Virtual private network (VPN) services can use secure connections called tunnels to re-route data between your PC and an endpoint in another location, which gives the impression that you're browsing from there. This has several advantages: it hides your real location, it gives you access to content that wouldn't normally be available in your country, and it enables your data to be encrypted to prevent it being intercepted.
There are lots of free VPN clients around, but many are time-consuming to set up, and assume a certain amount of familiarity with web protocols. TunnelBear, by contrast, is a simple plug-and-play affair, and while it lacks the granular configuration options of more advanced tools, it's ideal for everyday browsing and anyone can have it running in minutes.
TunnelBear is a subscription-based service with three tiers:
- Little - free
- Giant - US$7.99 per month (about £6, AU$11) billed monthly
- Grizzly - US$4.16 per month (about £3, AU$6) billed annually
The two premium options will tunnel unlimited data, but the free version limits you to just 500MB a month. Publishing a promotional tweet for TunnelBear will earn you an extra 1GB, but you're likely to burn through pretty fast.
Tunnelbear's chief appeal is its accessibility, which it lays on rather thick – the installer claims to be unboxing the bear and brushing its fur, and the interface itself has a skeumorphic design modeled after a vintage wooden TV.
Once it's running and you've signed up for an account, simply select an endpoint from the drop-down list (which includes countries in North America, Europe and Asia) and flick the switch to 'On'. When the connection is established, restart your browser and your connection will be re-routed via your chosen location. If you use it regularly, you can set TunnelBear to launch on startup.
Your connection speed will inevitably take a hit as your data is encrypted and redirected, but you're unlikely to notice it in everyday use. The impact will generally depend on the geographical location of your chosen endpoint. If you're only interested in encrypting your traffic (not spoofing your location), pick 'Closest tunnel' to minimize the lag.
Using TunnelBear really is as simple as selecting an endpoint and clicking a button. It lacks the fine control offered by services like VPNBook, but its standard settings are well chosen, including AES 256-bit encryption to secure your data. It won't log your activity either, keeping only the data necessary to keep the service running.
The standard TunnelBear client encrypts all internet traffic, but there's also a plugin for Chrome and Opera that only tunnels data accessed through your web browser. This is a good choice if you want to avoid slowdown when downloading software updates.
Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously insecure, so we particularly like TunnelBear's ability to start automatically when you connect to one. This is also very handy if you're rationing your data allowance, only using it when it's most necessary.
The biggest drawback of Tunnelbear is the data limit for the free service. 500MB won't last long and isn't much use for streaming media. You could reserve it for activities like online shopping and banking, but otherwise it's only really useful as a taster for the fully-featured versions.
Occasionally we selected an endpoint and found our data being routed via somewhere else entirely – such as Turkey instead of the US. This happened rarely, but was inconvenient.
Developer: TunnelBear Inc
- Operating system: Windows Vista, 7, 8, 10
- Processor: N/A
- RAM: N/A
- Disk space: 13.3MB