TunnelBear

VPNs can seem a complicated technology, packed with low-level geeky details that hardly anyone understands, but check the TunnelBear site and you'll quickly realise this service does things differently.

The Canadian-based company doesn't drown you in jargon. There's no talk of protocols, no mention of encryption types, barely any technical terms at all. Instead the site focuses on the fundamentals, such as clearly explaining why you might want to use a VPN in the first place.

This approach won't work for everyone. We ran some searches and found the word ‘DNS’ appeared 10 times on Tunnelbear.com, for instance, compared to 1,130 on Expressvpn.com – if you're an experienced user and would like to know more about the underlying service, you're likely to be disappointed.

Still, the basic service specs are appealing. TunnelBear now offers servers in 20 countries spread all around the world: Europe, US, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, Japan, Singapore, India, Brazil, and (for paid plans) Australia.

Setup is easy, thanks to custom clients for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, as well as a browser extension. TunnelBear supports up to five simultaneous connections, too, so you can mix and match these as required.

The free plan is quite restrictive, giving you only 500MB of traffic a month. You can get an extra 1GB for tweeting about the service, but that's still only enough for basic browsing duties as opposed to HD video streaming or anything more (and torrents aren't allowed, if you're wondering).

If you need more, upgrading to a paid plan gets you unlimited data starting at a reasonable $5 (£4) a month, paid yearly.

Privacy

TunnelBear's website proudly displays what looks like a very clear no-logging policy: "TunnelBear does NOT log any activity of customers connected to our service. Period. Your privacy is paramount." Just about every other VPN service says the same, though – can we really trust what the company says?

No outsider can ever be completely sure how a VPN operates, but what we can say is TunnelBear's privacy policy is far more transparent than just about anything else we've seen. While others talk vaguely about capturing ‘some’ data for operational reasons, TunnelBear lists every item, explains what it is and why it's needed. 

There are no nasty surprises, or even anything mildly unpleasant. The company stores your email address, first (not last) name, plus the total amount of data used this month. It also stores the OS version of your device, which you might not expect. But we can see why it might be helpful to know that, and a provider knowing that you’re running an iOS 10.3 device really isn't a privacy risk.

What's more interesting is the list of data the company doesn't collect. Not only does it not record any information about the websites and services you access when online, it doesn't even record the session data often logged elsewhere (your incoming IP address when you initiate a connection, and the IP address you're assigned).

Some companies try to bury sneaky clauses in the terms of service pages, but again TunnelBear is very different. Not only is the document relatively short (1,500 words), but each section has a brief and plain English summary to help you understand it.

If you don't want to read a 200 word block of text which kicks off with: "TunnelBear is providing this service on an ‘as is, as available’ basis without representation or warranty of any kind", for instance, just glance to the right for the summary line. This simply states: "Sometimes things break. We do our best."

We drilled down into the details, anyway, but didn't spot any significant issues. The closest we came was a clause forbidding you from taking "any action that results in an unreasonable load on TunnelBear’s infrastructure", which is so vague as to be almost useless. But even there, most VPNs have a similar ‘acceptable use’ clause somewhere, and if you manage to place an unreasonable load on TunnelBear’s infrastructure with your monthly 500MB traffic on the free plan, we'll be seriously impressed.

Performance

TunnelBear’s setup process is carefully designed to be as quick and hassle-free as possible. We clicked the ‘Get started’ button at the top of the site, then a simple form asked us to enter a username and password, and the site automatically downloaded the right client for our system. Easy.

You need another client? Log in using your credentials on any other device and you'll find links to Windows, Mac, iOS and Android clients, as well as browser extensions for Chrome and Opera.

Using our Windows client was just as simple. After a standard install, we were able to log in by choosing a server location on a map. We clicked Germany, were allocated a new IP address within seconds and could browse in privacy. Tapping another button turned the protection off again.

TunnelBear isn't quite as basic as it looks. Our client blocked DNS leaks automatically. It enables using TCP connections for greater reliability. There's an extra-stealthy GhostBear option to make your activities seem more like regular internet traffic, and the client can automatically kick in if you connect to anything other than a trusted network. Even some supposedly ‘advanced’ clients can't always do that.

We completed our tests by running various performance benchmarks*. Local downloads were speedy at 30Mbps or more, while UK-US connections were a reasonable 10 to 20Mbps, depending on the server.

Switching to a far-distant location such as Singapore saw download speeds fall to 2Mbps, but that's not unusual, and it's still just about usable for basic browsing. Overall, TunnelBear's free plan delivered very acceptable performance – we've seen paid products that are significantly worse.

Final verdict

Exceptionally easy-to-use, TunnelBear is a great free VPN for networking newbies. The 500MB per month allowance is an issue, though – it'll cover you for occasional light browsing and emails only.

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds. We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

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