Many security vendors offer a VPN service – Avast’s SecureLine, Kaspersky’s Secure Connection, Avira’s PhantomVPN – and Norton Secure VPN (the product formerly known as Norton WiFi Privacy) is the company’s entry into this field.
We were interested to see how the service compared with the specialist competition, but NortonLifeLock’s website didn’t make any real effort to tell us.
How many countries does it support, for instance? Which ones? Can you choose specific cities? How many servers are there? All a secret, apparently.
The service ‘uses bank grade encryption’, the site boasts. Which algorithms? Good question.
Okay, what protocols are supported, do you get a kill switch, does Secure VPN unblock Netflix? No, sorry, you won’t find information like that here.
The site does give a handful of details: there are apps for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, there are plans to protect 1, 5 or 10 devices, and tracker blocking is thrown in for free.
Later, after installing the service, we found out the network covers 31 countries (no individual city selections) across Europe and North America, with other locations including Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa.
The service uses the speedy and secure IKEv2 protocol, but doesn’t provide any guidance on how to get it working manually on other devices. It works on the apps only.
There’s a strict no-P2P policy, and we do mean seriously strict. If Secure VPN detects you’re downloading a torrent, even something very plainly legit like the latest Ubuntu ISO, it closes your connection immediately.
Despite the extreme lack of detail on the main website, Secure VPN does have a few new features worth shouting about.
The latest Windows version adds a kill switch to protect your connection if the VPN drops, for instance. It can now automatically connect when your system starts. There’s even a new split tunneling feature which enables choosing which app traffic should be routed through the VPN, and which should use your regular connection. These make for a much more capable app than the previous version, and it’s a shame that Norton doesn’t make more (or ‘any’) effort to describe this on the main website.
(Although Norton doesn’t make a big deal of it, you can find details on new releases at its Product Update Announcements blog. Click Norton Secure VPN in the Filter: Labels box on the right and you’ll get a rundown of any recent improvements.)
Norton Secure VPN review: Plans and pricing
Norton Secure VPN is available as a stand-alone product, but it also comes bundled with some editions of the Norton 360 security suite, and the pricing structure makes it clear that’s what NortonLifeLock wants you to buy.
Secure VPN’s monthly plan is reasonably priced at $7.99 to cover up to five devices ($9.99 for ten), for instance, and its annual plan looks cheap at an equivalent $3.33 a month. At least, until you realize that’s only because you get a 50% introductory discount, and the price rises to a steep $6.66 on renewal.
To put that into perspective, Norton Secure VPN asks you to pay $40 for the first year of service, $80 every year after that; pay the far more powerful Ivacy $80 and you’ll get five years of coverage instantly.
But wait: there’s another way. Buy Norton Secure VPN as a bundle with Norton 360 Deluxe and you’ll get antivirus for up to 5 PCs, Macs, mobiles and tablets; a firewall for PC and Mac; parental controls, a password manager, 50GB cloud backup space and more. But it’s the same $3.33 a month for the first year of the annual plan, and only fractionally more expensive at $8.75 on renewal ($105 a year.)
Compare that with Bitdefender’s similar Total Security 2021, for instance, and Bitdefender is very fractionally cheaper ($3.33 a month for year one, $7.50 on renewal), but only includes a limited 200Mb per day per device VPN. Getting the full VPN requires an upgrade to Bitdefender Premium Security at a chunky $6.25 a month in year one, $12.50 on renewal, making the Norton bundle look like a very good deal.
There’s a free trial available if you sign up on a mobile device, and even if you decide to buy, you’re protected by an unusually generous sixty-day money-back guarantee. Well, that’s the idea, anyway – the exact rules vary depending on where and how you buy the product. The best advice here is to carefully read the small print.
Privacy and logging
The Secure VPN website claims the service provides a “no-log virtual private network that doesn’t track or store your activity.” That’s a good start, although there’s no more detail on the front page.
A ‘What is a no-log VPN?‘ support article vaguely states that the service ‘collects subscriber information for communication purposes, mobile device data, and aggregate bandwidth usage’, although it ‘does not log information about where you go on the internet.’
There are no major surprises here. Locations are collected or accessed, but not associated with your account, apparently to help the Secure VPN app choose the nearest server to you. And although it’s possible the service collects enough data to identify a particular device, if it doesn’t associate that device with a session (connection dates and times, incoming and outgoing IPs, and so on), and Norton isn’t logging domains visited or resources accessed, that information can’t compromise your privacy.
While that’s all good news, it’s still more logging than some. And as Norton Secure VPN hasn’t put itself through a security audit, unlike some of the competition, you’re left to take its words on trust. Although we’ve no reason to doubt the company, having its systems publicly audited would help to reassure potential customers.
Signing up for a service via PayPal usually means you don’t have to provide your full name and address, but not with Norton Secure VPN: you must hand over all your details, whether you’re paying by PayPal or card.
After parting with our cash, the website offered us a chance to download an app for our current device, or to send a download link to any other (Windows, Mac, Android or iOS.)
Installing the Windows client can be surprisingly complicated, especially if you’ve bought the VPN as a part of Norton 360. We followed Secure VPN download link from our Norton account page, but this insisted on installing the full 360 app, instead. That’s an issue as it has none of the extras or settings you’ll get with the stand-alone version (connect on start, kill switch, split tunneling.)
We launched a Support chat session to get some advice, but the agent didn’t display much product knowledge, for example referring to Secure VPN as Wi-Fi Privacy, the old name for the service which hasn’t been used for more than a year. But she quickly referred us to the specialist VPN support team, who pointed us to the appropriate download link, and a few moments later we were ready to go.
Norton Secure VPN’s Windows app has a simple and straightforward new interface which even the greenest of VPN newbies will figure out immediately.
Click the On button and the app connects to your nearest server, for instance. Alternatively, you can choose from 31 countries in the location list. And a simple Settings box includes options to launch the app and automatically connect when Windows starts, to enable the Kill Switch, to block ads and trackers or set up split tunneling (specify apps whose traffic shouldn’t be routed through the VPN, but will use your regular connection, instead.)
The app handles standard connects and disconnects reasonably well, too. It got us connected to nearby servers in a couple of seconds, mostly, and used desktop notifications to tell us when we were protected, and when we weren’t.
Let’s be clear: this is still a basic product. The location list doesn’t include cities, for instance; there are no server load figures or ping times to help you choose the best location for you; there’s no Favorites system for faster reconnections; there’s no choice of protocol (it’s IKEv2-only) or low-level connection control. But the latest version is a huge improvement on what went before, and our guess would be there’s more functionality to come.
Oddly, the app doesn’t provide any way in the interface to close it down entirely. Closing the app window minimizes it to an icon in the system tray, and there’s no right-click, Exit option. (In fact, there’s no right-click option at all. More on that later.)
We normally test an app’s kill switch about now, but Norton Secure VPN does a much better job of protecting its connection than most providers, and our regular testing methods wouldn’t work.
We tried closing Secure VPN’s executables, or stopping its services, and the app handled this very well. Some processes restarted automatically, and our connection wasn’t interrupted.
We turned off our router to simulate a dropped connection, and this time the results weren’t so great. The app didn’t display any notification that our connection was down, and when we turned the router on, it reconnected to our standard connection, and our system used that as normal. The kill switch hadn’t kicked in, we weren’t protected, and the app didn’t display any alert about the problem.
The mobile apps are a little underpowered in comparison to the desktop, which isn’t unusual. Both the Android and iOS editions can connect automatically if you access an insecure network, there’s optional built-in ad and tracker blocking, and the Android VPN app has a kill switch, but all you’re getting otherwise is the same simple country list with a Connect/ Disconnect button. In particular, there’s no split tunneling, a little unusual as most VPNs add that to mobile apps before it reaches the desktop.
Overall, Norton’s Secure VPN apps have improved since our last review, and they are undeniably easy to use. But they’re also distinctly short on features, and the Windows kill switch looks unreliable in the extreme, so there’s plenty of work for the company to do.
Netflix and streaming
Norton Secure VPN is mostly sold on its ability to protect your details from cybercriminals when you’re using Wi-Fi, and the website doesn’t make any big claims (or even small ones) about unblocking big-name streaming platforms.
Secure VPN got off to a good start when it unblocked BBC iPlayer, though, something it couldn’t manage in our last review. We repeat all our unblocking tests three times with three VPN IP addresses to check for consistent success, and Secure VPN worked each time.
There was no success with Disney+ using any of our test connections, though it wasn’t clear why – we didn’t get a geolocation error, but the site redirected us to a UK login page which it didn’t display in full, leaving us unable to access the service at all. (The problem disappeared as soon as we closed our VPN connection.)
Norton Secure VPN wasn’t finished yet, though, and it immediately unblocked US Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for us, no problems at all, with all three of our tests.
That’s not quite leading-edge unblocking performance, but it’s better than we expected considering Secure VPN is so basic elsewhere, and a better result than we’ve seen with many competitors.
We measured Norton Secure VPN performance by connecting to its nearest server from a US location with a 1Gbps fiber broadband line. We then checked download speeds using benchmarking sites and services including SpeedTest.net (website and the command line app), TestMy.net, Netflix’ Fast.com and others.
Each check was run five times, repeated in morning and evening sessions, and we calculated Secure VPN’s median speeds. (Normally we also repeat each test again with another protocol, but as Norton only supports IKEv2, we stopped there.)
The results saw Norton Secure VPN reaching a median 190-200Mbps across its best sessions. That’s a huge improvement on the 10-85Mbps we saw last time, competes well with some big-name VPNs (IPVanish only reached 40-190Mbps) and is likely to be enough for many devices and situations.
Most providers are much faster, though, especially where they support WireGuard or have speedy custom protocols of their own. CyberGhost hit 350-450Mbps, for instance, while TorGuard managed 410-480Mbps, and ExpressVPN’s Lightway protocol reached 490-630Mbps. Now that really is fast.
If you run into problems with Norton Secure VPN then you could head off to the support site, but we’d recommend you keep your expectations low. There are a small number of FAQs, mostly very short on detail, and if you’ve any VPN experience we suspect you could produce better content in an afternoon.
The chances are you’ll contact the support team direct, then. Especially as Norton makes it so easy, with 24/7 live chat and phone options.
We opened a session, we asked a very simple question: is there a way to properly close the Windows 10 app down, the issue we discussed earlier?
After a long wait, an agent told us we had to click the Windows close button. Nope, that’s not going to help.
We explained it just minimized to the system tray, so he suggested we disconnected first. Wrong again.
We told him we weren’t connected, so he offered to remotely access our system using LogMeIn to diagnose the problem. We said yes, he closed the window and told us the VPN was now closed. Still missing the point.
We showed the agent that the client icon was still in the system tray. Ah, he said, you have to use the close button in Settings. We could excuse the earlier answers as him misunderstanding us, but this was simply wrong.
He tried to do this, and found the icon was still present in the system tray. Giving up, he closed it from task manager and explained that was the best method.
We’d given the agent a hard enough time, said thanks and let him go. Unfortunately, he’d only closed the user process, not the Norton VPN service, and when we next looked, the app had restarted, and the icon was back. Close, but he was wrong again.
(If you’re curious, the only shutdown answer we found was to close the Norton service. Not difficult, but far from convenient, and not something most non-technical users would stand even a faint chance of spotting.)
The support agents were friendly and did their best to help, but we suspect they’re trained to deal with issues across the Norton range, and so don’t have a lot of in-depth VPN knowledge. This may not matter at all to experienced users who can handle just about everything themselves, but if you’re not that confident, we think you’ll generally get better assistance from the top specialist VPN providers.
Norton Secure VPN review: Final verdict
If your VPN needs are simple, or you’re looking for a VPN and a security suite, then Norton Secure VPN’s back-to-basics approach might appeal. Experts will be frustrated by the lack of features, though, the Windows kill switch is a concern, and there are many more capable, faster and cheaper VPNs around.