When it comes to digital security, the first thing most people think of is antivirus, for protecting the data on their systems. But the data you send over the Internet needs protection, too. That’s where virtual private network (VPN) services like NordVPN come in. With NordVPN, you can ensure that your information is being sent securely. Though it isn’t the fastest service we’ve tested, NordVPN offers a wide range of services at an excellent price. It has servers in over 50 countries, including high-speed servers for video streaming and extra-secure servers for enhanced anonymity online, and—most importantly—it keeps your personal information secure. For all that, it’s one of the best VPN services and a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.
Why You Need VPN
Most people who know about VPNs are familiar with them in the context of work—remote work, specifically. With a corporate VPN, you establish an encrypted connection to the company’s VPN server so that all the network traffic between your computer and the VPN server is inside a protected tunnel. A commercial VPN service is effectively the same. You set up an encrypted tunnel to the service provider’s VPN server. The difference is that you aren’t trying to access the rest of the provider’s network—you’re using the tunnel to access the rest of the Internet.
Simply put, VPNs make using the Internet safer. When you connect to a VPN, the service changes your IP address, prevents anyone from eavesdropping on your online activity, and makes it harder for online advertisers to track you. It’s especially useful for using the Internet while traveling or performing important activities—like online banking—while connected to public Wi-Fi networks. There are also political activists who rely on VPN services to get around government censorship and communicate with the outside world.
Unless you’re going to use the Tor Browser (which can be slow and tedious), VPNs are the best way to keep you safe when browsing the Internet. And yes, you can also use them to watch streaming content in other countries by changing your IP address, but services like Netflix are working to fight VPN trickery.
Pricing and Features
NordVPN supports Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. I have also reviewed the NordVPN iPhone app and the NordVPN Android app. The NordVPN mobile clients both allow you to purchase full subscriptions through their respective app stores. There are also mobile versions available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. You can also run NordVPN on game consoles and even some network devices such as routers.
For this review, we used a Dell Latitude E7250 laptop running Windows 8.1. Windows users should note that some VPN services don’t yet work with Windows 10.
As with most personal VPN services, NordVPN is a free download with a subscription. Pricing is very flexible, with three tiers: $11.95 per month, $42 every six months, or a nice $69 annually. The company accepts credit cards, of course, but also Bitcoin, PayPal, Paysera, or Webmoney. NordVPN does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, but it applies only if the NordVPN service doesn’t work. Not liking the service does not entitle you to a refund. There is also a three-day free trial, but you need to email NordVPN’s support team in order to take advantage of the offer. This information is buried in the FAQ. It would be nice to see the trial offer displayed more prominently so that users can try before they buy.
NordVPN lets Windows and Mac OS users choose between encryption methods PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN. NordVPN on Linux uses PPTP or OpenVPN while the Chrome extension is PPTP-only. If you use NordVPN on the open-source router software DD-WRT or the open hardware platform Raspberry Pi, you will be using OpenVPN. OpenVPN uses 2048-bit SSL encryption, while PPTP uses MPPE-128 and L2TP/IPSec is AES-256. When possible, we recommend you use OpenVPN to get the best security.
You can use up to six devices simultaneously on NordVPN, though there are some limitations concerning connecting devices to the same server. That’s still excellent, considering that Golden Frog VyprVPN, for example, supports just one connection at its lowest tier and only three at its highest. F-Secure Freedome supports up to seven, but at a much higher price of $39.99 per month for one device. And NolimitVPN will let you use as many devices as you want.
However, the fact that NordVPN lets you run the software on a network router means you can protect every single device connected to the network. Who cares about the device limit if one of them happens to be your router? NordVPN is much like co-Editors’ Choice winner Private Internet Access in this respect. We would like to see more VPN services protect the entire network instead of focusing on individual devices.
One thing to note is that there are many capable free VPN services out there, and other companies that offer more flexible pricing. Editors’ Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, for example, will let you purchase a $1.99 week-long subscription. That’s ideal for traveling abroad, where VPN access is a must.
NordVPN lets you select one of the company’s 785 VPN servers located in 57 countries. Private Internet Access is the only other service we’ve seen that offers this level of regional access, with well over 3,000 servers available the world over. NordVPN operates under Panama’s jurisdiction, where there are no mandatory data retention laws. The company doesn’t collect logs, so it has no information it can actually hand over because of a subpoena. That’s a good stance to take, but it also means that you can’t view information about your connection. If you need to track network usage or other types of session-specific data, you might want to consider other services, such as Freedome or Private Internet Access.
Some VPN services prefer to just use the VPN client software built into the operating system instead of creating a stand-alone application. NordVPN offers both options. In our testing, we installed the NordVPN client, a clean and lightweight application that lets you select the type of connection and server location. We especially like that the client clearly lists the capacity, ping time, and geographic location for each server, so you can choose the one to best suit your needs. However, the app doesn’t explain what any of the features do. If you’re new to VPNs, you’ll probably have to Google terms like UDP and TCP.
Jargon aside, the app is remarkably easy to use. Connections are grouped by type, including ultrafast servers for streaming video along with DoubleVPN and Tor-over-VPN servers to better protect your privacy. If you are concerned about denial-of-service attacks disrupting your network activity, use the Anti-DDoS servers. According to NordVPN, the DoubleVPN servers use double data encryption—where both inbound and outbound data is encrypted twice with 256-CBC encryption. Connecting to the Tor-over-VPN server sends your encrypted traffic over the Tor network for even more anonymity online. Or you can try the DoubleVPN with Tor-over-VPN for double-encrypted, multi-hop, maximum protection. That’s very cool.
NordVPN also offers a phonebook file, which can be used with the operating system’s built-in client to configure a PPTP or L2TP/IPSec connection. The online tutorial has detailed directions on how to set up the connection on Mac, Windows, and other platforms.
The VPN software installs the OpenVPN TAP device driver before it launches the software. Most of the user management—such as keeping track of subscriptions and bonuses earned from referring friends—are tracked on the Web portal. Note that to remove the NordVPN client, you’ll have to run the included uninstaller; it cannot be uninstalled using the Add and Remove Programs feature in Windows.
If you are based in the U.S. or U.K. and need a dedicated IP address associated with your account, you can email the support team to purchase one. This means you get a specific IP address—not a rotating one—every time you connect to the service. As of writing, the company notes that it no longer has IPs available in the U.K.. Competitor TorGuard VPN also offers static IP addresses, and even special DDoS resistant addresses located in Romania.
In addition to its VPN services, NordVPN also provides a Kill Switch feature. When configured, this monitors applications and processes you select. If your VPN connection is interrupted or dropped for any reason, those processes on the Kill Switch list are automatically closed. This is great, as it ensures that no unsecured data sneaks out.
Similarly, NordVPN includes the Domain Name System Leak feature to ensure that your operating system does not use a default DNS server (typically belonging to your ISP) instead of the VPN service to look up the actual machine address of the site you are trying to visit. If the OS uses the default servers, someone watching could learn what sites you were visiting, or try to intercept your traffic between those two sites. NordVPN runs its own DNS servers so that when you are connected, all the lookups are handled by anonymous DNS servers. You also have the option to configure the software to use the DNS server of your choice.
Speed and Performance
The biggest concern with VPN services is how much it will affect your Web browsing experience. To test this, we used speed-testing services at both Ookla and Speedof.me while connected to a wired DSL line. Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.
When testing with Ookla, we select a distant test server to measure latency and data transfer rates. In this case, the test server was in Fairbanks, Alaska, and our test computer was at PCMag’s headquarters in Manhattan. While connected to a NordVPN server in Australia, we found that NordVPN increased latency by 232.9 percent, degraded the data upload rate by 28.9 percent, and lowered the download rate by 31 percent—all as compared to the speeds we saw without the VPN service.
Speedofme.com is an HTML5 based test that does not allow us to manually select a test server. Instead, it automatically chose a test server in Sydney for our VPN tests and a server in New York for our baseline comparison tests. Our results showed a 704.2 percent increase in latency, a download rate reduced by 9.4 percent, and an upload rate that dropped by 19.2 percent. Because Internet speeds can change quickly, we run the tests seveal times and average the results, then immediately run the same tests several times with no VPN active and average those results, too. Your experiences might differ from ours, depending on which country you’re in, and what connection you have.
The two tests together show what looks like a significant performance impact. Keep in mind, however, that latency is measured in milliseconds, and that while data transfer rates are definitely lower, what really matters is the experience of using the Internet while connected through the service. We were surprised how little we noticed that performance degradation while browsing the Web with NordVPN. PCMag’s review pages, for instance, loaded very quickly. Media-heavy pages, like the PCMag homepage, did take noticeably longer, however. On paper, Hotspot Shield Elite performed better in our speed and latency tests, but in practice it didn’t feel faster.
Other services like F-Secure Freedome and Spotflux remove ads and trackers from websites you visit, resulting in a slightly speedier Web browsing experience. Spotflux Premium can even compress webpages to reduce data consumption.
The service’s high-speed servers for video streaming are especially intriguing, since VPN latency can have a profound effect on video performance. While connected to one of NordVPN’s high-speed servers, we had no trouble viewing HD videos on YouTube. The videos loaded quickly, and played back smoothly—albeit not in HD by default. We tried to watch some 4K footage of bees on YouTube, which only played back in awkward chunks. The laptop used in our testing can’t display 4K content correctly, but the test demonstrates how well the connection can handle running very large streaming files. We were able to watch the same video with ease while connected over TorGuard VPN, despite the service’s low scores.
Simply changing your IP address isn’t sufficient to stop popular ad networks from tracking you. These networks use other factors to tie you to multiple IP addresses to keep track of your activity. Unfortunately, NordVPN does not block Web trackers. We confirmed this by observing the number of trackers detected by the free browser plugin from Ghostery both with and without the VPN running. If you are concerned about third-party tracking, Spotflux Premium or Freedome may be a better choice.
VPN applications can also affect your system in surprising ways, such as slowing down your computer’s startup. Thankfully, NordVPN’s hardly affects reboot time, increasing it by a mere 1.5 percent in testing. Some VPN services have useds ads both in the app but also injected into the websites you view. This is not only intrusive and potentially dangerous, but can further exacerbate latency. In our testing, we never observed NordVPN injecting additional advertisements.
Network security is, frankly, probably not on the mind of the average person, which is why we really appreciate NordVPN’s simplicity that doesn’t come at the price of excellent features. The addition of Kill Switch is very welcome, as are the specialized servers for video streaming, Tor-Over-VPN, and double encryption. NordVPN offers a solid suite of security features in an easy-to-use package at an attractive price. It’s a smart choice, and it remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice, along with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited and Private Internet Access.