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NordVPN review: Sincere about security and privacy

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VPN services: The basics
Whether you’re in the office or on the road, a VPN is still one of the best ways to protect yourself on the big, bad internet.
Read more: https://zd.net/2BNF7ne

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The Best VPN services for 2019

A virtual private network enables users to send and receive data while remaining anonymous and secure online. In this directory, we look at a few of the very best commercial VPN service providers on the Internet.

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When I started learning about NordVPN for this review, one of the first things I noticed was that, although its branding seems Nordic, the company’s headquarters is actually in Panama.

When I spoke to Marty P Kamden, the company’s CMO, he told me the name “was inspired by Nordic ideals of confidence, trust, and innovation. It reflects how we value our customers’ freedom of choice, how we strive to be innovative with our technology, and the way we work.”

There are definitely jurisdictional privacy benefits to using Panama as the country of record for a VPN provider. In particular, the nation doesn’t have mandatory data retention laws and doesn’t participate in either the Quadripartite Pact (better known as Five Eyes or UKUSA) or SIGINT Seniors Europe (or SSEUR, better known as Fourteen Eyes).

These are signals intelligence sharing agreements between certain nations that allow for data sharing. For VPN users concerned about security and government access to communications data, the fact that a VPN private network provider isn’t subject to either of these agreements is a plus.


NordVPN at a glance


NordVPN is a product worth considering if you’re concerned about protecting your Internet connection from prying eyes. The company boasts 5,100 servers in 62 countries.

This metric is important, because one of the key reasons to use a VPN service is that you connect from your machine to a server somewhere else, often in another country. The more servers available, the better chance you can anonymize your connection.

Beyond basic VPN

The company provides a list of server locations, and each location provides different categories of service beyond basic VPN. There are a total of five communications services offered: P2P, Double VPN, Dedicated IP, Onion Over VPN, and Obfuscated (which means “to render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible).

P2P: P2P stands for Peer-to-Peer. Back in the days of Napster, P2P was huge. While we definitely don’t condone sharing copyrighted materials, P2P networks have great value in distributing large files without exacting too much of a load on any one machine. For example, many Linux distributions are shared via P2P. NordVPN supports P2P sharing in many countries.

Double VPN: When you connect from your computer to a VPN server, your data is encrypted once along the path. Double VPN routes you through a second VPN server, which provides a second layer of encryption and hides your originating IP address from the second VPN server.

Onion Over VPN: You may have heard of TOR (for The Onion Router). While TOR routes data through multiple servers and encrypts it, the biggest benefit is that, to anyone trying to spy on packets, every TOR user looks the same. It’s a powerful boost to anonymity. Onion Over VPN is Nord’s method of allowing you to use all the benefits of TOR, but across your own VPN connection, as well. If you want anonymity, this is big.

Obfuscated: These are servers that Nord says “can bypass network restrictions such as network firewalls.” This only works with OpenVPN, so you’re limited to their Windows, Mac, and Android apps.

Dedicated IP: This is just about the opposite of everything else we’ve discussed. Many users want to blend in with all the other users as a way to hide their identity. Dedicated IP assigns your account a specific IP that you and only you use. Why would you want to do this? Some servers and systems require certain IP addresses for access or ease of login. It’s a special case. Don’t worry if you don’t understand this one. If you need it, you’ll know it.

Not all countries offer all five of these services. In fact, only the NordVPN servers in The Netherlands offer all five. Some countries offer just P2P, some offer just Obfuscated, and some only allow connections without any enhanced VPN service.

Performance testing

I installed the NordVPN app on a fresh, fully-updated Windows 10 install. To do this kind of testing, I always use a fresh install so some other company’s VPN leftovers aren’t clogging up the system and possibly influencing results. I have a 1,000Mbps fiber feed, so my baseline network speed is rockin’ fast.

To provide a fair US performance comparison, rather than comparing to my local fiber broadband provider, I used speedtest.net and picked a Comcast server in Chicago to test download speed.

I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t choose a specific location in the US to connect to, so I let NordVPN make what it considered to be the best connection. UPDATE: Since I first looked at NordVPN, the company has added the ability to connect to specific cities.

nord.png

Beyond the US, I tested connections to Sweden, Russia, Taiwan, Australia, and India. For each test, I connected to each server three times. The number shown below is the average result of all three connections.

While I was connected, I also ran DNS and WebRTC leak tests (to make sure that DNS and IP are secure) using DNSLeak.com, ipleak.net, and dnsleaktest.com. These tests are basic security tests and not much more. If you’re planning on using NordVPN (or any VPN service) to hide your identity for life and death reasons, be sure to do far more extensive testing.

And, with that caveat, here are the results:

Speed Test Server

Baseline download speed without VPN (higher is better)

Ping speed without VPN (lower is better)

Time to connect to VPN

Download speed with VPN (higher is better)

Ping speed with VPN (lower is better)

Leaks

Chicago – Comcast

188.67Mbps

71ms

19 sec

43.14Mbps

61 ms

None

Stockholm, Sweden – Datacom

361.70Mbps

195ms

15 sec

15.97Mbps

217ms

None

Moscow, Russia – Rostelecom

11.99Mbps

220ms

15 sec

23.77Mbps

217ms

None

Taipei, Taiwan – NCIC Telecom

82.45Mbps

175ms

18.99 sec

18.65Mbps

160ms

None

Perth, Australia – Telstra

123Mbps

217ms

16 sec

16.64Mbps

242ms

None

Hyderabad, India – Excitel

338.25Mbps

243ms

17 sec

1.44Mbps

326ms

Maybe

In looking at these numbers, it’s possible to get carried away by the difference in the baseline speed compared to the VPN speed. That’s not the best measurement, mostly because I have broadband over fiber, so my connection speed is extremely high.

When you use a VPN service, it’s natural for performance to drop. After all, you’re running all your packets through an entirely artificial infrastructure designed to hide your path. The real numbers you should look at are the download speed and the ping speed. Are they high enough to do the work you need to do?

Ping speed is an indication of how quickly a response gets back after a network request is sent from your computer. Some of the limitations here are due to actual physics. If you’re sending a packet across the planet, it will take longer to hear back than if you’re sending a packet across town.

For all connections, with the exception of India, NordVPN download performance was quite good. Since you don’t really need more than about 6Mbps to 8Mbps to stream HD video from sites like YouTube, the NordVPN connections were certainly fast enough. For years, most of us would have been thrilled to have the broadband download speeds reported after this VPN was enabled.

Then there’s India. My non-VPN performance was blazing fast. Yet, my VPN performance was terrible. I retried connecting to what NordVPN considered the best India server a bunch of times, and then tried selecting random Indian servers (Nord labels them as India #1, India #2, and so on). Performance was terrible with each. I also found that DNSLeak.com reported a leak, although I couldn’t find any evidence of a DNS leak with some cursory checks of my own.

I reached out to the company about this. According to Daniel Markuson, Digital Privacy Expert at NordVPN, “This specific website is configured in a strange way. If it detects a difference between the DNS server address and the IP address, it considers this to be a DNS leak. However, if the DNS displayed is not your original regular DNS servers, then no leak has actually occurred. Simply put, this is a false positive due to strange interpretation of what DNS leak is.”

The bottom line of my basic performance tests is that you can probably get the job done unless it involves India. If you have a specific country you want to connect to, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the company’s full 30-day refund policy and just try it out.

See latest NordVPN plans and deals

Double DNS performance

I was very intrigued by the Double VPN offering, but the results were mixed. When I tried to connect via Double VPN to the fastest US server, I waited two minutes, lost patience, and got up to get coffee and pet the dog. By the time I sat back down at my computer five minutes later, there was still no connection.

I stopped the connection attempt, selected Netherlands as my server location instead of the US, and was connected in about 30 seconds. I ran the same speed test to Comcast in Chicago that netted 188.67Mbps natively, and got 1.49Mbps download. Of course, that was from The Netherlands to Chicago. When I connected to Duocast in Groningen (a large city in the north of The Netherlands), my speed increased to a still-meager 2.02Mbps.

Clearly, Double DNS speeds are slow, but they’re workable enough if you’re not transferring large media. If you’re connecting to mail servers, sending messages, browsing Facebook, etc, it should be tolerably fine.

Privacy and security features

Big on our list of questions for any VPN vendor is what kind of data they log. NordVPN does need an email address so you can log into your account, and they do capture anonymized performance metrics to tune their systems, but the company says it doesn’t log any traffic or access data.

In terms of platform support, NordVPN has apps for iOS and Android, Windows, and Mac. On top of that, NordVPN supports a huge number of platforms ranging from all the way back to Windows XP, forward to Raspberry Pi, Synology, and Western Digital, along with QNAP NAS boxes, Chromebook, a whole bunch of routers, and more.

At its core, a VPN encrypts and decrypts your data, so the method of encryption is very important. Unfortunately, it’s really not possible to say which encryption protocol is best, because that depends on what you need. We can say that certain protocols are proven to be no longer safe, and while some VPN providers still encrypt using those protocols, NordVPN does not. NordVPN offers OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec, which are well-respected protocols.

In addition, NordVPN is now offering something it calls CyberSec, which shares a lot of the characteristics of an antivirus program, but works very differently. CyberSec monitors network transmissions for malware, where antivirus programs tend to monitor running programs.

CyberSec also watches out for on-system botnet activity and tries to block any participation in a DDoS (distributed denial of service attack). It also blocks pop-ups, auto-play videos, and known dangerous websites. It’s a very nice and welcome addition to its VPN offering and is provided at no additional charge.

Finally, they support Bitcoin payment, so if you want to keep your identity completely private, you don’t even need to give them a credit card number.

The bottom line

Going back to our mantra that everyone’s needs are different, we can’t tell you which VPN service to choose. We like what we’ve seen of NordVPN, performance is generally good, and the company’s attention to security and privacy seems sincere.

NordVPN is not a free VPN, but given the company’s fair 30-day refund policy, we can definitely say they’re worth giving a try. If you’re curious about other VPN vendors, take a look at my comprehensive best-of VPN directory over on CNET.

See latest NordVPN plans and deals


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission on services featured on this page. Neither the author nor ZDNet were compensated by Nord for this independent, unbiased review.



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Tesla Q2 2021: Deliveries break 200,000, Bitcoin bites and Semi pushed to 2022

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Tesla delivered over 200,000 vehicles in Q2 2021, with the electric car company announcing a 98-percent rise in revenue year on year. It’s not all good news, though, with the Tesla Semi having been pushed back to 2022, and a Bitcoin-related impairment hitting the balance sheet.

For the three month period, Tesla saw revenue of $11.958 billion, and earnings of $1.45 per share (non-GAAP). Operating margin was 11-percent.

Tesla produced 2,340 Model S and Model X, and delivered 1,890 of the EVs. The bulk, though, was over with the more affordable Model 3 and Model Y. There, Tesla built 204,080 and delivered 199,360.

That increase in Model 3 and Model Y shipments did, however, have an impact on vehicle average selling price. That declined by 2-percent, year on year, as Model S and Model X deliveries were lower for the latest quarter. “Production ramp of Model S progressed over the course of Q2,” Tesla says, “and we expect it will continue to increase throughout the rest of the year.”

85 megawatts of solar were deployed, and 1,274 MWh of power storage.

As for the downs of the quarter, one notable hit was a $23 million “Bitcoin-related impairment” recorded. Tesla had announced back in February 2021 that it was buying $1.5 billion worth of the cryptocurrency; the following month, it revealed it would allow EV shoppers to pay for their new car with Bitcoin. Come May, however, Elon Musk ended that, amid concerns at the ecological impact of cryptocurrency mining.

The other disappointment is news on the Tesla Semi. Production of the electric haulage has been pushed back, Tesla confirmed today, as the automaker focuses on building its first Model Y at the Berlin and Austin factories later this year.

“To better focus on these factories, and due to the limited availability of battery cells and global supply chain challenges, we have shifted the launch of the Semi truck program to 2022,” Tesla said.

For the Tesla Cybertruck, meanwhile, there’s really just a single mention of the upcoming electric pickup. “We are all making progress on the industrialization of Cybertruck,” the automaker says, “which is currently planned for Austin production subsequent to Model Y.”

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Lucid Motors goes public, grabs $4.4 billion and loses its last excuse

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Lucid Motors has gone public, listing as $LCID on the NASDAQ and raising $4.4 billion as it heads into the final countdown for producing and selling its Air all-electric luxury sedan. It’s been a tumultuous journey for the automaker from its founding in 2007 to here, and the clock is ticking for Lucid to prove it really can disrupt the EV status-quo as it has long claimed it will.

We first saw the Lucid Air back in late 2016, and since then the automaker’s claims haven’t exactly been coy. Certain configurations will offer 500+ miles of EPA range on a charge, Lucid has said, with performance as rapid as 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds.

Still, like many would-be auto industry disruptors, Lucid has had to battle to make the whole thing make sense financially. Production of the Air was pushed back, though now the company says it should begin that in the second half of 2021. It’ll use the new merger with SPAC Churchill Capital Corp IV – and the funds it raises – to help pay for that.

There are, Lucid says, currently over 11,000 reservations for the various configurations of Air it plans to build. All of its Air Dream Edition models – which will be manufactured first – have been reserved; subsequent trims, including the Grand Touring, Touring, and most affordable Pure, will follow, though it won’t be until 2022 at the earliest before the cheapest Air arrives.

Part of Lucid’s challenge, of course, is raising its profile amid the increasingly crowded electric luxury segment. With Tesla dominating mindshare, and established brands like Mercedes-Benz preparing to weigh in with all-electric heavyweights such as the new EQS, speed and range aren’t going to be sufficient in themselves to distinguish models like the Lucid Air.

The automaker’s strategy there is to put the Air where people can’t miss it. Three new “Lucid Dream Ahead” boxes have been placed around well-trafficked spots in New York City, for example; they’ll be uncovered to reveal an Air sedan in each. Unable to count on Tesla’s “we don’t pay for advertising” model, Lucid is putting ads on CNBC, in newspapers, and on the Times Square digital billboards.

The reality is that, at $131,500 for an Air Grand Touring, the Air will go head to head with some strong competition. Mercedes hasn’t confirmed pricing for the 2022 EQS arriving in the near year, but says to expect it to be roughly on a par with the S-Class. Meanwhile, a more powerful Tesla Model S Plaid is $129,990.

Despite that, the automaker is looking ahead to how it can best spend its new windfall. “Lucid will add 2.7 million square feet of additional space at our greenfield factory in Arizona,” CEO Peter Rawlinson said today. “This will allow us to add a separate line for our Project Gravity electric SUV even as we accelerate its development.”

The short-term question, as customer car production nears, is just how many of the reservation holders convert their refundable deposit into an actual order. We’ll find that out later in the year, when Lucid opens the order books officially.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Review

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It’s probably fair to say that Toyota put hybrids on the map. The Prius defined the category, came to resemble every stereotype of a “green” car (and, for that matter, of your next Uber or Lyft), and for many has been a first taste of electrification. What’s odd, then, is that it’s taken until now – and the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime – for the automaker to get around to making a compelling plug-in hybrid.

The nomenclature can be tricky, so first a quick recap. The original Prius – and indeed most models of Prius since – have been a hybrid in that they pair a gas engine with an electric motor, and a small battery. As you slow down, instead of wasting all that energy heating up and wearing away the brake pads, the hybrid drivetrain converts it into electricity; hit the accelerator, and it uses it to give you a little extra jolt of speed.

It’s a great way to nudge up your miles-per-gallon numbers, without demanding owners do anything as unusual as plug their car into a charger. The downside is that the electric-only range is tiny: maybe about a mile, if you have a light right foot. For more than that, you’ll need at least a plug-in hybrid, or PHEV.

That way you get not only a bigger battery – meaning more electric-only range, before the gas engine kicks in – but the ability to charge it externally. For most people that means while they’re at home or at work, but you can also plug PHEVs into public chargers. They’re a reassuring stepping-stone to full electric because, even if you don’t have time or access to a charger, you can simply fill up the gas tank for more range.

Toyota has flirted with PHEVs, but it’s only with the 2021 RAV4 Prime where it feels like it truly took the category seriously. Maybe that’s because the RAV4 is such an important model in the automaker’s line-up: the best-seller of out of its whole range, in fact, in the first half of 2021. If you’re going to wear the RAV4 nameplate, then, you need to live up to the billing.

Here, Toyota pairs a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine with two electric motors, and an 18.1 kWh battery pack under the trunk floor. Now EVs with batteries capable of anything close to a decent range tend to be on the heavy side, and the RAV4 Prime is no different at around 4,300 pounds, but it still manages to be Toyota’s second most potent model on sale right now.

Sure, a Supra will best it, but 302 horsepower is plenty for a compact SUV. The two-door coupe can’t drive 42 miles on electric power alone, either, or accommodate a family of five and their luggage. Toyota claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds, which is positively perky.

Exactly how much of that perkiness you get depends on which drive mode you’re in. Auto mode blends the gas and electric powers as the RAV4 Prime sees fit; you’ll know when the fossil fuels are being burned, because the four-cylinder grunts a little noisily into life. EV mode avoids that happening until the battery is depleted, though sacrifices performance in the process. If you want maximum power, you’ll need to be in Auto.

Finally, there’s a mode where the gas engine stays active more, so as to charge up the battery while you’re driving. It’s definitely not the most efficient way to do that, mind. Instead, you’re going to want to plug the crossover in.

As standard, the RAV4 Prime comes with a 3.3 kW onboard charger. Plug the PHEV into a regular, 120V outlet – such as with the Level 1 charger Toyota supplies – and you’re looking at 12 hours for a full charge. With a Level 2 240V charger, that dips to 4.5 hours. Optional on the fancier 2021 RAV4 Prime XSE trim is a 6.6 kW onboard charger, as part of the Premium package. That trims the 240V Level 2 charge time to 2.5 hours.

42 miles of EV-only range may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than the average American drives in a day. With a full tank of gas to play with, the EPA says you could do a whopping 600 miles before needing to stop: the SUV is rated for 94 MPGe, or 38 mpg on gasoline only.

Sadly, you don’t get DC fast charging support, so don’t expect faster top-ups at higher powered public chargers. That’s not an unusual sacrifice for PHEVs, mind, where the ability to fill up a gas tank generally offsets the absence of fast charging.

On the road, the RAV4 Prime falls victim to the same shortcoming many plug-in hybrids suffer. In a straight line it’s definitely speedy, the dual-motor all-wheel drive setup launching you forward with all the instantaneous torque that we’ve come to love electric vehicles for. The eagerness with which it surges away from stop signs and lights makes it a pleasing tool for urban jaunts.

Cornering, though, is not the Toyota’s forte. Not that, quite frankly, anybody looked to the RAV4 for its handling prowess. The suspension is clearly tuned in an attempt to offset the battery heft, and the result is body roll in the corners and some dive when you brake on the harder side. The steering is precise but not quick. Fine for cruising, then, but this doesn’t really put the “Sport” in SUV.

The “Utility,” however, is another matter. Toyota’s cunning packaging not only hides the battery, but cuts only a little into cargo space in the process. With the rear bench up, you’re looking at 33.5 cu-ft; drop it down, that expands to almost 70 cu-ft. Both the entry RAV4 Prime SE at $38,250, and the nicer XSE at $41,575, get a power liftgate.

As for the rest of the cabin, Toyota’s current curse of “sensibly dour” continues. It’s not that the RAV4 Prime’s dashboard feels cheap, or even that it’s lacking in features, it just seems a little too sober for its own good. Everything is laid out cleanly and sensibly, and there are some nice, soft-touch materials, I just wish it wasn’t so dark in there.

Dual-zone climate control is standard, along with heated front seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, and an 8-inch infotainment systems with 6-speaker audio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and five USB ports spread around the cabin. Sadly Toyota’s new UI isn’t included, meaning the infotainment is serviceable but hardly aesthetically-delightful. The XSE gets a slightly bigger, 9-inch touchscreen, wireless phone charging, a foot-operated tailgate, along with SofTex seats rather than just fabric. Options include ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, a 120V/1500W outlet in the trunk, navigation, and front and rear parking assistance.

Standard either way is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which bundles together adaptive cruise control, Lane Departure Alerts and Lane Tracing Assist, pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, and auto high-beams. Blind spot alerts are included too, as is trailer sway control for when you’re taking advantage of the 2,500 pounds of towing capacity.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Verdict

The RAV4 Prime’s wildcard is the US federal tax incentive. Though the PHEV is almost $10k more than the regular RAV4 Hybrid – which has much less electric-only range and no ability to plug it in to charge – it’s eligible for the full, $7,500 tax credit. Take advantage of other incentives at the state and local level, and you can quickly pare down that difference.

At that point, quite honestly, the 2021 RAV4 Prime becomes a no-brainer for the average crossover shopper. Would I love a little extra electric range? Sure, but Toyota’s 42 miles is readily achievable on the road, and its overall package of electrification without demanding too much in the way of cabin and cargo compromise is solid. A bigger battery would take up more space, add weight, and make the whole thing more expensive.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that the automotive world is headed toward full-electric. Not everyone, though, is quite ready for the transition, and I think there’s still absolutely a place for plug-in hybrids that acknowledge that fact. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is easy to live with and practical, and the fact that you can drive it on electric power alone only adds to the experience, rather than complicating it.

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