Cybercriminals, spies, overeager retailers and, now, internet service providers can watch your internet traffic to find out what you do online, but only if you let them. To stop them, consider using a virtual private network, or VPN, which creates a secure tunnel through the internet for your data. Everything you do will be unreadable by the rest of the internet until it reaches the VPN servers at the other end of the tunnel. But with hundreds of VPN services and clients available, it can be difficult to decide which to use. We looked at several popular VPN services that met three requirements: They have both desktop and mobile client software, they have servers in many countries and they offer unlimited data use. Based on 15 hours of extensive testing — which included measuring latency, data throughput and how long it took to connect — NordVPN emerged as the best choice for most users. And this serves as a NordVPN review.
NordVPN wasn’t always No. 1 in each of our performance-test measurements, but it was often at least No. 2, while other services were less consistent in their reliability and data throughput. More importantly, NordVPN connected smoothly, and stayed connected, every time we used it. Not all the VPN services we tested did so. NordVPN has a single license for all of a user’s devices, plus extra for an iOS or Android app, making it expensive for anyone with more than just a single laptop. All the services we reviewed use the AES-256 encryption standard, which would take a well-equipped hacker with a powerful computer many years to crack. Anyone eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi traffic in a café would see gibberish without the encryption key.
Using a VPN can also make it look like you’re someplace else — a well-worn practice to evade online censorship, as in China, or to tap into your U.S. Netflix account while in Europe or Asia. I’ve used a VPN to read the morning paper in Beijing and to watch American TV broadcasts in England. Two caveats: A VPN will give you more privacy, but not more security. If you end up on a website harboring malware, the VPN can’t stop you from being infected. Also, although your data is encrypted as it travels between you and the far-off VPN server, it won’t necessarily be encrypted once it leaves the VPN service to get to its final destination.
NordVPN is the most complete VPN service we tested. As its name implies, it lets you disappear online and surf anonymously. It has client software for PCs, Macs, Linux systems, Android devices, iPhones, iPads and Chromebooks. Wi-Fi routers that can use the DD-WRT open-source firmware can be turned into VPN routers using IPVanish. It can also shield Android TV devices.
It took about 3 minutes to set up the NordVPN client on a PC or Mac, and there’s a tutorial for first-timers. Although the interface is dark and ominous-looking, it offers access to feedback and configuration details, and lets you resize the windows.