Whether you're on your computer or your phone, you should use a virtual private network to protect your data while it's in transit. Norton WiFi Privacy is an Android app that safely secures you and your network traffic when you're on the go. It has some excellent features, including ad blocking and automatic VPN connections, but it requires a high up-front investment and only protects one device. For better value in Android VPNs, you should look look to our Editors' Choice winners NordVPN and Private Internet Access VPN.
When you connect to the free Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, you're probably not overly concerned with security. But if the network isn't secured, it's possible that one of the other patrons is spying on your every move as you surf the Web, learning your passwords, banking information, and secrets. There's also no way to tell if the network you're connecting to is even being run by the coffee shop. It could just be a cleverly named surrogate, created to lure patrons like yourself into connecting.
This kind of man-in-the-middle attack is more common than you might think. At the Black Hat security conference, I saw first hand how even trained security professionals, hackers, and passersby fell for what was clearly a bogus network. This particular attack took advantage of the fact that many phones and computers will automatically try to reconnect to familiar networks. By mimicking any network ID a victim requests, the attacker captures connections. It's a convenient feature, but one that opens you up to attack.
A VPN can't protect you against every threat, but it's a simple and effective way to lock down your network security. With a VPN, your traffic is routed through a secure and encrypted tunnel to the VPN service's server. From there, it enters the wide and wild Internet. The practical upshot is that anyone on your local network or monitoring your connection to the VPN's server won't be able to peek at your data.
VPNs also provide a modicum of privacy. Should attackers or advertisers try to gather your IP address or discern your location, they'll see the info for the VPN server instead. This facet of VPN services also means that you can spoof your location by connecting to a far-flung VPN server. Political activists and journalists use this feature to reach the rest of the world when operating within countries with restrictive Internet laws. The average person can use this to access region-locked content, like Major League Baseball live streams or BBC programming.
Norton WiFi Privacy costs $29.99 a year, and it comes with a seven-day free trial. The subscription and payments are entirely app based and handled through Google Play. That means that you pay for it the same you would any other in-app purchase. It's a little counter-intuitive, however, because Google makes it appear as if you are going to be charged immediately when in reality you have a seven-day trial period. If you want to cancel your subscription, you can do so easily through the Account section of the Google Play app.
Norton does not offer any other billing options, which is unfortunate. Most other services let you choose between a monthly billing cycle and a prorated annual billing option. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited goes further, offering billing options that cover just a few days—a great choice for travelers looking to get just a few days of protection.
While that $29.99 price tag can look intimidating, it works out to about $2.50 a month. That's well below nearly every other service's monthly billing option, but doesn't beat out other services when you look at their annual plans. Spotflux VPN and KeepSolid offer plans for $4.99 a month or annual plans for $25 and $29.99, respectively. There are even free VPN services that are worth investigating, if price is a major issue.
Depending on how you look at it, Norton WiFi Privacy compares favorably on price, but the rest of its offering comes up short. For example, a Norton WiFi Privacy subscription covers only a single device. The industry standard is at least five devices. Norton also only covers mobile devices, while nearly every other service offers protection to both mobile and desktops. Some services, such as TorGuard, go even further, offering routers with VPN software preinstalled, providing protection for every device connected to the network.
Norton also has comparatively few servers in even fewer locations. According to Norton, the company currently offers 25 server locations with at least two different servers in each location. To its credit, Norton has a geographically diverse collection of server locations, touching Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and the South Pacific. No matter where you travel, you're sure to find at least one server on the same continent. But for international travelers, or users keen to spoof their location to specific locales, this will not be enough. Editors' Choice winner Private Internet Access, on the other hand, has thousands of servers in hundreds of locations across the globe.
The number and location of servers matters a lot. If you're using a VPN, you want a server close by in order to reduce latency and to have a better overall experience. If you're interested in spoofing your location, numerous servers and locations give you more options. A solid offering of servers also opens the door for specialized servers. Editors' Choice Winner NordVPN, for example, has specific servers for watching videos, accessing the Tor network, and exchanging files over BitTorrent (or the P2P network of your choice)—even when using your Android device. Norton doesn't allow file sharing, nor does it have specific servers for different activities.
With its Android app, Norton offers a clean, focused experience. The app is centered around a large circle showing the current location of your Web traffic. Page elements are colored red or green depending on whether or not the VPN is active. The color changes stand out starkly in the app's sparse design, which is smart and eye-catching. A typical Android power button sits in the lower right corner in typical material design style.
Buttons across the top give quick access to app settings, location information, and ad-blocking controls. One of the best features of the app is the ability to have Norton automatically activate the VPN whenever your phone connects to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. If you're not a fan of automation, you can toggle this off and opt to receive warnings about the network's lack of security instead.
Ad-blocking software is currently unavailable in the official Google Play store, meaning you cannot escape the tyranny (or necessity, depending on your point of view) of Web ads on your Android device. Apple, it should be noted, does allow ad-blocking apps like 1Blocker, which blocks ads in the Safari browser. Some VPN services, including Norton, will block ads, making them rare and valuable commodities for Android devotees. Of the VPN apps I've tested, Private Internet Access and Spotflux VPN are the only others that also block ads on Android.
By default, Norton WiFi Privacy will select the closest VPN server to your current location. Proximity can have a major impact on performance, and a closer server usually ensures a better experience. Some users, however, may want to make it appear as if their Web traffic is coming from somewhere else. To do that, you can manually select from a list and the app will connect. Other VPN services offer many more servers and locations, as well as search functions, speed tests, and specialized servers. Norton's offering is adequate in this regard, but I hope to see it grow in the future.
Using a VPN will have some effect on your Internet connection. In most cases, the strain of bouncing data to a remote server and back again increases latency and lowers download and upload speeds. In some rare cases, VPNs can improve Web performance, usually by connecting you to higher bandwidth infrastructure. When testing VPNs on desktop computers, I found that PureVPN greatly increased download speeds, for example. I have yet to see this effect with an Android VPN, however.
VPNs can secure cellular traffic, too, but cellular connections are harder to control in a lab environment. In my testing, I shut off the cellular radio on my Nexus 5x before running a series of speed tests using the Ookla app (Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis). VPN protection for cellular connections is important because an attacker with a good amount of technical know-how, a portable cell tower such as a Femtocell, and a broad-spectrum jammer could intercept your cellular data. This is, as readers will no doubt guess, a rather exotic attack—but it's not unheard of.
All of my tests use the automatically selected server, which in this case was located in Kansas. Your mileage, particularly in other countries, may vary.
I found that the Norton WiFi Privacy app increased network latency by 342.2 percent. That's a significant increase, but not the worst I have seen by far. The NordVPN Android app had the lowest latency of any mobile VPN I've yet tested, increasing latency by only 32 percent.
Norton did not fare so well in the download or upload tests. I found it decreased download speeds by 54.5 percent. The Private Internet Access app has the best score in this test, decreasing download speeds by only 10.3 percent. Norton's performance was, however, on the higher end of average for this test. In the upload test, Norton slowed uploads by 58.3 percent, making it the second slowest uploading mobile VPN I've yet tested. The Spotflux VPN Android app actually improved upload performance, increasing upload speeds by 6.5 percent.
Numbers are just numbers; it's the experience that really matter. During my time with Norton WiFi Privacy I found that media-heavy pages seemed to load nearly as quickly as they did without VPN. Web-optimized pages, like Google's AMP pages, loaded almost instantaneously.
Unfortunately, I found that Netflix was blocked when I was using Norton WiFi Privacy. The same is true for nearly every other VPN service (and the associated Android apps) I've tested. At issue is geographic-specific licensing deals Netflix carries out. Show and movie availability varies by country, due to the way licenses are negotiated.
Norton WiFi Privacy has a great design, a friendly interface, and a familiar sign-up process that's sure to put users at ease. I particularly like its ad-blocking powers, and its ability to automatically activate VPN protection when you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. My enthusiasm is offset, however, by the service's inflexible and relatively high up-front price, its limited number of servers, and the single license it offers. Norton could make its VPN much more compelling simply by expanding the number of devices a single subscription can protect. For now, I'll continue to recommend Editors' Choice VPN Android apps NordVPN and Private Internet Access.