When choosing a VPN, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by your options. In our best VPN list and speed test guide, we’ve narrowed down the possibilities from the wide array of branded commercial VPN services out there to about 10. But that is still a lot to dig through. Which do you choose? In this article, we’ve taken three of our top choices — ExpressVPN, Surfshark, and NordVPN — and compared their characteristics.
This isn’t a one-size-fits-all competition. You’ll need to decide which factors matter most to you and from there you can choose which product you want to test out. Keep in mind that all three products offer trial periods. We strongly encourage you to take advantage of that period to see which performs best in all of the likely situations where you’ll be using a VPN.
About the Nord/Surfshark merger
In early February 2022, Nord Security and Surfshark announced they were merging. According to their merger blog post, the companies say they will continue to operate as separate companies, with separate VPN infrastructures. We have no doubt this is true… for now. Merging large infrastructures takes time, and neither player wants to cede performance or position to their competitors due to a botched operational merger.
That said, we don’t expect this to be the case in the long term. They’d be foolish not to consolidate infrastructures, teams, and technologies — and these are not foolish players.
But for now, you’re still choosing between the various players, and our overview content below remains relevant.
And with that, let’s dive in.
Surfshark wins, ExpressVPN implodes
VPN providers are always tinkering with their pricing, so these numbers are bound to change.
That said, Surfshark is the least expensive, by quite a lot. Surfshark’s best deal is what they tout as $2.49 a month plan (you’ll really be paying $59.76 now for two years of service).
Nord is asking for $3.67 (or a wallet hit of $89 on signup for two years of service).
ExpressVPN’s best deal is what they tout as $6.67 a month (you’ll really be paying $99.95 now for 15 months of service). After that 15 months, you’ll be charged $99.95 every 12 months, so the per-month price is essentially going up about a buck and a half after that first year.
If you want two years of service, you’ll be paying $59.76 for Surfshark, $89 for NordVPN, and $150 ($99 for the first 15 months, plus half of $99 for the next 12) for ExpressVPN.
Surfshark definitively wins this round by allowing you to run an unlimited number of devices with its Surfshark VPN service, while Nord permits just six simultaneous connections. And ExpressVPN gives you even less for its much more expensive price: just five simultaneous connections.
At least all offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.
NordVPN wins by a hair, Surfshark loses by a mile
In our fastest VPN guide, we took a look at both our own in-house tests and how the Internet overall rated open VPNs. We compared VPN rankings in speed tests from 10 sites besides ZDNet. Of potentially more interest, we compared the standard deviation of those rankings, which helps us determine whether a given VPN has a consistent ranking all across the internet, or different reviewers got wildly different numbers.
As the above slide shows, NordVPN not only had a better aggregate average ranking but a considerably lower standard deviation than either of the other two players. This means that pretty much wherever you are, your NordVPN performance should be pretty good.
ExpressVPN gave NordVPN a run for its money. While ExpressVPN’s aggregate speed didn’t quite match Nord’s, it was in the ballpark. Likewise, its standard deviation was a bit more wobbly, meaning it was a tad bit less consistent than Nord. But, honestly, either choice would be a win from a speed perspective.
By contrast, Surfshark is both slower and considerably less predictable. While Nord and VPN are running pretty much neck and neck, the definitive loser here is Surfshark.
All three VPN players support the big four: iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows.
ExpressVPN also supports Linux, routers, and Kindle Fire. It supports Xbox, Playstation, and the Nintendo Switch as well as browsers Chrome, Edge, and Firefox. When it comes to TV support, ExpressVPN lists Apple TV, Amazon FireTV, Samsung, Roku, Nvidia Shield, Chromecast, LG Smart TVs, Android TV, and others that require more of a manual setup process. Additionally, it offers setup instructions for Synology and QNAP NAS appliances.
In addition to its big four clients, NordVPN lists Android TV, Linux, and Chrome and Firefox extensions on its download page, but has a support page for installing NordVPN on other platforms, including routers, Raspberry Pi, and NAS boxes including Synology, Western Digital My Cloud, and QNAP.
Besides iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, Surfshark also supports Linux, FireTV, Apple TV/iPhone, and what it calls “other TVs.” It supports Xbox and Playstation as well as browsers Chrome and Firefox.
The fact is, all three products support a reasonably wide range of devices, but we have to give the win to ExpressVPN. You can keep digging down in the support pages and there are more and more devices with install tutorials the deeper you dig.
ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark vs. NordVPN: Security profile
Winner: ExpressVPN, Surfshark, and NordVPN
I always like to make sure this point is stressed in all my VPN coverage: if you’re counting on a VPN for your physical freedom or to protect your life, it’s important that you do a lot more research than just reading an article like this. With that said, let’s look at the overall security profile for these three vendors.
NordVPN has got a lot of mileage out of its Panamanian corporate registration, claiming that Panama puts its records out of the legal reach of governments and lawyers. As I discussed in great depth in my analysis of NordSec, it’s possible that countries with Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT) may well be able to pierce the corporate veil.
Although I didn’t do as deep an in-depth analysis of ExpressVPN, the company has similar claims and limits as Nord. ExpressVPN lists its registry in the British Virgin Islands but is a company with developers based in many MLAT countries as well.
Surfshark also has the same basic claims and limits as Nord. Surfshark lists its registry in the British Virgin Islands, but like Nord and ExpressVPN, it’s a company with developers based in many MLAT countries as well.
Surfshark boasts a private DNS service among its advanced features so you can be protected even while using public Wi-Fi whether you’re in Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the USA, or anywhere in between. Surfshark also says it passed the German company Cure53’s security audit and offers uncrackable AES-256 bit encryption alongside its strict no-logs policy, but the German audit was limited to Surfshark’s browser extensions.
All three vendors tout a no-logs policy. All three say they don’t capture VPN connection time stamps, used bandwidth, traffic logs, IP addresses, or browsing data but there are some nuances here. NordVPN says it doesn’t track used bandwidth, while ExpressVPN says it tracks the total amount of daily data transmitted each day. ExpressVPN also tracks the location of VPN servers you connect to. That’s not good, because it means they can tell where your connection originated from (or at least the country) and where you’re trying to connect to.
All three offer warrant canaries. All three also capture email addresses and billing information. NordVPN says it doesn’t track used bandwidth, while ExpressVPN says it tracks total amount of daily data transmitted each day. ExpressVPN also tracks the location of VPN servers you connect to. That’s not good, because it means they can tell where your connection originated from (or at least the country) and where you’re trying to connect to.
All three accept cryptocurrencies. This makes it safer to use apps such as PayPal and use your credit card without having fear of security breaches. ExpressVPN says it tracks the total amount of daily data transmitted each day. ExpressVPN also tracks the location of VPN servers you connect to. That’s not good, because it means they can tell where your connection originated from (or at least the country) and where you’re trying to connect to.
So, which is more secure? Honestly, they’re very close. We probably wouldn’t feel comfortable putting our lives in the hands of any of these three companies (not that they’re doing anything wrong, but just because it’s a scary concept), but we’d certainly feel reasonably comfortable letting them protect our Wi-Fi surfing when out and about.
ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark vs. NordVPN: Special features
NordVPN and Surfshark tie
Winner: NordVPN and Surfshark
All three vendors offer a kill switch, which we consider table stakes in terms of VPN special features.
Both Nord and Express offer split tunneling, allowing you to channel some traffic through the VPN and the rest through your local connection without VPN interference.
Surfshark offers a multi-hop connection, which is similar to NordVPN’s feature causing your IP address to change twice before reaching the destination VPN server.
ExpressVPN says it’s running a private DNS, but any VPN provider is going to need to do domain name resolving. So while other vendors don’t list “Private DNS” as a feature, they all need to be running a DNS as a consequence of their role in packet forwarding.
Surfshark and NordVPN support P2P, allowing you to torrent your favorite Linux distros (and possibly other digital sharing activities of dubious legality, which we categorically do not recommend). ExpressVPN makes no mention of P2P.
NordVPN has a few interesting features not provided by either ExpressVPN or Surfshark. NordVPN also provides Onion Over VPN, which allows you to use both the Onion anonymizer and Nord’s VPN together. NordVPN also allows you to buy a dedicated IP address, which can help if you’re dealing with anonymous servers or gaming connections. NordVPN also offers business plans.
NordVPN and Surfshark offer malware and adware filtering, although Surfshark’s AdBlock VPN feature appears to be somewhat more comprehensive. Surfshark also offers what it calls Camouflage Mode, which the company says can prevent your local ISP from knowing you’re surfing using a VPN. While NordVPN has a blog post on whitelisting, it doesn’t appear to have whitelisting as an actual client feature. By contrast, Suftshark uses its split-tunneling feature as a whitelister.
ExpressVPN has an interesting blog post about how it prevents its apps from getting malware but doesn’t offer malware protection or adware filtering for traffic run over its VPN network.
All three vendors come to the game with most of the features you’d expect. Nord has a few more business-focused features while Surfshark has some features that may afford a limited degree of additional personal privacy — but this would need in-depth testing to truly validate. ExpressVPN appears to just be phoning it in.
It’s a tight contest, but we’re awarding wins to both Surfshark and NordVPN. ExpressVPN just gets a participation award.
ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark vs. NordVPN: Your decision tree
So, how do you choose between the three?
Well, if you just count up the wins, Surfshark comes in first, then NordVPN, and then ExpressVPN. But the wins and losses aren’t particularly pronounced. Instead, we recommend you use this decision tree below. Before that, you might want to take a spin through The fastest VPN: NordVPN, Hotspot Shield, and ExpressVPN compared. We didn’t just test VPN provider performance in this in-depth analysis. We go out onto the internet, gather performance data from all across the Web, and let you know which provider is the best overall.
So, now, let’s decide:
- If price is your top concern, Surfshark will save you about $30 over two years over NordVPN and nearly a hundred bucks over ExpressVPN.
- If predictably fast download performance is key, then NordVPN is more consistently fast in overall performance.
- If you need a VPN for a NAS appliance, then either NordVPN or ExpressVPN will do.
- If you want a VPN for your Xbox or PlayStation instead of a mobile device or mobile apps, choose Surfshark or ExpressVPN.
- If you want a VPN for something that’s not in the usual list, ExpressVPN is more likely to have a documented setup process.
- If you want a dedicated IP address or more business-oriented features, choose NordVPN.
So, there you go. NordVPN and Surfshark have distinctly different personalities, but each do the job in their own way. It’s hard to get excited about ExpressVPN, except for its wide range of device support. NordVPN also seems the most predictable of the bunch.
How do these choices fit your needs? Have you chosen a VPN provider already? What capabilities and characteristics helped you to make up your mind?
For more about Surfshark VPN, see our video overview:
For more about ExpressVPN, see our video overview:
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