With the help of its adorable mascot, simple to setup software, and respectable server list, TunnelBear is one of the newest VPNs to hit the market that wants to do away with the stigma and scariness that some consumers feel when it comes to how companies handle their private communications.
But, a fun quirky aesthetic alone does not a successful VPN make. You need the performance and the power to back up your big claims, and a privacy record that’s transparent enough so everyone knows exactly what they get when their hand their details over to you.
Will TunnelBear meet a grizzly fate as a result of our in-depth investigation into their service? Read on to find out!
Checkout and Install Process
To get rolling on this review, we had to start by signing up for a one-year subscription to the service via the company’s website for $39.99 upfront. TunnelBear doesn’t offer any single or 6-month packages, and once at checkout we were only given the option to pay through only two different sources, including:
Credit Cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Bitcoin
This is a pretty pitiful number of options when compared to some other leaders in the space like ExpressVPN. If you need to use any other payment option besides the four offered above, you’re going to have to use one of the alternative providers mentioned above.
TunnelBear gives users a standard number of available platforms to install their app on, these options include:
- Windows 7
A big hit to the functionality points for TunnelBear is the many, many restrictions we ran into when trying to find out where their network will or won’t play nicely. For example you can’t use it on a router, nor does TunnelBear offer any solutions for users who want to manually connect instead of going through the app.
On that note, you can’t really connect anything to the TunnelBear network that can’t support the app (at this time), as was confirmed by the customer support representative we contacted regarding this question and several others.
This means no setups on gaming consoles or streaming boxes either, a big hit for people who prefer to keep their identity protected across multiple devices. This is all to say that if you want to run TunnelBear, you should plan to only do it on one of the platforms listed above or you’ll be plain out of luck.
After we got through the checkout process via credit card, the download and installation process was where we were first introduced to the service’s friendly bear mascot.
The TunnelBear installation was straightforward and to the point, with a helpful tutorial that continued to use the bear as a way to ease people into the concept of VPNs and how they can be used.
TunnelBear didn’t need to install any additional adapters, and it took less than five minutes to get us from download to being connected to the United States server.
Although I didn’t expect this to be a metric on which I measured the usability of any particular VPN, I’ve got to say right out of the gate that TunnelBear is easily one of the “cutest” VPN services I’ve ever used.
If you hadn’t already guessed, the main representative for TunnelBear is a big brown bear, who “tunnels” from one continent to the next, bringing you and your connection along with him. From the fun little animations that play out when you connect on the main page to the Bear-themed extra features (VigilantBear and Ghost Bear), TunnelBear quickly establishes itself as a company that you want to trust, if only for their goofy sense of humor that makes the process of getting yourself protected online just that much more friendly and open to the average user.
Everything from the server location list to the settings menu is draped in a modern Windows 10-esque grey color scheme, one that brightens up to a matte green and medium-yellow once you’re connected. The landscape of the server map is dotted with animated trees, mountains, or other topographical features, depending on the region.
I love little personal touches like these whenever a VPN provider can find the time to throw them in, and the case is no different here. Although it may not be for everyone, I can still find a way to enjoy silly things like a bear digging tunnels around the world as a visual reminder of what’s happening in the app at that time.
One small ding I have to mention is that when possible, I like to be able to manage my account from the client, rather than having it open in a new browser window. In the settings menu you can choose to manage your account, but it will launch Chrome (or whatever browser you use) separately to get you to the proper page.
That small caveat aside however, it’s clear that the team at TunnelBear put a lot of work into making the latest build of their desktop and mobile platform as friendly and pleasing to the eye as possible.
Another problem is that like SaferVPN, TunnelBear draws some seriously broad strokes with its server brush, only letting you connect to “The United States” or “Brazil”. These are expansive land masses and a connection in LA and a connection in NYC can be two totally different things depending on where you start the chain from.
Last, whoever likes to control their VPN from a minimized window might be disappointed by the lack of that option with TunnelBear. TunnelBear won’t close down into action bar mode when you need it to unfortunately, and will only work when the window is open or minimized to your taskbar.
Performance and Speed
In our speed testing on a simultaneous 1GB up/down fiber optic line from Portland, Oregon, we connected to three different servers offered by TunnelBear VPN from all from different corners of the globe, and specifically in the cities of: New York, Singapore 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.
During our time on the TunnelBear network, we found that you definitely get what you pay for with this service. Although it hurts our little bear hearts to say it, we experienced pretty severe speed loss across the board, not helped by the fact that we didn’t have the option to connect to anything but a country (no city selection) whenever we ran our tests.
Because we could only test TunnelBear on a few profiles of servers rather than the specific one we wanted, some results weren’t as conclusive as we would have hoped. Namely if we wanted to run an LA test we couldn’t, because TunnelBear only has one “United States” server, which is in New York.
That said, even with the option to choose closer servers, we can’t imagine the speeds would have been all that much better considering that both the London results and Singapore results were within 150 miles of the node we tested off of.
In New York City during peak hours at 9PM ET, we found that off a base speed of 366.25Mbps download and 933.10Mbps upload, TunnelBear’s link brought our average speeds down to just 25.5Mbps down, and 12.05Mbps up.
That’s a decrease of 93% on the download side, easily one of the biggest drops we’ve seen to date, not including the 98% hit the upload speed took.
This in mind, the TunnelBear servers were still highly reliable, and during our 8-hour run we didn’t drop connection once. It’s obvious that a strong framework has been laid by the TunnelBear team that has efficient servers lining its roster, but until the actual speed results come up a bit it’s difficult to recommend TunnelBear for anyone who wants to stream videos, listen to music, or game on their private connection.
Last, while TunnelBear passed the bar with flying colors on DNSLeakTest.com, it failed on DNSLeak.com and showed 58 errors on IPLeak.net.
All the same flourish and attention to detail that was present in the desktop app makes a reappearance in the mobile version, and you won’t find any complaints from me.
If someone were looking over your shoulder while you were trying to connect, it’s likely they’d think you were playing a game instead of setting up your VPN software, with both the cutesy graphics and softly brushed color palette returning in all their nearly hipster-esque glory.
One small difference is that when you successfully connect via the mobile app, the Bear will actually give you a reassuring growl to let you know he made it all the way through. Unfortunately, quite literally none of the settings found on the desktop were available via mobile, aside from the option to change your tunneling protocol (however this could only be done via the iOS Settings app seen below).
For a quick and easy VPN solution I can see how this might be a good choice, but realistically you need to have slightly more control over your VPN than what TunnelBear allows for on the iOS platform.
Security and Encryption
To protect their users, TunnelBear offers slim pickins when it comes to available encryption options. If you’re connecting over Windows, Mac OSX, or Android you’ll be stuck with OpenVPN, which isn’t a bad protocol by any means, we’d just like to see a little variety here.
iOS users on the other hand will be using either IPSec or IKEVv2, however all three options are still encrypted with 256-bit AES encryption (save for devices running iOS 8.0 and above, which use 128-bit).
Because we only had the option of a single encryption protocol, we weren’t able to test how the speed of TunnelBear was affected by different protection methods against one another.
TunnelBear has quite a few more extra features than its counterparts, including hugely helpful video streaming site-skirting services like GhostBear. GhostBear is the perfect solution for streamers who are tired of Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube catching them using VPNs and restricting content as a result.
GhostBear, available on OSX, Windows, and Android, scrambles your connection even further than a standard VPN, and encrypts the line with an extra layer of obfuscation meant to throw streaming VPN sniffers off the scent.
All this is to say that if you’re someone who’s primarily interested in streaming content, TunnelBear offers a new method of finding a way in that will always keep you and your connection one step ahead the rest of the pack.
Another neat added feature was VigilantBear, a connection protection service that makes sure to scramble your true IP one last time while you’re connecting and disconnecting from the TunnelBear servers just in case someone is trying to sniff out your identity from the central link.
TunnelBear’s About Us page continues the same adorable motif TunnelBear sets up from the moment you’re through the checkout process, filled with hilarious bear puns and drawings that remind you how much this is a company that doesn’t want to to take itself too seriously.
This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that one of the support positions is helmed by none other than Dave “Obi-Wan KenoBear” C., who works alongside Allison “Triberatops” M. and Owen “Care Bear” L.
For all that cuteness though, it becomes clear that TunnelBear is still struggling to catch up with competitors like ExpressVPN once you try to actually use their support. Unlike ExpressVPN’s stellar 24/7 live support that you can reach through chat at any hour, TunnelBear only has one option to get a hold of a tech: a contact form, and the promise to get back to you in 24 hours or less.
Personally I’m a believer that any VPN provider worth their salt needs to have 24/7 support available, as some customers of their service may face outages in emergency situations where hiding your IP is necessary, like in times of political upheaval or government shutdowns.
Around 16 hours after I submitted my test issue, TunnelBear got back to me with a clear, concise message that explained their policy and how I could find out more.
The message itself was written in plain English which was a plus, and was overall a lot more friendly than what you might get with another service that’s less concerned about the image its customer service team gives off to the rest of the world.
As though I would have expected any less from the company trying to be the “cool” VPN on the block, TunnelBear is extremely transparent when it comes to the data they record on their users, and how traffic is logged while it’s routed through their system.
It is too bad that another of the things TunnelBear is abundantly clear on is its P2P/BitTorrent policy, which is a no go on all sides; so if you want to torrent, look elsewhere.
Issues like tracking how much data a customer uses, whether they were active this month, the number of times they’ve connected and their operating system are all used for higher level bandwidth decisions, while credit card last names and date of card use are saved for “credit card prevention purposes”, as TunnelBear puts it.
“To enhance the effectiveness of TunnelBear’s anti-fraud tools, we sometimes store your Last Name and the last four numbers of your credit card (and only last 4 numbers) when you upgrade your TunnelBear”
On the topic of what the company explicitly doesn’t collect, the writing on the wall couldn’t be more clear:
“TunnelBear explicitly does NOT collect, store or log the following data:
IP addresses visiting our website
IP addresses upon service connection
Any information about the applications, services or websites our users use while connected to our Service”
This means that even in the event of subpoena, although TunnelBear may have your first name and a number of credit cards to match the last name with, ultimately the IP of the person they’re looking for will never be logged or made available to federal agencies.
That said, TunnelBear is located out of Toronto, Canada, one of the countries that still belongs to the Five Eyes international surveillance cooperative. If you’re concerned that any country in one of those five might be interested in tracking you or your information online, you’re better off going with another foreign-based provider instead.
Cancel and Uninstall Process
Without knowing the full extent of some VPN’s uninstall processes, I think I can still safely say that TunnelBear’s uninstall will take the award for the “cutest” one of all.
I actually felt bad for a minute while TunnelBear’s aptly-named mascot looked at me from over his shoulder, and a story of a tender goodbye unfolded as the progress bar ticked over to 100%.
Other than that heartfelt break-up between man and software, everything else about the uninstall process was about as basic as they come. From clicking the uninstall button in Windows 10’s Programs and Features to all the components being removed, we spent less than a minute and a half getting through the process.
With TunnelBear being as new to the party as they are, there are only a few scant reviews available on TrustPilot to pull from. The site gives the service a 6.5/10, but considering how small the sample pool is, I wouldn’t take that figure all too seriously.
Luckily, other publications like PCMag and BestVPN are around to pick up the slack, and scored TunnelBear a 3.5/5 and ⅘ stars respectively. Both sites were quick to commend TunnelBear on its pleasing aesthetic and five simultaneous connection policy, but also took some points off for slow connection speeds and a limited number of available customer service options.
Unlike some providers in this space, TunnelBear offers only three tiers of membership:
“Little Bear”, the trial option which gives you 500mb of data to use free every month
“Giant Bear” for $7.99 a month for 12 months, charged upfront for $95.88
Or the “Grizzly Bear” sale, which brings things down to $3.33 a month for a one year-contract on a 5-device plan, paid as $39.99 upfront
$3.33 a month for five connections at once is far and away one of the cheapest plans we’ve seen with just a 1-year price break, but I do like to have a bit more options when it comes to how much my card is charged straight out of the gate.
The free option is still nice though, especially if you’re only using the TunnelBear Opera or Chrome extensions to turn on the service one page at a time. With the performance we saw on the free version, we’d say you’d probably be better off just using it to read webpages than to stream anyway.
At one point or another in our lives, everyone has wanted a pet bear. We may know that it’s dangerous and not really possible, but sometimes the idea of having a pet that’s as big as a house, mean as a bear, and fluffy as a housecat to protect you from the dangers of the harsh wilderness outside just feels good (which is why YouTube videos like these have 2.5 million views).
It seems then at every turn, TunnelBear is more like the idea of having a pet bear than we might think; great in theory, horrible in practice. TunnelBear has a cute way to distract you from its slow customer service, poor download speeds, and total lack of manual configuration options.
I’m a believer in the idea that the VPN industry could look a little friendlier sometimes, and GhostBear is actually a great way to get around VPN content blocks that are becoming more and more common. But as much as I’d love to believe you can run a solid VPN service for only $3.33 a month, obviously there are a lot of tradeoffs you’re going to have to make if you’re shopping for online identity protection on a budget.
With only a few platforms that can actually run the service and a lack of monthly subscription options, there are plenty of other VPNs out there that only cost a bit more than TunnelBear, while offering dozens more features and higher performance throughout.
- Cute, well-designed app
- Very transparent logging policies
- No manual configuration
- Slow customer support
- No router options
- Not enough customer support options
- Slow speeds
- No E-reader protection
- No monthly subscription option