If the revelations of Edward Snowden have taught us anything, it's that you can never take for granted that there is no one is spying on you. 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, following in the footsteps of its desktop counterpart. Private Internet Access joins NordVPN as an Editors' Choice winner for Android VPN services.
What Is a VPN?
Public Wi-Fi is rapidly becoming more popular, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Even if the network is legit, if it's open to the public there's no guarantee that someone else isn't up to no good and 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 passers-by 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 it sounds far-fetched, Pwnie Express saw one such attack at Black Hat trick hit 35,000 devices into connecting—and that was a conference of security experts.
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.
While they are certainly safer than open Wi-Fi networks, there are still risks when 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, and cellular attacks are much rarer than Wi-Fi snooping.
VPN services are used every day to secure data, but also to circumvent oppressive governments with highly restrictive Internet laws. The technology has long been the friend of the journalists and political dissidents.
You can use a VPN for more than security, too. If you select a VPN server in a different country, your device appears to be in that country. That's enough to fool many purveyors of region-locked streaming content. If you've ever wanted to watch the free-to-the-UK BBC streams or Game of Thrones on Netflix outside your usual region, a VPN can help. That said, Netflix has gotten wise and begun blocking VPN users.
Pricing and Features
The desktop version of Private Internet Access won our Editors' Choice award in part because of its incredible value. A monthly subscription costs $6.95 per month. Very few services cost less, although the week-long Vacation plan from KeepSolid VPN Unlimited is worthy of note at only $1.99.
If you find yourself in love with Private Internet Access, you can purchase a six-month plan for $35.95 or a one-year plan for $39.95. Any of these plans will let you use up to five devices simultaneously, be they PCs, Macs, iPhones, or Android devices.
Private Internet Access's most remarkable feature is its 3,341 servers, spread across 24 countries. This is by far the most comprehensive list of available servers of any VPN app I've reviewed. Editors' Choice winning app NordVPN comes in second, boasting hundreds of servers.
Despite all those options, the Private Internet Access app prevents you from picking an exact server to connect to. Instead, you choose the general region and the app does the rest. Most other VPN apps operate similarly, but Hide My Ass VPN goes further by offering scenarios that you can select to match your situation, too. This lack of choice is always a bit disappointing, but I am happy to see a geographically diverse mix of servers in the Private Internet Access app. If you're merely looking for a US server, there are several options (Florida, Midwest, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and so on). By default, the app will chose the fastest option and lists the current latency for each.
Note that Private Internet Access recently halted operations in Russia after local law conflicted with the company's commitment to privacy. Other VPN services have continued operation in Russia. NordVPN, for example, changed some of its practices in order to offer better protection.
I am impressed at the all the advanced features that Private Internet Access makes available for desktop users, and I'm happy to say that most have made it over to Android as well. One of the most prominent is MACE, which blocks ads, trackers, and malware. It's not a full-blown antivirus solution for Android, but it is a good additional defense. And while many websites make their money from online advertising, it's frequently intrusive and can sometimes be used to deliver malware to unsuspecting visitors. On iOS you can download content blockers like 1Blocker to protect your phone, but Google is less open. The only other VPN service I've tested that block ads and trackers is Spotflux.
In addition to using MACE's protection, you can also block local network access, force a TCP connection, and select the strength of the encryption used (it's set at AES-128, by default) and the type of encryption handshake (RSA-2018, by default). You can also engage the Internet Kill Switch, which halts all Web-based communication if the VPN is disconnected. This guarantees that apps won't be able to send information in the clear while the VPN is reconnecting.
If that's not enough, you can also select the Smart Packets option, which uses smaller data packets. You can even designate which specific apps should have their data routed through the VPN. This is excellent, since most VPN services will make your Web browsing significantly slower. With Private Internet Access, you can choose to secure only high-value apps like finance and banking apps, and leave the rest in the faster but less secure channel.
And although it isn't in the Android app specifically, I 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.
Hands On With Private Internet Access
The biggest drawback of Private Internet Access on a desktop computer is the interface. Or rather, the lack thereof. Instead of interacting through an app like most other services, you click on an icon in the System Tray and then have to browse through a massive list of available servers. The Android app is much more user friendly, but it is sparse to the point of looking unfinished.
Installing the Private Internet Access app is cinch, and it took only a few seconds to load on to my Nexus 5x. The center of the screen is dominated by a large toggle. Slide it, and you are connected to the fastest VPN server in your geographic region. By default, the app chooses what it believes to be the best server for you. Slide it again to disconnect. Unlike other services, such as KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, the connect and disconnect process is remarkably fast.
The bottom of the app displays your actual IP address, along with the apparent IP address of the VPN server you're connected to. You can change the country you connect to by tapping the Current Region. Doing so opens a menu displaying all the available locations and the latency for each. It's not quite as useful as NordVPN's desktop app, which displays lots of server statistics to help you make the most informed choice.
When you're connected, the Android OS places a key icon in the upper right of the screen. Private Internet Access also places a panel in the Notification Tray. I much prefer KeepSolid's approach. That app has an interactive Notification Tray panel that lets you connect or disconnect from the VPN without having to open it.
No matter what VPN service you use, you're going to see some kind of impact on Web performance. In very rare cases, like that of PureVPN, you may see a major improvement.More likely than not, however, your upload and download speeds will take a significant hit. When I perform my speed tests, my goal is to figure out how much of a drop in performance to expect for a given app.
For this test, I use the Ookla Speedtest.net app and run several tests over the PCMag Wi-Fi network. Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag. During testing, I 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 I want to replicate. I take the average of several tests run with the VPN active, and find the percent change from the same tests undertaken when the VPN is not engaged. I'm connecting a very fast FiOS wireless service, to get the best performance possible. Your mileage may vary.
My testing found that Private Internet Access greatly increased latency, by some 2,717 percent, bumping the time from 6ms to 169ms. Though even that large increase in latency will likely go unnoticed, it's worth noting that this is the worst latency score I've yet seen. NordVPN has the best score in this category, increasing latency by only 32 percent.
Far more important are download and upload stats, and in both Private Internet Access does well. With Private Internet Access engaged, download speeds were reduced by 10 percent, from 2.0Mbps to 1.8Mbps. That's the best score I've yet seen for this test, and far better than KeepSolid, which reduced speeds by over 70 percent.
Upload speeds for Private Internet Access were reduced by only 14.2 percent, from 5.6Mbps to 4.8Mbps. Again, that's a pretty strong score, but not the best. That honor goes to Spotflux, which actually improved upload speeds by 6.5 percent.
Private Internet Access doesn't win points for its looks, but it's an excellent tool with thousands of servers, meaning it will work for just about anyone, no matter where they find themselves. I particularly like the highly granular VPN connection settings, and ad-blocking features. For all that, it joins NordVPN as an Editors' Choice winner for Android VPN apps.