NordVPN full review

NordVPN may well be the only VPN service you've ever heard of. Even now, in 2020, VPN services still aren't a household name, even though they should be.

VPNs have many uses, but the primary one is for privacy while using the internet. Your data is precious and you don't want to give too much away, so running a VPN whenever you're browsing websites or doing anything else online means your ISP, your government and anyone else who has an interest will be prevented from knowing what you're up to.

For the most part, anyway. Ignore the claims that VPN make you anonymous: this isn't really true. As soon as log into Amazon or any other website, that site knows who you are: you're not anonymous just because you're connected via a VPN.

NordVPN review

If you don't use a VPN, your internet activity can be traced right back to your exact location, which many users find to be an invasion of their privacy. It encrypts your connection to the internet so your ISP (and government) can't see what you're up to, and the same encryption stops anyone hacking you when you're connected to open public Wi-Fi.

The other main use is to unblock video or websites which you can't access because of region blocking. Accessing different services (like Netflix and BBC iPlayer) in this way is against the Ts & Cs, which is why they're blocked in the first place, so you do so at your own risk.

Getting to the point: NordVPN is an excellent choice for anyone who wants a VPN service. Put simply it ticks all the boxes:

  • Over 5500 servers across 59 countries
  • Unblocks Netflix & other streaming services
  • Uses custom WireGuard protocol for super-fast speeds
  • 24/7 live chat support
  • Apps for all popular devices
  • Audited zero-logs policy

Features & Apps

At the time of writing NordVPN was operating 5510 servers in 59 locations. Servers numbers and locations aren't the reason to choose a VPN, though. What's important is that those locations are where you want them: i.e. they're locations near you (for the best speeds) or where you want to appear to be from, in order to unblock region-locked content.

And NordVPN covers all the popular locations, including the US, UK, plenty of European countries, the Far East, South America and Australia.

You can install NordVPN on iPhone, Android, Windows, macOS, Amazon Fire TV and other devices. The apps all have the same easy-to-use interface and let you scroll around a map to pick your location or browse from a list of servers.

If there's an annoyance (and it's a minor one), it's that you can't pick the specific server from, say, the 191 available in Toronto, from the mobile apps. You can in the Windows one, though, but none of the apps tell you which server has the lowest ping. It really is a minor quibble.

NordVPN review

Connections take a couple of seconds and you can change the default setting of not automatically connecting to to auto-connect on any Wi-Fi network that isn't in your trusted list. Or you can choose 'Always' which covers mobile connections as well as Wi-Fi.

You can have up to six devices connected to NordVPN at the same time. That's more limiting than Surfshark which allows an unlimited number of connections, but it's enough for most people.

Where NordVPN used to have a 'SmartPlay' feature, that has disappeared and there's no need to pick a server based on the type of activity you want to do: whether streaming video or browsing the web, you can just choose your country (or server) and click the Connect button.

The only exception to this is P2P which, for the uninitiated, is the downloading of large files - typically videos but it can be operating systems, apps and games as well. For this, the NordVPN apps have a subset of 'P2P Speciality' servers, and you should choose one of those before beginning your download.

Unlike some VPN apps which have a bewildering list of settings, NordVPN keeps it simple. When you go into the settings, you'll find you can choose a specific protocol (NordLynx is the one we'd recommend) but it will pick one automatically by default.

The only setting you'll have to change is the kill switch, which is off by default. If you're using the Windows 10 app you can either have it stop the internet connection to all apps, or close those in the list you create if the VPN connection stops for any reason or you manually disconnect from a server.

NordVPN review

It's good that the kill switch is present in the Android, iOS and macOS apps too, but here it simply stops the connection for all apps: there's no exception list.

What missing is split tunneling. We'd imagined NordVPN would add this in an update, but it hasn't happened. Split tunneling is a fancy way of saying that only some apps use the VPN connection and others don't. You might only want your web browser to use the VPN connection as there's no reason for Windows updates to be downloaded over the VPN, for example.

However, if that's the case, NordVPN does offer 'extensions' for Chrome and Firefox so when you're using those browsers your activity is protected by the encrypted connection while all other apps use your normal internet connection. For more on this, visit our round-up of the best browser VPNs.

But since - spoiler alert - NordVPN's service is so fast, you shouldn't notice a slower internet connection when the VPN is connected, so unless a particular app doesn't work properly, there's no reason to need split tunneling.

What you do get,  which isn't offered by many of NordVPN's rivals, is a double VPN. This routes your connection through two different VPN servers, changing your IP address twice for an extra layer of protection.

Dark web monitoring

A new feature is Dark web monitor. This watches out for 'leaked info linked to your email address'. If any is found, you'll get an alert so you can change your password or take some other action.

Don't get too excited though: it only monitors for the email address you use for your NordVPN account and you can't add other emails or credit card details: it's not a fully fledged ID protection service.

NordVPN review

Performance

  • One of the fastest consumer VPN services

As mentioned, NordVPN has exceptionally good performance thanks to the fact that it has added WireGuard to its range of protocols, and this is available across all the various apps.

It's called NordLynx because no VPN service can use plain WireGuard for some boring technical reasons which you can read about if you're really interested. (They're do to with the way the connection is established and ensures your identity is protected.)

Much more important is the speed you get when using NordLynx, which goes far beyond the average broadband connection speed. Even our office connection - at 100Mbps for both upload and download - isn't quick enough to show how fast NordVPN is.

Instead, we have to look to third-party testing, such as results from VPNpro. You can see these for yourself, over the past 7, 14 or 30 days in five different countries. This is a much better gauge of how quick a VPN is than a 'snapshot' test taken at only one point in time.

The speed of a VPN varies all the time and is affected by many factors, but the point is this: NordVPN is the fastest VPN service currently, delivering between 1000Mbps and 2000Mbps in both the US and UK.

NordVPN review

Note than some of the other services listed were tested using OpenVPN even though they, too, support WireGuard. The only other service tested with WireGuard is Surfshark which isn't as fast as NordVPN, but still very, very quick.

Security

  • Based in Panama
  • Servers being upgraded to RAM-only
  • Some owned & operated servers

NordVPN is based in Panama. This means it is outside the jurisdiction of the ‘14-eyes’, a collective of countries that has agreed to exchange information freely with one another, with a view that this will enhance everyone’s security. Any VPN provider based within those countries can be asked to share the data of its customers and is legally obliged to comply, which some say impinges on our freedom and privacy.

NordVPN chose Panama for its favorable privacy laws and the fact there is no mandatory data retention, so even if a Panamanian court requested it to hand over any customer data, the most it would have is an email address and payment information.

It runs a no-logs policy and, like VyprVPN, has been audited (by PWC) to verify that it sticks by this rule. You can read more about that here.

NordVPN still works in China and the Middle East thanks to the help of obfuscated servers designed to get around heavy restrictions on internet access in those regions. Nord doesn't have any servers in China, but this isn't a problem: you can still connect to servers in Hong Kong.

Do bear in mind there are no guarantees: VPNs and governments - and video services - play a cat-and-mouse game of blocking and unblocking each other, and things change on a daily basis.

NordVPN can also connect to The Onion Router (Tor) if you're using the Windows app. This is free software designed to enable anonymous communication by directing internet traffic through a huge overlay network. This conceals the user’s location, therefore making it tricky for anyone to trace the internet activity and protecting the privacy of its user.  

Usually you’d be required to have an Onion browser in order to access this, but NordVPN has Onion over VPN servers that mean you are not required to do so.

Extra features

When you first begin using NordVPN you’ll be asked whether you’d like to turn on CyberSec, which is essentially an ad blocker with some malware protection built in. This is a reasonably new feature for the service, and one that several of its rivals have also adopted. It’s designed to protect against intrusive ads, malware, phishing attempts and other threats.

Don't confuse this with fully-fledged antivirus software and we prefer it if our readers don't block ads as they are part of what keeps our content available to read for free. You can turn CyberSec on or off at any time.

Price & Availability

As with most VPN services, subscribing to Nord for just one month costs a lot, but if you’re willing to commit to a longer contract prices drop sharply. The cheapest option is for two years, which works out at £2.68 / US$3.71 per month but requires that to be paid all in one go, so works out at £64.32 / US$89.

See all of the plans available and choose the one that's best for you on NordVPN's website.

That's standard practice among VPN services: they quote the monthly price, but the only time you'll pay each month is if you opt for the most expensive rolling one-month subscription.

If you've been researching VPN services, you'll know that there are cheaper services out there. If you want to pay less than £2 per month, you can. But you won't get such as well-rounded service that offers the features, speeds, support, apps and other things that make NordVPN our no.1 pick.

If you prefer to be totally anonymous, you can pay via various Bitcoin services, but there are the usual credit and debit card options, among others.

If you are concerned about whether or not NordVPN is right for you, there's no free trial. But you can take advantage of the 30-day money back guarantee (which the company says it will honor for “accounts in good standing” that purchased the subscription outside of the Apple App Store).

For alternatives see our roundup of the best VPN services.

Verdict

With 24/7 live chat support, reliable, fast connections, an audited no-logs policy and the extra security offered by Double VPN, NordVPN ticks all the boxes. It'll keep you anonymous and safe online, and it's also good value when you sign up for two years.

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