Anyone considering a VPN service should start off by asking themselves a few questions. First, what’s most important to me? Is it privacy? Speed? Next, does it allow me to do everything that I want to on the Internet safely and anonymously? Also, how reliable and seamless is their service? Finally, how much am I willing to pay for a service that has what I need?
These are the important considerations that I had in my mind when testing the VPN offering from Private Internet Access, a major VPN player in the industry. With more than 460 servers in 9 countries operating at multi-gigabit speeds, PIA shows that they’re serious about competing in this somewhat crowded space. And with a stated goal of “maintaining the highest standards of privacy while providing the most solid, top-speed VPN network,” I felt that I just had to check them out.
The thing I noticed right off the bat was that signing up is fast (took me less than a minute) and doesn’t require any personal information. They even accept Bitcoin payments, along with just about any other method you can think of. It also doesn’t require that any software be installed on my device – another indication that they take my privacy seriously. The service was available instantly and required very little configuration on my part. From the instant I connected, my identity was private and my browsing and personal information was anonymous.
Private Internet Access is a US-based company, which means that there is no legal requirement for them to collect the traffic data of their customers. They use shared IP addresses rather than a dynamic or static pool, which means there’s no way to match a particular user with an IP address. The one piece of information that they do collect — as a means of billing and providing customer support — is an email address. The company recommends however, that you use an anonymous email address for this reason.
With more than 460 servers, and VPN gateways in 9 countries, you’d expect the service to be fast. I have to tell you, the performance that I experienced was nearly indistinguishable from my direct Internet connection. I tested using all the protocols – PPTP, L2TP and OpenVPN – and tracking download speeds. I found that in my testing, L2TP provided the fastest speeds, but not by much. Even the OpenVPN, which is what their automated connection software defaults to, was pretty blazing.
Private Internet Access provides a speed test page on their site so that customers can find the fastest gateway for their location. I found it to be pretty accurate when I tested file downloads across multiple gateways. I expected throughput speeds of around 2-3 MB/sec for an infrastructure this robust, but what I saw consistently was speeds in the range of nearly 10 MB/sec with L2TP. The PPTP tests weren’t as good, with sub-MB/sec speeds in most cases.
Support is another critical factor when deciding on a VPN provider. This includes support for different devices, for different operating systems, and of course support for me when and if I have issues with the service. In this regard, PIA hits the mark quite impressively. Supporting all Windows operating systems from 2k forward, Mac OSX 10.4 through 10.8, UNIX and Linux platforms including Ubuntu, I can’t imagine an environment that you couldn’t run in. They also support Android devices, iPad, iPhone, Touch and other mobile devices.
With extensive documentation for all of the devices, operating systems, platforms and protocols, PIA relies heavily on users researching their own issues. Of course if you do have a problem that can’t be resolved by reading their library of FAQs, there is both online chat and a decent trouble submission system. When I tried the chat function, I could tell that the person I was chatting with was not an expert on their platform. That said, I was quickly routed to someone more effective. The online tech support was a little better, but still wants to direct you first to the documentation.
In using the service extensively for the past number of weeks, I can say that it seems very reliable. I have tried all of their gateways at some point or another, and have used all of the offered protocols. The only issue that I have encountered had to do with port forwarding, and after posting a question through the support page, I found that it was a configuration error on my part.
The ease of installation, along with the very easy to configure interface, makes this service not only seamless to use, but practical and reliable. The ability to quickly transition between gateways if there are problems, or to check for the best throughput at any point in time only adds to the reliability.
Considering what you get for the money, Private Internet Access could probably charge a whole lot more for their service. Currently you can opt for a month-to-month subscription for $6.95, or you can pay $39.95 for a year – which comes out to $3.33 per month. This is cheaper than almost any other VPN provider, and is dirt-cheap for such a robust service.
My experience with Private Internet Access VPN service has been overwhelmingly positive. From the clear and unequivocal focus on protecting my privacy to the obvious commitment to top-quality service, I would highly recommend PIA to anyone. I recognize that most of the readers of this review are people who have experience with other VPN providers, or who are at least aware of the need for such services. My hope is that anyone who does opt to try it will recognize the benefits in both ease of use and effectiveness.
While PIA doesn’t have the most extensive network of available gateways, they continue to add to their server network. In addition, the servers that they do bring online are among the best anywhere, with the fastest network connections possible. As word spreads, I anticipate Private Internet Access becoming one of the top players in the space – and the service only getting better.
Image Credit: superde1uxe