Many security vendors now 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 Symantec's entry into this field.
We were interested to see how the service compared with the specialist competition, but Symantec's website didn't make any real effort to tell us. There's no mention of the network size, where its servers are, supported protocols, or anything beyond the fact that there are apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android.
- Want to try Norton Secure VPN? Check out the website here
After installing the client, we found Secure VPN offers a fair choice of 29 countries covering North America and Europe, with other locations including Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa.
The service uses the speedy and secure OpenVPN protocol, but it doesn't provide separate OpenVPN configuration files or setup tutorials which might allow you to manually set up the VPN on other platforms (game consoles, smart TVs and so on.)
Prices start at $26 (£20) for a one year, one device license, rising to $52 (£40) on renewal. Covering five devices costs a more reasonable $39 (£30) for year one, $78 (£60) on renewal, and a ten device license is $78 (£60) initially, $91 (£70) on renewal.
That looks expensive, to use. Avast's SecureLine will cover a single mobile device for $19.50 (£15) a year, while Private Internet Access charges an annual $40 (£30.77) to cover up to five devices. But it's still cheaper than some - ExpressVPN asks $100 (£77) to cover three devices for one year - and you shouldn't necessarily be put off by the price alone.
There's no free product or trial to allow you to evaluate the service, unfortunately, but you do get 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.'
This still seems very unclear, to us. Does the service really only record data for mobile devices, and not desktops? Are these the only items logged, or does that 'including' mean there might be others? What 'temporary usage data' is recorded, and how temporary is it?
Even when the policy rules something out, it still leaves us unsure. The statement that 'Symantec does not store the user’s originating IP address when connected to Norton Secure VPN and therefore Symantec cannot identify individuals' seems definitive, for instance, but it doesn't tell us that the destination IP address isn't stored, and so can't rule out a degree of session logging.
We suspect this lack of clarity isn't down to Symantec trying to hide anything underhand. Like most non-specialist providers, the company is just assuming its customers aren't that concerned about the fine technical details, and they've not made any real efforts to spell out exactly what's going on.
Still, if Symantec wants to compete with the big VPN names, they'll need to do better than this, and we hope they'll get more specific in future.
After signing up for Norton Secure VPN, a Welcome email offered a Getting Started link to find and install the service. Except, well, it didn't, with a Device Not Supported message telling us 'Norton does not run on this Windows operating system.' What, Windows 10?!
Fortunately, the post-signup web page also offered us a Getting Started link, and this one worked correctly, offering us a chance to download a client for this device, or use another.
The client interface has plenty of visual appeal. Your current location and connection status are highlighted on a small map, there's smart use of color to emphasize key information, and even a total VPN novice will immediately figure out what they need to do.
Unfortunately, there's also a more technical design issue. The app is drawn to look like a regular application window, but it isn't. You can't click and drag on the title bar to move the window, for instance, and if you click on anything else, it disappears. You get used to this, but it's still an annoyance, and it's hard to think of any good reason why the developer implemented it that way.
There are very few features. You must choose locations from a single alphabetically-sorted list of countries, with no way to filter or search the list, no option to choose locations within countries, and no indication of server load, ping time or any other way to help you make the best choice.
There's a usability problem, too, in that the main tab doesn't show the currently selected location. That doesn't matter when you're connected as it's displayed on the map, but when you're offline, it's a different story. You must either remember which location you used last time, or you'll have to click the Virtual Location tab first.
The Settings menu is sparse. You can have the client launch along with Windows, and optionally connect to your nearest server, but that's it. There's no ability to change protocol, adjust connection settings, have the client automatically connect when you access insecure networks, or any of the other options you'll commonly find elsewhere.
The only bonus feature we could find was simple tracker blocking. This has some value as it's implemented as the connection level, so will work on all your browsers and software, without the need to install browser extensions. But it has no configuration options beyond 'on/ off', and you'll get far more power and features by using something like uBlock Origin.
The client has no sign of a custom kill switch, but our tests suggested that OpenVPN covers the basics. When we tried manually closing the OpenVPN.exe process, our internet access was blocked for a brief period, the service reconnected and our previous IP was restored.
We spotted an unusual technical touch in Secure VPN's OpenVPN configuration. While other clients try to connect to a single server, in a specific way (via TCP or UDP, for example), Secure VPN is much smarter. Its configuration file can retry connections using more than 30 methods, which include changing server, port and using TCP or UDP.
This is interesting, but we're not sure how practical it is. Connecting could take a very long time if the client has to cycle through several of these, and it means you can never be quite sure which server, port or connection type it'll be using. But then usually you'll get connected first time, and if you're in a country which tries to block VPNs, having the client try multiple settings will give you a better chance of getting online.
Mobile VPN apps are sometimes very different to the desktop versions, and Norton's Android app has an immediate advantage over the Windows build: there's a 7-day trial.
Aside from that, though, the app basics are much the same. It automatically connects on launch; you're able to choose a new location from a simple list, and there's no Favorites system or any other way to speed up finding and reconnecting to specific servers.
We did notice one bonus, and it's a useful one for a mobile app: it can automatically connect to the VPN when you access an insecure network. It's a small feature, but worth having, as it means you don't have to remember to turn the system on yourself.
Norton Secure VPN doesn't provide raw OpenVPN configuration files, which means we weren't able to use our automated performance testing tools. Instead, we switched back to our older approach of manually logging in to individual locations, then checking download speeds with Fast.com, SpeedTest.net and TestMy.net.
Local connections to our nearest UK server were excellent, with downloads consistently reaching 60-66Mbps. Nearby European countries were little different at 50-65Mbps, suggesting these figures were limited by our 75Mbps test connection rather than Norton's own network. If your connection is faster, you may well see better speeds.
US performance was also above average at 45-65Mbps. There's no option to choose cities, though, so results will vary depending on your location.
More distant locations didn't always fare as well - Australia was a little disappointing at 15 to 25Mbps, Mexico managed 8 to 18Mbps - but even these would be perfectly adequate for many applications.
While some VPNs make big claims about how they can bypass all geoblocking and get you access to any website you like, Norton Secure VPN barely mentions this at all, beyond a general claim that it allows you access to your favorite websites 'anywhere you go, just as if you’re at home.'
This doesn't mean the service is short on unblocking power, though. We connected to the UK server and were able to stream BBC iPlayer content without any issues or complications.
Switching to the US got us instant access to US-only YouTube content, another welcome success.
Norton Secure VPN even allowed us to view US Netflix, one of the greatest challenges in content unblocking. We would recommend testing this yourself - Secure VPN might assign you multiple IPs and we can't be sure they'll all get you in - but we had no problems, and that's a very good start.
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.
The results you'll get are, well, variable. In our experience, Norton's front line support agents aren't VPN specialists. They can answer basic product spec and setup questions, but ask them to diagnose anything more complicated and you might run into trouble. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll be left alone - they can escalate major issues to more knowledgeable staff, and use remote access to see exactly what's going on - but we think you'll generally get better support from a specialist VPN provider.
If your VPN needs are simple then Norton Secure VPN's stripped-back interface might appeal, and if you've only one device to protect, it's cheaper than some. Experts will be frustrated by the lack of features, though, and there are much better VPNs around.
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