Last update: 01.07.2019
Deeply flawed but has its uses. A good starting point for Europeans and North Americans on a tight budget! Read the full Private Internet Access Review to learn more.
I‘m sure someone at London Trust Media thought the little, depressed green robot was cute. We suspect it‘s actually a murder-bot. Not a state-of-the-art version, but still the kind your tears have no power of stopping.
PIA’a strongest selling point this Private Internet Access review can acknowledge? It’s a shamelessly cheap tool.
It‘s probably unintentional, but the emotionless expression on the robot‘s face describes Private Internet Access (PIA) rather well. It‘s just kind of average: the security it offers is mediocre, so is the speed and the features, so is the look. The strongest selling point? It‘s shamelessly cheap.
PIA offers different levels of data encryption, several handshakes, and authentication standards. In short, the ciphers are more than sufficient. The tool has three security protocols (on different versions of the app) – OpenVPN, IPSec/L2TP, and PPTP. These are more or less standard and should be sufficient for most uses.
Private Internet Access has a network kill switch that will stop all traffic if your VPN connection drops. They also use their own DNS for all queries, making DNS leaking situations a lot less likely.
Jurisdiction should be the more concerning area for PIA VPN users. The company behind PIA is based in the US, which is one of the worst countries for online privacy. Despite this, their zero-logs policy has proved legitimate thus far. A fake bomb threat case in the US tried to get evidence from PIA and got nothing of use. Either way, if you’re doing something of interest to intelligence agencies, take PIA’s marketing statements with a pinch of salt. Some things may simply be out of their hands.
PIA has a large number of servers – 3,180. They are spread out across 52 locations and 33 countries. The sheer number of servers is impressive and second only to NordVPN, but the network is quite small. VPNs with significantly fewer servers have a lot more server locations. Essentially this means some locations will have to suffer a bad connection under PIA VPN. At a glance, we can assume that the Middle East and Africa will be the slowest, but the Far East isn’t likely to do much better. With that said, if you’re from Europe or the US, you should be fine – PIA connection speeds are about average for the Top 10.
The VPN includes a free Private Internet Access proxy (SOCKS5). Not the most important feature, but we appreciate it nevertheless.
There’s no live chat option, let alone one that’s functional 24/7.
One area where Private Internet Access does badly instead of mediocre is Support. It has become a given for top VPNs to offer a 24/7 live chat, but you will only be able to reach PIA representatives via email. While the knowledge base provided on their site isn’t bad, the ability to get help from the company is lackluster.
This VPN should get you watching Netflix and it does, but only a few libraries. Ultimately PIA isn’t the most surefire way to bypass geo-blocking measures. Can you use torrents safely? Right now we would say “Yes” – their no-logging policy has held up thus far, and the company has no qualms about you violating copyrights. The same probably goes for using PIA VPN with Kodi.
So, why is Private Internet Access just outside our Top 10? It‘s super-cheap and offers three pricing plans: 1 month for $6.95, 1 year for $3.33 a month, 2 years for $2.91 a month. No other decent VPN sells their shorter subscriptions this cheap. That’s why a lot of the time it will inevitably remain the layman’s choice.
We tried the Private Internet Access Windows 10 version, and it was alright. Is it a top choice? Nope. But if your needs aren’t so great, then here’s a not-so-great VPN. Read the rest of our Private Internet Access review to find out more!
Is Private Internet Access safe to use?
PIA is not one of the biggest VPN services for its security. Much like everything else, its security credentials are mediocre.
The ciphers used by PIA are AES-128 and AES-256 – a great level of encryption. The 128-bit version is the default choice: keep that in mind if you’re aiming for maximum security. There are many choices here that aren’t commonly available: what level of data encryption, what handshake, and what authentication standard would you like to use? To be fair, the choice has less to do with security and more with speed. Less encryption means less calculation and more speed. Many top VPNs don’t bother with these options but have good performance anyway.
Whenever we discuss VPN security protocols, our most important question is “does it use OpenVPN?”, and most other things are a sideshow. In PIA’s case, the answer is “yes.” What about the sideshow? There’s no IKEv2, which some other VPNs do offer (particularly on mobile versions). This is nothing to scoff at, although not nearly as important as OpenVPN. In addition, although we haven’t tested this for our Private Internet Access Review, if you’re a Chinese user you’ll likely be forced to resort to L2TP.
Private Internet Access has a network kill switch – an important feature for any VPN to have. This will protect you from any unexpected connection disruptions. They also use their own private DNS to avoid leaking. According to reports, Private Internet Access indeed does not have any DNS leaks or IPv6/WebRTC leaks.
In addition to the VPN, there are also PIA proxy services in the form of the Chrome/Firefox extensions and a separate SOCKS5 proxy.
Next up – non-technical concerns. The legal jurisdiction of a VPN company is important, because of the legal context in which it operates. It is also important due to the company’s exposure to intelligence agencies, corporate intelligence efforts and other things a VPN user is generally trying to avoid. Private Internet Access, or rather its parent company, London Trust Media, is based in the United States. Remind us – where is Edward Snowden from?…
The US is one of the most problematic places to register a VPN company. There are many reasons for this – the legal climate with legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), government surveillance, including by the NSA, corporate surveillance by tech and telecommunications companies, and so on. It is also problematic because the US is part of the 5 eyes country group (and the extended 14 eyes country group) – a robust intelligence-sharing framework.
While the United States does not have any data retention laws, the government can access commercial data records quite easily. Private Internet Access has a clear no-logging policy, that is to say, they say they are not collecting either connection logs or activity logs. If true, this is commendable, to say the least. As a matter of fact, a US court case in 2015 has given credence to these claims, as do a few more recent cases.
In short, our Private Internet Access Review concludes that it gives adequate security for the casual user. Just don’t depend on PIA for your lives.
Speed & Performance
Tests for this Private Internet Access Review yet again place it straight in the middle. But there’s an important caveat.
Connection speeds depend on location. Due to this, no average speed test in the world can give you a good answer to the question “how fast is this VPN for me?” While we will try to give a reasonable idea of how fast PIA VPN is, keep in mind that the results may vary. In this particular case, you’re most likely to feel this if you’re based in Asia (including the Middle East), Africa, or even South America – most servers are simply not based in these locations.
With that said, if you are in Europe or North America – you’re in luck. The great majority of Private Internet Access servers is found on these two continents, so you can expect good speeds. There’s more to be said about this: PIA servers number 3,180, otherwise known as “a lot”. Only NordVPN has more servers. Does this massive Private Internet Access server count mean anything? Probably, but the extent is not clear. For one thing, PIA is one of the most popular VPN services on the market, which means it has lots of users who can overcrowd even a large number of servers. Furthermore, although the PIA server list is impressive, their location list is less so. The servers are spread out over 33 countries – half of NordVPN‘s number.
There’s also an interesting thing we’ve noticed about Private Internet Access and its huge server list. Last time we checked, it was significantly larger and had 3,533 servers. We find that somewhat troubling because the server lists of most successful VPN services are only growing. Especially in these profitable times.
As for averages, Private Internet Access is exactly that – average. Why that is with 3k servers we don’t really know. Of course, there is an important element at work – popularity. It is completely clear that PIA is one of the most widespread VPN services available. To their credit, they have managed to convert a mediocre product into a big and successful brand. Among other things, that’s a huge burden on their infrastructure. It is quite likely that their server numbers are actually quite low in comparison to their needs! Whatever the case may be, our research for this Private Internet Access Review shows a performance level that shouldn’t be bragged about.
We did our test from Europe where the connection speed without a VPN is around 280 Mbps. Naturally, the drop off was significant just because we’re using a VPN – a nearby location gave us about 100 Mbps. And here are the results for popular regions across the globe:
110 Mbps download and 231 Mbps upload. No comments.
US, New York
77 Mbps download and 57 Mbps upload. We were expecting a more significant drop-off after crossing the Atlantic, but it seems that the salty waters didn’t do any damage to the cables. 121 ms latency is still OK for online gaming.
Selecting California (as there was no option for our regular LA in PIA server region menu) gave us our regular LA. It’s not the first time we’re getting better speeds in the West Coast (128 Mbps download, 97 Mbps upload) even though it’s further away from our testing location. The same has happened with Surfshark that we tested a couple of days back. The latency is higher and almost too high for quality online gaming, but the overall download and upload speeds are more than impressive.
The latency is too high for online gaming, but overall speeds (68 Mbps down, 9 Mbps up) are still more than enough for about anything you want to do: streaming, torrenting, VOIP, etc.
The latency is over 300 ms, meaning you will experience lag during video and even audio calls. But that’s not something easily avoided even without a VPN. And PIA manages to maintain similar download speed as in Japan, which is thousands of kilometers away. The upload craters, but 4 Mbps is enough even for streaming your gameplay in HD via Twitch.
Overall, Private Internet Access manages a very good job in Europe and North America. But in other regions, the speeds are from average to good, though you will have to do a test of your own to get the real feel of speeds with and without VPN.
How to download PIA
Like taking candy from a baby (if you’re that sort of person). Just go to their website and click the carrot-colored “GET STARTED NOW” button. You’ll be asked to choose one of three pricing plans, select a payment method and make the payment. Then you’ll create an account and receive an email with your username and password. Enter these later into the Private Internet Access login screen when the app starts.
Just download the app for the platform of your choosing and you’ll be ready to greet the green emo robot. All versions can be found on the “Download” page of the website, including the new app, which is fairly awesome and currently in open beta.
How to install PIA
We went through the process for our PIA VPN review and it was very simple. The page that starts your download has all the instructions on how to install PIA. You’ll have to:
- Run the installer from your browser or your “Downloads” directory.
- Choose a language for the installation.
- Allow the installer to make changes to your device (click “Yes” when prompted).
- Follow the installation wizard – it will install the client and the TAP driver.
- Click “Finish”.
That’s all there is to it!
How to use PIA
The Private Internet Access Windows 10 version is the one we’ll look at. PIA currently offers the ability to download the beta version of the app for desktop devices. It is elegant, simplistic, and has some security benefits over the old one.
However, for now, until the new version is fully out, let’s stick to the old one.
The front screen is the Private Internet Access login screen – enter your details to start using the app. Once you have, you’ll see some settings to choose from below. As we found out while writing this Private Internet Access review, you cannot change any of these whilst connected to a VPN server. Knowing this will help you avoid hate-clicking. Still, it’s a stupid state of affairs.
Here are the general settings:
- Start application at login (enable/disable)
- Auto-connect on launch (enable/disable)
- Show desktop notifications (enable/disable)
- Connect by: Region/Country
“Region” is the more specific setting – some countries, such as the USA, have several regions. If a country has only one region, then the whole country will be its “region”.
- Manage favorites
You can make a list of favorite countries or regions for auto-connect.
- Advanced settings
More on these below.
Choose a region or country to connect to. Alternatively, you could leave it on “Auto”, which will connect you to the fastest server.
A very good selection of app languages.
The “Advanced settings” reveal the lightness of PIA – the customizations you can make are not very wide-ranging. Here’s what you can choose:
- Connection type (UDP/TCP)
UDP and TCP are protocol choices you can make with OpenVPN. The first one is faster and less stable, and vice versa.
- Remote Port (Auto/1194/8080/9201/53)
- Local Port
- Request port forwarding (enable/disable)
This is mainly used to increase performance on torrenting applications (such as uTorrent). Users should, however, be aware that this is risky and, in most cases, useless.
- PIA MACE (enable/disable)
Like a few other VPNs, Private Internet Access has decided to include an ad-blocker, anti-tracker and anti-malware feature in their suite. That‘s nice of them and better than nothing, but you will get more quality out of a dedicated piece of software.
- VPN Kill switch (enable/disable)
A good feature to have! VPN connections are a lot more fragile than regular connections – you will occasionally get disconnected. The kill switch will stop all your traffic when that happens, protecting your data from unwanted attention. Our Private Internet Access Review finds it rather effective.
- DNS leak protection (enable/disable)
Private Internet Access has their own DNS and it would be a shame if your computer wasn‘t using those servers. DNS leak protection will make sure this is not the case. It‘s enabled by default and should stay that way. No need to take a ride on the wild side!
- IPv6 leak protection (enable/disable)
It‘s unlikely that you‘re using IPv6 but keep this on anyway.
- Use small packets (enable/disable)
A cure for less stable connections – you‘re less likely to get dropped packets if they are smaller.
- Enable debug mode
This is mostly for PIA support. When enabled, the program will create a technical log to help agents troubleshoot connection issues.
These choices are somewhat surprising. You can choose the level of data encryption, authentication, and the handshake (certificate). The default settings focus on speed, but they are fine for security as well. If you‘re involved in some James Bond-level activity, increase Data Encryption to AES-256, Data Authentication to SHA 256, and the Handshake to RSA-4096.
Most of the time the program will stay in the tray, and you will use it by right-clicking the little icon. This way you can connect and choose the country/region.
As you can see, there‘s no technomancy involved in using this VPN. The cost of that luxury is fewer features. Not great for power users!
Apps and Extensions
While we haven’t tried all the apps for our Private Internet Access review, the Windows 10 version isn’t the only one on offer. There are custom apps for all main platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux (and the beta for all three), iOS, and Android. The Private Internet Access router app is, unfortunately, not a thing at the moment, but you can still run PIA VPN on router devices if you follow the instructions on their site. Finally, you can also download Chrome/Firefox/Opera extensions.
The Mac version is largely the same as the Windows version. What about Android and iOS?
Both mobile versions have largely the same features as the desktop ones. This is the advantage of not having many features. You will have access to the kill switch, choose where to connect and regulate the level of encryption. Android even offers OpenVPN, which is unfortunately not available on the iOS version. This is inarguably the latter‘s biggest drawback – it uses IPSec/L2TP by default.
PIA‘s Chrome and Firefox extensions are not simply controllers for the VPN. Rather, they are, essentially, PIA proxy services. If you use either of these add-ons, all your browser traffic will go through an HTTPS proxy. This is good, but keep in mind that only your web traffic will be affected. Chrome and Firefox extensions aren’t the only way to use a Private Internet Access proxy – each subscription includes a SOCKS5 proxy. You’ll need a separate password to use it, which you can generate on the Client Control Panel.
Private Internet Access for Netflix
We’ve tested Netflix from Europe, using fast.com to determine the nominal speed and checking loading times (if the content was successfully unblocked). The original speed without a VPN was 230 Mbps, as per fast.com test.
US, New York
64 Mbps, more than enough for UHD (4K) . Streaming our show went well. Loading times didn’t exceed a few seconds.
US, Los Angeles
74 Mbps. More than once, we’re getting better Netflix results in West Coast despite New York being closer to us. In any case, the most important thing is that it’s working and the loading times do not exceed those in Big Apple.
18 Mbps won’t suffice those in need of UHD, but Private Internet Access unblocked Canadian library, a rare feat among VPNs we’ve tried so far. Loading times are similar to the US, and the streaming was… actually, there was not much of a streaming as we’ve suddenly got an error about a detected proxy. So long, Canada.
15 Mbps is pretty good, considering the distance. But sadly not good enough for UHD. Which is not that sad as Netflix is blocked here.
Southampton gave us all it had – 110 Mbps of bandwidth is more than you can ask. Sadly, we didn’t get to experience it as PIA was unable to unblock Netflix in the UK.
92 Mbps and a surprise of an unblocked Netflix! Loading times were a couple of seconds at most, while streaming was as smooth as marble.
64 Mbps was less than in the Netherlands, probably because fast.com test servers were marked as in Vienna and Warsaw. In any case, such speed is multiple times more than you need. But what you really need is for PIA to unblock Netflix in Germany.
8.5 Mbps was a bit less than we expected, meaning PIA won’t be able to handle UHD videos and on a bad day there might be problems even with regular HD. But that bad today probably is today as we couldn’t access Netflix Japan library with this VPN.
To conclude, the Netherlands have surprised us allowing to access their library, but the UK and Japan left us a bit disappointed. The overall speeds were very good. The only complaint could be made about Canada’s 18 Mbps, if Netflix worked there with PIA, when downloading in the US is 3 times faster on both Coasts. Again, just like with regular speeds, PIA is good for Netflix if you’re in Europe or North America. If not, chances are you will not watch Netflix at all, or will have to pay the price with reduced video quality.
Private Internet Access for Kodi
With some reservations, we can recommend PIA VPN for Kodi.
There are a few things to look out for when searching for a Kodi VPN. The first is security because you might be using Kodi plug-ins for streaming pirated content (who are we to judge?). In that sense, Private Internet Access Kodi might not be a bad idea. In terms of compatibility, unlike some other VPN services, PIA has no Android TV or Amazon Fire TV (Firestick) app, but you can still run it on these devices following the instructions on their website. Another aspect you should look at when asking whether Private Internet Access and Kodi are a good fit is geo-blocking. As we have already mentioned, PIA is not the go-to choice for the geographically-impaired. Therefore, all in all, with some reservations we can recommend PIA VPN for Kodi.
Private Internet Access for Torrenting
Most of the stuff you‘ll find on Netflix is available somewhere in the bountiful realm of P2P. If that‘s what you‘re aiming for, Private Internet Access is definitely not the worst choice. European and North American users will find the speeds decent. Others can probably do without a VPN. That last sentence should not be taken as a recommendation – torrent at your own risk.
The protection given by PIA VPN should be sufficient in most cases, but you have to make sure you‘ve taken all the precautions. Make sure you’re not requesting PIA port forwarding unless it’s absolutely necessary:
There are some benefits to port forwarding, such as potentially higher download speeds. Also, it will allow others to download from you, which is good if you need to maintain a ration. Although you’re using a decent VPN – Private Internet Access – port forwarding will make you a little bit more vulnerable.
DNS and IPv6 leak protection should be on at all times. Recently PIA proved the legitimacy of their no-logging policy in court. That’s enough for this Private Internet Access review to call it a good torrenting VPN.
Is it good for users in China?
While we haven’t done the test for our Private Internet Access review, the reports come from PIA themselves.
For security purposes – it‘s not the worst. Private Internet Access has good encryption, and their jurisdiction shouldn’t be a concern for someone in China.
There are other factors users in this part of the world should consider – speed and ability to fool the Great Firewall. Unfortunately, Private Internet Access fails on both counts. Of its 3,000+ servers, only around 70 are in the Far East, which makes overcrowding an issue. As for the Great Firewall, PIA themselves admit to having problems in China and their solution is to suggest using IPSec/L2TP instead of OpenVPN. The problem with that is twofold:
- IPSec/L2TP is not as secure;
- This protocol needs to be set up manually.
Furthermore, even if you manage to solve protocol and speed issues, PIA has not given much reason to believe they have a backup plan. Currently, there is a number of VPN services that have tackled the Chinese question. A few examples are NordVPN and VyprVPN. We recommend either one over PIA, especially if you want to make a long-term investment.
The reasons our Private Internet Access review doesn’t recommend this VPN to Chinese users are less applicable in other restricted countries. People in Turkey or Russia will have less of a problem with speed (unless we’re talking Vladivostok Russia). Additionally, the governments of these countries don’t have as tight a grip on the internet as China does. We’re inclined to say Private Internet Access is worth a shot if money is a bit tight.
Not the best is an understatement. PIA is plain bad at Support and there‘s no way around it. Here’s what we learned for this Private Internet Access Review.
There’s no excuse for being this big on the VPN market and not having a quick way to respond to users’ requests.
The self-help resources available on the site are about average. Most top VPN services offer the same level of guides and FAQs or better. That‘s not what we have a problem with though – it‘s the support agents or lack thereof.
There’s no live chat option, let alone one that‘s functional 24/7. We can see where they‘re coming from. After all, Private Internet Access is one of the most popular VPN services on the planet. Who wants to deal with that many people? As Roy from the IT Crowd once remarked: “People. What a bunch of bastards.”
Be that as it may, there’s no excuse for being this big on the VPN market and not having a quick way to respond to users’ requests. As much as we’d like to say the “ticket” system is just as good, that would simply not be true. It’s too slow, especially for queries that don’t require much time or attention. And as anyone who’s worked in customer service will tell you, an overwhelming majority of issues can be solved in under 1 minute (source: common sense).
That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. When researching for this Private Internet Access review, we found that the internet is littered with angry comments about unresponsive PIA support, robotic and unhelpful answers, and the lack of a good way to take your grievances “up the chain of command”. Obviously, the evidence is anecdotal and we don’t mean to imply this is absolutely the case. But the quantity of negative testimonials heavily suggests there is a big problem.
Not the sharpest tool in the box? Better be damn cheap like Private Internet Access!
There are three different Private Internet Access pricing plans available to undiscerning customers. You can get it for:
- 1 month at $6.95
- 12 months at $3.33 a month
- 24 months at $2.91 a month.
We remember someone saying once that theft is the best spice of all. Well, buying PIA at these prices is practically stealing. But let’s not get carried away – does it do what you need it to? Read above to figure that out.
A word of advice to take on board from this Private Internet Access review. Seeing as the price difference is minimal, we would not consider the 2-year plan. There are much better products at similar prices if you’re willing to make the commitment.
We might bash Private Internet Access for not offering a free trial, but with prices so low we don’t blame them for skipping it. Instead, you get a 7-day money-back guarantee. Fair enough, PIA.
The bottom line of our Private Internet Access review
We’re at the end of our Private Internet Access review – what have we learned?
Here’s the deal. PIA has a target audience. It will serve this audience well and do it for a complete pittance. If you’re European or North American and your goals are to 1) torrent; 2) protect yourself from cybercriminals whilst sipping a Starbucks latte – PIA is for you. You shouldn’t encounter much discomfort or risk in your daily activities.
You won’t have the greatest weapon against geo-blocking – we were able to access Netflix US and NL. And if you’re outside Europe or North America, tough luck. The speeds are likely to be pretty bad.
If you do run into problems that can’t be solved by reading a helpful guide, the unloving hands of customer support may not soothe your pain. Allegedly.
We can describe PIA as the anti-VyprVPN: cheap, not very technical, and unperturbed by your moral choices. So, if you read the whole Private Internet Access review and decided you need the complete opposite, Vypr is your choice.
In the end, we would say Private Internet Access is fine if you’re on a budget and not trying to hack the Pentagon, but there are also better choices out there.