of how Private Internet Access so easily handles interacting with its more complex features.

One handy little tool is a VPN Snooze button. This disconnects you from the VPN and then reconnects you after the preset amount of time. It’s useful for when you might find yourself blocked by a website, and need to disconnect from the VPN. The Snooze feature ensures that you’ll be automatically reconnected, and won’t thoughtlessly continue browsing the web unprotected.

An additional Settings window goes into greater detail. From here you can make changes to your account, opt for port forwarding, and make even more obscure tweaks. Most users won’t ever need to touch these, however, as they are better left to confident experts. One important setting you can and should experiment with is the light or dark mode for the app, a surprisingly modern feature from a company that didn’t even have an app until the recent past.

Settings panel for port forwarding and split tunneling

The only catch is that the new app interface is still bolted in place. You summon it by clicking the Private Internet Access tray icon, and it stays locked above the system tray. You can’t move it around or interact with it as you would a normal Windows app. Click anywhere outside the app and it disappears again. From the Settings, you can set the app free, but it loses its snazzy rounded corners in the process. 

One general concern with VPNs is that they might leak identifiable information, either in the form of DNS requests or your real IP address. In my tests, I found that my ISP and IP address were hidden and my usual DNS servers circumvented with Private Internet Access.

Private Internet Access and Netflix

Many streaming video services block VPNs, because they have geographically limited licenses for streaming content. I test with Netflix because of its enormous popularity and because it is particularly aggressive at blocking VPN users.

If streaming Netflix over a VPN is a major concern for you, you may have issues with Private Internet Access. When I last tested VPNs with Netflix, I was unable to watch movies while connected to a US-based VPN server. This could change at any time, and perhaps you will have better luck.

Beyond VPN

Many VPN companies include additional privacy and security features in order to entice consumers. To that end, Private Internet Access includes its own ad- and tracker-blocking tool called MACE. This feature is unfortunately now blocked in Android VPN apps, to comply with Google’s rules. If this is a must-have feature for your Android device, you can sideload the APK after downloading it from Private Internet Access’ website. Do note that sideloading apps carries potential risks.

Speed and Performance

Regardless of the VPN you use, it will affect your web browsing speeds. To gauge the level of that impact, I measure latency, download speeds, and upload speeds using the Ookla speed test app. For more on my testing and its limitations, do read the aptly titled article How We Test VPNs. (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.)

In my testing, I found that Private
Internet Access came very close to the median in all three categories but never managed to beat those results. I found that Private Internet Access decreased download and upload speed test results by 73.9 and 77.1 percent, respectively. It increased ping time by 77.8 percent. 

You can see how Private Internet Access compares in the chart below with the top nine performers among the nearly 40 services we’ve tested. Keep in mind that your results will likely differ from mine.

Chart of fastest VPNs

My results show Hotspot Shield VPN narrowly beating out the competition, making it the fastest VPN I’ve yet tested. Surfshark, however, is close behind, and can even boast a significantly better upload speed test results than any other service.

Speeds vary depending on a number of factors. Overall value and ease of use are far more important, but the real value of a VPN is in the privacy and security it offers.

Private Internet Access on Other Platforms

Manually setting up your computer or smartphone to use a VPN is possible, but it’s also a pain. Using an app from the VPN company is far easier, and gives you access to many more features than manual configuration. Private Internet Access supports apps for Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, and Windows. 

Private Internet Access also offers extensions for Firefox and Chrome. These hide the IP address associated with your browser traffic, using servers in a variety of locations, and is secured with Squid HTTPS. Only your browser traffic, however, is affected by the plug-ins. The rest of your computer’s activity is not secured by these tools.

Simple Security

With its refined interface, Private Internet Access finally offers the ease of use it was long missing, but the competition has not been idle. More services are offering more varied tools at lower prices, meaning Private Internet Access doesn’t stand out in a crowded space any longer. While it clearly works to protect users’ privacy, and it should strive to do more and explain those protections better to customers. Furthermore, it offered only middling performance in our testing. It still has much to offer: Power users will appreciate the fiddly settings available, and large households the ample 10 simultaneous connections. 

In terms of simplicity and value, we continue to recommend Editors’ Choice winners Mullvad VPN, ProtonVPN, and TunnelBear. Mullvad VPN offers excellent privacy protections for very little cash, ProtonVPN provides every feature you could want, and TunnelBear excels with its simple, friendly approach to security.

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