Two popular VPN services: Long term review of PIA and Tunnel Bear

VPNs are your best defense on public Wi-Fi. I bought two popular VPN services and used them for a year. Bottom line: helpful but not perfect, though one was markedly better. Here's what I learned.

Mobile users depend on public Wi-Fi access, so data security is important. The NSA and GCHQ may vacuum up our data, but I object to coffee shop script-kiddies to intercepting my email and passwords.

A virtual private network (VPN) promises security, location independence, and ease-of-use across multiple devices and operating systems. Location independence means you can, for instance, get the BBC's UK-only programming in the US.

I often use cafe, hotel and convention-center Wi-Fi, so I tried two VPNs: the highly rated Private Internet Access (PIA) and the ease-of-use focused Tunnel Bear.

I ran these services on a quad-core Mac Mini and an i7 MacBook Air. Tunnel Bear also offers an iOS VPN profile which I used on an iPhone 4s and a 6+. Under iOS 8 and 9 - not 7 - these worked well.

Both support Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. PIA has servers in the US, UK, Netherlands, Canada, Romania, Germany, France, Sweden and Switzerland. Tunnel Bear covers all those except Romania and offers Japan, Australia, Italy, Ireland and Spain.

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Ease of use is important to me as well. While I've been using computers for decades I like products that do what they promise with a minimum of fuss and fiddle.

Data security

The data security of VPNs is based on two premises. First, data is encrypted from your device to the company VPN servers. Second, the VPN doesn't log connection history. If an intrusive government agency subpoenas your browsing or email history, the VPN company can't provide it because they don't have it.

I couldn't verify this claim, but the companies say they are rarely subpoenaed for user data since their non-logging is known. Another security feature: IP addresses are hidden for anonymous browsing.

Installation

The download and installation of both VPNs was straightforward. Both companies get equal marks for ease of installation and set up.

Performance

Since all of your data goes through company servers, those servers could be a bottleneck. I found that my browsing and download experiences were remarkably similar whether using the VPN or not. They must add extra latency and there were slowdowns, but whether they were a VPN specific problem or a normal Internet traffic storm, I couldn't say.

Bottom line: I didn't notice performance degradation due to the VPN, but I didn't run any stopwatch tests. Sometimes browsing would get slow, but that happens without a VPN as well. I give both companies equal marks for performance.

Availability

Accessing a VPN when you need it is critical. And this is where both services fell short.

If the Wi-Fi is heavily loaded, the extra handshaking required to initiate a VPN connection may never complete. In the average cafe the VPN worked well. But on an overloaded hotel Wi-Fi the VPNs were rarely able to connect.

Bottom line: When you most need a VPN for security, you are least likely to be able to use it. To be fair this is a network problem, not a VPN service problem, but from a user perspective VPN availability isn't good.

User interface

Big difference! PIA has a minimal UI that is borderline deceptive. Tunnel Bear takes the opposite tack, over-communicating status.

PIA puts an icon on the Mac menu bar that is either grayed out or dark depending on - I thought! - if the VPN is active. But I was wrong.

Instead, the PIA icon goes dark when the software is attempting to create a connection - before that connection is created. It's easy to assume the connection is active when it isn't.

Even the icon's dropdown menu won't give you status. You have to place your cursor on the icon and a tool-tip will tell you whether you have an active connection or not.

The Tunnel Bear icon helpfully differentiates between initiation and connection. It's easy to see VPN status in real time.

In addition, Tunnel Bear offers copious notifications of connection status, as well as a safety mode that won't connect you to the network until the VPN is active. While the notifications can be tiring, I came to prefer the Tunnel Bear approach.

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Support

Both companies offer online chat support. I had a password problem with PIA - my password stopped working on the VPN while still working for logging into the PIA site - and the tech support person did a good job fixing it.

I didn't try Tunnel Bear support since I never needed it. PIA gets good marks for support and Tunnel Bear good marks for not needing it.

The Tunnel Bear web site is superior for non-techies. The PIA site is poorly organized and the documentation is feature, not task, oriented, making self-support needlessly tedious.

Cost

PIA is the cheaper at ≈$35 annually versus ≈$50 for Tunnel Bear. If you can deal with the subtleties of PIA's opaque UI and documentation, that difference may tip the balance.

The Storage Bits take

VPNs are not a security panacea. For the cafe user a VPN is a good investment in security. With spotty success on busy networks VPNs aren't a highly available service. But they're better than nothing.

I chose Tunnel Bear over PIA because of the unambiguous menu bar status indicator and the frequent notifications. I could adjust to PIA's idiosyncracies, but I'd rather focus on my work, not the VPN.

Recently I've seen some VPN service deals for lifetime service for $40-$50. Haven't tried them, but I'm skeptical that a quality service can be supported for years under that model.

If you're a mobile professional, VPNs add a useful layer of security for a price that - if you need it - is reasonable.

Comments welcome, as always. What are your VPN experiences?