A virtual private network (or VPN) is the best and simplest way to protect your data online, whether you’re traveling abroad or just connected to the local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi. NordVPN ensures that your information isn’t being intercepted and that you’re not being served bogus websites. The company now has more than 1,000 servers across the globe, including specially optimized servers. NordVPN wraps all that up in a snazzy client that’s consistent across every platform, and includes ad-blocking for good measure. For its excellent user experience, numerous features, and robust service, it’s one of the best VPN services and a five-star PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.
What Is a VPN?
If you connect to the internet, you need a VPN. When you switch on a VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a server controlled by the VPN service. All your web traffic is routed through this tunnel, meaning that no one, not even someone on the same network as you, can sneak a peek at your data. It also prevents malicious network operators from intercepting your information, or using DNS poisoning techniques to trick you into visiting phishing pages. This technology can even guard against your ISP gathering data on your activities.
When you connect through 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 and profile 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 and journalists who rely on VPN services to get around government censorship and communicate with the outside world.
You can also use them to watch streaming content in other countries by changing your IP address. For example, if you jump to a VPN server in Canada, you may find you’re able to watch MLB games for free. It’s worth noting that Netflix is actively blocking VPN users, so a VPN that works for IP spoofing a given service one day may be blocked the next.
Pricing and Features
NordVPN supports Windows, macOS, and Linux. I have also reviewed the NordVPN iPhone and Android VPN apps—there are more details on the Android, iPhone, and Mac clients below. NordVPN’s mobile clients both allow you to purchase full subscriptions through their respective app stores. You can also configure some routers to connect via NordVPN as well, and doing so supplies coverage for all the devices on your network.
NordVPN offers three pricing tiers: $11.95 per month, $42.00 every six months, or $69.00 annually. The company accepts credit cards, of course, but also Bitcoin, PayPal, Paysera, and 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.
NordVPN does offer a three-day free trial, but activating the trial is more than a little convoluted. The company has offered the free trial for years, but still hasn’t made it easy to access. There are many capable and more generous free VPN services out there. TunnelBear and other services offer free versions with a limited amount of data available per month, or sometimes per day. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite offers a unique arrangement, where VPN access through some of its browser plugins is free and totally unlimited.
The pricing structure of NordVPN is pretty standard among VPNs, but other companies do have more flexible pricing structures. Editors’ Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, for example, offers a $3.99 week-long subscription. That’s ideal for a short trip abroad, when using a VPN is a must. VPN Unlimited also offers a lifetime subscription, in case you want to hedge your bets on encryption for the 22nd century.
The more technically inclined surely appreciate that, while NordVPN still supports PPTP and L2TP protocols for legacy devices, it has mostly moved over to newer, superior options. NordVPN representatives tell me that all its servers now support IKEv2, so you can manually configure your Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and Linux devices to connect using this protocol. Phase 1 keys are generated for AES-256-GCM for encryption and SHA2-384 hashing. The company is also able to implement perfect forward secrecy with 3,072-bit Diffie Hellmann keys. Currently, the macOS and iOS VPN clients support IKEv2 by default, and the Android client will soon follow suit. The company also supports OpenVPN on all platforms except iOS, and uses it by default in the Windows client. I prefer OpenVPN in general, for its security and for being open-source.
That’s a lot of security alphabet soup, but the big takeaway is that NordVPN is using the best and latest technology and isn’t afraid to talk about it. That’s something I really appreciate, especially when it comes to companies that stake their reputation on 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 three connections on its monthly plan. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited provides additional connections for a monthly fee.
NordVPN lets you select one from a list of 56 countries, encompassing some 1,000 servers—up by about a third since my last update to this review. That’s an excellent and welcome improvement. It’s worth noting, however, that Private Internet Access has over 3,000 servers available the world over. While VPN services spin up new servers on an as-needed basis, I still think these numbers are important. The more diverse the location of servers, the more options you have for spoofing your location. It’s also more likely that you can find a nearby server when traveling, which generally translates to better VPN performance. The number of servers is also important; the more servers there are, the fewer people connecting to the same server, giving each user a larger slice of the bandwidth pie.
NordVPN’s best feature, however, is the variety of specialized servers it offers. These include servers for using P2P and BitTorrent. Other VPN services have selection tools to help you solve specific problems, but NordVPN goes further with unique offerings like double encryption, connection to the TOR anonymization network, and anti-DDoS servers.
One of the perks of using a VPN is that your actual IP address is hidden from the outside world. But some users may require a static IP address, which NordVPN can also provide. For a $70.00 fee, you can secure a dedicated IP address on a NordVPN server in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, or the United States. That wide selection of US and western European IP addresses means that you’re unlikely to be blacklisted when using your new static IP. Other services, such as TorGuard VPN and VPN Unlimited also offer static IP addresses and other add-ons.
Recently, NordVPN announced that its servers are accessible from within China. This means that anyone within the country could circumvent government control over websites. That’s particularly notable, because China’s so-called Great Firewall greatly restricts the sites that can be accessed from within the country’s borders. Access is only available to Windows users, although other platforms will be added, the company says. We’ll see how that holds up against China’s recent efforts to restrict VPN use.
Hands On With NordVPN
For this review, I used a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running the latest version of Windows 10. 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. I performed all of my tests using the NordVPN Windows client.
NordVPN has always offered an above-average user experience with its apps, and it has only gotten better. The current Windows client looks shares a lot of design features with the NordVPN mobile apps, with a monochrome blue map as its focus. It’s a bit whimsical, with submarines and ships on the cartoon seas, but it’s an easy way to select the server you want. A search bar at the top of the screen makes short work of finding a server if your geography skills are lacking, or you can view the servers as a list. This last option places the specialized servers at the top, and it provides useful analytics about the load on any given server.
Top center in the screen is the Quick Connect slider, which is perfect for when you just need VPN protection from the fastest server available. Tap it, or select Quick Connect from the System Tray, and you are online in no time. That’s a great option for people unfamiliar with VPN services, as is the Settings option that forces NordVPN to launch and connect on startup.
From the Settings section you can change the DNS resolution service, although NordVPN uses its own secure option. The client includes options to automatically connect on startup, but doesn’t have a split tunneling feature that lets you route some traffic outside the VPN’s encrypted tunnel. PureVPN and TunnelBear include this feature, though using it does limit your protection. In the NordVPN settings you can also select a TCP or UDP connection, and even opt to connect to “obfuscated servers,” which NordVPN says helps circumvent government VPN blocking. The client also includes a Kill Switch that shuts off access to the internet for specific applications, should your computer be disconnected from the VPN.
NordVPN and Netflix
I was pleasantly surprised to find that NordVPN did not interfere with Netflix at all. That’s great because Netflix blocks VPNs very aggressively.
In previous testing, I had issues connecting, but this time it worked fine. I let the app pick the server and Netflix streamed smoothly. A company representative told me that there are several US servers keyed specially for Netflix streaming, but I am disappointed that they aren’t highlighted anywhere in the app. Previous versions of NordVPN highlighted special streaming servers, and I wish they’d do that again.
I did a little more testing and noted that whether or not I was connected to one of the streaming servers I was able to watch Netflix without any problems. Note that there’s a real cat-and-mouse game going on between Netflix and VPN providers, and the service that works today may not work tomorrow.
NordVPN recently introduced three new features with the CyberSec tool. With it, NordVPN can block ads and malware, and prevent DDoS activity at the network level.
I don’t test the efficacy of ad-blocking with VPNs, but I did confirm that far fewer ads loaded on pages when NordVPN was active than when it wasn’t. I really like that VPNs are adding this particular feature, since many online ads contain trackers that can correlate your movement between websites. That said, TunnelBear provides ad and tracker blocking in a handy browser plug-in that offers far more flexibility in what get ads get blocked and on what sites. My preferred ad blocker for just browsers is still the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger.
To block malware payloads, NordVPN uses blacklists of known malicious sites as well as phishing sites that are designed to trick you into handing over your personal information. It’s a good start, but these sites are short-lived and new ones pop up in seconds. Plus, blacklists can only do so much, while stand-alone antivirus applications include advanced heuristic models that can catch never-before-seen malware before it damages your computer. None of this is to sell NordVPN short; more protection is always good, but don’t expect this to replace your antivirus.
I don’t test the anti-phishing abilities of VPNs, but I did note that NordVPN did not block the dummy phishing page provided by the AMTSO. This site isn’t dangerous, but security companies agree to block it in order to verify that the phishing page blocker is working. I’d like to see NordVPN conform with this standard in the future.
The last tool, DDoS protection, is a unique and interesting offering. During a DDoS attack, infected computers simultaneously access the same website over and over again. If there are enough machines involved, it can bring even the most robust website to a screeching halt. NordVPN says that even if your computer has been infected with malware for these kind of nefarious purposes, the anti-DDoS feature prevents your computer from joining in the attack.
Speed and Performance
Using a VPN adds physical distance and other limiting factors to your otherwise normal internet connection. The result is, usually, a slower experience with increased latency. To measure this effect, I perform two tests using the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
First, I establish a baseline average result without the VPN in use. Then, I do the same thing with the VPN active, and compare the results to find a percent change. This first test uses a nearby VPN server, and I perform a second test looking at the performance between Ookla’s test server in Anchorage, Alaska, and a VPN server in Australia. This is an extreme example, using two points as far apart as I can manage. Keep in mind that networks are fickle things, and can change depending on where and when you connect, so your mileage may vary.
In the domestic VPN tests, I found that NordVPN increased latency by just 8 percent. This is an extremely good score, but the best goes to Hide My Ass VPN, which increased latency by only 5.6 percent. Using NordVPN also reduced download speeds by 4 percent, and upload speeds by 5.4 percent—also good scores. Editors’ Choice winner PureVPN, the fastest VPN I’ve tested, actually improved download speeds by an astounding 346.4 percent. PureVPN also edges out NordVPN in the upload test, but just barely. PureVPN reduced upload speeds by a mere 4.9 percent.
In the international VPN tests, NordVPN increased latency by 268.5 percent. Hotspot Shield comes out on top in this test, increasing latency by 155.4 percent. With NordVPN, download speeds were reduced by 74.7 percent, and upload speeds curtailed by 56.1 percent. PureVPN again has the best scores for downloads. It actually improved download speed by an incredible 403.8 percent in this test. For uploads, Hotspot Shield eked out a close victory, improving upload speeds by 1.4 percent.
It’s pretty clear from these results that PureVPN is the unbeatable champion of my speed tests. In fact, it’s held that title for two years running. But while I don’t think speed should be the primary selling point of any VPN, it is something that people worry a lot about. That makes sense in a world where music and movies are streamed on a daily basis. NordVPN has excellent overall performance on domestic servers, but drops the ball for international connections. Still, domestic servers are what you’re most likely going to use.
NordVPN for Android
The Android client for NordVPN has had a facelift since the last time I reviewed it. It’s better suited for mobile now, with handy buttons along the bottom to access the important parts of the app. The large, raised central button gets you online quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
NordVPN has taken great pains to provide a familiar experience across every device the company supports, but each client is tweaked to work best on each platform. On Android, for example, you can still access the company’s excellent specialized servers from the hidden left tray. But you can check your service and toggle the VPN on and off from the notification tray, which is always accessible.
NordVPN earned excellent scores in my latency testing, where it took second place. It was fourth in download speeds, which still places it on the better end of average in this important category. It had the second best score for upload speeds, which is always a tricky category. In general, you don’t have to worry about speed issues when you’re using NordVPN on Android. NordVPN is an Editors’ Choice for Android VPNs, too.
NordVPN for iPhone
NordVPN for iPhone continues the excellent tradition of providing the same user experience across all the company’s supported platforms. Even on iPhone or iPad, all the features feel very familiar to users of other NordVPN products.
Unfortunately, the iOS version doesn’t have some of the handy options that you find in the Android edition, because of the quirks of iOS. But the app feels very much at home on the platform. NordVPN also brings its Kill Switch and Smart Reconnect feature, which is quite welcome.
The NordVPN app also has excellent speed test results on iOS. It racked up the best latency score and a strong upload score, with comparably weak performance for download speeds. But it still managed the best overall performance among iPhone VPNs, and it gets an Editors’ Choice for VPN for the iPhone, too.
NordVPN for Macs
As with Android, there are a few flourishes that make the macOS client for NordVPN feel right at home on a Mac. The main view is the lovely and familiar monochromatic blue map, with its cartoon boats and submarines. But the hidden left tray moves in with a slickness typical of excellent macOS apps. Clicking the magnifying glass in the upper right to search the available servers blurs out the main page. These are small tweaks, but most VPNs services don’t take the effort to really optimize their clients for particular platforms.
My one complaint with the Mac app is that NordVPN’s excellent specialized servers are too hard to find via the Mac client interface. You have to apply special filters to the full list, or notice the small links at the bottom of the search page. In my opinion, these should be front and center for the user to discover. I also wish you could select different VPN protocols, but, on the other hand, NordVPN already uses my preferred choice, OpenVPN.
Unfortunately, NordVPN didn’t rack up excellent speed test scores on macOS. Its latency results were subpar, and the all-important download test wasn’t great on domestic VPN servers and was actually worse than I would expect on international servers. It had similarly lackluster results in the upload speed test. All that said, speed should not be most users’ primary consideration when purchasing a VPN. The features and overall experience of NordVPN vastly outweigh any speed results, and NordVPN is one of our favorite VPN clients for Macs.
Too often, security tools are a chore to use because they place technical excellence over user experience. But in my experience, the average person would rather risk having no protection than deal with frustrating security software. NordVPN smartly presents a simple face, yet doesn’t skimp on a powerful core service. It has the usual collection of features, but the specialized servers for Tor-Over-VPN, double encryption, and others, are the service’s standout features. Continued server upgrades put it among the most robust VPN services available, and ad-blocking and network protection features raise NordVPN’s abilities still higher. Taken together, these factors are more than enough to justify its comparatively high monthly cost. It’s a smart choice, and it remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice, along with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, Private Internet Access, and the fastest VPN I’ve tested, PureVPN.