Your mobile phone might not have an Ethernet port and might not need to use a Wi-Fi network, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe from the prying eyes of three-letter government agencies, attackers, or advertisers. That’s why it’s a good idea to get a virtual private network, or VPN, such as NordVPN, for your smartphone. NordVPN is impressive, with numerous server locations, specialized servers, ad-blocking, and an excellent user interface. It joins Private Internet Access as an Editors’ Choice winner for Android VPNs.
What Is a VPN?
Chances are that if you do think about VPNs, you think of them for the PC. But mobile devices are the surfing platform of choice for an increasingly large portion of the total traffic of the Internet, whether it’s via the dangerous Wi-Fi mentioned above or via cellular connections, which most people don’t worry about. When you’re connected to the Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop, another person could connect to the same network and snoop on your traffic. Worse, an attacker could create a bogus network and swipe passwords and personal information as you send them over the Web. This may sound far-fetched, but Pwnie Express saw one such attack trick some 35,000 devices—and that was at a security conference, where you’d assume people would be more savvy about such things.
Meanwhile, on the Web, advertisers and spy agencies can watch your movements online with smart ad trackers and sophisticated surveillance tools. Even if you have nothing to hide, it’s disconcerting how easily you can be tracked.
With a VPN, your connection is far more secure. The VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a remote server. Anyone on the same network as you, or even anyone operating a bogus network that you’ve connected to, won’t be able to see anything but meaningless gibberish. Out on the Web, your identity is also secure with a VPN. Ad trackers and anyone watching your movements will see the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to, instead of your own IP address.
It’s true that cellular networks are more secure than Wi-Fi, generally. But there are still some risks. Modern wireless standards like LTE are encrypted, but the code protecting data sent over 2G has long been broken. Clever attackers can set up a phony cellphone tower, similar to a Femtocell, and jam the LTE and 3G bands to force nearby phones to connect via the less secure 2G connection. Then it’s a man-in-the-middle attack just like when the bad guy has control of a Wi-Fi access point. Although such attacks are fairly rare, you’ll be glad to hear that VPN protection works over cellular connections, too. And most VPNs are smart enough to handle the hand-off between cell towers and when you move from cellular to Wi-Fi.
Most services let you select the servers you want to use, and the list almost always include options in other countries. If you select one of these options abroad, it will look to anyone watching your connection that you’re within the same country as the VPN server. Journalists and political dissidents have used this technology to circumvent restrictive Internet laws in other countries, but you can use it to watch region-locked streaming content. If you’d like to watch the BBC or films that are in versions of Netflix outside the US, a VPN can help.
That said, some streaming service (specifically, Netflix) have gotten more aggressive about blocking VPN users from streaming video. Your mileage may vary, and a server that fools Netflix one day may be blocked the next.
If you find that you love NordVPN, you can spring for longer-term plans. A 6-month plan costs $42, and $69 gets you a year’s worth of VPN service. I go through the details of the features in greater detail in my review of the NordVPN desktop product, but I’ll mention the highlights that are relevant to the Android experience.
A NordVPN subscription means you can use the service on up to six devices, which is slightly more than average. I tested NordVPN’s Android client on a Nexus 5x. If you have both iPhone and Android devices, you’re in luck because the NordVPN iPhone app is almost identical to this one. NordVPN also has clients available for Windows, macOS, Linux, and even Windows Phone.
NordVPN offers 1,172 servers across 61 countries. That’s an impressive offering, although it’s not quite as many as Private Internet Access, which boasts over 3,000 servers the world over. But NordVPN goes further than other services by providing servers for specific purposes. There are, for example, anti-DDoS servers, dedicated IP address servers, and fast servers for video streaming. NordVPN also provides more exotic offerings such as Tor-over-VPN, which routes your traffic through the anonymizing Tor network, and Double VPN, which encrypts your traffic twice. If file sharing is your thing, NordVPN also allows P2P file sharing over specific servers, a rare feature in this crowded field.
VPNs are especially helpful for circumventing government censorship of the Internet, though that is becoming more difficult in China, where the government has vowed to block all VPNs. NordVPN has a version of its Android client available for users within China that still wish to take advantage of the privacy and security offered by a VPN. The company recommends that customers in China use the Obfuscated Servers option in the app’s settings.
Hands On With NordVPN
On the desktop, I am impressed at how NordVPN walks a smart line between advanced features and simplicity in its client. The same is true on Android. The main page is dominated by a large map showing all the company’s servers. The whole thing is highly stylized and is a marked departure from the dull, confusing interfaces that dominate the security sector. If you’re a big fan of eye-candy, you should definitely also look at Hide My Ass, which has a bold and stylish (if expensive) Android app.
A large button at the bottom of the page connects you to the server NordVPN thinks is best. You can select a server from the map, too, or from the hidden left-hand tray’s list of servers. The server list is broken down by function, with NordVPN’s signature specialized servers at the top, followed by location. I particularly like that this view shows the current load each server is experiencing, helping you to zero in on the perfect choice of the moment.
You can also search from the top of the main page or the server page. If you find a server that works well for you, you can save it to your Favorites list.
NordVPN recently added a trio of features it calls CyberSec to its service. This lets the company block ads and potentially dangerous URLs that might host phishing pages or malware. I don’t test the efficacy of ad-blockers, but it’s a nice extra for Android, where ad-blocking apps are forbidden from the Play store. Note that the malware and phishing protection is based on URL blacklists, which isn’t the fastest way to protect against online threats. Thankfully, Android 8.0 Oreo includes additional browser protections across the operating system.
NordVPN’s main page has a Smart-Play section, which grants you access to sites that attempt to block users on VPN services thanks to SmartDNS. NordVPN explained that it’s a new feature and the user interface may change soon to make its utility clearer. NordVPN also allows for P2P on specific servers, handily available in a section labeled P2P.
Regardless of which VPN service you chose, there is always some kind of impact on your Internet connection. Generally, it’s bad. In some rare cases, as I found with PureVPN, it can actually improve performance by connecting you to higher-capacity infrastructure. NordVPN won’t do that, but it performed better in my testing than most mobile VPN services.
When I test mobile VPNs, I turn off mobile data and connect to PCMag’s snappy FiOS connection. I consider this to be a VPN best-case scenario. It also controls for the mercurial nature of cellular networks, and reflects the scenario in which a VPN will most likely be used. If, like NordVPN, the app automatically selects a server, I use that one for testing. If not, I select the closest available server.
Once connected, I run several speed tests using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app with the VPN active and without the VPN. I then compare the average of those tests to find a percent change. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
In my testing, I found that NordVPN increased latency by 32.5 percent, going from 8.3ms to 11ms. This is the smallest increase in latency I’ve yet seen. NordVPN also impressed on the downloads test, where it slowed downloads by only 45.3 percent, going from 45.9Mbps to 25.1Mbps. That’s significantly lower than most of the competition, but not as low as Private Internet Access, which slowed download speeds by only 10.2 percent.
In the upload test, NordVPN also performed extremely well. It slowed uploads by only 11.6 percent, going from 23.2Mbps to 20.5Mbps. It has the second-best performance in this test after Spotflux VPN, which actually improved upload speeds by 6.5 percent.
Although NordVPN doesn’t win every speed test, it does extremely well overall. It’s one of the speediest VPN services I’ve tested.
Excellent Across the Board
NordVPN earned an Editors’ Choice award on the desktop with its simple design, wealth of advanced features, and excellent speed test scores. While the mobile version doesn’t have all of NordVPN’s desktop features, it does have a top-notch interface, a large number of servers (including specialized servers), and strong results in our speed tests. Accordingly, NordVPN is an Editors’ Choice winner for Android VPN apps as well. If you crave more features and customization—and even more server choices—try out our other top pick, Private Internet Access.