NordVPN

NordVPN is a Panama-registered service which provides VPN products for more than a million customers.

The company sells itself very much on features, and it's easy to see why. This VPN offers 1,300 servers in 60 locations, support for six simultaneous connections, plus it’s P2P-friendly. You also get Windows, Mac, iOS and Android apps, a kill switch, DNS leak blocking, Onion support for extra security, double data encryption, and 24/7 support if anything goes wrong.

Prices are generally reasonable for this level of functionality. The one-year plan costs an effective $5.75 (£4.60) a month, there's a six-month option for $7 (£5.60) a month, and the one-month plan is a chunky $11.95 (£9.60).

Keep looking and there are other options available. NordVPN offers a three-day trial, although the company doesn't advertise this on the front page of its site. We only realized it was there when we found a mention buried in the FAQs.

Whatever deal you choose, the company's generous 30-day ‘no-hassle 100% money-back guarantee’ gives you plenty of time to try before you buy, and suggests NordVPN is confident you won't be disappointed. Factor in the free trial and it's all looking good to us.

Privacy

The NordVPN website says the company operates a "strict no log policy", stating: "We don’t track when our users go online, to which servers they connect, which websites they visit or what files they download."

While this sounds very clear, there's still the issue of what happens to session data, the records created when you initially connect to the service.

A previous version of NordVPN's terms of service page addressed session logging directly, stating: "NordVPN does not monitor, store or record logs for any VPN user. We do not store connection time stamps, used bandwidth, traffic logs, IP addresses."

Unfortunately, the current terms of service isn't quite as specific: "NordVPN guarantees a strict no-logs policy of their VPN service, meaning that your activities using privacy solutions created by NordVPN are not monitored, recorded, logged, stored or passed to any third party."

We would interpret the 'activities' referred to here as what you do when you're connected, not the act of connecting itself, which would mean this clause isn't ruling out session logging.

We browsed the rest of NordVPN's privacy policy, but couldn't spot any major hidden catches. The company asks for your email address when you sign up, uses Google Analytics on its website and uses cookies to identify customers referred from affiliates. None of that is ideal, but these are also relatively minor issues that are similar to many other providers.

On the plus side, the company clearly states its policy on customer service and support queries, including live chat. Logs are kept for six months as a reference, but can be deleted earlier if you ask.

We checked out the rest of the contract, and were surprised by just how fair and reasonable it seemed. Unlike some of the competition, NordVPN's small print doesn't bury sneaky restrictions in 5,000 words of densely-packed legalese. Instead, it's simple, clear and straightforward.

The document had more items than usual in the list of things you’re forbidden to do while using the service – the company warns that anyone carrying out kidnapping, rape or murder, as well as the usual hacking/spamming/phishing, will have their account cancelled, which is good to know – but otherwise the only surprise was something in the customer's favor: "NordVPN does guarantee a 99.9% server uptime."

We don't know whether the firm achieves that, or what happens if it doesn’t, but we like the ambition – most VPNs don't make any kind of uptime promise at all.

Performance

Signing up for the NordVPN trial is easier than you might expect. There's no need for credit card details, just enter your email address, download a client – Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and a Chrome extension are available – and you should have it installed within seconds.

NordVPN's Windows client added an icon to our system tray, and a couple of extra running processes, too, grabbing a mildly above-average 80-90MB RAM. This can drop to 10-15MB if you close the client when you're not using it, though, and overall it's unlikely to impact most users.

While most VPN clients are tiny windows with simple lists of cities, NordVPN's offering looks more like a full-scale Windows application. The opening window displays all its locations on a zoomable world map, for instance, and can be resized or maximized for the best possible view.

Although this looks good, it's not exactly practical. To access a mid-Europe server you have to launch the client, maybe resize the window, then spin the mouse wheel to zoom in, while clicking and dragging to centre the map in the right area. There are no country names on the map, so you might have to hover your mouse over the individual server icons to see which one is which. Finally, clicking the icon connects to that location and displays your new IP address.

NordVPN also has a Connection Wizard for novice users. Tell the client what your priorities are – streaming, P2P, security, anonymity – and it'll select a location for you. This worked, but was poorly implemented. If you don't accept the initial prompt to use it, there's no way to launch it from the menus. If you do launch the wizard, it appears as an overlay on the map screen and can't be dismissed.

We preferred NordVPN's Servers tab, which takes a more conventional list-based approach. You can choose a country, select an individual server, or sort the servers by distance, load or tasks (P2P, Onion over VPN, and more). There's a Favourites list to hold all your regular locations, and right-clicking the system tray icon gives you a 'Quick Connect' option which connects to whatever server you chose last time. This looks good and works well, and is one of the better VPN interfaces we've seen.

The latest edition of the client includes NordVPN's 'CyberSec', essentially a filter to block ads, known malware and phishing sites. It works at a basic level, and is better than having no protection at all, but has no configuration options. You can't add exceptions or decide to manually override the block to visit a site, for instance. If CyberSec blocks a legitimate site, all you can do is disable the feature entirely.

The Settings dialog is more of a highlight, giving you fine control over how the service works. You don't just get a 'Start with Windows' checkbox, for example: the app can also start minimized or maximized, or it can automatically connect to your choice of server, and disable notifications if you don't need desktop alerts.

An Advanced Settings dialog enables choosing UDP or TCP connections, or setting your preferred DNS servers when connected.

You can even customize the interface. If you find the map as impractical as we did, turn it off with a click and the client will open at the excellent Servers list.

If there's a catch, it's the kill switch, which ensures applications don't give away your identity by continuing to access the internet if your VPN connection drops.

Most VPNs implement a kill switch at the system level by turning off network access, which just about guarantees blocking everything.

NordVPN's kill switch works by closing the applications you specify: browsers, torrent clients, whatever you like. That's more of a hassle, as it requires you to build a list and keep it up-to-date. It could also cause other problems, as forcibly closing some applications could mean you lose data.

So, in the overall picture, NordVPN's Windows client needs some work, but we like its server selection features and configurability, and on the whole it's a good-looking package.

Performance is almost as impressive. In our tests*, short UK to UK connections peaked at 33Mbps, we managed 15 to 30Mbps to France, Germany and Spain, and 18 to 29Mbps to the US. We had to make very long-distance connections to find any issues, with some faraway servers struggling to connect at all, but the Hong Kong and Australia servers still managed a just-about-usable 5Mbps.

Even more importantly, NordVPN delivered on its privacy promises, with servers in the expected locations, and DNS along with WebRTC leaks were automatically blocked.

Final verdict

An appealing VPN which is fast and (mostly) user-friendly. It's let down a little by the unfinished feel to parts of the Windows client, and the new and more vague privacy policy, but the speed and convenient server selection tools finally won us over.

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

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Date: 
Friday, October 20, 2017 - 06:50