If network size is top of your VPN priorities then Private Internet Access (commonly known as PIA) will appeal immediately, its 3,000+ servers in 28 countries leaving many competitors trailing in its digital wake.
The service offers plenty of features. There's support for five devices, PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec protocols, a SOCKS5 proxy and P2P support, as well as built-in blocking of ads, trackers and known malicious websites.
- Want to try Private Internet Access? Check out the website here
Despite all this functionality, the prices are very low. The baseline product costs $6.95 (£4.95) per month, and this falls to $3.33 (£2.37) a month on the yearly plan, or an impressively cheap $2.91 (£2.07) a month over a bi-annual one.
Payment options include Bitcoin and many popular gift cards (another interesting way to pay anonymously), as well as credit cards, PayPal and others.
There's no free account or trial, but Private Internet Access does offer a 7-day refund. This doesn't seem to have any sneaky restrictions, and it even allows users to claim multiple refunds if there's a gap of at least three months between requests. (Other providers typically allow only one refund per person, ever.)
Unfortunately, almost everything in the policy relates to website issues. The VPN is covered in a single sentence, added almost as an afterthought: "PrivateInternetAccess.com does not collect or log any traffic or use of its Virtual Private Network (‘VPN’) or Proxy."
Does this mean the company is trying to hide something? No, it provides plenty of details on its logging policy, they're just buried deep in the Support section.
The 'Do you log the traffic of your users?' article explains that Private Internet Access "does not keep any logs, of any kind, period." It explains that logs which might otherwise be maintained are redirected to the null device rather than being written to the hard drive, which means they simply disappear.
The article also includes this paragraph, which explicitly states that it doesn't log session data or your online activities:
"We can unequivocally state that our company has not and still does not maintain metadata logs regarding when a subscriber accesses the VPN service, how long a subscriber's use was, and what IP address a subscriber originated from. Moreover, the encryption system does not allow us to view and thus log what IP addresses a subscriber is visiting or has visited."
If you've checked out VPN provider policies before, you'll know that these kind of claims can't always be trusted. But you don't have to entirely take Private Internet Access at its word, because another page points users to public court documents demonstrating the point. These record a subpoena served on Private Internet Access but show that the only data provided was the general location of the server IPs. Absolutely no user-related data was given up.
We browsed the terms of service page, looking for any other issues, but most of the conditions were very standard. "We'll do our best, but sometimes the service might not work." "We record basic personal details (email, payment info) but don't share them." "Please don't use our service to do illegal stuff." You know the drill.
There is a clause which offers some scope for throttling or perhaps closing someone's account if they're hogging too much bandwidth. But it's reasonable for a VPN to allow the possibility of this, and just because the company can do it, doesn't mean it ever has.
After signing up with Private Internet Access, an email arrived with links to its many clients. These cover Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, and there's a Chrome extension available too.
We downloaded the Windows client. It proved quick and easy to set up, even displaying each installation step as it happened, making it easier to troubleshoot any setup issues.
The client interface is basic, with server selection happening mostly from the system tray. This is very simple, as all you have to do is right-click the system tray icon and choose the location you need. But it also means you miss out on the server detail and selection options you'll often see elsewhere. There are no server load figures, or ping times, no way to sort the server list, no favorites system or anything else.
The real standout feature here is the Settings dialog, which provides exceptionally detailed low-level control of the VPN connection.
You're able to choose OpenVPN UDP or TCP protocols, for instance. There are options to set both local and remote ports, and to request port forwarding.
Experts can set custom encryption, authentication and handshake options, stretching from no encryption and ECC-521 right up to AES-256 and RSA-4096. You get protection against both DNS and IPv6 leaks. A bonus PIA MACE feature blocks ads, trackers and known malicious sites while you're connected. And the Windows client also includes a kill switch which disables your internet if the VPN disconnects, reducing the chance of identity leaks.
Beginners aren't quite as well served. The client makes little effort to explain what most of these settings do, and the support website isn’t much more help. The company really needs to provide proper documentation on the clients, rather than just hoping users will understand the fine details already.
Our performance tests* returned excellent results just about everywhere. UK to UK connections managed a speedy 38-40Mbps. Nearby European countries – France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden – ranged from 28-38Mbps. Switching to the US made little difference, as we still achieved downloads of around 35-40Mbps.
Even turning to the most distant Asia servers didn't apply any real brakes to the service. Singapore gave us download speeds of more than 30Mbps, Japan managed 28Mbps, South Korea 20Mbps – that's five to 10 times faster than many competitors. We reached out to Australia, and still achieved 18Mbps, probably enough to stream top-quality 4K video.
Private Internet Access might not be the ideal VPN to unblock streaming sites, unfortunately. We connected to a UK server and tried accessing BBC iPlayer, but were blocked by the site.
The service ended on a better note by effortlessly passing our privacy tests, correctly allocating IP addresses in the locations we expected and blocking all privacy leaks.
Fast, cheap, and with a host of technical tweaks, Private Internet Access is a great VPN choice for experienced users. Take half a point off the score if you're a beginner, though – the bulky Chromium-based clients aren't the best, and the website doesn't explain them in much detail.
- Here are the best free VPN services and links to download them
*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.