Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

December 20, 2017

NordVPN: What’s new in 2018?

NordVPN is a well-subscribed VPN with a focus on privacy. It is a VPN service that is often rated in the top 5 VPNs for many purposes. In terms of speed performance, the VPN has really improved this year, and I am impressed with how fast the service now is. Unfortunately, I again found support to be something of a let-down. This may just be bad luck on my part. I have been assured that.

Since last time a lot of changes been made in the support team, trying increase the quality of support. And we saw really good results.

I am pleased to note that US Netflix still works fine. When I tested the service in February I detected an IPv6 leak, but was told by NordVPN in May that it had implemented IPv6 leak protection. I cannot test this for myself at the present time, but have no reason to doubt this claim (which has also been backed up by at least one of our readers).

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.

A three-day free trial is available, which does not require you to provide any payment details. NordVPN also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

NordVPN 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.

Additional payment methods are available through NordVPN’s payment partner, Paymentwall.

Features

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

  • Six simultaneous connections
  • Servers in 61 countries
  • Choice of IKEv2, OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, and IPSec VPN protocols
  • P2P: yes
  • Dedicated IP available on request
  • Smart DNS service
  • Double VPN
  • Tor over VPN
  • Web proxy and web proxy extension for Chrome (free)
  • Socks5 proxies
  • VPN access for China via obfsproxy
  • DNS servers (useful if manually configuring a secure VPN connection)

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 to TCP and another to UDP.

That means that a total of four devices can be connected to a server at once – through L2TP, PPTP, OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP. If you have two more devices at home, you can connect them to another server with any two protocols.

Personally, I do not consider this to be a major limitation, and permitting six simultaneous devices is generous.

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

Smart DNS (“Smart Play”)

Smart DNS is a technology that enables you to geo-spoof by resolving your 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, though, as Smart DNS is not really about security or privacy.

For a second, it requires no additional configuration. It runs inside all NordVPN’s apps, and when connected to a VPN server, detects whether the streaming service requires such a connection first. It then routes you accordingly, if such a bypass is needed.

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, and Roku.

Double VPN

This rather unusual feature offered by NordVPN allows you to “chain” VPN servers, so that your data is routed between two or more 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 now 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 two providers I know of to offer it (the other being IVPN).

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.

Visit NordVPN »

Privacy

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.

In fact, the simple fact that this no-logs VPN provider is based in Panama makes it one of the best choices available for privacy fanatics.

Security

NordVPN uses the DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA encryption suite for its OpenVPN connections. This almost certainly means ordinary RSA-2048 key encryption and HMAC SHA1 authentication, which is just fine. Use of a Diffie-Hellman key exchange provides perfect forward secrecy.

OpenVPN Encryption
Cipher
AES-256
Data Auth
HMAC SHA1
Handshake
RSA-2048
Forward Secrecy
DHE
Logs & Legal
Connection
None
Traffic
None
Country
Panama

It is worth noting that NordVPN’s iOS app also uses an impressive level of encryption – IKE ciphers (phase1) to negotiate keys are AES-256-GCM for encryption, with SHA2-384 to ensure integrity, combined with perfect forward secrecy and 3072-bit Diffie-Hellmann keys.

Unusually, NordVPN’s Mac OS X client uses IKv2 with Cisco’s NGE (Next Generation Encryption) protocol, instead of OpenVPN.

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

The NordVPN desktop client has a per-app kill switch and prevents IPv4 DNS leaks.

The Website

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

NordVPN servers

NordVPN server list.

A nice feature of the website is a page displaying the status of NordVPN’s servers. This clearly shows which specialized servers are available, plus server load, and the VPN protocols supported by each server.

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 recent BestVPN.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. In addition, a regularly updated blog discusses both internet security issues in general, and 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 bitcoins, 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

NordVPN Windows 2

The map is pretty. VPN newbies might find the Connection Wizard (bottom left) handy.

NordVPN Windows 3

As we have already seen, there are lots of servers to choose from. These include many specialized servers.

NordVPN Windows 4

There is a per-app kill switch. You can choose which apps will be shut down in the event of a VPN disconnection. This is very handy, but note that it is not a firewall-based kill switch. So if the NordVPN client itself crashes, the specified apps will not shut down and can continue to access the internet.

NordVPN Windows 5

DNS leak protection is enabled by default.

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

Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC and IPv6 Tests)

All tests were performed using my Virgin UK 80 Mbps/5 Mbps fiber connection, using OpenVPN UDP.

The graphs show the highest, lowest and average speeds for each server and location. See our full speed test explanation for more detail.

This is great performance, and is particularly impressive given my above-average broadband speeds. This is because when shared IPs are used, the raw connection speeds of all users tend to average out. It is worth noting that in tests earlier this year, I noticed a big slowdown when they were performed in the afternoon UK time. These tests were also performed in the afternoon, which backs-up NordVPN’s claim that it has been working hard to improve its service.

So no IPv4 or WebRTC leaks. Please 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. Unfortunately, my ISP (Virgin Media UK) does not support IPv6 connections, so I am unable to test for IPv6 leaks at this time. This is a situation that should change in the near future.

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

Other Platforms

NordVPN provides custom apps for Windows, Mac OS X, 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. 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.

The Android App

2017-02-10 14.30.48

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

2017-02-10 14.31.55

I detected no IPv4 or WebRTC leaks while using the Android app, but please bear in mind that IPv6 leaks are not blocked by NordVPN’s software.

Other/Free Services

NordVPN offers a number of privacy features that are free to everybody (not just subscribers). These includes 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 58 countries
  • P2P: yes
  • Great speed performance
  • Three-day free trial
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Accepts bitcoins
  • Good encryption
  • VPN access for China via obfsproxy
  • Smart DNS service (when it works)
  • Works with US Netflix and BBC iPlayer
  • Socks5 proxies
  • Dedicated IP available on request
  • Double VPN (I’m a bit dubious, but others like it)
  • Per app kill switch (not firewall-based)

I wasn’t so sure about:

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

I hated:

  • Nothing

NordVPN is undoubtedly 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 by and large works well. Speed performance has improved dramatically over the course of this year, and is now very impressive. And a three-day free trial, plus a 30-day money-back guarantee  give 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.

Visit NordVPN »

Update 24/10/17: A rival website has claimed that NordVPN is owned by a US company. The author of the article does appear to have great detective skills, so we reached out to NordVPN for a response:

“Let us explain CloudVPN. Nothing is shady or unclear about the company and its relations with NordVPN. In fact, it’s rather vice-versa. NordVPN is indeed based and operates under the jurisdiction of Panama, away from the 14-eyes countries, mandatory data retention and so on. However, 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.

Having now managed to run some IPv6 tests, however, we can confirm that some of NordVPN’s servers do suffer IPv6 WebRTC leaks. We have alerted NordVPN to this fact, and if the situation is not fixed in the next few days I will update this review accordingly.