More than 900 servers, on every continent but Antarctica. Excellent interface. Strong speed-test scores. Useful Kill Switch tool. Easy access to Tor through VPN. Supports P2P and BitTorrent.
Expensive. No ad-blocking.
- Bottom Line
NordVPN packs an excellent VPN service into a reliable and friendly app, along with unique features that easily make it an Editors' Choice.
The simplest way to ensure your privacy and protect your connection from snooping eyes while using an iPhone is to route your connection through a virtual private network, or a VPN, such as NordVPN. With the NordVPN iPhone app, you can connect to any of hundreds of servers around the world, including some intended specifically for video streaming and other activities. It's one of the best overall VPN services we've tested, and an Editors' Choice for iPhone VPN apps, along with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.
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What Is a VPN?
Most of us probably assume that our internet connections are secure from the prying eyes of spies or the nefarious activities of attackers. We shouldn't. When you connect to the free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop, another patron on the same network may be snooping on your traffic. A savvy attacker could even create a phony Wi-Fi network and decrypt personal information you've sent—passwords, bank information, and so on. Out on the web, advertisers and three-letter agencies gather information about you when you visit websites; they also compare data from different sites to correlate your movements across the Web.
To guard against these threats, and to take your privacy back into your own hands, you need a VPN. When you activate a VPN connection, your web traffic travels through an encrypted tunnel. That means nobody on the same network as you, even if it's a bogus network operated by criminals, can read your traffic. From the VPN server, your traffic exits back onto the open Internet, but with a twist. To any observer, your data appears to emanate not from your iPhone, but from the VPN server—even if that server is thousands of miles from your actual location.
Journalists and activists use the location-spoofing and privacy-ensuring properties of VPNs to reach the rest of the world when operating in places with restrictive internet policies, such as China or South Carolina. You can also use a VPN to access region-locked content. For example, you might access free streams of BBC shows when you're not in the United Kingdom. That said, several streaming services, and Netflix in particular, have started cracking down on users connecting via VPN.
Cellular data traffic is considered more secure than Wi-Fi traffic because of encryption built into the system. However, researchers have shown that even cell traffic is vulnerable. One scenario involves jamming the LTE and 3G bands and thereby forcing nearby cellphones to connect, via the less secure 2G band, to a tiny portable cell tower called a femtocell.
It's unlikely you'll encounter an exotic attack like this, but there are easier ways crooks can nab your data. Consider that many cell phones automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks they've connected to before. We've seen for ourselves how attackers can configure malicious access points to emulate friendly networks and trick passing phones into connecting, without the owner suspecting a thing.
Features and Pricing
The NordVPN iPhone app is available as a free download from the iTunes App Store and works on both iPhones and iPads. It is also available for Android. Note, however, that VPN apps are at a bit of a disadvantage on iOS compared with other platforms. For example, VPN services tend not to include our preferred VPN protocol, OpenVPN, as doing so requires additional vetting from Apple. VPN Unlimited is among the few iPhone VPN apps that support OpenVPN.
NordVPN doesn't offer a free subscription. The app does say you can try the first three days for free, but it also attempts to make you complete an in-app purchase to start using the service. This isn't unusual, but it is annoying.
A 30-day subscription with NordVPN costs $11.95, whether you're using it for iPhones or PCs. This puts it on the higher end of VPN services, price-wise. VPN protection through the Private Internet Access iPhone app, for example, costs $6.95 per month and VPN Unlimited costs a mere $4.99 a month. There are also several worthy free VPN services available, if cost is a major issue. Note that NordVPN also offers a six-month plan for $42.00 and a one-year plan for a very reasonable $69.00. You can sign up online using a number of different payment options, including anonymous ones, but payment is handled through iTunes on the iPhone.
One subscription lets you use up to six devices at a time on NordVPN's service. That's a smidge above the industry average of five and is quite a good value. NordVPN operates under Panama's jurisdiction, where there are no laws requiring data retention. It boasts a no-logging policy and will not restrict your bandwidth. A lack of logs is good for privacy, as it means there's no information for spies or investigators to gather via subpoena or other means.
A subscription grants access to NordVPN's network of 978 VPN servers spread across 58 different countries. The company boasts that, except for Antarctica, it has at least one server location in each continent. This includes places like Russia and China, where using a VPN is a necessity. NordVPN also offers servers in areas typically underserved by competitors, such as Africa (in Egypt and South Africa) and the Middle East (including Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey). It's a first-class list, but it doesn't match the 3,000-plus servers offered by Private Internet Access VPN (for iPhone).
The Windows version of NordVPN uses the OpenVPN protocol by default. We prefer that VPN services use the OpenVPN protocol. It's generally faster, and it's also carefully vetted for potential security flaws because it is open source. However, Apple requires extra vetting for apps that use OpenVPN; few of the iOS VPNs we've seen support OpenVPN. NordVPN uses the modern IKEv2 protocol under iOS, unlike Private Internet Access and Hotspot Shield, which rely on the older IPSec protocol.
You can, however, connect using OpenVPN with a NordVPN subscription on your iPhone. To do so, you must download and configure the aptly named OpenVPN iPhone app, log in with your credentials, and you're off and running. Our testing, however, focuses on using NordVPN's service with NordVPN's app.
Hands On With NordVPN
The iPhone app has the same layout as NordVPN (for Android). The main page features a large map of the world, with pins representing all the NordVPN server locations. Tap one, and you are quickly connected. We're a sucker for a good visual impression, and NordVPN's map, with its subtle colors and cartoon submarines, looks great. If you're in a rush, you can tap the Quick Connect button, which connects you to the nearest (and therefore likely fastest) VPN server. TunnelBear and VPN Unlimited also let you select servers from a map.
Tap Countries and you can choose your server location from a list instead of a map. We would prefer that this list included NordVPN's specialty servers, as well, but to find those you have to open the hidden right-hand tray. From this tray you can also toggle the Kill Switch and Smart Reconnect features, as well as accessing your account information. The Kill Switch automatically blocks data from flowing out of your phone should you be disconnected from the VPN. Note that this feature is much less common on iPhone VPNs. Some companies have actually told us it's not possible on iOS.
Smart Reconnect tells the app that it's OK to try a different server if you become disconnected. Without this feature, you might discover you've been offline or surfing unprotected for hours because there was a problem with the server you'd initially selected.
The full Servers list starts with the servers you've marked as favorites, but the real stars are NordVPN's specialized servers. These are servers optimized for activities like P2P file sharing, accessing the Tor anonymization network through NordVPN's system, video streaming, and a few others. We really like it when VPN companies organize their servers by the actions users want to perform. It helps demystify the whole process and can help novice users more easily access some of a VPN service's more advanced features. Hide My Ass offers a similar purpose-based selection mode, and PureVPN takes this concept to an even greater depth.
Many mobile security apps skimp on design, which is a shame, because an ugly app or one that is difficult to navigate won't appeal to the average consumer. Private Internet Access, for example, has one of the most robust VPN infrastructures on the market, with thousands of servers available. But it has an ugly app on just about every platform. NordVPN, on the other hand, always appears reliable and friendly, even on a small screen.
One thing you won't find in NordVPN is ad blocking. If that's a key feature for you, other VPN services, such as Private Internet Access and TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) pick up the slack.
Good Speed Test Scores
Regardless of the VPN you choose, it's going to have some kind of effect on your internet connection. Generally, the process of routing your web traffic through additional servers far from your current location increases connection latency and slows your overall speeds. For testing purposes, we used an Apple iPhone 7.
In rare cases, the VPN service may connect you to higher-bandwidth infrastructure that can actually improve your Internet connection speeds. When we tested VPN services on Windows, for example, PureVPN actually made our download speed more than 300 percent faster. We didn't see any such huge speedup in iOS VPN apps, though some did improve download speed to a smaller degree.
To test VPN speeds, we use the Ookla speed-testing app (Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, the publisher of PCMag). We turn off cellular data and connect to Wi-Fi. We run several tests without connecting to a VPN server and then calculate the percent change from tests run with the VPN connected. Of course, networks are notoriously finicky things, so your mileage may vary.
In general, NordVPN performed very well in our testing, showing low latency and comparatively small impact on upload and download speeds. We found that NordVPN increased latency by just 22.5 percent, which is the smallest increase among recent products, and vanishingly small compared with TunnelBear, which increased latency by 601.4 percent. Hotspot Shield also slammed latency, by 483.3 percent. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone), on the other hand, came close to NordVPN, with just a 31.1 percent increase.
In the download test, NordVPN reduced speeds by only 12.6 percent. That's not too bad, considering that TunnelBear slowed the download test by 60.9 percent. However, download speeds actually improved for Hide My Ass and PureVPN, by 10.1 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively. Downloads under Hotspot Shield and Golden Frog VyprVPN (for iPhone) also came in a few percent better than the baseline.
None of the tested products had a dramatic effect on upload speed. The biggest hit came from Private Internet Access and Hotspot Shield, respectively slowing uploads by 13 percent and 12.9 percent. IPVanish VPN (for iPhone) put the smallest drag on uploads, 3.5 percent, followed by TunnelBear, redeeming itself with a mere 4.9 percent slowdown. NordVPN's 8.3 percent impact is somewhere in the middle.
NordVPN clearly has a modest impact on internet performance, which we found reflected in our time using the service. We found that web pages, even those with numerous media items, loaded as swiftly as we expected with NordVPN enabled. Surprisingly, we managed to stream content from Netflix on the iPhone edition, something we couldn't do under Windows. Netflix continues to ramp up its protections, though, so this ability might not last.
An Award-Worthy VPN
It's very easy to make the case for the NordVPN iPhone app, despite its relatively high price. It offers numerous servers the world over, letting you choose where your connection appears to come from and providing a nearby choice wherever you might travel. NordVPN's inclusion of specialized servers means that you can easily find the right one for your needs, and its excellent design means you won't mind using it. We wish it directly supported OpenVPN, but that's really an Apple issue. NordVPN is our Editors' Choice for iPhone VPN services—as it is for desktops and Android devices.
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine's technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His "User to User" column supplied readers with tips… More »
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