VPN Review: Private Internet Access
VPN services are no longer just for techies since they also provide anyone with the means to protect their personal data online whether using public WLAN, downloading P2P, or looking to anonymize their surfing behavior. Accordingly, the number of providers has grown considerably, with newcomers flocking to the ranks every year.
Private Internet Access (PIA) can look back on more than a decade in the hotly-contested VPN market, making its entrance in 2010. In this review, we'll let you know whether PIA has kept up with the times or if it has gone MIA.
What Is Private Internet Access?
Private Internet Access is a US-based VPN provider that since 2019 has belonged to Kape Technologies PLC (earlier, Crossrider), the parent company of two other VPN services from our sample, ZenMate and CyberGhost. Applications for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS are offered as are browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. We evaluated the service on a computer running Windows and an Android device.
Pros and Cons
Module-based, customizable apps
Nicely combines user-friendliness and functionality
Massive network of more than 34,000 servers
Disappointing performance during speed testing
Questionable parent company
Has not submitted to external security audits
Installation and Features
It's possible to download all available PIA clients, as well as configuration files for setting up VPN tunnels on routers, from the provider's website. Smart TVs and other devices are also supported.
Start by selecting the appropriate client for your device.
PIA's user interface is similar to that of most VPNs: The center of attention is a large On/Off button which you click on to establish a VPN connection. Below this, you'll see a small world map, which you can click on to open a list of server locations. By default, the desktop client is pinned to the taskbar and can't be dragged and dropped, however, you can change this in Settings.
PIA's desktop client is streamlined and elegant.
The client automatically selects the best server for a connection, however, it's possible to manually choose the server you'd like to create a tunnel with. To do this, click on the world map, where you'll see all server locations listed. You can sort these alphabetically, by latency, or browse through them using the integrated search function. It's also possible to mark favorites by clicking on the heart symbol to the right of a server.
Latency (in ms) is shown alongside each server in the server list.
Customizable User Interface
Clicking on the arrow symbol at the bottom of the desktop client opens "Detailed Display", an area where PIA surpasses most of its competitors. This is because its user interface is composed of modules that can be moved around at will, or added in the "Standard Display".
These include "Quick Connect", where you'll be shown your favorites and most recently used connections. When using a VPN tunnel, you'll also receive information about its performance and your IP address.
The module-based user interface is freely customizable.
Further information about your current VPN connection, such as its protocol and encryption, is shown in the "Connection" module. You can set a snooze for your VPN, turning it off for a specified period of time, with "VPN Snooze".
Some of the client's many settings options can be found in the "Quick Settings" module. These include the ability to activate port forwarding, which routes your data traffic to a specific port. "MACE" offers an integrated ad and tracker blocker.
It's possible to modify some settings directly in the client's main interface.
An Abundance of Functions and Settings
Additional settings can be found in the menu. In the network area, you can configure DNS settings or designate a user-defined DNS server. Split tunneling is provided, making it possible to add apps and IP addresses to a list according to which they will or will not use your VPN connection.
In the connection settings, you can set your VPN protocol and modify accompanying details, which we'll discuss in greater detail below in the "Security" section of this review.
Split tunneling is practical, making it possible to select which apps use your VPN connection, and which don't.
You can further customize your VPN connection by adjusting the automation preferences. Depending on the type of network you're connected to, you can specify whether a VPN tunnel should be automatically created or closed. This comes in handy, for example, when using public WLAN, where a VPN tunnel is more important than on your home network.
It's also possible to book a dedicated IP from a country of your choice via a redeemable token.
You can automate your VPN connection to a certain degree.
Customizable Smartphone Apps
PIA's smartphone apps are similar to its desktop clients, offering the same modules, including "Quick Settings", "VPN Snooze", and "Quick Connect" as well as features like split tunneling. As in the desktop version, you can freely arrange modules and select which should be displayed.
The mobile app includes the same modules as the desktop client.
In our opinion, PIA's unique approach to its desktop client and mobile app is innovative and well-executed. We found the module-based user interface to be highly practical and took advantage of it to customize our user experience.
Importantly, the settings and options offered aren't superficial, allowing anyone to see how their VPN connection is performing, and if necessary, to customize it further. All the same, the number of features isn't overwhelming, making it possible for less-savvy users to connect without hassle.
Score: 5 / 5
When it comes to the number of servers in PIA's network, you aren't seeing things and we didn't add a zero: PIA's network consists of 34,000 servers spread across 98 locations in 75 countries. Numerically speaking, PIA offers the largest network from our sample, by far.
PIA's pure server power is impressive.
The speed of all VPNs which we tested was evaluated using a server in Europe with a 1 GB/s connection. We assessed random PIA servers in the US and Germany at different times of the day to more accurately gauge their speeds and performance. More information concerning our methodology can be found in our VPN speed test.
The table below shows the average results over the last 12 months, arranged in order of download and upload speed (descending):
With such a huge server network, we had high expectations for PIA. Unfortunately, with a download speed of 109.7 MB/s and an upload speed of 17 MB/s, it was only good enough for 17th place, leaving us disappointed.
The chart below shows PIA's average speeds over the past months:
Solid For Everday Usage and in China
Even though PIA's speeds were only satisfactory, we also assessed performance on the basis of how the VPNs from our sample handled in everyday usage, for streaming, and, in some cases, suitability for circumventing Internet restrictions in places like China.
For everyday usage, PIA made up some lost ground, offering stable connections with solid speeds. Importantly, using the service's VPN tunnels didn't generate any annoying captchas when performing Google searches.
In terms of video streaming, Micky Mouse was the only bouncer who didn't let us view foreign content. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and the BBC's iPlayer all played back content, whereas Disney+ sniffed out our tunnel.
If heading to China, PIA is more than suitable for circumventing the "Great Firewall": During the evaluation, we were able to create a connection from China, viewing content that would otherwise be restricted in the highly authoritarian country. The only note to this was that we needed to select WireGuard as our protocol.
Thanks to its solid performance apart from the disappointing speed test, PIA still managed a good score.
Score: 3.7 / 5
Security and Privacy
PIA promises not to create any traffic logs that might provide insight into your Internet activities. This "No-Logs" guarantee was put to the test in 2018 when PIA was unable to produce any information despite a subpoena. Since then, however, PIA has changed owners.
Questionable Parent Company: No Audits
PIA's parent company, Kape Technologies PLC, has something of a questionable past amongst data privacy and Internet security activists. Under its earlier name (Crossrider), the company was caught out in the past for spreading malware and adware. Those who use VPN services certainly don't expect their personal data to be monetized. Even though the incident occurred in the past and doesn't automatically implicate PIA, it still raises some skepticism.
Much could be done to dispel these concerns with an external, independent audit, of the type regularly conducted by some of PIA's competitors. Unfortunately, PIA has yet to submit to such an audit, however, support staffers assured us that steps were being taken to do so in the near future (2021), but that a partner needed to be selected.
High Security, No Leaks
Things are a bit more clear-cut in terms of security: Thanks to its integration of OpenVPN and WireGuard, PIA supports the most important VPN protocols. The second in particular is widely considered to offer the cutting edge in terms of performance and security. By default, PIA encrypts all connections with OpenVPN and AES 128, however, it is possible to change to AES 256, either with the CBC or GCM block cipher modes.
We were unable to identify any leaks during testing.
PIA hardly puts a foot wrong, on paper. With that said, its parent company's past trespasses require more than just a name change to gain our trust. The VPN provider should offer more transparency and press forward with its plans to submit to an external security audit in light of its owner's corporate history.
Score: 3 / 5
PIA's help center offers guides, a knowledge base, a forum, and an announcements board. All guides are sorted by operating system and provide informative content. The knowledge base includes FAQs, best practices (for security matters), and a wealth of other useful information. Overall, we can't make too many complaints about PIA's static support.
You can easily find the answer to your query using the support center's search function.
Live support is offered only through a contact form. We waited around five hours for an answer, which was comprehensive and answered our query satisfactorily.
PIA could offer a few more options for live support (a chat or hotline would be nice), however, the response time and quality of the answer we received were very good.
Score: 4.7 / 5
A monthly subscription to PIA is fairly pricy, however, if willing to commit for a year or two, you can save quite a bit. Regardless of the plan you select, 10 connections can be established simultaneously.
Below, you can find an overview of current prices:
|Base price per month||$2.69||$3.33||$9.95|
|Contract period (months)||24||12||1|
|Number of Devices||10||10||10|
|Number of servers||34,500||34,500||34,500|
|Number of countries||77||77||77|
|No server logs|
Smartphone users can try out PIA's app for 7 days. All subscriptions include a 30-day, money-back guarantee.
Private Internet Access offers an excellent VPN app, a nice variety of features and settings, and a high degree of user-friendliness, thanks to its customizable modules. In terms of numbers, its server network is impressive, offering some of the best geographic coverage from the services in our samples.
Unfortunately, the provider's performance didn't match our expectations as, compared to the number of servers on offer, their speeds were underwhelming. We also had some serious concerns about PIA's parent company, Kape Technologies PLC, which, in the past, profited off its users' data with malware and adware.
Until PIA submits to an external audit, we'll remain a bit wary of the provider, despite its desktop client winning our hearts.
But what do PIA's users have to say about the service? We recommend taking a look at the reviews from verified aggregators that we've collated below to gain a clearer picture of how the service handles and what you can expect.
Should you not be satisfied with the 17th fastest (or 3rd slowest) provider from our sample, you might want to check out our speed demons, NordVPN, Surfshark, and ExpressVPN. As an added bonus, all three have submitted to independent audits, with NordVPN and ExpressVPN doing so on a regular basis.
The best alternatives to PIA can be found here:
- Private Internet Access
- Hotspot Shield
- IPVanish VPN
- Mullvad VPN
- VPN Unlimited
- Avast SecureLine
- Perfect Privacy
- Avira Phantom
- Free VPN
- Best VPN
- ... for Chrome
- ... for Firefox
- ... for Germany
- ... for USA
- ... for Italy
- ... for China
- ... for France
- ... for Prime Video
- ... for Netflix
- ... for Disney+
- ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN