NordVPN claims to have over one million subscribers. This makes them one of the largest VPN providers active today. They are user friendly and easy to use, but this might have come at the expense of features for power users.
On today’s modern Internet, having a reliable VPN is an important tool to protect yourself. Companies track your activity and sell it. Public internet Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, but it might not be safe to use. Governments may control what content you can access. Your own ISP may be putting artificial limits on your internet speed. A reliable VPN can help protect against all of these.
A VPN essentially acts like a tunnel out to the internet. It will protect the internet traffic coming out from your computer or device from inspection by the ISP, but since it all goes through the VPN’s servers, if the VPN provider isn’t trustworthy you may be worse off. This is why “free” VPN services should be avoided.
NordVPN was founded in 2012, making them one of the longest running VPN providers. They claim to be founded by four friends, who those four friends were, and if they are still involved with operations, is left up to the imagination. Their company philosophy is based on “Nordic ideals” and freedom of information to their consumers. They are based out of Panama, which keeps them outside many governments reach. One very interesting tidbit on their website is their Warrant Canary. Sometimes, when a company is compelled to give up information by a government, it will come with a gag order keeping them from saying anything. The warrant canary is their promise that this has never happened, and if it were to happen, they would remove the statement on the website; in the same way underground coal miners would have a canary to let them know if their air turned poisonous. This would inform their customers of government orders in a way that circumvents gag orders.
When it comes to server capacity, NordVPN is second to none. As of this writing, they have a little over five thousand active servers. They also have 62 different countries to connect to. These cover Asia, Europe and North America, but the number of countries is sparse in Africa and South America, as with most services. Interestingly, they have a site dedicated for China and specialized servers just for use from within the great firewall.
NordVPN is average price for a high-quality provider. The month to month cost is $12, which is a tad higher than some competitors. When subscribed for a year the cost is $7 a month. If you look around, it might be possible to find a 2-year package that works out to $4 per month. They accept numerous types of payment including normal credit card and PayPal or more privacy focused Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. If you are out of the country, there are other payment services accepted including Alipay, WebMoney, Yandex, giropay, or Sofort.
Lots of extras are included with a NordVPN subscription. It includes unlimited bandwidth and up to 6 simultaneous connections. They also have included optional ad blocking; some might say that if they can block ads they must do some sort of monitoring and filtering, but it can speed up your web browsing. Another unique service is their double VPN; you connect to one server, it is then tunneled to another server where it then exits to the wider internet. This allows a bit more anonymity and to get around restrictions, like China VPN blocking. For an extra fee, you can also get a dedicated IP.
Access clients are available for all the standard platforms. This includes Windows, macOS, iOS, and android. They also offer instructions for setting up your home router or other devices that can use Open-VPN. This includes some enterprise grade routers like pfsense and Fortinet. There’s instructions for using them as a SOCKS5 proxy.
Using any VPN service will come with a performance impact. We evaluate both automated synthetic tests and subjective experience when evaluating a VPN service. All tests are performed using a dedicated wired internet connection.
In our synthetic download speed tests, NordVPN had some interesting results. Typically, a VPN will impose an approximate 20% overhead penalty to your maximum bandwidth, in our test on speedtest.net we found NordVPN to be a bit slower than usual, more like 30%-35% slower, but it might not have picked the closest server. We normally doublecheck the speed results with fast.com, which is a speed test provided by Netflix, but during the initial testing the testing server defaulted to one across the country, giving very poor speed test results. It seems that the bandwidth test sites couldn’t properly determine what server was closest, so all these tests are unreliable. This is a win for privacy, but a problem for services that need to know some location information to provide the best experience. The next day, the speed tests from fast.com were more in line with expectations.
For page load tests we use a tool to automatically access and record timing over multiple trials. We found that NordVPN did not introduce any delay in page loads. Web browsing speed is definitely a strength for them. Between having the VPN on and off the numbers were so close that it could fall within margin of error. With the ad blocking service turned on, some advertisement heavy pages loaded faster than without the VPN!
Using NordVPN for general browsing and downloading was excellent. We didn’t experience any issues with page loads or delays. General download speed was not adversely affected by the VPN connection. Most of the time, you won’t notice you are connected at all.
Streaming video while connected to NordVPN was a mixed bag. Youtube worked fine at 1080p without stuttering or reconnecting. We were also able to load BBC’s iPlayer while connected to a UK server. Netflix didn’t block the connection, like many VPN fall to, but during initial tests video only streamed at below SD quality and had long loading times during some viewing sessions. This is most likely due to the location awareness issue mentioned in the download speed tests. The next day, Netflix video streamed fine.
The NordVPN desktop client was designed to be simple to use, but there might be some decisions that frustrate power users. Installation was simple, just select the install folder and it will take the rest from there. It also automatically detected and installed a new client version on the first run; this is good as a security flaw was discovered in their client recently and this patched it. After the install is done you sign in with your email and password.
The client at the top has a big slider to connect or disconnect from the VPN. There is also a map that you can use to select what country to connect to. The map is a cartoonish representation of the world with little whimsical boats and submarines in the oceans. Along the left side menu, you can select to use their specialty servers, like P2P or double encryption, or chose the country from a list and drill down to what city. Currently it doesn’t show you what city you are connected to, nor can you select the city from the map. This made it difficult to know what the issue with the speed tests could be. The client would also reconnect whenever a country name was clicked. Client connection times seemed a bit slower than some other providers.
The settings menu contained all the normal options that are expected for a VPN. You can activate “CyberSec” which is their malware & ad blocking service. There are also options for kill switches and LAN blocks. For protocol, there is only the options UDP or TCP connections, so if you are a fan of another protocol you’re out of luck.
The mobile clients are similarly easy to use. They show the same simplified map and a list of countries to connect to. The settings allow you to activate their “CyberSec” and chose TCP or UDP connections. There is also an option to automatically connect to the VPN on WiFi or Mobile networks.
NordVPN uses industry standard 256-bit key AES encryption. According to their website, the Windows, macOS, and Android clients use Open-VPN, and iOS and macOS default to using IKEv2/IPsec. I couldn’t find a way to change the protocol in the Windows client. If used, their diagnostic tool collects and sends some potentially identifiable information, including MAC addresses and the computer’s logged in username, so stay away from diagnostics if you are privacy focused.
We use Wireshark to capture the handshake and some traffic over the VPN. The initial connection seemed to do more connections than other clients, but this is most likely due to how the client selects what server to connect to. Once connected all internet traffic was properly secured. The traffic was clearly Open-VPN protocol instead of generic UDP traffic.
It’s easy to see why NordVPN is a very popular service. Their client is easy to use, and they make the process of getting and setting up the VPN very user friendly. Their service is an average value for the money and ticks all the right boxes for features.
They offer a few extra features not offered by other providers. Some might find the built-in ad blocking nice to have. If you plan to visit China, they are specially prepared for the extra issues presented by the Great Firewall. The simplified client UI might put off people looking for full control though.
NordVPN is a good middle of the road VPN service. For someone who is looking for a good experience without hassle at a fair price NordVPN would be a good choice. There are better options for either better power features or lower cost on the market. It seems that NordVPN is a case of trying to please everybody but making too many compromises in the process.