If the revelations of Edward Snowden have taught us anything, it’s that you can never take your privacy for granted. To keep the NSA (and everyone else) out of your mobile web traffic, you need a virtual private network, or VPN. With the Private Internet Access VPN Android app, you can rest assured that your data and identity are secure. The app is also packed with advanced features and a great value, following in the footsteps of its desktop counterpart.
What Is a VPN?
Public Wi-Fi is nearly ubiquitous, but that’s not necessarily a good thing from a security standpoint. Even if the network itself is legitimate, other people could still use it as a platform for spying on your activities. And when there’s a Wi-Fi network on every corner, scammers can easily set up a phony one and trick passerby into connecting. If you connect to one of these bogus networks, whoever runs it can see all your traffic and steal tons of personal information.
If that sounds far-fetched, Pwnie Express successfully used the above methods to trick some 35,000 devices into connecting to a phony network (for demonstration purposes) at Black Hat—a conference of security experts. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that you need a VPN.
What Does a VPN Do?
When you connect to the web via a VPN, all of your traffic is sent through an encrypted tunnel to the company’s VPN server before exiting to the wider web. This means two things: First, anyone sniffing traffic on your network will see nothing but encrypted data. Second, your Android device will appear to have the IP address of the VPN server, so advertisers and snoops won’t be able to track your movements online. Most services make it easy to set up and use a VPN, so don’t worry if you don’t understand all of the details of how they work.
While they are certainly safer than open Wi-Fi networks, there are still risks to using cellular networks, too. LTE and 3G connections are encrypted, but the protection for data traveling over 2G has long been broken. Clever criminals can set up a phony cell tower called a Femtocell, jam the LTE and 3G bands, and force phones to connect via the less secure 2G connection. This lets the attacker execute a man-in-the-middle attack over your cell connection. Fortunately, VPNs work over cellular connections, too. Your home Wi-Fi network is not completely safe from privacy threats either; Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to sell anonymized user data without your consent.
Another use for VPNs is to circumvent oppressive governments with highly restrictive Internet laws. The technology has long been the friend of journalists and political dissidents. Before you put your VPN to the test with anything serious, make sure to make sure that your VPN is not leaking your real IP address. Many people also use VPNs to bypass region-locked content from video streaming services.
Pricing and Platforms
The desktop version of Private Internet Access won our Editors’ Choice award in part because of its incredible value. The no-commitment monthly subscription costs just $6.95 per month, which is well below the $10.16 average monthly price of the top VPNs we tested. For reference, NordVPN’s $11.95 monthly cost is nearly double what Private Internet Access costs, as is TunnelBear’s $10-per-month price.
Private Internet Access does offer a free version of its VPN. If you don’t want to pay for a VPN, take a look at our roundup of the best free VPNs. Many of these offerings typically limit the amount of data you can use. ProtonVPN’s free plan notably does not impose data limitations, but it does restrict the number of simultaneous connections and the servers you can use.
If you find yourself drawn to Private Internet Access, you can purchase an annual plan for $39.95 per year or a two-year plan for $69.95. The VPN product is the same for each price tier; the only thing that changes is the pay period. Top features include ad, tracker, and malware blocking; P2P and BitTorrent support; and unlimited bandwidth. Private Internet Access lets you connect up to five devices simultaneously, which is about average. IPVanish leads the way in this category, allowing 10 simultaneous connections, while CyberGhost follows closely behind with seven.
In addition to Android (4.1 and above), Private Internet Access is available on Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, and as a browser extension. On Android, Private Internet Access uses the OpenVPN protocol by default.
In terms of legal requests, Private Internet Access states, “Although we will comply with all valid subpoena requests, our legal team scrutinizes each and every legal request that we receive for compliance with both the ‘spirit’ and letter of the law.”
Although we aren’t confident enough in our knowledge of data retention laws in every country to make an absolute judgment on a VPN based on that information alone, you should at least be aware of where your VPNs headquarters are located. Private Internet Access is located in the US, which notably is a member of the 14 Eyes data intelligence alliance. For reference, Private Internet Access is owned by London Trust Media Incorporated, a “private equity, holdings and incubator firm” based in Colorado.
Servers and Locations
One of the most important aspects of VPNs we look at is the number of servers and server locations it offers. Both of these aspects will have a direct effect on the kind of performance you can expect with a VPN. Overloaded and geographically distant servers will both cause your network speeds to take a hit.
Private Internet Access VPN maintains approximately 3,160 servers at the time of this review, which is second only to NordVPN’s massive collection of 5,000-plus servers. Notably, TorGuard VPN and CyberGhost also break the 3,000-server barrier. Thus, Private Internet Access has a good-sized offering, considering that some VPNs such as ProtonVPN and Golden Frog VyprVPN do not breach the 1,000-server barrier.
Another thing to consider when discussing server counts is whether the company uses virtual servers. Virtual servers are software-defined servers that can be configured to appear as if they’re located in a different geographic location than they actually are. One potential problem with virtual servers is that your metadata could potentially pass through and be stored in a country that has fewer protections for user privacy than the one you selected. Private Internet Access says it utilizes its own bare-metal servers in third-party data centers that are operated by trusted partners.
Private Internet Access maintains servers in 33 countries around the world. Other services, including NordVPN (62), IPVanish (60), and Keep Solid VPN (52+) offer more. That said, several VPN services cover even fewer countries, including TunnelBear (20) and ProtonVPN (27).
Private Internet Access covers a decent geographic range, but its offering is not the best we’ve seen. Like most VPNs, its servers mostly fall within Asia, Europe, and North America, though it does place a couple in Africa, the Middle East, and South America. However, Private Internet Access neglects many countries with restrictive internet policies, including Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia (it halted operations in Russia after local law conflicted with the company’s commitment to privacy), Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Private Internet Access’s Android App
We installed Private Internet Access on a Google Pixel running Android 9. We had no issues logging in to our test account, getting started, or using the app, which is a good testament to its reliability. App dependability is always an important consideration, since you should be able to trust your VPN to establish and maintain a reliable connection. After all, VPNs are likely your best protection against internet threats.
Private Internet Access’s app is deceptively simple at first glance, but it actually has a great deal of options, which we discuss a bit later. The main screen has a single slider, which you use to toggle the VPN connection. The slider is red when disconnected, but it turns green once you initiate a connection. You can also enable a dark mode in the settings, which we greatly appreciate. Although we like the design’s simplicity, Private Internet Access needs to do a better job integrating its advanced features in a more intuitive way.
Below the slider, you can select the VPN region and view your public IP address. The Region Selection menu shows an Automatic option, in addition to a list of all the available regions of coverage Private Internet Access offers. The US, for example, breaks down into 14 sections, including California, Denver, East, Florida, Silicon Valley, and Washington, DC. Many entries on this list are capped at the country level, but some countries are divided into several different regions. We like that Private Internet Access lists the latency for each of these regions, but wish it let us drill down to the server level, as most other VPN apps do.
We are happy to report that most of Private Internet Access’s desktop features make it over to Android as well. One of the most prominent is MACE, Private Internet Access’s in-house solution which blocks ads, trackers, and malware. It’s not a full-blown antivirus solution for Android, but it is a good additional defense. MACE is built into the app, so you don’t need to enable it separately.
Private Internet Access VPN can also block local network access, force a TCP connection. You can also select the strength of the encryption (AES-128-CBC by default), the data authentication method (HMAC-SHA1 by default), and the handshake method (RSA-2048 by default). Additionally, you can engage the Internet Kill Switch, which halts all web-based communication if the VPN is disconnected. This guarantees apps won’t send information in the clear while the VPN is reconnecting.
Rounding out the Settings section are options for the app to automatically enable the VPN connection once you launch the app or to start when the system boots. Widget customization options are also present for those who want easier access to VPN settings.
Although it isn’t in the Android app specifically, we also appreciate that Private Internet Access has a very large Cancel button on its billing page. One click, and your subscription ends. That makes quitting far easier than for most competing services.
Any VPN service you use is likely to negatively affect your network speeds. Performance is quite variable too; your results depend on factors such as time of day, device type, and the server you select. The more servers and server locations a VPN company offers, the better the performance you can expect, since geographic distance and overloaded servers are some of the biggest culprits. Note that our tests are less a definitive measure of absolute speeds and more a comparative snapshot of VPN performance at the time of testing. Check out our roundup of the fastest VPNs in our tests.
For this test, we use the Ookla Speedtest.net app (Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag) and run several tests over PCMag’s FIOS Wi-Fi network. During testing, we turn off mobile data in order to control for the variables cellular networks introduce. Also, the vast majority of users will run a VPN service over Wi-Fi, and that’s the experience we want to replicate. We take the median of several tests run with the VPN active, and find the percent change from the same tests undertaken when the VPN is not engaged.
Private Internet Access turned in mixed results in our tests. On one hand, it only increased latency by around 20 percent, which is an excellent result. However, it decreased download speeds by 70.8 percent and upload speeds by 52.2 percent. Although Private Internet Access’s latency results are among the best, the download and upload speeds are right around the median across all VPNs we tested.
NordVPN and Turbo VPN tied Private Internet Access for the top spot in our latency test, all at 20 percent. Speedify performed the best in our download speed test, only decreasing speeds by 3.4 percent. NordVPN took the top spot in our upload speed tests, only decreasing speeds by 22.6 percent.
Private Internet Access and Netflix
Many video streaming services, including Netflix, deliberately do not play nicely with VPNs. That said, in our testing, most Android VPNs did not cause any streaming issues via the Netflix app. We tested Netflix compatibility with a Nexus 5X running Android 8.1, since we ran into playback issues when using our test Google Pixel with Android 9, even without the VPN enabled. Private Internet Access did not cause any issues with Netflix streaming in our tests.
Check out our roundup of the best VPNs for Netflix if you stream videos often. The services featured in that article worked with Netflix the last time we checked, but your experience may differ, since Netflix does its best to block access via VPN. One potential workaround for affected VPNs is to enable the split tunneling option and exempt the Netflix (or any other video streaming) app. Of course, this means that your data will no longer be encrypted and you won’t get be able to access any region-locked content. This is simply a workaround for people who don’t want to disable their VPN entirely to use video streaming apps.
Private Internet Access’s Android app gets points for its effective interface and excellent customization options, and we also appreciate that its high server count, even if it does not cover as many geographically diverse locations as others. We also appreciate Private Internet Access’s low price, despite its mixed results in our speed testing. For all those reasons, it joins NordVPN and TunnelBear VPN as an Editors’ Choice winner for Android VPN apps.