NordVPN Review - 2020
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Why Choose NordVPN
When seeking anonymity of data and browsing, you need a reliable and secure VPN that you can trust. NordVPN has more than 5,300 servers in 58 countries across the world and can be tailored to fit any user’s needs, from gaming to P2P file sharing, data security to expanded content availability. Is NordVPN a secure and reliable service? Read my investigation to find out more.
Best VPN for
- Easy to install and operate
- Ad blocking
- Customer service is incredibly helpful and very patient
- Multi-platform integration
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Connection speeds are slower than most people would prefer
- Security breach was a worrying event
NordVPN was started in 2012 by four friends who wanted to create a liberated Internet experience. Their main goals are to combat censorship and unwanted surveillance. They started small, with only one server, keep on expanding and now have more than 5,300 servers around the world. This is one of the largest server networks in the VPN industry.
NordVPN is based in Panama and therefore not part of the 5-eyes and 14-eyes alliances. Those global state security alliances are known to put pressure on VPN companies to disclose user activity, but NordVPN can’t be touched. Panama has very strict copyright laws. However, although NordVPN is based there, it doesn’t have any servers in Panama, thus it skirts the local laws on illegal downloads.
Pricing and Plans
There is only one level of VPN service offered by NordVPN; either you’re in or you’re out. The price plans offered by the company get cheaper depending on how long you sign up for. The monthly payment plan is the most expensive at $11.95 per month. Other options are one-year, two-year, and three-year plans with the price per month on the three-year plan working out at $3.49.
Be aware though, that you have to pay for your plan upfront. So, if you take out the one-month plan, you will have to pay $11.95 there and then. The subscription fee is on a repeat billing cycle, so you will be charged again automatically when that month expires. If you take out the three-year plan, you will pay $125.64 straight away. The company will take out another fee from your account once that three years have expired.
If the thought of paying for a service that you haven’t even tried puts you off, don’t worry. NordVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on all of its plans. I have put that promise to the test and I can confirm that the company issues refunds without putting up a fight.
The main screen of the app has a map of the world with a menu bar to the left. The map shows a marker in each country where NordVPN has servers.
You click on a marker to get connected to a VPN server in that country. The system will automatically assign you a server from the list of all of the servers that it has in that country. Once you are connected, you will see a system notification at the bottom left of your computer’s screen and the marker you pressed will turn green.
It is possible to select a specific server in the country of your choice and this is where the side menu bar comes in. The menu lists all of the countries that NordVPN has servers in. When you hover your pointer over a country a menu icon, in the form of three dots appears to the right of the country. Clicking on this gets you a pop-up where you can select a city or a specific server. The server selection list should the current amount of capacity usage on that machine. You can also mark a specific server as a favorite for direct access in the future.
The “Smart-Play™” function gives you access to streaming services. It combines the concepts of smart DNS and VPNs to enable users to doge regional detection and get access to streaming services that usually block overseas access.
This is a great feature if you are traveling and not impressed by the local TV. You can access TV from home over the Internet. The SmartPlay feature is integrated into NordVPNs servers, so you don’t have to look for it as an option – it is automatically in play when you connect.
This tool is available in both the apps and in the browser extensions for NordVPN. The system blocks ads and trackers and it also prevents your computer from becoming part of a botnet – a system used by hackers to cripple other computers through a DDoS attack. NordVPN operates a blacklist of infected and malicious websites. If you have CyberSec turned, the security system will check that blacklist every time you surf to a new website. If the site is on the list, CyberSec will block it from loading into your browser and save you from being infected.
The right menu list of servers in the app includes specialty servers. One of the options in this category is labeled “P2P.” This menu line gives you access to a list of servers that are specifically calibrated to facilitate downloading with torrents. You can select a country from the list available in this option, or just opt to connect to the fastest P2P server.
Torrent downloading is a contentious issue in the VPN industry. Many VPNs declare that they don’t allow file sharing, while others will allow it, but for legal reasons, won’t tell you that. NordVPN is very open on its website about its acceptance of P2P activity on its network.
TOR over VPN
NordVPN has a special feature that enables users to connect to the TOR network through a VPN server. TOR stands for “the onion router.” It is an alternative to a VPN and it routes traffic randomly though the computers of volunteers. The system includes layers of encryption and its purpose is to obscure the origin of a connection. However, it is painfully slow and messages continue unencrypted once they leave the network onto the intended destination.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to use the facility. It didn’t even appear as an option in the app. I asked NordVPN about this and a technician told me that they were having problems with the service. It hasn’t been discontinued, but the service often gets overwhelmed, so they remove it from the options list. The company hopes to provide a permanent version of this service soon.
Double hop VPN
One of the Specialty Servers category in the app is a Double VPN option. This is visible in the mobile version of the app, but isn’t immediately available in the Windows version. You need to go into the Settings menu and change the default protocol over from UDP to TCP before the option appears in the menu.
The Double VPN routes your connection through two VPN servers, each in a different country. This creates double encryption on all of your traffic for the stretch between the two VPN servers. One problem with this option is that it will slow down your traffic considerably.
Connect on start
You can choose the option to “Connect on Start” and which VPN network you want to connect to. If you have a favorite that works well for your needs, this can be a great way to bypass tedious processes of picking and connecting manually. This is a security feature that makes sure that you device is always protected.
A kill switch blocks all apps from accessing the internet if the VPN is not active. This is an important option because sometimes internet connections drop momentarily and then reconnect. The break in the connection may be enough to stop the VPN working, while apps running on your device may still try for a response. When the internet comes back, those apps might pick up the communications thread that they were on and carry on operating without the VPN protection, thus exposing your identity.
NordVPN has two types of kill switch. One is an overall internet kill switch and the other is an application kill switch. This will only block nominated apps from getting internet access without the VPN while allowing all other traffic to pass unprotected.
The kill switch is optional and if you forget that you turned it on, you might get moments that cause you to panic. It will seem that your internet connection is not working. In fact, it is blocked until you turn the VPN on.
For ease of use, NordVPN has adapted their service and made programs for PC, Mac, iOS and Android platforms. This is especially helpful because you can take your VPN security on the road with you on your smartphone. Now, sitting in a coffee shop and browsing on your phone is much safer. With your subscription service, you can use the application on your computer at work, your laptop, your home desktop, tablet and smartphone with complete fluidity.
It is also possible to set up the VPN manually of Linux machines, Blackberry, Raspberry Pi and WiFi routers.
NordVPN produces a browser extension version of its app for Chrome and Firefox.
Each NordVPN account is entitled to have six simultaneous connections. You can install the software on more than six devices but only six of them can be connected at the same time.
NordVPN has one of the best customer support teams in the business. You can search through the knowledge base, which is very comprehensive to answer your own problems. If that doesn’t help, you can access a chat bot. This is not a real person, but acts like one and it will try to answer your questions by doing a better search through the knowledge base than you could. If this bot doesn’t solve your problems, it will put you through to a real person.
The support team can also be contacted via email and through a form in the website.
Note: Nord has since drastically improved its speed with its new TCP window size update and introduction of NordLynx on Linux and iOS.
As noted earlier, connection speed is super important. So, I decided to test different areas of the world to see how they performed. My pre-VPN speed at home in the UK was:
When I connected to a VPN in Frankfurt, Germany, the speed went down to less than half:
Further away, connected to Chicago, USA, the ping slowed, but the download speed was very close to the performance that I got when connected to the Frankfurt server and the upload speed was a lot better:
For fun, I tested Costa Rica. The results were dreadful:
To be fair, the slowness of the Costa Rica connection could be down to a slow local network and not the fault of NordVPN. In each case, I tested a connection to a destination as close as possible to the VPN server location.
Do these speeds matter? Ping refers to the round-trip time of a single packet. So, the slower the ping the less suitable that connection would be for interactive applications, such as internet telephony or online gaming. Upload speeds are only important if you are planning on running your own server at home. Download speeds are especially important for streaming video. If the connection is too slow, you will get pauses in the playback and also scrambled frames and jumps in the video play.
HBO Go recommends a minimum of 3 Mbps to stream its videos over the internet. Netflix recommends 3 Mbps for SD streaming and t5 Mbps for HD video. In all of these tests, I would have been OK streaming video, except if I wanted to access video sites in Costa Rica from the UK.
DNS leak testing
After running a handful of different DNS Leak Test web services on a variety of VPN location choices I am happy to say that I didn’t find a leak anywhere. This is not surprising, though, because NordVPN has a DNS leak protection program running 24/7 to automatically detect and repair any leaks.
I installed the NordVPN app on my Android phone. The NordVPN website warns that the app available in Google Play has some performance restrictions on it and it is better to download the version available on the company website.
The app has the same functions as the computer version, but the layout is a little different. The right-hand menu in the computer app is below the map in the mobile app.
When examining the list of available servers for a country, the mobile app gives the server’s distance from your location, which isn’t information that the computer-based app gives. However, the computer app shows the load on each server but the mobile app doesn’t.
I was impressed that the VPN connection transitioned seamlessly when changing from a Wi-Fi network to a 3G network. It didn't have to disconnect and reconnect - it just flowed seamlessly into the new connection.
The matter of log keeping is of crucial importance in the VPN industry. No matter how determined a company is to protect the privacy of its customers, they can’t stop the police forcing their way in and seizing their servers if someone takes out a court order. The only defense from this intrusion is if there is no information on those servers.
The headquarters location of NordVPN in Panama makes it harder for US and European authorities or copyright holders to sue them, but it doesn’t protect your anonymity completely. Every server location is a legal vulnerability. Fortunately, thanks to the NordVPN no logs policy, there is no information to seize.
NordVPN accepts payment by Bitcoin, which is another method that customers can use in order to protect their anonymity.
The major point of weakness in any secure system occurs at the point of session establishment. Once a connection has been established, encryption and authentication systems make it impossible for a hacker to steal data from the user. Like most VPNs, NordVPN uses a system called OpenVPN for its security measures. This includes a session establishment protection library called OpenSSL.
“SSL” is a misnomer and a bit of a throwback. The term is widely used in networking technology and it stands for “Secure Socket Layer.” This is the system that puts security into HTTPS (HTTP Secure) and makes it a secure version of HTTP, the system that transports all web pages. SSL was superseded by Transport Layer Security (TLS) a long time ago and it is TLS that protects the session establishment procedures of NordVPN.
The TLS protocol centers on server authentication procedures that require access to a certificate. That certificate delivers an encryption cypher that the client can use to challenge the server to prove its identity. NordVPN uses a 2048-bit RSA key for this process, which, to date, has never been cracked.
The RSA cypher protects the delivery of the session encryption key. This key is symmetrical, which means that both sides have to know the same key in order to communicate. NordVPN uses a 256-bit AES cypher for session encryption. This is the strongest encryption system used commercially in the world today and is impossible to crack.
Websites are able to detect where a connection request comes from and selectively block them. This is called “regional restrictions” and the practice is particularly prevalent among video streaming sites. This is because TV stations only pay for the rights to show videos in specific countries, so if they let people access their libraries or live streams from anywhere, they could be sued by the producers of that content.
It is understandable why streaming services implement regional restrictions but it is also very annoying. Fortunately, VPNs can get around these access blocks by making it look as through you are in the country that has access to the site.
NordVPN is very good at getting around regional restrictions. It can get you into the BBC iPlayer even if you aren’t in the UK and it can get you into the streaming websites of the major US television networks even though you are outside of the USA.
There is one streaming website that has gone to such length to block access from overseas that it has become the touchstone of performance in the VPN industry. Its regional restrictions are so difficult to get into that most VPN companies will tell you that it can’t be done. That site is Netflix and NordVPN can get you cross-border access to it – as long as you have a Netflix subscription. It can get into the Netflix video libraries for the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy from outside of those countries.
The NordVPN can also get you into Hulu for Japan and the USA from outside those countries, into Amazon Prime Video in the country where you have an account and Sky Go, ITV, Channel 4, and the BBC iPlayer while you are outside of the UK. It can get you video access in the ABC network from outside of the USA.
NordVPN is one of the top five VPN services in the world. It is very cheap for all of its capabilities. More expensive services are not able to get you into Netflix like NordVPN can. The security extras of this provider, such as the double hop VPN and the CyberSec facility are unique and should be considered world beaters. Its allowance of six simultaneous connections is also unusually generous in the industry.
The server network of NordVPN is one of the largest in the world and the anonymity and privacy services it provides are very strong. The security of its connections is as good as you could expect from anyone and its no logs policy is a great help.
However, NordVPN loses points because in certain locations it is just too slow. The recent security breach in Finland should also give us all pause for thought. Although the company has gone to great lengths to correct its intrusion defenses, I have to wonder why those measures were implemented in the first place.