Private Internet Access is one of the leanest, meanest, and fastest VPNs on the market today, offering blisteringly fast speeds on a client that runs lighter than a feather.
PIA is also one of the cheapest options to boot, but will all that speed come at the cost of good design and enough extra features to sweeten the pot? Read on in our review to find out!
Checkout and Install Process
To start our time with Private Internet Access, we went through the process of signing up for a one month subscription, for $6.95. You also have the option to sign up for 6 months (or 6 monthly, as PIA oddly refers to it on their site), and yearly plans.
To pay for these subscriptions, PIA accepts the following methods:
- Credit Cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB
- Others: CashU OKPay Mint
This is an average number of options among some of the best in this category, like PureVPN, but I still like to see alternative routes like Amazon being offered for anyone who has 1-Click setup and want to get through the checkout as quickly as possible.
PIA gives users a standard number of available platforms to install their app on, these options include:
- Windows Vista and above
- OSX 10.8 and above
- iOS 8.0 and above
- Android 2.2 or newer
- Linux (Ubuntu 12.04 or above)
As you’ll find out in a moment, Private Internet Access is a VPN that’s all about efficiency, and this shows in the sub-3 minute time it took to get everything installed, connected, and live. In fact, the program runs so light it doesn’t even take up a folder on your hard drive, instead just running a simple shortcut out of your Start Menu and installing the necessary components where they need to go.
Unfortunately, PIA is yet another in a line of VPN providers that doesn’t let you choose your username, and instead assigns a thoroughly random set of letters and numbers that only an MIT mathematician would be able to memorize.
I understand this step is taken in the interest of user privacy, but I’d still prefer to have the option to change it if I need it to. Speaking of which, you’ll also have an equally complicated time actually getting into your account to change any settings, as your VPN credentials and actual account credentials are two different things.
Again, I’d imagine that the ultimate reason behind a decision like this is “privacy”, because it puts another layer of firewalls between the service and any information that could be used to identify you.
You’ve already heard me complain about apps like TunnelBear, which don’t include any method of controlling the VPN from the hotbar. But what about programs like Private Internet Access that only operate from the hotbar?
I’ve been a part of the VPN industry for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of different designs come and go, but those like what’s on offer from Private Internet Access have a timeless quality to them that just can’t be beat. PIA doesn’t even technically have a main window or a Connect/Disconnect button; everything is handled from right-clicking the icon on the taskbar.
“Barebones” doesn’t cover what PIA as an app experience represents, with simple descriptions for the various settings like PIA MACE, the kill switch, and DNS leak protection laid out in a plain black and white “here to get the job done and that’s it” color palette. The only real flourish you’ll find on the whole thing is the small green alien logo in the top left corner, but even he looks like an emoticon straight off a 1998 Geocities page.
Other than that you can’t really change much about how the app looks or behaves, but weirdly enough even though it’s pretty much the polar opposite of flashy, modern, or updated…I kind of like that about it the most. To connect, you simply right-click the icon in the taskbar, choose the server you want, and a small notification bar tells you when you’re linked up.
PIA is a service that doesn’t have to care about what it looks like or its “user friendliness rating”, because as you’ll find out in our next section, this is a VPN that’s more than happy to let its performance speak for itself.
Private Internet Access isn’t concerned with wasting its resources on looking cool, it just wants to build the fastest, lightest, all around non-buggiest app of the bunch; and it’s succeeded handily.
Performance and Speed
In our speed testing on a simultaneous 1GB up/down fiber optic line from Portland, Oregon, we connected to different servers offered by Private Internet Access all from different corners of the globe, and specifically in the cities of: New York, Singapore, LA and London. Each server test was run five times at specific intervals to see how the bandwidth was affected during off-peak hours (6AM local), peak (9PM local), and once more on a Monday at 9PM PST, which is the busiest day for VPN providers collectively.
As mentioned previously, Private Internet Access’ meager exterior is hiding a monster of an engine underneath, consistently racking up some of the all-time high scores for VPN speeds connected on a fiber line to date.
In New York City during peak hours at 9PM EST, we found that off a base speed of 371.23Mbps download and 931.94Mbps upload, PIA’s link brought our average speeds down to only 178.33Mbps down, and 63.70Mbps up.
That’s a decrease of just 51% on the download side, the least impactful VPN we’ve run to date. In our tests the highest average speed was awarded to the LA server off-peak (as usual) with a score of 237.52Mbps down. Upload speeds weren’t as rosy, however, at an 89% loss overall from.
The company is so confident in its speeds, it actually provides its very own speed test hub, where anyone can go through to individually test a server using the company’s 1GB line from anywhere in the world.
Although that upload speed drop percentage may look like a lot, it’s still right in line with what we achieve with most other services. The real benefit here is the download speeds which - whether we were connecting to the closest server in Seattle or halfway around the world to Singapore - were still tiers above anything else out there right now.
Finally, we give every VPN we review a shot to take our “best of the worst” challenge, which is a single speed test run on the closest possible server to our home base in Portland. While normally this would net the fastest time, the trick is we run it on Monday at 9PM PST, otherwise known as the worst possible commute hour (and day) for VPN networks on the West Coast.
On this test, CyberGhost passed with flying colors, connecting to a server in San Jose CA, (even though we asked for San Francisco) and rocking a 200.0Mbps download alongside a 105.17Mbps upload score off a base speed of 734.10Mbps down and 722.81Mbps up.
With the Dark Theme enabled and the VPN connection turned on, you might almost just mistake the Private Internet Access mobile app for something designed in the past five years.
Kidding aside, I do like the simplicity and the overall look of the app, which works through one big toggle that’s right smack dab in the middle of your screen.The toggle itself uses the tried-but-true red-for-off and green-for-on, color scheme, and you can change the color layout overall by sticking with the standard white-on-green option or going with Dark Theme instead, which I think helps to modernize things a bit.
Private Internet Access will protect your mobile browser from via the PIA MACE system, but this is pretty much the only real setting that you can change. There are no options to scroll through different encryption methods, and although the server location selection screen is quick and intuitive, it doesn’t make up for the lack of customization.
Security and Encryption
PIA also offers up dozens of in-depth resources on the subject of encryption and security, like this guide here. On its own service, it offers PPTP, OpenVPN, L2TP and IPSec, all of which can be activated at your choosing on the Windows 10 app.
The company is open about the fact that its Elliptical Curve Encryption technology, while strong, has been confirmed as vulnerable to NSA-built backdoors that the company wasn’t aware of until the Snowden leaks came to light in 2013.
PIA uses an OpenVPN SSL encryption to protect your tunnel, which to me and just about any user out there should be enough to keep the majority of your information free from prying eyes.
As mentioned previously, PIA doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time getting bogged down in things like cool looking apps or slick UIs - or in this case - extra features. That said, it does still offer a few bonuses, like a SOCKS5 proxy and the PIA MACE tool.
PIA MACE is an ad-blocking, tracker tracking malware bombing system that actively scans your traffic for threats, and responds accordingly.
Some people prefer hardline ad-blockers like PIA MACE to browser extensions like AdBlock Plus, as sometimes websites can figure out a way to trick these extensions into giving up tracking data or cookies, information that companies could then turn around and use to identify you in the future.
Services that are installed on the backend of your connection can also drastically increase your browser speeds, as browser-based ad-blockers will add precious seconds to every page you try to load while it frantically tries to keep up with all the content you’re throwing its way.
For all the positive marks that Private Internet Access racks up in places like speed and performance, I’d like to see more than one “Submit a Ticket” support option to get a hold of someone who can help out in a crisis.
When we submitted a ticket we immediately got a follow-up confirmation email, and could also view the status of the ticket through the Support section of our Account page. After less than an hour of waiting at 7PM on a Thursday we got a response, one which was written in fluent English and solved our problem with an in-depth, technically accurate set of steps.
An hour response definitely isn’t bad by any standards, but again in general I just like to see a 24/7 support option on VPN providers as a rule of thumb. They do make up for this sin of missing immediate chat options though, by serving up what is easily the most extensive and deeply technical knowledgebases I’ve seen, offering simple setup guides and intricate breakdowns of encryption protocols in the same breath.
Private Internet Access is a company that not only wants to be transparent in how it logs information, it also aspires to be an educational destination where users can find out exactly what’s behind the curtain when it comes to internet privacy and personal security.
PIA offers up a community forum, consistently updated blog, and several other security tools like IP address trackers and DNSLeak links to users who want to test the security and connectivity of their VPN as it’s running.
Private Internet Access is almost exceedingly transparent with exactly how and where it uses your information, and as a no-log VPN does everything it can to ease the minds of customers with open and available dialog about how it’s watching their activities.
- E-mail Address.
- Payment Data.
- Clients who opt to use the optional control panel will receive a temporary cookie.
This is from the application itself, but in regards to what their website sees (along with any email communication with the company), things get a little more murky:
- Google analytics data (appears anonymous). Google may store a cookie. Feel free to opt out with Google's plugin.
- Credit Card Protection
- Internationalisation (i18n)
- Affiliates who opt to use the optional control panel will receive a temporary cookie.
- Apache Webserver (see apache.org) logs.
- Submissions on the 'Contact Us' page.
- Any e-mails we receive.
Last Up, PIA lays out in plain english how they handle this information as well as a detailed writerup on where it all goes:
- E-mail address is used to send subscription information, payment confirmations, customer correspondence, and Private Internet Access promotional offers only.
- Google analytics data is used to improve our website.
- Apache webserver logs are regularly pruned and are created by the webserver. No usernames or passwords are ever logged by the webserver.
- Contact submissions and e-mails will be used for correspondence.
- Temporary cookies are used to handle control panel logins.
The Terms of Service, while perhaps not as friendly to the eye as some other sites have made their own, was still laid out in plain enough English that I could easily understand and interpret all the content without having to learn a bunch of legalese first.
Finally on the subject of torrents, Private Internet Access opens up their channels to all P2P enthusiasts without judgement, and unlike most, will allow you to connect to a tracker or torrent through any of their hundreds of available servers.
Cancel and Uninstall Process
If you’re ever unsatisfied with your service at Private Internet Access, the company offers a 7-day money-back guarantee, and will grant you a full refund in the case of a cancellation.
“If you are less than 100% satisfied with the PrivateInternetAccess VPN service, we will gladly refund your payment if the refund is requested within seven (7) days from the date of the purchase. Requests made later than the 7 day purchase date window will be denied.”
To cancel, you only need to go onto your main account page and scroll to the bottom, where you’ll find the “Cancel Subscription” button. We clicked this through to the next page, and after a short survey which asked why we were leaving (paired with a sad picture of their mascot crying), Private Internet Access immediately canceled our recurring subscription and confirmed the cancellation with a follow-up email.
We were still permitted to use the service for the remainder of our subscription period, and could re-activate the membership at any time using a button on the account page.
Because the app doesn’t have a home folder, to uninstall Private Internet Access we had to right-click on the icon in the start menu, and choose the option to uninstall. This took us to the standard Programs and Features window, however we couldn’t actually find the PIA icon included in that list.
To get to the real uninstaller we had to open the File Location of the icon on our Start menu (buried deep in our User profile), and then click the “Uninstall Private Internet Access” button hovering next to the main shortcut.
This brought up a black command window which sat in the corner for about 20 seconds, and disappeared. Once that was over there was no need for a restart, and all traces of Private Internet Access had been wiped from the system.
With such low prices and insanely quick speeds to boot, it’s no wonder that Private Internet Access easily walks into a score of 8.5 on the review aggregation portal TrustPilot.
If that doesn’t sound high enough to you, there are still plenty of other publications singing PIA’s praise. Sites like PCMag (who rated the service 4.5 stars out of 5) and BestVPN (who gave it a perfect score) talked up the ridiculous speed they got on the network, with the latter claiming that PIA actually increased speeds over their standard network.
That said, they also made sure to emphasize that the super-minimalist design may not be every VPN client’s cup of tea, and that customer support lacked some of the responsiveness that they like to see from other providers.
If you were wondering why it looks like Private Internet Access has cut costs on pretty much every aspect of its design and marketing department, you probably won’t care once you see how cheap the service is in comparison to its much slower competition.
Private Internet Access offers three different tiers of membership: monthly, bi-annual, and yearly. If you go with the month-to-month plan, you’ll only pay $6.95 a month, which isn’t just the cheapest 30-day option out there, it’s still even cheaper than the price break cost that you’d get for signing up with ExpressVPN for a year.
At six month plans the price continues to plummet even further, to just $5.99/mo ($35.95 upfront), while the yearly plan will bring everything down to a manageable total of $3.33/mo, or $39.95 upfront.
These prices make Private Internet Access the best value on the market, especially if you consider the mere $4 you’d have to pay to double your six month plan. If you’re shopping for your next VPN service on a budget, this is definitely the one to get.
In my opinion, Private Internet Access is as close to a perfect VPN as you’re going to get, but is kept from greatness by a few key areas where it missed the mark or didn’t take a shot entirely.
The Windows app design is as basic as they come, and the support, while responsive, was limited to just a single mode of contact. In this way, PIA is a bit like a Ford truck: doesn’t care what it looks like, sells for half the price of the rest of the guys, and just gets the job you came here for done without any complaints along the way.
With both the cheapest monthly price you’ll find in VPNs and the fastest speed of every other provider on the market, Private Internet Access takes the cake as the best bang for your buck on shelves today.
- The fastest VPN out there, period
- Perfect scores in DNS protection
- Great subscription prices
- Mobile UI is nice
- Minimalist-but-functional design
- Ad-blocker works well
- App design might be too minimal for some
- Not a ton of extra features
- Lacking customer support features