Private Internet Access Review 2017
PIA VPN offers the perfect combination of speed and price.
Last Updated: 17 Apr'17
Usually, when I see a VPN service priced significantly below the competition, I get suspicious pretty fast. Sluggish experiences with cheap or free VPNs (who may or may not have peddled my data) come to mind.
So when I got to check out the suspiciously affordable Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN service for Cloudwards.net, I was mentally prepared for the same old song and dance.
What I discovered was how wrong my assumptions were.
Convince yourself to look beyond the lackluster design, and you’ll see PIA knows how to do Virtual Private Networks right. PIA is an OpenVPN solution that seems genuinely committed to protecting user privacy.
Not only do they refrain from logging browsing activity and collecting meta-data, but they offer several prizes like DNS-leak protection and a kill switch, to make sure users remain secure.
They also provide subscribers with the use of an SOCKS5 Proxy and a welcome ad-blocking feature called PIA MACE.
All of the pros mentioned above would just make PIA an okay service, worth its modest price tag. What makes PIA a steal, though, is the fact that it’s impressively fast.
In the several speed tests I conducted, it either matched or surpassed the fastest VPNs I’ve tested.
Owing to its combination of:
I’m now convinced PIA’s has established itself as one of the best value propositions in the consumer VPN market.
With some extra polish on its desktop apps and a little more server expansion, it could challenge the best of the best for their title.
- Great privacy & security
- Good Windows client
- Very fast speeds
- Fantastic value for money
- OS X client not so good
- Based in U.S.
- Servers in only 24 countries
People use VPN services for different reasons.
For some, it’s about anonymous torrenting; others use it to get around location-based restrictions that keep them from using video streaming sites like:
- Amazon Video
Users living or traveling in countries where censorship is common, can establish a VPN tunnel to access content they couldn’t otherwise — anonymously.
A typical use case is China, where traditional services like:
Are all blocked.
Many users, like myself, are mainly interested in using a VPN to insulate their connections while on public Wi-Fi networks. Such networks often get monitored by criminals looking to eavesdrop on your communications.
So, how does PIA and other VPN services accomplish these objectives?
When connecting to a VPN server, you spoof a device’s location with the site to the server it’s connected to. That means if you login to a server in Hong Kong, it will appear as though you’re actually in Hong Kong.
The server also assigns you an IP address to mask your own. This IP address is shared among multiple users at once, further masking your tracks.
By obfuscating identity and location, VPNs prevent an ISP and others from logging a user’s activity, and additionally, VPN services scramble any activity.
They do so by implementing encrypted tunnel protocols like OpenVPN.
That way, even if someone intercepts your data packets, they can’t make any sense of them, without somehow cracking either 128-bit or 256-bit AES encryption.
For all practical purposes, that’s impossible.
With only 24 countries to select from, PIA doesn’t provide the global reach that its competitors do. However, 24 is more than enough to significantly broaden your video streaming options.
I maintain a list of streaming services that I have verified as restricting or altering user experience based on location.
Here’s a list of them:
|Netflix||Hulu||Amazon||HBO Now||Sky Go|
|AMC HD||AOL TV||Adult Swim||Showtime||TalkTalk|
|BBC iPlayer||CBS||ABC||MLB||BeIN Sports|
|Comedy Central||Deezer||History Channel||TCM||MLB TV|
Netflix used to only be available in a handful of countries. These days it’s much more widely available, with services in over 190 countries.
Owing to its popularity, though, studios who have contracts with Netflix have pressured the service to block VPN users.
In many cases, Netflix has done as told. As of this writing, though, I had no problems watching Netflix while tunneling through PIA’s USA-East server.
Also, if you don’t mind the loss of encryption, PIA’s SOCKS5 proxy should still work even if Netflix ends up blocking their VPN tunnels at a later date.
If there’s one area where PIA beats out most of the competition pretty handily, it’s cost. Their month-to-month subscription is priced on par with what most VPNs charge per month, for an annual subscription.
Sign up for six or twelve months up front, and you can save big time.
Here’s a price-comparison to some of our favorites:
$ 6 95monthly
$ 39 95yearly
$ 12 95monthly
$ 59 596 months
$ 99 95yearly
|Bandwidth||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB|
$ 10 00monthly
$ 26 993 months
$ 77 99yearly
|Plan||VyprVPN Monthly||VyprVPN Annually||VyprVPN Premium Monthly||VyprVPN Premium Annually|
$ 9 95monthly
$ 60 00yearly
$ 12 95monthly
$ 80 00yearly
|Bandwidth||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB|
For users who want to try the service out first, PIA doesn’t exactly offer a free trial. What they do give you is a 7-day money-back guarantee, in case you end up feeling buyer’s remorse.
Since I already have a VPN subscription, I requested a refund after completing this review and received it within seven days, no questions asked.
I would have liked to see a referral program to earn some free months (like ExpressVPN), but given that the price tag is already slight, I wasn’t put off.
Users have several payment options available, including Bitcoin, Paypal and of course, all major credit cards are accepted.
Despite its budget friendliness, PIA supports all the features I’d expect to find with a brand name VPN service.
I’ll detail many of them throughout this review, but here’s a peek for those of you who just want a quick summary:
- Secure OpenVPN tunnel
- 126-bit and 256-bit AES encryption
- PPTP and L2TP/IPSec supported
- Connect up to five devices simultaneously
- DD-WRT and Tomato router compatible
- Over 3,000 servers in 24 countries
- No traffic logs kept
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Supports P2P including torrenting
- Automatic connections
- Kill switch – disconnect protection
- DNS and IPv6 leak protection
- SOCKS5 Proxy included
- PIA MACE – ad and malware blocker
- 24/7 support
PIA lets you connect up to five devices at once, while supporting multiple operating systems and device types.
Windows (XP and higher)
Mac (10.8 or higher)
Ubuntu (12.04 or higher)
iOS (8 or higher)
Android (2.2 or higher)
In addition, users can configure PIA to protect their entire home network, by installing it on their router.
Router installation lets you extend anonymity to devices that can’t be configured to work with PIA natively, including game consoles and TV-streaming devices.
|Playstation 4||Xbox One||Amazon Fire TV||Android TV|
|Roku||Chromecast||Apple TV||Nvidia Shield|
|Boxee||GEM Box||Chromebook||Nintendo Wii|
To conjure PIA with a router, you’ll need a router with DD-WRT, Tomato or PfSense firmware installed.
If you don’t yet have one of these routers firmwares and don’t want to set one up yourself, PIA has partnered with flashrouters.com to provide users the option to purchase an already pre-configured router.
PIA is currently operating in 24 countries, which is substantially fewer than what many other VPN services provide.
|VPN Service:||Number of Countries:|
|Private Internet Access (PIA)||24|
However, with over 3,200 servers, PIA offers a much denser network than most VPN services, which leads to generally faster performance (see Speed, next).
PIA users can also choose between multiple locations in some countries, although they can’t pick a specific server in that location.
Altogether, there are currently 24 different locations, globally:
|1. United States||1601||10|
|2. United Kingdom||233||2|
|5. New Zealand||9||1|
|18. Hong Kong||19||1|
PIA claims to still be adding servers, so hopefully this list will grow in the future.
Speed is where a lot of VPN services fail.
This applies especially to free and low cost VPN services, which tend to draw larger crowds, which in turn clog their networks. All of that is to say that I was prepared for skepticism with a budget-friendly pick, like PIA.
What I discovered, instead, is that PIA holds its own with the fastest consumer VPN services I’ve ever tested.
For context, I’m just outside of Boston and performed my tests on a Windows laptop over a private Wi-Fi network.
I tested connections to New York, London, and Hong Kong. Numbers are in megabits per second (Mbps), and I used speedtest.net to get them.
Here are the results:
VPN OFF: 37.02 12.00
New York: 30.55 11.42
London: 18.13 9.72
Hong Kong: 18.45 9.51
Yes, there is some speed fall off, but that’s normal for a VPN service, because you’re rerouting and encrypting traffic.
Overall, these results are exceptional.
Every user’s experience is going to differ slightly, based on their location, Internet speeds and what server they’re trying to connect to. So understand when I say speeds are exceptional, they’re exceptional for me.
Here’s how they compare to tests I’ve run with a few other popular VPN picks:
|New York:||London:||Hong Kong:|
PIA holds its own with blazing fast services like ExpressVPN and VyprVPN when it comes to New York and London and blows them away when connected to Hong Kong.
I suspect this is because even though PIA is in fewer countries than the competition, they operate over 3,200 servers – which is more than any other VPN service that comes to mind.
So instead of location, PIA appears more focused on server density.
With automated user assignments, multiple VPN servers can be used to severely mitigate the impacts of network congestion.
Is Private Internet Access Safe?
One of the most important security components of a VPN service is its tunnel protocol. This is what scrambles activity, allowing you to browse unwatched and pass through firewalls undetected.
Most VPN providers will give you a choice of three or four common protocols. PIA follows suit, allowing users to select OpenVPN, PPTP or LT2P/IPSec to protect their online activities.
Not all protocols are created equal, however, so you’ll want to be very careful about which one to use. OpenVPN is widely considered the safest. It uses open-source, sports peer-reviewed technologies and can be configured to run on any port.
Using different ports, such as TCP port 443, makes your VPN traffic look like ordinary web traffic. This trick, in turn, makes it difficult to block.
PPTP is an older protocol. It’s fast, but only because it offers minimal encryption. These days, most people stay away from it for that reason.
L2TP/IPSec offers more security than PPTP, but you can’t switch ports, like you can with OpenVPN. You’re stuck with UDP 500, which makes it easy for firewalls to identify your connection as a VPN, and shut it out.
PIA is preconfigured to use OpenVPN. In fact, in order to switch to L2TP/IPsec or PPTP, you have to generate and log in with a different password.
That’s different from how most VPNs work, and lets you switch from one protocol to the other from within the application. It’s a hassle, but not a deal-breaker since I would never use anything else.
When using OpenVPN with PIA, users can trade some speed for added protection, by switching between 128-bit AES and 256-bit AES encryption.
PIA uses shared IP addresses to protect user anonymity further.
I would have liked a feature allowing users to switch up IP addresses automatically, based on a timed interval. A few competitors like IPVanish now offer that capability.
Beyond that relatively minor miss, however, PIA has great additional features designed to safeguard your anonymity:
Kill Switch: Occasionally, connections to VPN servers get dropped. By enabling the kill switch feature, if that happens to you, your Internet connection will be temporarily halted. That way, your ISP or other third-parties won’t be able to log your real IP address and track your online activities.
Auto-connect: PIA lets you configure its app to automatically start and connect to a VPN tunnel when you login into your desktop computer. This feature is handy if you’re forgetful or have any P2P applications (like Vuze) that are also set to run automatically.
DNS leak prevention: Occasionally, even with VPN tunnels active, your browser ignores that fact and passes DNS requests through your ISP provider. Called A DNS leak, misrouted requests undermine the whole purpose of a VPN, by giving an ISP the chance to monitor your activity.
If you want to identify leaked data with your VPN tunnel active, run a test at www.dnsleaktest.com; if you are leaking, enable PIA’s DNS leak feature, and the problem should go away.
IPv6 leak prevention: IPv6 aren’t quite as big a threat as DNS leaks – yet. IPv6 is the next generation of IP addresses. The problem is that some VPN services only handle IPv4. If that’s the case, and your ISP does support IPv6, your identity will be left exposed to any third-party snooping about.
SOCKS5 Proxy: Subscribers to PIA also gain access to their SOCKS5 Proxy. This proxy server acts as a VPN, in that it lets you spoof an IP address and location, without any added encryption.
As such, it’s much faster than VPN, but not nearly as secure.
I’d only recommend it for P2P communications and getting around location-based content blocking cases, where you don’t care if anybody is watching.
For standard web browsing, stick to a VPN. As with switching to LT2P/IPSec or PPTP, the use of an SOCKS5 Proxy (instead of OpenVPN) requires users to generate a new password.
PIA MACE: Added to PIA in July 2016, MACE will block ads, trackers, and malware while your VPN connection is active. This is an excellent feature that’s still uncommon in the VPN market.
Many VPNs don’t log browser activity, but will keep session meta-data like source IP address, servers used and login times.
They do this to aid troubleshooting issues and respond to legal requests. PIA, for their part, claims not to retain any such data.
In their own words:
We can unequivocally state that our company has not and still does not maintain meta-data logs regarding when a subscriber accesses the VPN service, how long a subscriber’s use was, and what IP address a subscriber originated from.
I’ll add the usual disclaimer that as users, we’re left to take PIA’s word about this. There’s no third-party verification system in place, so they could easily be logging user data and not tell anybody.
Moreover, some users will take issue with the fact that PIA is headquartered in the United States. Even their parent company, London Trust Media, is based in the United States.
The U.S. has weaker online privacy laws than many countries.
In the past, government entities like the NSA have secretly worked with tech companies to collect user data. If you’re concerned about the potential for breach of trust, consider looking elsewhere.
If you’d rather give PIA the benefit of the doubt, it’s much easier to do so knowing that they sponsor multiple user advocacy groups like:
Could all of that support be a diabolical smokescreen for a CIA front?
PIA maintains a handy support library that will guide users through basic setup and troubleshooting. You can either use the search function to navigate through their library quickly, or browse by topic:
- Account Support
The guides are straightforward and well-written, which is crucial for technical documents.
If you’d rather not search PIA’s support site or can’t find what you need, contact PIA support, which is available 24/7 — directly via a web form.
They don’t offer live chat support, but they do promise prompt responses of four-to-six hours. I put that claim to the test, and got a reply back within two hours – not bad.
PIA also has a user forum. I often find user forums to be the best resources for troubleshooting and info gathering.
The PIA blog is also well done.
PIA uses it as a channel to talk about privacy and security stories from around the globe.
I performed an evaluation of PIA on my Windows laptop, which is the experience I’ll be walking you through.
The user experience is commensurate on a Mac, so you should still gain some insight, regardless of your preferred platform.
Installation took less than a minute. Once installed, you’ll need to enter your credentials, which PIA sends in an email. Pretty straightforward.
Beyond that though, PIA takes some getting used to.
After having used and reviewed several VPN services, I’ve developed certain expectations about what the experience is going to be like. PIA threw many of these conventions out the window – and not in a good way.
For starters, you establish a connection from the system tray icon. Right-click on the PIA icon and a bunch of server connections pop-up.
Most VPN services let you manage this process from a desktop control panel. ExpressVPN offers an exceptionally fine-tuned interface that lets you quickly sort and search through VPN servers.
Of course, ExpressVPN is available in over 80 countries.
To get to PIA’s version of a control panel, you’ll need to right-click on the system tray icon and select “Settings.”
The interface could use a graphic designer’s touch, but it’s easy enough to use. Users can switch between a “simple” and “advanced” interface.
The advanced interface better accommodates more feature settings.
One thing that bears repetition, is that the ability to switch up encryption protocols and use PIA’s SOCKS5 Proxy, aren’t built into the interface as options.
This is yet another departure from how most VPNs work. With PIA, you have to log in with a different user-name and password, generated on the website.
Then, you have to setup these connections manually; which isn’t difficult, and PIA supports you through the process:
Another feature missing from PIA’s interface is a speed test.
Many other services let you ping servers in various cities to help find the best connection for you. PIA does do this too, but via a web page, not the user interface.
PIA’s speed test also checks each server, one at a time, and each test opens up a new browser window. There’s no way to run multiple speed tests and compare the results.
At the very least, PIA should have a button linking to that page from their interface.
I tested PIA’s mobile performance on an Android smart phone, and the iOS experience should be similar, from what I understand.
After downloading the app from Google Play, I logged in with the same credentials used for the desktop program.
The main screen displays mostly a lot of white space, with a power switch in the center.
Sliding it right will establish a connection.
PIA’s mobile app uses automatic server selection, but you can pick whichever server you want, by tapping on the “region” box below the power switch.
Settings can be accessed by tapping the gear icon placed on the app’s top-right side.
Scrolling through the settings, I was happy to see PIA lets mobile users access most of the same features found on the desktop app.
Many VPNs exclude options like auto-connect and kill switch protection, from the mobile experience.
There’s even a “dark theme” if you find the white background too glaring. Overall, I was much more impressed with the PIA mobile app than I was with the desktop experience.
It’s cleaner, more intuitive and better organized.
Q: Does PIA offer a free trial?
A: No, but they do offer a 7-day money-back guarantee.
Q: Can I use PIA in China?
Q: Can PIA be used with P2P and torrenting?
A: Yes and I tested the capability.
Q: Does PIA offer a SOCKS5 Proxy
A: Yes, subscribers get access to a proxy at no added cost.
Q: Can I watch Netflix with PIA?
A: While Netflix blocks many VPN tunnels, I was able to stream videos with PIA active. Should Netflix block out PIA in the future, their SOCKS5 proxy should still provide access.
Q: Does PIA log my browser activity or meta-data?
A: No. PIA tracks nothing.
Who’d have thought a budget VPN service like PIA would push packets as fast or faster than ExpressVPN?
While I’m not a fan of the desktop experience at all, PIA has won me over with its low costs, high speeds, and great mobile app.
PIA’s strict no-logging policy and excellent security features, headlined by OpenVPN, should quell most concerns about the fact that it’s headquartered in the USA.
The somewhat limited global reach might turn some users off, particularly those in areas without a good selection of nearby servers.
As a US-based user, with multiple locations supported by over 1600 servers, I have no such qualms.
Final verdict: worth every penny.
Have thoughts and experiences on PIA to share? Let us know about them in the comments section below!