NordVPN: What’s new in 2018?

NordVPN is a no-logs VPN provider based in Panama. This alone makes it one of the best VPN choices out there for privacy fanatics, who will also appreciate NordVPN’s strong technical security.  It is also a very fully-featured service, with  double VPN, VPN over Tor, DNS-based malware protection, Smart DNS, and more, all part of the very reasonably-priced package.

Pricing and Plans

NordVPN has just the one plan. It costs $11.95 per month if paid monthly, with discounts available for bulk time purchases. If purchased annually, for example, the price drops to a very reasonable $5.75 per month.

NordVPN pricing

NordVPN also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. It accepts payment via credit/debit card or PayPal. It also accepts Bitcoin, which allows for potentially anonymous payment. However, as always, please remember that NordVPN will know your true IP address, regardless.

Features

NordVPN is based in Panama. All customers enjoy the following features:

  • Six simultaneous connections
  • Servers in 70 countries
  • Choice of IKEv2, OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, and IPSec VPN protocols
  • P2P: yes
  • Smart DNS service
  • Double VPN
  • Tor over VPN
  • CyberSec anti-malwate protection
  • Web proxy and web proxy extension for Chrome (free)
  • Socks5 proxies
  • VPN access for China and other restrictive countries using XOR obfuscation
  • DNS servers (useful if manually configuring a secure VPN connection)
  • Dedicated IP addresses are available for $5.83 per month

As always, I recommend using the OpenVPN protocol where possible (although IKEv2 is also good).

Although six devices can be connected to the service at once, if you connect devices to the same server, you must choose different protocols for the VPN connections. TCP and UDP are counted as different protocols, so you can connect one device using  TCP and another using UDP. Personally, I do not consider this to be a major limitation, and permitting six simultaneous devices is generous.

The Socks5 proxy is particularly useful for downloaders who only wish to proxy their torrent clients, or double-proxy them with a VPN for extra protection!

Smart DNS (“Smart Play”)

Smart DNS is a technology that enables you to pretend to be elsewhere by resolving  DNS requests at a specified location. This makes it ideal for streaming geo-blocked content.

According to NordVPN, users can access over 150 streaming services using NordVPN SmartPlay. These include Hulu, Amazon Prime, ABC Go, Zattoo, Cartoon Network, Shudder, WeTV.com, Telemundo, VH1, Vevo, TNT Drama, Sundance.tv, StarTrek, Spike, PBS, Slacker, NBC Sports, FoodNetwork, DramaFever, Discovery, Crackle, and many more.

NordVPN’s implementation of Smart DNS is rather unusual. For a start, it uses an encrypted proxy connection. I am not sure what advantage this brings over an unencrypted connection, as Smart DNS is not really about security or privacy. On the other hand, though, it can’t do any harm.

For a second, it requires no additional configuration. It runs inside all NordVPN’s apps, and when you are connected to a VPN server it detects whether the streaming service requires additional DNS routing. In practice, this meant that I could watch US Netflix even when connected to a non-US server. However, this did not work for BBC iPlayer.

One downside of this setup is that you cannot configure NordVPN’s Smart DNS to run on devices that cannot run a VPN client: such as your smart TV, games console, or Roku.

Double VPN

This rather unusual feature allows you to “chain” VPN servers so that your data is routed between two VPN servers as it travels between you and the internet.

Your PC/device -> VPN server 1 -> VPN server 2 -> Internet

NordVPN double-hop

As you can see, data is re-encrypted as it leaves each server

NordVPN double vpn

NordVPN  offers several double VPN combinations

Such chaining can provide some security benefits, but will always result in a major loss of speed. As I argue in this article, I think the privacy/security benefits of “double-hop” VPN are rather limited. But I understand that this is not a view shared by everyone. For those who value the feature, NordVPN is one of only only a few providers to offer it.

Tor over VPN

For a full discussion on the pros and cons of using Tor over VPN (or Onion over VPN as NordVPN terms it), please see here. In this configuration, you connect first to a NordVPN server and then to the Tor network before accessing the internet:

Your computer -> VPN -> Tor -> Internet

NordVPN achieves this using an OpenVPN configuration file which transparently routes your data from the VPN tunnel to the Tor network. This means that your entire internet connection benefits from Tor over VPN.

This setup does offer some privacy and security advantages, but a similar effect can be achieved simply by using the Tor Browser while connected to the VPN. Crucially, such a setup is much more secure than the method offered by NordVPN.

Tor over VPN (however you do it) will seriously slow down your internet speeds as you get the combined hit of using both the Tor network (which is very slow) and the VPN.

XOR Obfuscated Servers

NordVPN runs obfuscated servers in a number of counties: the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey, the UAE, and Egypt.  These use the XOR encryption algorithm to overcome VPN censorship blocks put into place by authoritarian governments.

XOR is often used by malware to hide from detection, but it also works just as well for hiding VPN ciphers! This means users in places such as China and Egypt should be able to access the open internet by connecting to one NordVPN’s obfuscated XOR servers.

CyberSec

CyberSec is a new feature. It blocks DNS requests based on a real-time blocklist of harmful websites that may host malware. As such, it should shield you against malware, help prevent botnet control, and block many intrusive web ads. I can’t comment directly on its effectiveness, but the principle is sound and there is no reason to believe it does not work as advertised.

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Privacy

Logs and Legal situation

NordVPN is based in Panama and promises to keep no logs at all:

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.”

Panama has a completely uncensored internet and zero government surveillance. It is also comfortably outside the direct influence of the NSA and GCHQ. Indeed, the simple fact that this no-logs VPN provider is based in Panama makes it one of the best choices available for privacy fanatics.

Website tracking

The NordVPN website uses a number of trackers, but these seem fairly benign and non-invasive. Importantly, there are no Google Analytics or Facebook trackers.

NordVPN privacy

Please check out BestVPNReviewz.com’s VPN Review Process Overview for a discussion on website tracking.

Payment Processors

All payments are handled by a company called CloudVPN, which is based in the United Staes. NordVPN explained the situation to us:

Being based in Panama has a downside. It complicates our ability to sign our apps, place them in stores and process our payments. Therefore, we’ve established a proxy based in the US, which in a nutshell acts only as our payment processor and has nothing to do with the actual service… It’s not a third party company, it’s under our control, and we use it to process our payments. In short – we handle payments ourselves, just through another company.

Security

NordVPN uses the following encryption settings for OpenVPN connections:

Data channel: an AES-256-CBC cipher with HMAC SHA256 hash authentication.

Control channel: an AES-256-CBC cipher with an RSA-2048 handshake and HMAC SHA256 data authentication. Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) is provided by a DHE-4096 key exchange.

 
 
 

This is a very strong setup.

NordVPN’s iOS app also uses IKEv1 with an AES-256-GCM cipher and HMAC SHA2-384 data authentication. PFS is provided by a DHE-3072 exchange. NordVPN’s older OSX client uses OpenVPN, but its newer Mac App Store Client uses IKv2 with Cisco’s NGE (Next Generation Encryption) protocol.

For more information on VPN encryption terms, please see here.

The NordVPN desktop apps have a system kill switch. The Windows app also features a per-app kill switch. They all provide  IPv4 and IPv6 DNS leak protection, plus WebRTC leak protection. Overall, it has to be said that NordVPN provides superp technical security.

The Website

The NordVPN website has a fairly attractive blue and white theme, and is generally well presented. A FAQ outlines what most of NordVPN’s services actually do, but tends to shy away from too much technical detail.

Support

24/7 customer support is provided via a ticket system (web form), Facebook, Twitter, or email. A live chat option is also available. When I contacted support via live chat, I usually received an instant or very quick response.

In the past, I have found the quality of its support to somewhat uneven, but NordVPN seems to have upped its game of late. So much so, in fact, that it won Best Customer Service award in our 2018  BestVPNReviewz.com  Awards.  NordVPN provided fast, detailed, and knowledgeable responses to our battery of customer service tests.

A small knowledge-base, plus various setup tutorials, are also available. A regularly updated blog discusses internet security issues in general, plus NordVPN-specific topics.

The Process

Signing Up

Signing up for the service is a straightforward affair. A valid email address is required, but there is no reason this cannot be a disposable one. Unless paying in Bitcoin, of course, NordVPN will know your payment details anyway.

Once signed up, you can download NordVPN’s software immediately, and will receive a confirmation email containing some useful links.

The NordVPN Windows Client

The map is pretty. In order to connect to the fastest server for your needs, you should let the software pick a server for you. This is because individual servers can vary in performance, so picking one at random is unlikely to produce optimum results.

The NordVPN Client

As we have already seen, there are lots of servers to choose from.

The NordVPN Client

These include many specialized servers.

The NordVPN Client

The Windows client now features both a per-app kill switch and a system kill switch. The system kill switch passed a simple disconnect test with flying colors, but failed when I force-closed all running VPN proceses to simulate a software crash. NordVPN  explained that:

We already modify OS firewall but we still need one process running. That process is responsible for firewall only and is independent from the application. Means if the app or VPN process crash, the firewall continues to work . Making it without any extra process is on our roadmap as well, looking to deliver in a few months.The NordVPN Client

The NordVPN Windows client, then, is very fully-featured, looks good, and is easy to use.

Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC and IPv6 Tests)

Please see VPN Speed Testing Done Right for an overview of our groovy new scientific speed test system. Important note: Just this week (from time of writing) we have improved our speed testing algorithm to account for VPN services whose software selects the best server for its users. This provides a much fairer comparison between this kind of setup and services that load-balance across a number of servers at a given location.

As is clear from the charts below, this change has dramatically improved NordVPN’s speed test results over the last few days. I will, therefore, update these results once we have collected more data.

Average global download speed results are our baseline measure for how fast a VPN is (higher is better). Our new, fairer, algorithm has greatly improved NordVPN’s results.  Although not record-breaking, Max speeds are also strong. This means that you should get a very fast connection when using nearby servers, even if you have a very speedy broadband subscription.

NordVPN Performance and Speed Test

DNS lookup time is a good measure of how fast users perceive their connection to be, as it affects web page loading times. Faster lookup time= faster web page loading (i.e. lower is better). Again, we can see a striking improvement over the last few days.

NordVPN Performance and Speed Test

VPN connection time measures how long it takes between hitting the “connect” button in your VPN client, to the VPN connection being established. It is probably the least important of these speed measurements, but no-one enjoys hanging around. Notice the big improvement since we changed our testing algorithm.

NordVPN Performance and Speed Test

It’s probably a bit early to give a definitive verdict, but NordVPNs speed test results are clearly better since we improved our testing algorithm. We’ll run the tests a little longer and then update this review with the results.

NordVPN Performance and Speed Test

No IPv4, IPv6,  or WebRTC leaks were detectedPlease note that those Private RFC IPs are local IPs only. They cannot be used to identify an individual, and so do not constitute an IP leak.

As noted earlier, US Netflix will work when connected to any server thanks to smart DNS routing. I was pleased to note that BBC iPlayer also worked just fine when connected to a UK server.

Other Platforms

NordVPN provides custom apps for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. It also provides manual setup guides for these platforms, plus Linux (Ubuntu and Raspberry Pi), Blackberry 10, Chromium, and various routers and NAS systems. These guides look a little on the bare-bones side, but should work well enough.

It is also possible to purchase a pre-configured NordVPN router from Flashrouters. Additionally, NordVPN offers browser add-ons for Chrome and Firefox.

The Mac apps

A little confusingly, NordVPN offers two different Mac apps: a new IKEv2 Mac App Store app is the default option, but a direct-download OpenVPN app is also available.

NordVPN Mac Client

The apps look almost identical to each other, and neither is as fully-featured as the Windows client. The IKEv2 app Mac App Store app has a system kill switch, but not much else. The OpenVPN app also offers obfuscated servers and custom DNS setings.

Neither app provides access to the full range of specialty servers, has a per app-kill switch, or offers CyberSec protection. It may just be a quirk of my system, but neither app displayed the NordVPN server map correctly.

The Android App

The Android app looks remarkably similar to the Windows client, which is a good thing.

NordVPN Android App

It allows you to connect to NordVPN’s full range of specialty servers. The new CyberSec feature us also is fully supported.

NordVPN Android App

I detected no IPv4 DNS or WebRTC leaks while using the Android app. I was unable to test for IPv6 leaks. Overall, the Android app is smart looking,  very fully featured, and works flawlessly.

The browser add-ons

The Chrome and Firefox apps connect to a NordVPN’s HTTPS proxy servers. They provide many of the benefits of a true VPN, but limited to just the browser. These includes spoofing your real location and encrypting your internet connection so that you cannot be spied on. Which can be very handy!

NordVPN Android App

You need a full NordVPN account to use its browser add-ons. Interestingly, the Firefox add-on unblocked BBC iPlayer for me, but not US Netflix.

Other/Free Services

NordVPN offers a number of privacy features that are free to everybody (not just subscribers). These include a web proxy, a YouTube proxy, and a free proxy list. I would hardly trust my life to such tools, but it is nice of NordVPN to provide them.

Conclusion

 I liked:

  • No logs
  • Based in Panama (great for privacy)
  • Six simultaneous connections
  • Great customer service
  • Servers in 70 countries
  • P2P: yes
  • Great speed performance
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Accepts Bitcoin
  • Very good encryption
  • CyberSec anti-malware protection
  • VPN access for China and elsewhere via XOR
  • Smart DNS service (when it works)
  • Works with US Netflix and BBC iPlayer
  • Great Chrome and Firefox add-ons
  • Socks5 proxies
  • Dedicated IPs (cost extra)
  • Double VPN (I’m a bit dubious, but others like it)
  • System kill swich (all apps) plus per app kill switch (Windows only)

I wasn’t so sure about:

  • Tor over VPN (using the Tor Browser over VPN is safer)

I hated:

  • Nothing

NordVPN offers a very fully-featured service. The fact that it is based in Panama and keeps no logs is also a big draw for those who care about privacy. Its software looks good and works well. Speed performance is beginning to look great now that we have made our test algorithm fairer, and a 30-day money-back guarantee gives you plenty of opportunity to ensure that everything works for you as it should.

What you get with NordVPN is a very fully featured, privacy-friendly VPN service that is also very fast.

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