NordVPN review: Speedy, loaded with features, and greater transparency

NordVPN's leadership is starting to go public, and the services it offers keep getting better.

Credit: Tefincom S.A.

It’s been more than two years since we reviewed NordVPN, and the last time around we awarded it top honors as our favorite VPN for its speeds, features, and overall value.

NordVPN offers a fantastic service, and NordSec, the umbrella brand for NordVPN parent company Tefincom S.A., has gone beyond VPNs with new products including a password manager, and a file encryption app for the desktop.

Note: This review is part of our best VPNs roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

But NordVPN is one of those services with an exotic location and, until recently, an anonymous leadership. To use a VPN with any degree of confidence you have to implicitly trust the company, which is why we prefer to know who’s running things, and it’s fantastic that co-founder Tom Okman is now someone we can point to as leading NordSec.

nordvpnnotconnected IDG

NordVPN for Mac without an active connection.

Despite any privacy promises, there is really nothing stopping a VPN service from logging your traffic (and keeping it), spying on you, or carrying out other malicious activities. You’re putting your web surfing traffic into the company’s hands, and more often than not, installing its desktop software to do it. When it comes to VPNs trust is everything.

To help with this, NordVPN is doing a lot to offer greater transparency. Beyond going public with some of its leadership, the company announced the completion of its second privacy policy audit in July 2020.

The audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers Switzerland found that NordVPN was compliant with its no-logging policy as of May 28, 2020. Since servers can be reconfigured, a security audit can only guarantee that the VPN complied with its own privacy policies at the time of the audit.

Prior to that, in late 2019, it asked security VerSprite to carry out a security audit of its apps; it also hired a full-time penetration testing team to analyze its products.

Security, software, servers, and speed

NordVPN uses the IKEv2 VPN protocol by default, with AES-256-GCM for data encryption, TLS 1.2 with a 4096-bit Diffie-Hellman key for data authentication, and SHA-512 for the handshake. The service is also working towards diskless servers, where everything runs in RAM including the OS. This is becoming a trend in VPN services, and it takes a further step to prevent any logs from being kept by removing the option of non-volatile storage in the physical machine. A NordVPN representative told us the company plans to complete the transition to diskless servers by the end of August 2020.

nordvpnregions IDG

NordVPN for Mac with an active connection.

When you open NordVPN on Mac you’ll see it’s very similar to what it was two years ago in terms of design. The colors have changed a bit, but it’s the same interactive map with a left-side rail listing all the various country and server options.

The beauty of NordVPN’s design is that it serves both power users and novices. If all you want is a connection in the United States, just click the map and you’re good to go.

Anyone who wants to drill down to find a specific server can hover over the country name in the left rail and click the three horizontal dots. A pop-out window then appears showing every server in that country, with green or red dots showing how close to capacity a particular server is.

nordvpnservers IDG

The server options in the United States on NordVPN for Mac.

For larger countries (by land mass) such as Australia, Canada, and the U.S., there’s an additional option to connect by region, which is really just a list of major cities. In the U.S., for example, the list includes Atlanta, Buffalo, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Manassas, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Saint Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle. Selecting any of these regions automatically connects to a server in those areas.

NordVPN also offers a number of specialty services. There are Onion over VPN servers where you connect to the TOR network by going through NordVPN’s servers first, and there are P2P-friendly servers as well. NordVPN also has a Double VPN option where you use multiple VPN servers before exiting out to the web. We didn’t see this option on Mac, but changing from the recommended protocol to OpenVPN gave us the Double VPN option, as well as an obfuscated-servers option for bypassing national firewalls in more repressive countries. 

Dipping into Preferences > General there is an option to turn on CyberSec, which blocks ads and malware at the server level. Here you can also change from the default IKev2 protocol to OpenVPN or NordLynx—the company’s adaptation of the WireGuard protocol.

NordVPN also works with Netflix and other streaming services, though this is always a cat and mouse game, so expect technical issues from time to time.

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NordVPN for Mac’s Preferences window.

NordVPN offers more than 5,000 servers with 58 country locations.

In our speed tests using the app’s default settings, NordVPN was at the top of its game retaining nearly 57 percent of the base speed. That’s based on three days of testing using five different VPN locations. 

Pricing

NordVPN offers five different pricing plans. For a single year NordVPN is $83.88, which works out to $6.99 per month. Two years is $119.76 for two years ($4.99 per month), and $125.64 for three years ($3.49 per month). All of those annual plans require upfront payments, but if you do need to go month-to-month it’s $11.95 per. It accepts payments via credit card, Amazon Pay, Google Pay, and cryptocurrencies.

NordVPN is one of the more expensive services if you pay for a single year instead of, say, three years. Nevertheless, it does offer a lot of value for the price, with multiple extra services, ad and tracker blocking, a ton of country options, and excellent speeds. 

Bottom line

It’s hard not to love NordVPN, and it remains our top pick for Mac users. If your main concern is maintaining privacy and as much anonymity as you can realistically achieve online, NordVPN has gone a long way to improving user trust in 2020. 

NordVPN is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to watch U.S. Netflix overseas, keep their IP concealed while gaming, or just secure their VPN while on open Wi-Fi.

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Ian Paul

Macworld.com
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