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 Android smartphone. NordVPN is impressive, with the most server locations we’ve yet seen, 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?
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 the passwords and personal information of anyone that connects. This may sound far-fetched, but Pwnie Express saw one such attack fool 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 think have nothing to hide, it’s disconcerting how easily you can be tracked. Internet service providers also have secured the right to sell anonymized user data, adding just one more bad guy to the list.
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, with the bad guy intercepting everything you send. Although such attacks are primarily the work of researchers, you’ll be glad to hear that VPN protection works over cellular connections, too. 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 services have gotten more aggressive about blocking VPN users from streaming video. It can be very difficult to find a VPN that works with Netflix in particular. Furthermore, a server that fools Netflix one day may be blocked the next.
Pricing and Features
NordVPN is available for $11.95 per month, which is on the expensive side for a VPN. The current average monthly price for one of PCMag’s top-rated VPNs is $10.38 by our reckoning, and only a handful go over that. Private Internet Access, for example, costs only $6.95 per month. There are also many great free VPN services available, so being short on cash is no excuse for not staying safe online.
If you find that you love NordVPN, you can spring for longer-term plans. A 6-month plan costs $54, and $83.88 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 Windows 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 simultaneously, 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. In addition to Android, NordVPN has clients available for Chrome, Firefox, iOS, Linux, macOS, and Windows.Alternatively, you can also configure your router to use NordVPN and protect all of your devices on the network.
NordVPN covers 61 countries with some 4,875 servers. That’s the most servers of any VPN service I’ve yet seen. Private Internet Access, which previously boasted the largest collection of servers with 3,522 servers, is a distant second. NordVPN supports OpenVPN, which is my preferred VPN protocol. It also offers IKEv2 and IPSec.
NordVPN goes further than other services by providing servers for specific purposes. For example, the company offers connection to the Tor anonymization network via VPN, in addition to servers for file sharing, video streaming, and other activities.
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 also says that CyberSec can prevent infected devices from being used in botnets, an interesting feature.
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 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. 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.
NordVPN also has a few advanced settings, such as forcing TCP connections or automatically connecting to specific servers, but Private Internet Access has far more. Hide My Ass also deserves credit for including a button that quickly changes your IP address. What you won’t find the NordVPN app is a Kill Switch, which shuts down all network communications should the VPN connection be interrupted.
Notably, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited lets you choose to have the VPN reconnect only under certain conditions, such as when you’re connected to unsecured Wi-Fi. With Private Internet Access, you can designate specific sensitive apps to use the VPN, rather than routing all of your traffic through it.
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 on Android.
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
There’s no question that, even on an Android device, you need a VPN, and NordVPN is one of our favorites. The service earned an Editors’ Choice award on the desktop with its simple design, wealth of advanced features, and excellent speed test scores. While the Android 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.