Pete Zaborszky

Pete Zaborszky

April 17, 2013

SummaryTunnelBear is a little different to the average VPN service. Everything about it is very slick and minimalist. The service is marketed as providing “incredibly simple” applications that give users “private free access to the global Internet.” While TunnelBear’s simplicity and admittedly limited functionality may put off technical users, others who simply wish to access the Internet as if they were elsewhere in the world could well have found the perfect service. iOS users, however, should read the review thoroughly before committing.

Video Review

We’ve created a short video review of Tunnelbear, how it works and what it does.

From the very first look at the TunnelBear website, it’s clear that the product is aimed clearly at the consumer end of the market. This is certainly the first VPN service we’ve reviewed where the website homepage includes review quotes from publications as diverse as MacWorld and The Wall Street Journal. 

This is not a product for those who wish to get their hands dirty with protocols, encryption levels and other such technical jargon. However, for those who simply wish to easily obtain a US or UK IP address to access region specific services, there’s little out there that does it better and perhaps nothing that does it so attractively. There’s even a free version available.

Packages & Pricing

TunnelBear is one of the rare VPN services that actually offers a completely free version, named “little TunnelBear.”

LITTLE BEAR

While this is unusually generous, the free account is limited to 500MB of data transfer per month. Anyone planning to use the service for streaming media (its most likely application) will find that this will disappear almost instantaneously. However, the company also offers an extra 1GB of data to anyone who promotes the program via Twitter, which is a delightfully inventive means of social network promotion.

In terms of paid packages, there are just two options, a monthly subscription at $4.99 per month and an annual subscription at $49.99 per year.

TB Pricing

Anyone subscribing to a paid package is entitled to use the software on up to two mobile devices as well as their computer.

It is also possible to purchase a “mobile only” TunnelBear subscription, with prices ranging from $2.99 per month to $29.99 per year.

Mobile only

All-in-all, we felt that TunnelBear was very fairly (and clearly) priced, and the free version, though of limited use for streaming media, is a more generous option than any kind of free trial or “money back” deal.

Customer Service

TunnelBear make extensive use of social media as part of their customer service approach, with prominent links to their Facebook and Twitter feeds all over their website.

Social Media

We had a quick look at these feeds and is was pleasing to see that the company use them to notify users of planned service outages and maintenance.

In terms of other support options, these are fairly thin on the ground. Although there is a good quality knowledge base on the company website, anyone with questions not answered by this are simply provided with an email address, with no promise of any specific response time. We sent a query and sadly had received no response a day later when we finished this review.

There was no number provided for telephone support.

UPDATE: We did eventually receive a reply to our support query, but not until three days after we had submitted the email – so, while we weren’t ignored completely, the response time was still poor.

Security and Privacy

In common with quite a number of “consumer level” VPN services, TunnelBear doesn’t set out to confuse customers with extensive technical details. We had to dig around in the knowledge base to find out the the key information.

Encrpytion

We were quickly able to determine that TunnelBear uses a “minimum” of 128-bit AES encryption. We were unable to ascertain the VPN protocol used by the software, but a Web search seemed to suggest the solution uses OpenVPN. We were not able to confirm this with the support department while completing the review.

TunnelBear’s developers provide detailed information regarding their data logging policy. Essentially, they promise to maintain the minimum amount of information required to run the service effectively. They confirm in their FAQs that they don’t keep any information about the sites visited via their service, nor associate the use of IP addresses with specific users. This is a great, confirmed level of privacy for those concerned about it.

The process

Registering

Signing up to TunnelBear is a little different to the process for most services; as there is a limited free version available, the software is freely downloadable from the Web with no need to enter any details:

Signup

Once you have downloaded the software, you begin to use the free version and then “upgrade” via the program should you choose to switch to a paid version.

When you open the installed program, you are asked whether you have an existing TunnelBear account, if not, you can create one directly from the program:

Create account

Details required are minimal – just name, email and password details.

Switching to a paid account is easy, you just press the “upgrade” button which allows you to enter payment details. Payment options are limited to Visa, MasterCard and PayPal. For the purposes of this review, we subscribed to the annual service, named “Grizzly TunnelBear!”

Upgrade

We really liked the slick, in-app approach to registration and payment – it all felt very intuitive and less clunky than many other services.

Installation and Configuration

Installing TunnelBear on our test Mac (running OS X 10.8) was simplicity itself.

As mentioned above, you download the software prior to registration. This downloads a Mac (.dmg) installation file, and all you then need to do is drag the program to the “Applications” folder.

Install

Once the program is installed, opening it causes you to be asked if you have an existing account. You are then required to enter your username and password.

Login

As you can see, the “wood-effect” interface it attractive and slick, but if we were to criticise one thing at this point, it would be the fact that there is no option, at this point, to store your username and password. It is somewhat laborious to have to key it all in every time you wish to use the program.

Regardless, once you have entered the details, you are taken to TunnelBear’s simple, minimalist interface:

TBear

The controls really are as simple (and limited) as the screenshot suggests. You click on the two dials to switch the VPN service on and off and select between US and UK VPN servers.

When you switch the service on, the display at the top of the interface “illuminates” in blue and begins to create a graph showing your bandwidth utilisation:

TBear On

Connection Speeds and reliability

We were keen to find out whether TunnelBear’s sleek outward appearance was matched by good performance, so we turned to the Speedtest.net website to do some performance tests.

First, to gain an idea of the normal benchmark speed at our testing location, we ran a speed test without TunnelBear running:

TB Disconnected

We then opened TunnelBear and established a connection via their US server:

TB Conn US

This result was pleasing, with the download speed dropping by less that 1Mbps.

Finally, we connected via TunnelBear’s UK server and ran another speed test:

TB ConnUK

This result was slightly better still, leaving us very impressed overall with the performance of TunnelBear.

A fact worthy of special mention at this point is that TunnelBear’s knowledge base discusses the issue of performance, openly admitting that connecting via VPN can have an impact on performance:

Performance

The performance we recorded was well within the 75-85% range promised, and extended viewing of both UK and US streaming media services was reliable, with no more buffering than could reasonably be expected for our connection speed.

Compatibility

TunnelBear’s compatibility list is small: Windows (XP to 8), Mac OS X (10.6.8 or above), iOS (5.0 or later) and Android (ICS or later).

Compatibility

While this small compatibility list covers all the most popular bases, Linux users or those who wish to VPN through routers and other devices are out of luck.

We decided to take the iOS version for a quick test drive using an iPhone:

TunnelBear on the iPhone

Configuring a VPN service on iOS often involves typing logons, passwords and secret phrases into settings screens. Fortunately, we noticed that TunnelBear has an iOS app all of its own. We searched for the app in the App Store and downloaded it to our device.

Bear Install

Loading the app promoted us for our username and password. Obviously we already had this, having registered via the desktop version.

When we first entered the app, it asked for permission to install device settings. This, surprisingly took us to our Safari browser, which in turn installed some VPN profiles on our device.

Bear Settings

At this point, we were a little disappointed to find that the app is really only a front-end for the iPhone’s existing VPN capabilities. While the app does hold beginners by the hand very well, it’s not as truly “one click” as the desktop version.

Bear mobile

Unfortunately our disappointment continued when we ran some speed tests. Connecting via VPN resulted in download speeds of 3.12Mbps and 1.65Mbps to the UK and USA respectively. This was using the same WiFi network as we had used for the Mac tests.

This seems to indicate that the mobile version uses a different VPN technology. We were keen to investigate this, but were unable to tinker with the settings for the VPN profiles TunnelBear created automatically.

All-in-all, we felt it a shame that the mobile version didn’t live up to the high standards set by its desktop equivalent.

Customer Area

Unusually, TunnelBear doesn’t provide an online customer area for registered users. Instead, everything is handled “in app” via a username and password. There’s a “forgot password” link available on both the desktop and mobile app.

Password

Conclusion

We liked

  • Slick, stylish and simple approach
  • Good pricing
  • Great performance from Mac version
  • Great online knowledge base
  • Limited free version available

We weren’t so sure about

  • No access to settings for enthusiasts
  • Constant need to reenter login details when starting the program

We hated

  • Mobile version doesn’t live up to the desktop version’s high standards
  • Slow response to our support query

TunnelBear’s desktop service is fantastic at what it sets out to do. If all you need is a service that allows you to gain a US or UK IP address then look no further. However, we were disappointed with the mobile performance on iOS, and it’s a shame the slick approach doesn’t extend to a support department that answers queries quickly.

Even with these shortcomings taken into account, TunnelBear gets a strong recommendation. The majority of potential VPN customers just want something simple that lets them watch their favorite TV shows. TunnelBear does just that, and in a modern stylish way that makes it a pleasure to use.