NordVPN vs PIA

As the second best in our VPN reviews, NordVPN is clearly a favorite here at Cloudwards.net. It has taken a spot in several guides, including the best VPN for New Zealand and the best VPN for Russia, thanks to its excellent security and vast server network.

Private Internet Access is no slouch, either. It put up a good fight against our top-rated provider, ExpressVPN, in our ExpressVPN vs PIA comparison. Like NordVPN, it took a spot in a few guides, too, most notably the best VPN for Sweden and the best VPN for Spain.

Both are top-shelf providers, but we’ve seldom compared them directly. In this battle of NordVPN vs PIA, we’ll see how the two stack up in five rounds and declare a winner.

We’re going to look at these providers in the context of each other, occasionally bringing in other providers for a broader scope. If you want to see how they measure up when thrown into the field of virtual private networks, read our NordVPN review and PIA review.

Setting Up a Fight: NordVPN vs. PIA

Our reviews have a lot of criteria because evaluating a VPN is a multi-factor process. Comparisons have many elements, too, but not as many as judging a provider on its own. Because of that, we’ve condensed the criteria in our reviews into five rounds.

We’ll be ranking NordVPN and PIA in features, pricing, ease of use, speed and security. Each round will start with a brief description of what we’re looking for, followed by how well the providers meet our standards. We’ll end the rounds with thoughts on how the two stack up and declare a winner.

The provider that takes three or more rounds will be the overall winner.

While our criteria has been condensed, we won’t be skipping the important aspects. Some smaller sections, such as supported devices, will be combined with others, so that the comparison remains fair.

As with all of our comparisons, we urge you to read through each round in its entirety. We’re going to weigh the pros and cons of each provider and, with two top-shelf options, there’s going to be wiggle room. You may prefer a particular interface or feature set over another, so it’s important for you to see what each provider offers instead of just skimming our picks.

1

Features

Features show a wide gap in the VPN market. Some providers — one of which is in this comparison —  offer a lot, while others offer nothing more than a tunneling experience. Read our Goose VPN review for an example of the latter. There are few specifics here, though, as each provider brings its own unique offerings.

We’re going to compare the features NordVPN and PIA include and tell you which feature set we prefer. We’ll also touch on streaming performance with Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video.

NordVPN

NordVPN has some of the best features offered by a VPN. It’s actually an area where it pulls ahead of our best VPN pick, ExpressVPN, as you can see in our ExpressVPN vs NordVPN comparison. From standards, such as a killswitch, to decent malware protection, NordVPN includes a little bit of everything.

The interface isn’t as customizable as, say, TorGuard (read our TorGuard review), but it still has a lot to offer. The most important addition is CyberSec, a malware blocker that will protect you from a wide range of cybercrime tactics. It’s focused on browser-based threats, meaning it protects you from adware, phishing and browser hijackers.

Read our what is phishing and what is browser hijacking guides for more on those nasty scams.

Since it’s free, there’s no reason not to install it, though it isn’t a replacement for the best antivirus software. Make sure to read our antivirus reviews if you want full protection on that front.

On the VPN front, NordVPN has many unique features. It includes specialty servers aimed at torrenting and gaming. Tor over VPN, which will bypass even the most extreme government spying and allow you to access the trenches of the dark net, is on the specialty servers list, too.

Though ultra-secure, that configuration gives up a lot of speed, as you can see in our VPN vs. proxy vs. Tor guide.

The most interesting of the specialty servers are the “double-hop” ones. NordVPN will route your traffic through two VPN servers, adding an extra layer of security to your connection. That is a feature Windscribe also has (read our Windscribe review), but few other providers offer.

NordVPN has a killswitch, too, which isn’t surprising, considering any decent VPN includes one. There’s a twist on it, though. You can set specific applications to use the killswitch, which is a feature NordVPN shares only with VyprVPN (read our VyprVPN review).

While similar to split tunneling, it isn’t the same thing. Split tunneling lets you restrict which applications go through the VPN tunnel, so, for example, you could protect your torrenting while running an online backup at full speed.

That is one area where ExpressVPN is better than NordVPN, as you can see in our ExpressVPN review. Lower-end providers, such as StrongVPN, offer it, too. Be sure to read our StrongVPN review to see why NordVPN is still a better choice, though.

NordVPN is one of our picks for the best VPN for Netflix and the best VPN for BBC iPlayer because it’s particularly good at bypassing geoblocks. We were able to access Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video on almost any server.

Distance affected the streaming experience, though, as we’ll touch on in round four, so Kodi might be a better option if you’re in a more remote part of the world.

PIA

PIA doesn’t offer as many goodies as NordVPN, but it still trades blows. Like its competitor, it includes a malware-blocking tool called MACE. It’s similar in that it protects your browsing, but feels less robust than CyberSec. Mostly, it’s an ad blocker, which isn’t impressive given the massive list of similar tools in our guide to 99 free tools to protect your privacy.

While it’s not impressive, we’re not discounting it, either. MACE will keep you protected online, especially if you look through sports streaming and alternative torrent websites.

Other features are centered on usability and are not marketing points for PIA per se. For example, you can switch directly from one server to another without disconnecting first. This is a small, but useful, feature we wish more providers offered.

Likewise, PIA has excellent speeds, as you’ll see in round four. It uses 128-bit encryption by default, as opposed to the usual 256-bit key, greatly decreasing the time it takes to run. Though 128-bit is enabled by default, you can increase the security with a couple of clicks.

PIA doesn’t have split tunneling, which doesn’t change our comparison, but does give it a demerit when compared to the larger VPN space. Astrill, an excellent provider with the price tag to match, includes the feature, as do StrongVPN and ExpressVPN. You can learn more about that in our Astrill review.

Streaming performance is good, but not great. PIA broke into U.S. Netflix, but it won’t be joining the ranks of the best VPNs for streaming. Our mileage with Netflix was dependent on the server we were using and there was little to no consistency. Outside of that, we were left with proxy errors.

If beating the Netflix VPN ban is your top concern, PIA does the trick, kind of. It fails on all other streaming services, though. During our testing, we were locked out of BBC iPlayer and Hulu and saw spotty performance on Amazon Prime Video.

Round One Thoughts

Both providers have decent features, including malware blocking. For this round, though, it’s clear that NordVPN is the superior option. In addition to a more robust malware blocking tool, it bypasses most streaming blocks, while PIA barely makes it over the first hurdle.

The real determining factor is NordVPN’s specialty servers, though. With those options, you can refine your connection to better suit the task you’re doing, which is an uncommon feature among VPN providers. While streaming performance gives NordVPN an edge, the specialty servers stamp PIA into the ground.

Round: Features Point for NordVPN
2

Pricing

Price is one of the most important aspects of a VPN service. That said, we’re more concerned with value than actual cost. You often get what you pay for with a VPN — see our e-VPN review for an example — so we want to know how much our money gets us, not how much we’re paying.

Outside of value, we’re also looking at subscription durations, free trials or plans, refund periods and payment options.

NordVPN

NordVPN is one of the best value options available. While the monthly rate is unimpressive $12, the long-term subscriptions offer some of the cheapest prices we’ve seen. All plans come with six simultaneous connections, too, which is more than most offer.

NordVPN
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 6 Included Devices
  • Bitcoin
1-year plan $ 6.99 / month
$83.88 billed every year
Save 42 %
2-year plan $ 3.99 / month
$95.75 billed every 2 years
Save 67 %
3-year plan $ 2.99 / month
$107.55 billed every 3 years
Save 75 %

The annual rates are good, but standard among VPNs. NordVPN shaves about 50 percent off the monthly rate, but you can get the same duration, plus an extra simultaneous connection, at CyberGhost for $20 less (read our CyberGhost review).

The two and three-year subscriptions are where NordVPN finds its footing. It gets down to PureVPN prices, but without the sucky service (read our PureVPN review to see what we mean). For $10 more, you can double your duration with the biennial plan and for $10 above that, you can triple the duration.

The long-term value is immense and we don’t think anyone would argue that, but NordVPN’s pricing model is a double-edged sword. It rewards patrons who want to use the service for the lowest possible price, but punishes those who just want to try something new.

There isn’t a free trial or plan, which, based on our worst free VPN guide, isn’t the worst thing. The lack of a free trial stings, but not by much. NordVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, which is one of the longest in the business, so you can try the service before signing your wallet over for multiple years.

Payment options are among the best we’ve seen, too. In addition to major credit cards and PayPal, NordVPN accepts three forms of cryptocurrency: Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple. There’s also an assortment of local payment options, including AliPay, iDeal and Sofort.

PIA

PIA is unique in the VPN space in that it offers a great value on monthly and annual subscriptions. The month-to-month option is half the price of NordVPN, though with one less connection, and it still comes with unlimited bandwidth. That’s not too shabby compared to its competitor.

Standard
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
  • Bitcoin
1-year plan $ 5.99 / month
$71.88 billed every year
Save 40 %
2-year plan $ 3.49 / month
$83.76 billed every 2 years
Save 65 %

There’s a semi-annual plan that will save you a few bucks on the monthly rate, but the real savings come with the annual plan. PIA offers a year’s worth of service for less than half the cost of NordVPN, which puts the monthly cost in the proximity of NordVPN’s three-year offering.

We’re satisfied with the value of a single year, but PIA also offers a two-year option. It’s $10 less than just purchasing two annual plans, dropping the price to under $3 per month, which is an excellent value by almost any standard.

That doesn’t come without issues, though. PIA only offers a seven-day money-back guarantee and no free trial. While a week should be enough to see how you like the service, it’s still a quarter of the time NordVPN offers.

The payment options are about on par with NordVPN’s. It accepts major credit cards, PayPal and bitcoin. Some region-based options offered by NordVPN aren’t provided by PIA, though.

Round Two Thoughts

NordVPN’s multi-year subscriptions are impressive, but its annual and monthly rates aren’t anything special. While you get one more connection than you do with PIA, you’ll have to subscribe for a long time to get the same value.

PIA lacks in its money-back guarantee, but it makes up for it by not requiring you to purchase a multi-year subscription to get a good value. The monthly rate is among the best we’ve seen and, while PIA struggles in areas, its value is undeniable.

Round: Pricing Point for Private Internet Access
3

Ease of Use

VPNs can be difficult to use, just look at our AirVPN review for an example. Because of that, there’s a strong emphasis on ease of use. We’ll be comparing NordVPN’s and PIA’s interfaces, sign-up processes and implementation of features.

NordVPN

We rated NordVPN’s ease of use as ”excellent” in our review, which isn’t a score we hand out often. Even the most tech-deficient users can find their way around the interface, making NordVPN one of the premier options for newbies.

Signing up is as simple as choosing a plan, entering your email address and selecting a payment method. After a few moments, you’ll receive an email with a link to the password creation page. NordVPN doesn’t store your password, but it needs to store your email and payment method for auto-renewal.

Make sure to set a strong password, preferably with one of our best password managers.

After setting your password, you can download the client. Most users, at least those using Windows, macOS, iOS or Android, will be fine, but Team Penguin requires more work. Because of that, NordVPN didn’t make it past the honorable mentions in our best VPN for Linux roundup.

The desktop client, which is our focus in this comparison, opens with a map showing NordVPN’s vast server network. The markers on the map represent countries where the provider has presence, not individual servers. Clicking a marker will automatically connect you to a server in that country based on your preferences, server load and speed.

You can select individual servers by clicking the “countries” tab in the top left of the user interface. There are 62 countries to choose from and clicking one will show all the servers in that country. NordVPN has 5,088 servers in total.

Though server navigation is great, there’s one issue. Servers are numbered, not named based on the location in a specific country. During our testing, we could find out that “Russia #30” was around 1,300 miles away, but not where in Russia it was located. If you’re tunneling in the same country, you can estimate the location, but it’s a hassle when going international.

If, for example, you were in the UK and wanted to connect to a New York City server, you’d have no way of knowing which U.S. server to choose. Your best bet would be to find the closest available server and hope that it lands where you want to go.

Even so, it isn’t the worst con we’ve seen from a VPN. In the same menu, you can access servers you’ve favorited and specialty servers. If you don’t know what those are, scroll up and read round one.

NordVPN can’t switch servers without disconnecting first, though, which is a common downside among VPN providers. That said, it doesn’t sting too much with NordVPN because the server switching process only takes a few seconds.

PIA

PIA is no slouch in ease of use, but its lack of a true interface may turn off users. Even so, it’s a simple VPN that rewards a “set it and forget it” mentality. If that’s not your style, it may be better to look elsewhere.

Signing up is just as simple as it is with NordVPN. After selecting a plan, you’re transported to a payment screen to can complete your registration. If you’re paying with a credit card, you’ll need to provide an email, too.

If you’re using a web-based payment method, such as PayPal, PIA will automatically use that email for your account.

We’re not thrilled about that because it’s not hard to imagine a case in which you would want to use a burner email for your account. It’s  a problem NordVPN doesn’t have, as that provider lets you use different email addresses for PayPal and your account.

After a few moments, PIA will send three emails to you, which is annoying considering NordVPN covers the same ground in one. You’ll get a receipt, a link to the installer and login details. The password you receive is randomly generated, but you can change it later in the control panel.

It should be strong enough as is, so make sure to use a password manager, such as Dashlane, to remember it (read our Dashlane review).

The control panel mostly deals with account details, such as changing your password, but you can do a few other things there, too. You can upgrade your subscription, provide feedback, join beta programs and contact support with the chat button. The control panel is about as hands-on as you’ll get with PIA.

After installing the client, you’ll be asked to log in. There are a few options below the login area, including how you connect and start-up settings, that you’ll want to pay attention to. After you log in and save your settings, the client will disappear.

PIA is controlled through the tray, which may be a con for you. You can make the process easier by telling PIA to display regions or countries, but it’s still a tedious process to get connected.

Connecting is the problem. You right-click and select “connect to” or “connect auto.” The latter will automatically choose a location based on the criteria you set when you logged in, while the former will display the countries or regions you can connect to.

You can’t select a country and leave it as default, though. If you were only concerned with connecting in the U.S., for example, you couldn’t leave that server selected and just click “connect.” The closest thing PIA offers to that is server favoriting, which will send your selections to the top of the “connect to” list.

It’s light on options, too. After clicking through to the settings, you’ll be presented with the login page. Clicking on “advanced settings” will bring up the extended list of options.

There, you can turn on the killswitch, which is oddly disabled by default, set the port you’re tunneling through, change the protocol and more. One setting you’ll want to pay attention to is the “data encryption” option. PIA’s stock setting for encryption is AES 128-bit, which is enough for most users, but it won’t be enough if you’re trying to bypass, say, strict censorship in China.

That, along with a few other reasons, is why PIA couldn’t make the cut for our best VPN services for China list. Thankfully, you can boost the encryption to AES 256-bit, but the default setting combined with exclusivity to the tray makes it an annoying process.

If you favor a minimalist approach, PIA will resonate with you. As long as you’re fine going through the tray and selecting your options from drop-down menus, PIA is usable. That said, if you prefer a more hands-on approach, it’s tedious, at best.

Round Three Thoughts

This round exemplifies why we recommend you read through each section entirely. PIA and NordVPN take different approaches to the user experience and neither can be considered “correct.” It comes down to how you prefer to interact with your software.

We prefer an interface. You can see what’s happening with your connection and ensure that you’re protected. That said, we can’t fault you for favoring PIA’s approach.

Round: Ease of Use Point for NordVPN
4

Speed

VPNs take some of your speed, unless you’re falling victim to internet service provider throttling. Minimizing that decline is important because VPNs are the key tool for unlocking geoblocked streaming platforms. We tested NordVPN and PIA in multiple locations to gauge how well they perform around the globe.

NordVPN

Given how much NordVPN has going for it, its speeds are uninspiring. Even in the same country, it took 8 megabits per second off our download speed, though it maintained a decent amount of our upload speed. That said, considering that NordVPN works so well with streaming platforms, we’re most concerned with download speeds and it’s subpar on that front.

Location:Ping (ms):Download (Mbps):Upload (Mbps):
Home (unprotected)1024.493.97
Amsterdam, NL (#229)2316.353.60
Riga, Latvia (#7)595.903.67
Secaucus, NJ (#1249)1049.553.65
Los Angeles, CA (#538)1861.580.16
Tokyo, JP (#5)3771.050.74
DoubleVPN (Sweden)4514.003.89

Moving outside of the Netherlands, where we did our tests, was a mixed bag. The results varied widely. Crossing the Baltic Sea, for example, yielded worse results than crossing the Atlantic Ocean. When distance was less of a factor, it was clear that not all servers in the network were optimized, so you’ll have to hunt to find the right server at the right time.

The worst performers had dropped significantly. Los Angeles and Japan barely managed 1 Mbps on our download rate and dropped the upload speed below that. Latency was also bad, with Japan nearing the 400 millisecond mark.

Double hopping was better than expected, though. Our connection in Sweden added a negligible amount of latency and left our upload speed largely untouched. The download rate wasn’t bad, either, though the extra security took a 10 Mbps tax.

Staying close to home isn’t bad, but its not great, either. You can get usable speeds in short distances, but tunneling to distant places will yield a nearly unusable connection. That is especially disappointing considering how well NordVPN does with breaking into streaming platforms.

PIA

PIA ranks among the fastest VPN providers. The results we pulled, which were gathered from a coworking space in Sarajevo, Bosnia, were some of the best we’ve seen, even when connecting to a server on the other side of the world.

Location:Ping (ms):Download (Mbps):Upload (Mbps):
Unprotected:1328.388.39
Vienna, Austria:4020.177.97
Rozendaal, Netherlands4420.387.80
New York City10916.256.96
Los Angeles, CA:1888.692.67
Tokyo, Japan:26513.741.94

The consistency is key. Outside of our LA test, and we’re not sure what happened there, PIA gradually degraded in performance as we traversed longer distances. The biggest drop, it seems, is from the initial connection. Our results in the Netherlands and Austria, for example, were largely the same, despite those countries sitting on opposite sides of Germany.

Going across the Atlantic Ocean or Asia degraded the speed, but the download rate remained usable. The most surprising result was the latency, which never made it to 300 ms, even at the worst performing location. That, combined with PIA’s non-intrusive interface, earned it second place in our best VPN for gaming guide.

PIA’s only downside is the initial connection, which eats more speed than we’d like. That’s one of the reasons we rank ExpressVPN higher, as it’s faster over short distances. Over long distances, though, the two are mostly the same.

Round Four Thoughts

NordVPN isn’t unusable, but its speeds don’t match up to PIA’s. Our complaint about PIA — that it eats a decent amount of speed on your initial connection — is worse with NordVPN, which also has inconsistent performance globally.

PIA is more consistent and has lower declines on initial connection. That said, it offers spotty access to streaming platforms, so the speed degradation of NordVPN may be worth it if that’s your focus.

Round: Speed Point for Private Internet Access
5

Security & Privacy

Security is the main concern when evaluating VPNs. Without solid privacy policies and ultra-secure connections, a VPN provider would be as bad as an ISP. We’re going to look at how NordVPN and PIA secure your connection, both from the outside world and from themselves.

NordVPN

We gave NordVPN a 100 percent rating in security in our a review, which even our top provider, ExpressVPN, couldn’t manage. In addition to its no-logging policy and excellent encryption, NordVPN has many security features other providers don’t offer.

That includes the double-hop connection. Few other providers offer this feature, and none offer it without issues (read our VPNArea review to see what we mean). NordVPN not only offers double hop connections, but it executes them in a way that doesn’t destroy your speed.

As mentioned in round one, NordVPN also offers CyberSec, which, as a free inclusion, you should install. It’ll keep you from getting tangled in a botnet (read our what is a botnet guide) or some other nasty online activity.

In addition to the security extras, NordVPN has the core protection covered. Your connection is secured with AES 256-bit and the OpenVPN protocol by default. It also includes PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and IKEv2/IPsec. These protocols usually have downsides, in the form of speed or security, but they’re useful for some purposes.

NordVPN is solid as far as leaks go, too. We ran DNS, WebRTC and IP leak tests and it came back with a squeaky clean record.

Its privacy track record is clean, as well. NordVPN maintains a strict no-logging policy, meaning none of your information is stored, not even temporarily. The only thing kept on record is your email address.

You’re protected from your ISP, the government and NordVPN itself. That, along with its dedicated peer-to-peer servers, earned NordVPN a spot in our best VPN for torrenting guide.

PIA

PIA has a strong stance on net neutrality and government surveillance, so it should come as no surprise that its security is excellent. It has one additional security feature in the form of MACE, which is a passable, if less than optimal, malware and ad blocking tool comparable to CyberSec.

It doesn’t offer double-hop connections, but your single connection should be fine. By default, you’re secured with AES 128-bit over OpenVPN. You can, and should, increase the encryption to AES 256-bit. Your speed will decline, but not by much.

Like its competitor, PIA has other protocols. You can use L2TP or PPTP, as well as SOCKS proxies. You can’t just switch the protocol in the interface, though. They are only unlocked by contacting PIA and requesting access. Still, they’re available, and OpenVPN should be enough for most users, anyway.

We also ran leak tests for PIA and it came back clean. You needn’t worry about anyone, including PIA, spying on your connection.

It maintains a no-logging policy that gives us pause because of PIA’s location in Denver. That said, the provider’s excellent track record mostly puts our concern to rest. Other U.S.-based providers have been caught logging while claiming not to, and no such accusations have been made against PIA. Read our IPVanish review for an example of a provider that got caught lying.

The only issue we have is how PIA handles PayPal checkout. While it’s not a huge deal, you may not want the email it keeps on record to match your PayPal account.

Round Five Thoughts

If you’re only concerned with a secure connection, NordVPN and PIA will get you there. The differences between them are subtle, with both offering a no-logging policy, malware blocking tool and excellent encryption.

The two providers are tied as it is, so we have to declare a winner. PIA’s strange automatic sign-up with PayPal is enough of an annoyance to push NordVPN ahead in this round. That’s by a small margin, though, so either provider could’ve taken the win.

Round: Security & Privacy Point for NordVPN
6

Final Thoughts

NordVPN and PIA are top-shelf providers and there’s enough back and forth between them to make it difficult to declare a true winner. Even so, for its excellent user experience, security and features, NordVPN edges out its competitor.

Winner: NordVPN

PIA shouldn’t be discounted, though. It fills many of the gaps left by NordVPN. While the interface, or lack thereof, is annoying, PIA still offers one of the best values around with a low price point and excellent speeds.

Do you agree that NordVPN is the better option? Let us know why or why not in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.

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