Last year Symantec released an iOS version of Norton WiFi Privacy. It’s a solid app that shields an iPhone or iPad against everyday risks with public WiFi hotspots1.
This year Norton has expanded the product in two ways. First, it now comes in PCs and Macs versions as well as iOS and Android. Second, you can now buy multiple licences to cover five devices. The earlier version covered just one.
A third change is with the price. Norton asks for a lot more than before. Last year a single licence purchased through the app store was NZ$45. This year it is double that amount: NZ$90.
A three licence pack is NZ$120 and protecting five devices costs $140.
Better value when buying in bulk
While the multiple packs are better value, NZ$90 for a single device is pushing it. Norton WiFi Privacy is expensive. It’s about twice the price of alternative VPN services.
You can buy arguably better VPN protection for far less money. However, most alternatives require a level of knowledge that many users will find daunting. Norton packages it up, makes it easy to install, use and pay for. You pay more for the convenience.
I tested the software on two iPads, an iPhone and a MacBook. The apps are similar in each case.
An icon show on the MacOS menu bar when it is working. The MacOS app user interface is tiny. That makes it hard to see. It is on a par with what you might see on an iPhone screen. It works fine as a full screen on an iPhone, but it huge and chunky on an iPad. At this price you might expect Norton to do a better job tailoring the user interface.
Most of last year’s comments still apply:
Norton’s WiFi Privacy software is easy to install and use. Most of the time it stays out of the way. There are few settings to worry about. Most of the time, you don’t need to do anything after you have installed the software.
The setting that may interest you is choosing the end point of your VPN. You can choose from 28 overseas destinations to set as your virtual location. This is more than most alternative VPNs offer. New Zealand is not an option.
If you set the software to auto-select it chooses Australia. I’ve used the VPN to make it look as if my device is in the UK and the US in order to buy services in those countries which are geo-locked for New Zealand. I also use the VPN to force some websites to show a specific country version when the one served up for New Zealanders isn’t my first choice.
Norton says the app also blocks the ad-trackers used by online advertising companies to spy on your web activity. Apart from the report, see below, there’s no way of checking if this works. We’ll have to take Norton’s word on this.
There’s a noticeable line speed overhead. Running the software on a Mac, connecting to VDSL over a a home WiFi connection the speed drops by at least 10Mbps. That’s a lot when the overall line speed is in the range of 50 to 60Mbps. Line speed drops on iOS are similar. The software is awful when it comes to latency, ping times can take almost twice as long, this may be in part because of the roundabout route.
In practice the performance hit is far worse. I run a cloud back-up app, when Norton WiFi privacy is switched off, the back-up chugs along at around 20Mbps. With the VPN switched on, the back-up speed drops to around 4Mbps.
Reason not to buy:
Norton WiFi Privacy comes with a potential deal-breaker. It doesn’t work with BitTorrent. Either Norton assumes you’d only use BitTorrent and nanny-like takes this option away or it can’t cope with the protocol. Whatever the reason, the software switches off when you start a BitTorrent client.
BitTorrent aside, in practice the VPN sometimes disconnects for no apparent reason. This happens mainly on iOS, I only saw it happen once on MacOS.
There is a clear indication that the software is or isn’t working on the Mac – the menu bar icon shows a green tick. While the iOS version also has a small menu bar icon at the top of the screen, it is more ambiguous. When the VPN is not active, no icon shows. That’s not as helpful as a VPN-is-off indicator.
Useful for some, imperfect VPN
Norton has done a good job making it easy for non-technical users to get VPN protection. At the same time, it gives big brand-name confidence for those who need it. Many alternative VPNs are from companies you’ve never heard of.
You probably don’t need a VPN. It is potentially useful if you want to do questionable downloads and a must if you work for someone who demands it, but otherwise it’s not a must have.
The high price, performance overhead and BitTorrent restriction make it hard to recommend Norton WiFi Privacy to anyone tech-savvy enough to find a better alternative. If you’re confident with security and privacy you’ll do better looking elsewhere.
- At the time a number of readers pointed out that public WiFi hotspots are not as risky as Norton would have us think. ↩︎