NordVPN comes with a pretty bold claim: being the world’s most advanced VPN service. NordVPN is very well regarded among users and reviewers; could this be the best? Let’s take a look.
NordVPN was established back in 2002. It was inspired by the personal experiences of its founders and by Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of an open internet. The story goes that the founders, four childhood friends, wanted to “build technology that could liberate the Internet” after having experienced internet censorship, content control, and government surveillance first hand in different parts of the world. They set up their first VPN server in 2002, and now, 16 years later, NordVPN serves more than 1 million people worldwide.
Servers, Switches, and Bandwidth
The first striking thing about NordVPN is the size of their network of servers: 5000+ servers that connect users through 62 countries. Sixty-three is a very satisfactory number, but it’s not the biggest reach we’ve seen, and certainly feels disproportionate to the number of servers. This means that NordVPN has a higher than average ratio of server to countries. This means that the load for each country is distributed on a higher number of servers, which equals better speeds for the user, and that, for services such as Netflix that keep a good eye on any high number of requests emanating from the same IP, the service is better equipped to dodge these measures.
- The Americas: United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Chile.
- Europe: United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Finland, Austria, Spain, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Iceland, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Ukraine, Albania, Greece, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Serbia.
- Asia Pacific: Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
- Africa, the Middle East, and India: South Africa, India, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
And as we’ve come to expect from any respectable (paid) service, there are no limits on the number of server switches nor any caps on bandwidth consumption.
Platforms & Simultaneous Connections
NordVPN covers all the major platforms: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and even niche platforms such as ChromeOS, Linux, and Windows Phone. But that’s far from the whole story. NordVPN can be set up on an almost mind-boggling number of systems and devices. We’re just gonna name a few here: Raspberry Pi, QNAP, Asus, TP-Link, Linksys, to name a few. The full list can be seen here.
And with this many supported platforms, NordVPN adequately decided to allow 6 simultaneous connections per account.
Let’s go over them quickly protocols. NordVPN offers what pretty much every VPN service provides: OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, L2TP/IPsec, and PPTP. To give a quick idea about each:
OpenVPN is an open source, robust software that is generally recommended: “for the most security-conscious”. It is reliable and supports a great number of strong encryption algorithms and ciphers. NordVPN uses AES-256-CBC with a 2048bit DH key.
IKEv2/IPsec is highly recommended too. It employs very strong cryptographic algorithms and keys. It has been adopted as a default in the NordVPN apps for iOS and Mac OS.
L2TP/IPsec is typically used when newer protocols aren’t supported – think old hardware, or in cases where security isn’t a major concern. The protocol also used for countries where this particular protocol is able to penetrate government and ISP firewalls. It is not generally recommended unless necessary.
PPTP is the oldest of the bunch, and, understandably, the least secure. It is typically only used when security is not an issue.
For a more detailed review of each protocol be sure to check our Guide to VPN Protocols.
Location & Logs
NordVPN is based in Panama. While its main offices are likely to be somewhere else, it means that it operates under the legal jurisdiction of Panama. And that’s a good thing because there are no data retention laws in Panama. But that shouldn’t matter, because the company says that it does not save any logs, so it wouldn’t have any information to submit in case it is asked.
What matters about Panama is that is a country outside of 14 Eyes, a notorious global intelligence alliance that is known for being involved in the occasional invasion of privacy scandal.
NordVPN’s CyberSec feature automatically blocks suspicious websites and advertisements and protects you from being unwillingly recruited into an army of bots.
CyberSec regularly scans website addresses against popular blocklists; any website that might infect your machine with malware, trackers, spyware or other malicious software will be blocked.
It also prevents your device from participating in DDoS attacks; it is able to spot and shut off any communication between a compromised device and a botnet server.
And it hides advertising material on any website, which improves the load speed and saves on mobile data.
As the name suggests, the feature runs your traffic through two VPN servers instead of one. It’s a pretty simple concept: your traffic goes from your device to a VPN server, then to another VPN server, and eventually to its final destination. This means that your data gets encrypted twice. This feature is particularly useful for people looking to double down on their security and privacy, namely, journalists and activist in repressive regimes. In addition to the double encryption, your ISP, or whoever is trying to snoop on you, will not be able to tell the country destination of your requests, since the Double VPN routes the data through two servers, each in a different country.
DNS Leak Protection
DNS servers translate what you type into the address bar into numeric names that the machines understand. Evidently, if exposed, this information will reveal your destination. This is why it is critical that a VPN runs its own DNS servers, akin to NordVPN, eliminating the risk of such an exposure.
Peer to peer traffic involves sharing files between a large group of people. Engaging in P2P transfer entails revealing your IP address to everyone in the group, which, in turn, exposes you to hacking and different types of attacks.
P2P is typically discouraged by VPN providers, as the practice typically involves high volumes of data and is also commonly associated with copyright violations issues.
NordVPN has hundreds of servers optimized for P2P activities in different locations around the world, with military-grade encryption and no bandwidth limits.
Using shared IP addresses for P2P activities is also advisable, as tucks away multiple users under one IP, making it practically impossible to identify a particular user.
It is usually recommended to connect to the closest server available. P2P sharing is (mostly) unaffected by the location of the server, so your choice should rest on maximizing the speed.
Onion Over VPN
The Onion Router (Tor) is a network of servers used to obfuscate the source of online traffic. The network encrypts and bounces communications between several nodes in the network. Data is encrypted between each node, making it difficult to identify and consequently tracked as it enters and exits nodes; the random relaying between nodes in the network makes it difficult to trace back to its original source.
But the encryption only starts when your data hits the first node, which means that your IP will be exposed all the way leading up to that node. On the other hand, the exit node will know the final destination. Your ISP will also be able to tell that you that you are using the Tor network, a practice typically banned in authoritarian countries.
Using a VPN solves for the following problems: Your ISP will no longer be able to tell that you are using the Tor network; your IP will be hidden as your request makes its way out of the network.
Typically, the network can only be accessed through the Onion browser, NordVPN’s Onion ready servers that does away with the download and use of the dedicated browser.
An almost standard feature for VPNs. The Kill Switch acts as a fail-safe for when your VPN connection drops. Without a Kill Switch, your communication would automatically default back to your original IP.
The desktop NordVPN apps allow users to specify applications that ought to be shut down if the VPN connection drops out; The mobile version (Android & iOS) disables the whole of your Internet access.
Reading about the plethora of features above, I would assume that one would imagine NordVPN’s interface to be, at the very least, more complicated than the average service. Far from it actually, the apps feel light and are quick easy to use.
The main interface is dominated by a map, with blue pins marking the location of servers. At the bottom, there are two tabs – ‘Map’ and ‘List’ – and a ‘Quick Connect’ button.
Quick Connect will connect you through the fastest possible route, typically that’s the server closest to you. Map and List are two doors to the same functions.
Clicking on a blue pin on the map will reveal a pop-up message, prompting you to either connect to a server in that country; there is also the option to pick the server yourself, which reveals the country menu list that you could have accessed by clicking on List.
Each country has a quick connect button, otherwise, you can choose to reveal the list of available servers there. Each server is labeled with the corresponding load and the distance between you and the server. You can also favorite servers and sort them alphabetically, by load, distance, or VPNs recommendation for servers best suited for you. The list also includes access to some of the security features we discussed above. There is the option to view servers can protect you from being enlisted in a DDoS attack, servers that are compatible with Tor, and servers that are optimized for P2P sharing.
There is a quick access button to your favorite servers next to a search button at the top right corner. Opposite those two buttons is the Account & Settings button.
Account and Settings contain basic information and functions: info about your account and subscription (email and expiration date), a button to toggle the Kill Switch, support, and legal information.
I was rather impressed by how neatly NordVPN manages to squeeze for many features into such a neat and simple interface.
Compared to my previous reviews of VPN services, NordVPN’s support team got the short end of the stick as it just so happened that during my time with their service, the online world was still experiencing the tremors caused by GDPR. My questions, which involved queries about privacy, data collection and retention were more challenging than the typical troubleshooting question.
Despite that, NordVPN’s support passed with flying colors. The live chat support personnel did their best to answer my questions – understandably, regarding a few overly complicated questions, they offered to create a ticket for me and forward my questions to their ‘Senior Support Agents’. Sure enough, I got my answers within a day.
I ran NordVPN through the usual speed drill, testing it impacts using servers in the US, England, and the Netherlands. I used the instant connect feature for each country, letting the app decide which server is best. I also tested NordVPN’s Quick Connect feature.
The latter proved to be the fastest. Download speed dropped 14.4% whereas upload dropped 24.7%. Download speed dropped 20.2, 17.8, and 16.4 percent respectively in the States, England, and the Netherlands; whereas upload dropped 23, 21.4, and 21.8% respectively.
Price & Verdict
While spending time with NordVPN, I found myself trying to find flaws and errors. I have come to notice that that might be the natural tendency of a reviewer when testing a service of quality, it becomes sort of a challenge if you will. It’s impossible for me not to recommend NordVPN for anyone, the service is simply unmatched in many regards. It is slightly expensive though, as you can see above, but it’s definitely worth every penny. There is also an unbeatable 3-year plan for $2.75 a month; the plan will expire on the 31st of August, so hurry and get it if you’re willing to commit that long.
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