Pleasing, approachable design. Not blocked by Netflix in testing.
Supports few locations. Cannot select protocol. Significant slowdown in speed tests. Lacks specialized servers. No P2P or BitTorrent.
- Bottom Line
TunnelBear is not only capable, but funny and friendly. And it won't get in your way. It's a good mobile VPN choice for those without much tech knowledge.
Too often, security companies opt for ominous imagery of faceless hoodie-clad hackers or other scaremongering designs to sell their products. Not so with TunnelBear VPN. This virtual private network secures data with a cadre of cute, but powerful, bears. The app is bursting with charm, but it also delivers security at a good price. However, the iPhone edition lacks the advanced features found in the Windows app, and it fared poorly in some of our speed tests. Even so, TunnelBear's charm and simplicity mean you may want to install it for your non-techie friends.
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What Is a VPN?
The free public Wi-Fi at the public library or internet café may be convenient, but it's not safe. A malefactor on the network could intercept your traffic. The network itself may be a creation of malevolent forces. It may not even be the network you think you're using—crooks can spoof the network ID, making your device think it's one of your usual connections. Out on the web, advertisers and government snoops are eager to track your movements online. To combat these possible spies, you need a VPN.
When your VPN is active, it routes your web traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a server managed by the VPN service. Data thieves and phony networks can't touch that data. Using a VPN also helps protect against your ISP selling anonymized metadata about your web habits. When your traffic exits to the web through the VPN server, you appear to have an IP address at that server's location. This protects your real identity as you browse the web, and foils ad networks that pin your surfing habits to your IP address.
Journalists or people living in countries with restrictive internet policies often use VPNs. But they're also a handy way to spoof your location for less serious needs. With a VPN, you can view content that is region-locked, such as sporting events or Netflix movies that are available in some countries, but not in others, because the service spoofs your location. Netflix has gotten wise and started blocking VPN access, but it hasn't blocked TunnelBear on iPhone yet!
Pricing and Servers
TunnelBear is one of the few providers we've reviewed that offers a free VPN service. However, the free TunnelBear tier does restrict you to only 500MB of data per month. You can earn more data by tweeting about the company, which can raise your limit to a total 1GB for one month, and you earn bandwidth by tweeting every month. Other free VPNs, like that offered by HotSpot Shield Elite, serve you ads instead, but in exchange they don't restrict your use of the service.
There are a few other features that are limited to paid accounts, features that might go unnoticed until you actually start using TunnelBear. If you want to use VPN servers in Australia or India, for example, you'll have to pony up, but the other 18 countries covered by TunnelBear are available for free.
If you decide to pay for TunnelBear, it won't break the bank. You can snag the Giant plan for $9.99 per month or the Grizzly plan for $59.88 per year. That's dead-on average pricing for a VPN, and the quality of service makes it a good value. Both the paid plans offer unlimited data and a full set of features. Payments can be made using major credit cards and anonymous BitCoin transactions. You can also pay from the app on the iTunes store. Other VPN services like TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) go even further, accepting prepaid gift cards from other merchants, such as Starbucks and Subway. The next time you receive one of these as a gift, consider putting it towards a VPN instead of a venti mocha.
With either a free or a paid account, you can use up to five devices with a single TunnelBear account. That's average for VPNs, although NordVPN offers six, and VPN Unlimited lets you tack on more devices for an incremental charge.
IPVanish VPN (for iPhone) and other services offer software for routers. This effectively protects every device on your network while only counting the router toward your limit of protected devices. TunnelBear doesn't offer this scheme. In any case, a router-based VPN won't do you a lick of good when your mobile device is away from the home network.
Representatives from TunnelBear told us that it offers approximately 900 servers at any given time. That's a good offering, but a far cry from Private Internet Access VPN (for iPhone), which offers well over 3,000 servers in more than 20 locations. The number of servers matters because you'll get better performance if the VPN server you're using isn't already stuffed to capacity with other subscribers.
As for server locations, TunnelBear offers servers in 20 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and these United States. It's a good selection, but it leaves out all of Africa, the Middle East, and places like Russia and Turkey, which have repressive internet access policies. Editors' Choice winners VPN Unlimited and NordVPN offer more locations. The more locations a VPN company offers, the better performance you'll have when traveling abroad, since there will be a VPN server close by. Having more server locations to choose from also means more options for spoofing your location.
Like most VPNs, TunnelBear is a zero-log service. It stores nothing about your online activities, assuring you anonymity. The company is based in Canada, and a company representative explained that it is not subject to any mandatory data retention laws. The company representative also made it clear that TunnelBear does not inject ads into your web browsing, which some VPN companies have done in the past. The rep went on to say that, in fact, TunnelBear only makes money from subscriptions and does not sell any data to third parties.
Note that you cannot use TunnelBear for P2P file sharing or BitTorrent. That's less of a problem with mobile editions—how many people use P2P on their smartphones? If somehow torrenting or file sharing is a priority for you, we recommend TorGuard. NordVPN (for iPhone) also allows BitTorrent on specific servers, and in fact, offers other specialty servers for video streaming and other activities.
TunnelBear does not include integrated ad-blocking. Instead, the company has quietly launched a stand-alone browser plugin called Blocker. It retains TunnelBear's trademark bears and charm, and is surprisingly well polished for a Chrome plugin, but it's naturally less useful on an iPhone. See our review of the full TunnelBear VPN for complete details.
Note that several advanced features from the Windows edition don't appear on the iPhone, specifically: Vigilant mode, which protects your data while the VPN reconnects; Ghost Bear, which disguises VPN traffic as HTTPS traffic (much like the similar feature in Golden Frog VyprVPN (for iPhone)); Trusted Networks, which automatically uses VPN if you connect to an untrusted network; and Kill Switch, which halts internet-aware programs when the VPN connection is lost. Apple's strong grip on what apps can and can't do make these features tough to implement under iOS, though NordVPN offers Kill Switch and VyprVPN activates automatically on untrusted networks. In truth, TunnelBear's iPhone edition is sleeker and friendlier without these advanced features.
Hands On With TunnelBear
TunnelBear offers client software for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android devices, as well as browser plug-ins for Chrome and Opera. The plugins give you VPN protection on any device that can run the associated browser, but they're less important on an iPhone. For testing, we installed the TunnelBear iPhone app on an Apple iPhone 7. It installed in a snap and was immediately ready to go.
Like NordVPN and VPN Unlimited, TunnelBear's user interface is based on a world map. NordVPN's map is a bit whimsical, with sailboats in the oceans, while VPN Unlimited offers a more businesslike map. TunnelBear's map is the best-looking of the three. Tunnels sticking out of the ground identify server locations, while trees, shrubs, and mountains add interest. Tap a tunnel, confirm your desire to connect, and then watch as an animated bear tunnels there from your current location, and roars to indicate success (you can turn off the bear sounds). If you wish, you can simply choose the desired location from a list, but where's the fun in that?
On iOS devices, TunnelBear uses the IKEv2 protocol. This protocol is newer than IPSec, but in general we prefer OpenVPN. The problem is, Apple requires extreme vetting for any app that wants to use OpenVPN. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone) is among the very few that support OpenVPN. TunnelBear does use OpenVPN in its Android, macOS, and Windows apps. Whatever the platform, you don't get a choice of protocol, but that's fine for most users.
Some Slow Speeds
No matter the VPN you choose, you'll see an impact on your web-browsing experience. Most of the time, it's a negative one, but there's the occasional exception, such as PureVPN, which improved performance when tested under Windows.
TunnelBear's Windows app earned very good scores in our speed tests. It had hardly any effect on latency in the domestic test, and seriously improved download speeds in the international test. For mobile apps, we stick with testing on domestic servers, and the iPhone app's test scores could hardly be more different.
To prepare for this test, we set the iPhone to airplane mode, disabling the volatile cellular connection, and then turn on Wi-Fi. You're much more likely to encounter man-in-the-middle attacks and other attacks over Wi-Fi than arcane attacks on your cellular data. We use the Ookla speed test, running it several times with the VPN turned off and immediately running several more tests with the VPN connected. (Note that Ookla's Speedtest.net is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag's publisher.) Averaging runs with and without VPN lets us see just how the VPN affected speeds.
Latency, simply put, is the time it takes to ping a remote computer and receive a response. High latency could cause lagging in a fast-paced action game, though you're more likely to play those on the PC than on an iPhone. Out of all recently tested products, TunnelBear had the biggest impact on latency, increasing it by 601.4 percent. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite (for iPhone) came in second-worst, with a 483.3 percent increase.
If you're online activities require low latency, TunnelBear might not be the best for you. In our testing, NordVPN only raised latency 22.5 percent. VPN Unlimited also did well, with a 31.1 percent increase.
Any decrease in download speed due to VPN usage will irk most users, especially if it's a big decrease. Here, too, TunnelBear didn't fare so well. Its 60.9 percent slowdown is more than twice that of the next product, IPVanish, with 21.6 percent. Several iPhone VPN products actually made downloads go faster, Hide My Ass VPN (for iPhone) by 10.1 percent and PureVPN by 6.8 percent.
All recent products slowed uploads, but not by a huge amount. Even the worst, Private Internet Access and Hotspot Shield, only slowed uploads by 13 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively. TunnelBear earned a spot of redemption in this test, slowing uploads by just 4.9 percent. Only IPVanish did better, slowing uploads by just 3.5 percent.
Novices Will Love the Bear
TunnelBear has always been a favorite of ours. In the often ossified and overly technical world of security products, it's lighthearted and cute. The company has always put a premium on design and user experience, which is sorely needed in the world of VPNs. The iPhone app lacks some of the advanced features that impressed us under Windows, but that's just fine for casual users. Thinking of installing a VPN for your mom, or for a non-techie friend? TunnelBear is a great choice.
That said, it falls short in the important area of geographically diverse servers, and it lacks the specialty servers offered by some of the competition. In addition, it caused significant slowdowns in some of our speed tests. For an iPhone VPN that's both effective and attractive, we recommend NordVPN or KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, our Editors' Choice products in this area. Still, we wouldn't fault anyone for cuddling up with this bear.
Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine's technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His "User to User" column supplied readers with tips… More »
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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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