Affordable. Thousands of available servers. Ad blocking. Simple interface. Excellent speed-test scores when using the OpenVPN app.
Servers available in only a few countries. Unfriendly interface. Lackluster speed test scores when using the default protocol.
- Bottom Line
The Private Internet Access iPhone app gives you access to a top VPN service, but it's best suited for more expert users.
By Max Eddy
To keep yourself secure online, even when using your iPhone, you need a virtual private network (or VPN) app. Private Internet Access offers a robust VPN service at a very affordable price. The company puts far more emphasis on technology and performance than interface design, however, and this is especially noticeable on the iPhone, where consumer expectations for design are at their highest. Private Internet Access delivers excellent security, but its performance wasn't great out of the box in my testing. If you're willing to get your hands dirty you can speed it up, but it would be challenge for the inexperienced. If you want an excellent experience that requires less work, consider our Editors' Choice Winner for iPhone VPN: NordVPN.
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What Is a VPN?
Your Internet connection may not be as safe as you'd like to think. If you're connected to a public Wi-Fi network, for example, it's possible that another person on the same network could be sneaking a look at your Internet traffic.
Another all-too-possible scenario is an attacker creating a bogus network that simply mimics a familiar Wi-Fi network. Your iPhone, always wanting to be helpful, might connect to that network automatically. The attacker, meanwhile, can decrypt and read anything you pass through it.
To protect against these and other attacks, you need to use a VPN app on your iPhone (and on your desktop, too, of course). Once you're connected via the VPN, all of your Internet traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel. That means that no one else on the network, even someone performing a man-in-the-middle attack, can see what you're up to.
The encrypted tunnel leads to a server managed by the VPN company, and your traffic exits from there to the wilds of the open Internet. This means that you can spoof your location by connecting to a VPN server far from where you're actually located. Spies and advertisers who might be watching your movements only see the VPN server's IP address, keeping your device's real IP address hidden.
Journalists and political activists use VPNs to reach the outside world when operating in places with restrictive Internet access laws, such as Turkey or North Carolina. You can also use VPNs to access region-locked content, like streaming BBC TV shows, or to watch Netflix outside of the region in which you subscribe.
Generally speaking, your cellular data is more secure than your Wi-Fi data. There are, however, exotic attacks in which hackers jam the LTE and 3G bands, thus tricking phones into connecting to a nearby portable cell tower (called a femtocell) over the 2G band. Data isn't as secure over 2G, which gives attackers the chance to steal your stuff. For maximum security, you can leave your VPN running all the time to protect all your communications.
Features and Pricing
The Private Internet Access VPN app is available for free from the Apple App Store. The app works just fine on both iPhones and iPads. Considering the features and quality of its service, a $6.95 monthly subscription with Private Internet Access is a good value. Longer plans are prorated, with a six-month plan for $35.95 and a year-long plan for $39.95. A subscription purchased with the Editors' Choice–winning NordVPN iPhone app costs significantly more, at $11.95 per month, but offers a more user-friendly experience.
With a Private Internet Access subscription, you can connect up to five devices simultaneously, which is average for the VPN industry. The service allows P2P file sharing, maintains no traffic logs, and does not place limitations on bandwidth. It also blocks ads and malware at the network level. This is an excellent set of features.
Among VPN services, Private Internet Access is perhaps the most robust, infrastructure-wise, offering 3,269 servers in 24 countries. The company offers servers in Australia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, India, as well as Central, North, and South America. The company does have servers in some countries with heavy restrictions on Internet access, such as China and Turkey, but recently pulled its servers out of Russia when the company felt it could not guarantee the privacy of its customers. The TorGuard VPN iPhone app gives you access to some 1,600 servers, which is also not to be sneezed at.
Private Internet Access has more servers than most competitors, but they are grouped in fewer locations than, say, NordVPN. Having lots of servers means that you're more likely to find one with less traffic and better performance. VPN companies will sometimes have only one server in a particular country, but nine is the smallest number of servers Private Internet Access offers anywhere. While servers are important, having those servers in many locations is also important for consumers, since having a nearby server means better speeds when using a VPN while traveling.
Hands On With Private Internet Access
I've used the Private Internet Access service on Windows as well as Android, so I was prepared for the extremely minimal experience that the iPhone app offers. The app is available for free on the Apple App Store, and it's easy to download and install, although you need a subscription to use the service. You can create an account and purchase a subscription on the Private Internet Access website using credit cards, PayPal, and anonymous options like BitCoin. You can also purchase a subscription through an in-app purchase on your iPhone.
Note that you won't find many of the more advanced features from the Android app in the iPhone version. The ability to designate which apps use a VPN connection and which don't, for instance, isn't possible on an iOS device.
The main screen of the app consists of a single toggle. Tap it, and you'll be connected to the nearest, and therefore likely the fastest, VPN server. The bottom of the screen shows the location of the VPN server, your true IP address, and the apparent IP address everyone else sees once you are connected to the Private Internet Access network. You can also manually select the location of the VPN server.
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A Settings screen lets you toggle on and off some features, like the Automatic Reconnect feature and the MACE advertisement and malware blocker. This last feature is different from iOS adblockers like 1Blocker, because it blocks domains known to be associated with advertisers or malicious activity at the DNS level.
While I appreciate the simplicity of the tap-and-done interface Private Internet Access uses, I'm not really a fan. I believe that a friendly, approachable interface serves users better, especially for security software. Private Internet Access isn't confusing per se, but I prefer the way the NordVPN app uses visual metaphors like maps to make VPN use more accessible.
Regardless of what VPN service you chose, you'll surely see some impact on your Internet connection—and it's almost always a bad one. That's not too surprising, considering that a VPN has your Web traffic moving further and through more hoops than usual. In some rare cases, as I found with PureVPN on Windows, a VPN can improve your network performance. Private Internet Access is not such a case, however.
To measure the impact a VPN has on Internet performance, I run several tests using the Ookla speed test app with the VPN turned on and with it turned off. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag's publisher.) I then use the averages of those results to calculate a percent change. Of course, networks are notoriously finicky things, so your mileage may vary.
In my testing, I found that using Private Internet Access increased latency by 231.3 percent. It's not unusual to see increases this high, but it doesn't compare favorably with NordVPN on the iPhone. That service only increased latency by 28.6 percent, and TorGuard on the iPhone actually reduced latency.
The Private Internet Access app didn't fare much better in upload and download tests, either. I found that it slowed download speeds by 86.7 percent. That's a significant reduction compared with using the TorGuard VPN app, which I found improved download speeds by 7.9 percent. The impact on upload speeds was similarly pronounced, reducing upload speed by 78.1 percent. Here, too, TorGuard VPN stole the show by improving upload speeds by 8.8 percent.
This is normally the part of the review where I point out that, despite the big and scary numbers, actually surfing the Web didn't seem so bad. But that's not the case with Private Internet Access. Webpages loaded noticeably slower when the VPN was active. As with nearly every other VPN I've tested so far, Netflix was blocked while the service was active. The only exception thus far is TorGuard VPN, but that may be blocked soon, too.
Considering how much better Private Internet Access performed when I tested its Windows and its Android VPN App, I took the extra step of testing the Private Internet Access service while using the faster, open-source OpenVPN protocol. As I understand it, Apple requires additional vetting if an app includes OpenVPN tools, and as such most VPN companies have opted not to include it. The official and self-titled OpenVPN app, however, does use the open-source protocol but must be manually configured to connect with the protocol to the VPN service of your choice. In this case, it required downloading a special configuration file from Private Internet Access and entering my login information into the OpenVPN app. Thankfully, Private Internet Access provides an illustrated step-by-step guide on its website.
Through testing, I found that Private Internet Access, when using OpenVPN, had almost no impact on latency or connection speed. I took these results to mean that Private Internet Access performance is notably better when using the OpenVPN protocol than not.
Great Service, Mediocre App
From its Spartan presence on Windows machines, it's clear that Private Internet Access doesn't place a premium on the user experience. That's too bad, because the features and infrastructure the company provides are exceptional. It has more servers than the competition, a geographically diverse list of server locations, ad- and malware-blocking powers, and a privacy-conscious setup.
The default settings yielded an unimpressive set of speed test scores, though the service performed much better when I used OpenVPN. But this review has to consider the overall Private Internet Access app experience, not just how well the service performs for those who know how to adjust it just right. With that in mind, I recommend it as a robust, low-cost VPN app, but only for those who are willing to get their hands dirty. If that doesn't sound like you, stick with the Editors' Choice winner for iPhone VPN apps, NordVPN.
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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