NordVPN full review
NordVPN is easy to recommend for a wide range of users. It’s simple and intuitive but maintains a solid option for serious security users nonetheless, thanks to some advanced features under the hood. We've voted it number one in our round-up of the best VPN services.
We’ll first give you a quick overview of what a VPN is and why you might want to use one, before we launch into our full review of NordVPN’s offering (available to download here).
A VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, can keep you completely anonymous online. Without one, any kind of internet activity can be traced right back to your exact location, which many users find to be an invasion of their privacy.
By using a VPN, you’ll be connecting to a server located somewhere else in the world, whether that’s another town in the country you’re currently residing in or a location on the other side of the planet. Any internet usage that happens whilst connected to that server will be routed via a private tunnel that can’t be penetrated by anyone trying to look in from the outside, so your data is safe from spying eyes.
A bonus that comes from using a VPN is that it tricks websites and services into thinking you really are in the location of the server you’re using. This means you will be able to access geo-locked content wherever you are in the world.
For example, if you’re on holiday but want to catch up on your favourite TV shows or sports on BBC iPlayer, you can use a VPN to connect to a UK server and get access to iPlayer.
The same works for those looking to watch US Netflix content from the UK. It’s important to note, though, that using a VPN in this way is often against the terms and conditions of the streaming service you’re using, so proceed at your own risk.
NordVPN: Installation & ease of use
NordVPN is one of the simplest and most intuitive VPNs we’ve tried. It’s easy to install, takes no time at all to get up and running, and is speedy, stable and reliable.
It’s available on most devices, so whether you’re on a PC, a Mac, a phone or tablet, you should be able to use NordVPN. (For more on this, visit our sister title Macworld's guides to the best VPN for Mac and the best VPN for iPhone).
You’ll need to choose a subscription plan from its website to create your account, then download the relevant app from the NordVPN website.
Once installed and you’ve launched the app, you’ll need to flip the switch at the top of the interface to automatically connect to the most efficient server. There’s a zoomable map or country list available that’ll let you select the country you’d like to connect to if you have specific needs, with the client itself then selecting the exact server to use.
If you want to take things even further, you can choose from the entire list of servers by clicking the three dots next to the country name in the country list.
From there, you’ll be able to see the server load, which indicates how many people are currently connected to give you an idea of speed and reliability. The closer this gets to 100% the less reliable it’ll be. You can also click the heart icon to add a particular server to your favourites for quick access at a later date.
If you plan to always connect to a particular server, you can set NordVPN to connect to it on launch, and you can also set the app to launch as soon as your computer starts up.
Different servers will suit you best for different activities. For example, if you’re using NordVPN for security or anonymity you may want to choose a different server than those best for streaming or P2P (peer-to-peer) and NordVPN’s excellent and speedy support service can help you determine which that is via chat.
You won’t always need to ask support though. NordVPN used to have a handy search feature that would allow you to find the best server for your needs, but the company is confident that it can now do that itself thanks to its SmartPlay feature.
SmartPlay automatically reroutes you through a server that will work best for the content you’re accessing, perhaps American Netflix from the UK for example. (It’s important to note here that watching US Netflix in the UK is against the terms and conditions of the service, so you should do so at your own risk).
We found that NordVPN worked every time with the streaming services we tried, including Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Hulu.
NordVPN is one of few VPNs that works in China and the Middle East, with the help of obfuscated servers designed to get around heavy restrictions on internet access in those regions. You can see which servers are obfuscated by checking the server list here.
While NordVPN’s apps work across your entire computer, its browser extensions can be used to tunnel internet activity from within just Chrome or Firefox. This is best suited to accessing blocked content, and both browser extensions come included in the price of your subscription. They are easy to install and are as simple (if not simpler) as the app itself, so you’ll have no trouble getting them up and running.
For more on this, visit our round-up of the best browser VPNs.
NordVPN: Security & privacy
It’s important to note here that NordVPN is based in Panama. This means it is outside the jurisdiction of the ‘14-eyes’, which is 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, however, is not within that collective and therefore cannot legally be forced to offer up its customers data. Even if it were, the company promises that it does not log any of its users online activity. It does keep a record of email addresses and billing information, though.
The service uses 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). That's the same level of protection that has also been used by the US government to secure classified information and by the NSA to protect national security data.
It uses the OpenVPN protocol, which is used by many of NordVPN’s rivals and is widely considered to be the recommended choice. OpenVPN is an open source protocol, so it’s been thoroughly tested and improved across the board to ensure that it is speedy and reliable.
There is also an IKEv2/IPsec application available for iOS and macOS but not for Windows at the moment. IKEv2/IPsec has speed advantages but is not considered to be quite as bullet-proof as OpenVPN, so is more suited to those looking to use the service for streaming purposes.
Plus, with NordVPN you’ll get the ability to take advantage of double encryption, or Double VPN as the feature is officially named, which means you can chain VPN servers for a higher level of online security and privacy.
NordVPN can also connect to The Onion Router (Tor), which 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.
Instead it’s as simple as clicking Onion Over VPN in the Speciality Servers tab on the left. This adds extra layers of encryption and security over and above those provided by NordVPN or Onion individually. You can find out more about this on NordVPN’s website.
NordVPN: Kill Switch
NordVPN features a kill switch, essential for those using the service to remain anonymous online or stay safe on public WiFi. A kill switch can terminate internet activity should the VPN disconnect to prevent any data leaks.
NordVPN’s is good because, rather than forcing you to disconnect all internet activity, you can choose apps it’ll kill should the VPN tunnel collapse. You can choose these apps from a scrollable list.
However, in doing so there is some risk of data being leaked. The OpenVPN version of NordVPN (which is the version you’ll be using on your PC) doesn’t allow you to terminate the internet connection on the system level yet, but iOS, Android and macOS users using the IKEv2 version of the app are able to do so. The company says it is currently working on improving its Kill Switch feature to allow this across the board.
NordVPN: Additional 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.
We already have fully-fledged antivirus and prefer not to block ads as they are part of what keeps online content available to read for free, but for some this will be a hugely appealing additional feature.
You can turn CyberSec on or off at any time.
If you’re looking to subscribe for just one month the fees are quite high, but the if you’re willing to commit to a longer contract the prices drop rapidly. The cheapest option is for two years, which works out at $3.99 (around £3.10) per month but requires an upfront fee of $95.75 (£73.60).
See all of the plans available and choose the one that's best for you on NordVPN's website here.
There’s a three day free trial available if you’re concerned about whether NordVPN will work for you, and you can also take advantage of the 30-day money back guarantee (which the company says it will honor for “accounts in good standing” that purchased the product outside of the Apple App Store).
NordVPN accepts credit cards, PayPal and Bitcoin as well as Paymentwall.