WHAT’S IN THIS REVIEW?
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Since 2008, Hotspot Shield’s VPN has been used by protestors and streamers alike as a method to bypass restrictions and access content while they’re online.
With a free tier that helped it into the public eye, their paid version is marketed as ‘the fastest VPN ever’.
Can Hotspot Shield live up to its promises, and is it viable if you’d like to use it to hide your online movements? In our Hotspot review, we cover all aspects of the service, providing the lowdown on everything you need to know about Hotspot Shield, from the Free version to the Premium edition of the software.
As Free VPN providers go, Hotspot Shield is far from the worst you’ll find. Of course, they also have a Premium version which they’d prefer you’d use, so they place various limits on the unpaid software. Most notably, speeds are reduced, and the data limit is paltry.
Nonetheless, we’ll delve into just what the popular free tier has to offer, as well as looking at the premium service, and whether it’s worth the asking price.
Hotspot Shield is now owned by a new parent company, (Pango) so have there been any drastic changes over the last 12 months? Have they had an impact on the company, and can the VPN be trusted with your personal data?
About Hotspot Shield
Hotspot Shield was originally released back in 2005, with the first client app coming out just a few years later, for both Windows and Mac. iOS and Android support was added in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and they now have an estimated 500m users worldwide, and over 650m downloads. That’s a lot of devices.
The VPN is one of the original providers, and they now have over 3,200 servers in over 80 countries around the world. It’s owned and operated by Pango, who has offices in Ukraine and Russia. (They used to be known as AnchorFree, but rebranded late in 2019.)
So, what’s the reason for the name change? It’s hard to say, but the VPN is also under new management since the switch to being owned by Pango.
It’s worth mentioning that in 2017, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) raised concerns regarding the Hotspot Shield Free VPN, citing unfair and deceptive trade practices relating to ‘undisclosed and unclear data sharing and traffic redirection’.
These ‘tracking libraries’ are used to serve adverts, and were one of many concerns raised by the CDT at the time.
Pros & Cons
We’ve listed the main pros and cons you’ll find with the Basic/Premium tiers of Hotspot Shield.
There are a number of perks associated with using the Hotspot Shield VPN. Here’s a rundown with some of the main benefits we found during the testing phase.
- Incredible speeds, which are definitely some of the fastest you’ll find with any premium VPN
- A range of native apps for lots of different devices, and they have a good UI
- They offer a Free version of their software, along with a seven-day trial for the Premium version
- A collection of additional online privacy apps and tools, which could help to keep you safe
- Can be used to torrent, or access streaming services such as U.S. Netflix, and the speeds are helpful here too
- Simple logging policy which is easy to understand
- Custom built protocol for secure encryption
- 24/7 live tech support for Premium customers, along with a 45-day money-back guarantee
On the other hand, there are a few negative aspects that we found while using Hotspot Shield. As you might expect, most are focused on the Free edition, and the high price of entry for the Premium version.
- Considerable limitations found with the Free edition of Hotspot Shield, such as a max connection speed of just 2 Mbps, while there’s also a 500 MB daily limit
- Fewer protocols, although they do have their own proprietary version in the form of Catapult Hydra
- Expensive, and it’s not like you’re saving much money if you go for one of the longer subs
- They used to offer a Lifetime sub which was great value for money, which was removed
- As of 2020, no audits or transparency reports
- A ‘Premium Payment Wall’ for streaming platforms and adult content with the Free version
- Some countries only have one virtual server location
Most VPNs are similar in practice, so additional features help to separate them from the rest of the pack. Take the Free tier, which is used to introduce most people to the Hotspot Shield, and what they can actually do.
Hotspot Shield has a couple of additional features, such as 1Password, which allows you to login to websites with one click. There are similar free options such as the one provided by Google, so it’s not especially useful.
They also offer Hiya, which is used to ‘stop robocalls and scam calls’. (It’s also known as Robo Shield in the US and Canada, and it’s only available on iOS.) They have a feature called Identity Guard (only available in the US) which “safeguards your digital and financial identity from the constant risk of fraud.”
Since I’m based in the UK, there was no way to test many of the features provided by the U.S. centric service.
Essentially, parent company Pango has packaged some extra online security software together with Hotspot Shield to make it a more attractive prospect to potential customers. It’s no different to many other providers on the market, who have added everything from Cookie Cleaners to built-in antivirus software in the past.
One clear advantage is that Hotspot Shield doesn’t charge extra to access any of their premium features, which is a nice touch. It’s probably a good thing they don’t, considering the VPN is one of the more expensive you’ll find on average.
- Basic: Free (limited)
- Premium: $7.99/mo.
- Premium Family: $11.99/mo.
Hotspot Shield has a trio of plans to choose from, and they’re simple enough. The first is a Basic plan, while Premium options are split between the number of devices you’d like to connect with.
Of course, the Basic version is limited, while even the Premium plan is only available for five devices overall. (The Premium Family version ups this to five member accounts.)
As you can see from the image above, they have a number of deals on at any given time, such as the 38%/40% off I saw advertised for the Premium tiers.
If you’re on the lookout for a Lifetime subscription, unfortunately it no longer exists. Advertised in 2016, you used to be able to pay a one-off fee of roughly $199.99, and some people are still grandfathered into the plan today. It’s a shame that they don’t offer a similar service today, but their business is based on a subscription model, so it does make sense that it was removed.
Overall, it’s not the cheapest VPN provider by any means, and the Premium Family pricing does seem particularly expensive compared to cut-price deals you’ll find with others. The three-year plan is decent, but it’s for a significant chunk of time.
Their refund policy is as follows;
“All Hotspot Shield subscribers can request a refund within 45 days from the purchase date by contacting Customer Support.”
The Free version of Hotspot Shield is exceedingly popular, helping the provider to advertise their service to a large audience who are desperate for a VPN. (It’s also packed with extra ads, so they get to double-dip.)
I used it for roughly half an hour before I hit the daily data limit, so I switched over to the Premium edition to get a better idea of the true speeds and the extra features.
I managed to redeem the free trial version of the Premium version, which is what I used to conduct the tests and the review itself. It was pretty easy to do so, being handled by the Mac App store. The same goes for cancelling the sub, which I could do via the Settings tab on my iPhone.
A solid logging policy is a fundamental aspect of any VPN service. It’ll tell you exactly what personal data they collect, as well as what they do with the data stored on their servers. (After all, what’s the point in hiding your data from Google if the VPN is willing to sell it to them anyway?)
“Our VPN products do not log or otherwise record IP addresses, device identifiers, or any other form of identifier in combination with your VPN browsing activity. Simply put, this means that our VPN products do not store any information about what any specific user browsed or accessed through a VPN connection.”
However, they do collect minimal data, which is as follows;
- The duration of VPN sessions and the bandwidth consumed
- The domains that have been accessed by our users, but on an anonymized basis such that we do not know which user accessed which domain
- Device hashes, which are used to identify devices and associate them with other data we collect
Many providers collect basic data such as this, to get a better idea of how many users there are, or to make improvements to the service or servers. It’s pretty watertight, although the image above states that they collect data based on the “total bandwidth consumed and time connected, as well as ‘device specific info’ such as the OS. (Again, this is probably used to better understand their users, such as which device is most popular.)
Finally, what about the free version of Hotspot Shield? They state;
“Free versions of our VPN products are supported by personalized ads, but these ads are not personalized based on any of your VPN browsing activity, nor do we share any such activity with our advertising partners.”
Well, how are they personalised then? Personalised ads need user data to be, well, personalised, so it’s a bit confusing. However, they do have to make money somehow, and serving ads allows them to provide a free tier in the first place.
In any case, it’s certainly an improvement compared to the mess discovered by the CDT in 2017.
Most VPN users will have the need for speed, whether it be for Zoom calls, or accessing the latest 4K Netflix shows. As your connection is being routed to and from the VPNs servers, it can have a significant impact on speeds, which is why they’re so important.
As well as pure Mbps numbers, you’ll need to keep an eye on consistency, to avoid any potential for lag or longer load times during extended use.
Connection speeds are an area in which I expected this VPN to excel. Hotspot Shield heavily advertises the speeds found with the premium version, and they’ve been corroborated by a variety of industry experts and reviewers. Regardless, I decided to boot up a website to test it out for myself, as you can never be too careful.
Firstly, I did a baseline test, to see how my Wi-Fi speeds were looking at the time:
It was all normal, with nothing especially important to note.
Next, I decided to test their U.S. server speeds, so I connected to a virtual location in Charlotte (as it was recommended) and started the test up again:
As you can see, any loss in speed was negligible, and it’s the fastest of the VPNs I’ve tested over the years. There was a massive difference in terms of ping, although that’s to be expected considering that I was connecting to a server found halfway around the world. It’s rare to see download speeds pass the 100 Mbps mark during testing, so they deserve kudos for being as fast as advertised.
Finally, I switched over to a UK server, based in London. It should be fairly close to me, so I was expecting similar results when it came to overall speeds, along with lower ping. The speed test for the UK is as follows:
The speeds were slightly slower than when I connected to Charlotte, but it’s still a major W for the provider overall. The ping could be slightly lower, but it’s still fast enough for most tasks.
Anywhere between 40ms-60ms is acceptable for online gaming, although you’ll see better results at 0ms-20ms. It could be the difference between hitting your shot, so Hotspot Shield is a great option for anything from Warzone to FIFA.
Hotspot Shield certainly weren’t lying about being one of the fastest providers in the business. The speeds are also consistent, which is just as important for the majority of users. It deserves top marks, with a range of high-speed servers which get the job done efficiently.
However, the free version is insanely limited in terms of both speed and data. The connection speed is just 2 Mbps as they concentrate on pushing optimal results for premium users, while there’s a 500 MB daily data limit. Within those constraints, it’s hard to use it for anything other than the most basic online tasks.
We’d look to the free trial instead, or paying for the full-fat version if you really need to have the fastest VPN provider on the market.
Server Locations & Network
Hotspot Shield advertises “3,200+ servers in 80+ countries — including 35+ cities around the world”. That sounds like a lot, and it is! As well as typical regions such as North America and the UK, you’ll find decent coverage across Europe and Asia.
The majority of their servers are based in virtual locations, even if that makes no real difference in practice. (After all, Hotspot Shield did ace the speed tests, and it has no problem with unblocking the majority of streaming services.)
A virtual location is one that mimics the location of a different region. For example, VPN providers are banned in China, so Hotspot Shield can get around that by offering a Chinese server location that is actually based elsewhere in Asia, to access services such as the following:
The majority of countries only have one server location, which isn’t ideal if it happens to get overloaded, or if a streaming service unexpectedly blocks the IP addresses used by Hotspot Shield enmasse. For example, Germany has just one, France has two, and Canada has four. (The U.S. has 25, while the U.K. has two, highlighting their America-centric approach once more.)
So, their server network is vast, if a little thinner than the numbers would actually suggest. A lack of physical servers doesn’t seem to have had an impact on speeds or connectivity, while they deserve additional credit for trying to offer locations in regions like China.
Streaming & Torrenting
One happy advantage of using a VPN is that it can sometimes be used to bypass geo-restrictions found with online content. If you’ve ever tried to load up a website or video and been halted by a “your selected region is not supported” message, you’ll know what I mean.
As you’ll be able to select the location you’re connecting to, you’ll also be able to unblock local streaming platforms, or that’s how it works in theory at least.
Streaming platforms have worked to combat VPNs by blocking the IP addresses they use, rendering them useless as a means to sign in. The VPNs typically respond by getting new ones, and that’s why some providers can’t unblock more aggressive streaming platforms like Netflix.
The majority of users won’t say no to more entertainment, and hardly any will care for the agreements that prevent them from watching live sports and the latest shows in the first place.
Of course, the free version is useless in this regard, and that’s for both streaming and torrenting. The data limit will quickly stop you in your tracks, while the 2 Mbps cap will ensure you move at a snail’s pace anyway. You can only connect to one U.S. server, and it won’t work to unblock Netflix or HBO. As with most things in this life, you get what you pay for.
With rising cable costs, online streaming is now a massive market. International broadcasting rights often get in the way for people who are hoping to watch live sport or events, and that’s especially true in regions such as the UK. It’s not like the majority of sporting events are even open to the public at the moment, further highlighting the issue.
A VPN can also help if you suspect that your speeds are being throttled while using a streaming service like Netflix. For example, A Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts report detailed tests from early 2018 to early 2019, which found that AT&T throttled Netflix 70% of the time and Youtube 74% of the time.
This occurred almost instantly during tests, although AT&T denied the allegations.
Hotspot Shield actually works to unblock a range of streaming platforms, so we’ll list some of the most popular ones below:
- Amazon Prime
- BBC iPlayer
This is just a snapshot, as Hotspot Shield can be used to access lots of additional platforms in a host of different countries.
As a Premium service, Hotspot Shield can’t be faulted in this regard. Your ISP won’t have any idea about what websites you’re connecting to, and they can access the majority of the big hitters on the market. However, there’s no guarantee that it’ll work 100% of the time, as streaming services will often ban VPN IPs in bulk.
It takes some time to get new IPs up and running, and there will be some downtime in between. It doesn’t happen that regularly, but it’s worth mentioning in case you do run into any issues. We’d recommend the trial version first to ensure the best possible results.
Torrents and other P2P activities are sometimes frowned upon by VPNs, as it can be a legal grey area. Of course, torrents themselves aren’t illegal by any means, it’s generally the copyrighted files that are being shared which are the problem.
For example, you can find articles on the Hotspot Shield website dedicated to explaining why it’s a good idea to download torrents anonymously. On the other hand, you’ll find the following excerpt in a section called ‘keeping it legal’;
“The internet should be your playground, not a place where you’re afraid to download useful files. Torrents are a convenient way for you to quickly download useful material, but they’re not without their risks. Protect yourself by using a VPN, scanning for viruses, and being ever mindful of copyright laws.”
In terms of torrenting illegal files, (which, let’s face it, is what the majority of users want to do) Hotspot Shield Premium is great on the face of it. They don’t have a bandwidth cap, and your ISP will have no idea about what you’ve been up to. However, the VPN will, and they have access to logs detailing the “Total bandwidth consumed and time connected to our VPN service”.
If you purely want a provider for torrenting files, we’d look to the likes of PIA or ExpressVPN instead.
Censorship is another important aspect to consider when picking a VPN provider. How do they deal with being leaned on, and will they work to keep your data safe?
It’s tough to expect much from any free version of an app, but Hotspot Shield does have a good track record when you look at how they’ve dealt with censorship in the past.
Hotspot Shield came to prominence during the 2010 Arab Spring, in which it was instrumental in allowing users to access social media as a method to communicate and organize protests while under strict government surveillance.
It was also used during the Hong Kong riots in 2014, at least according to AnchorFree CEO David Gorodyansky. He told Forbes that iOS and Android downloads rose heavily at the time, as; “It went from hundreds of downloads per day to tens of thousands.”
They’ve also come up against China in the past, finding a simple way to bypass the Great Firewall. They allowed users to get the app for free by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, depending on their OS. It’s another positive move, which earned them plaudits in the online privacy sector.
The VPN has certainly performed well when looking at real-world examples, helping a number of users who really needed to give their online movements private at the time.
“Our VPN servers are hosted with infrastructure providers that do not require us to collect any information about what our users are doing via a VPN connection. If any such provider were to require us to collect such information, we would stop doing business with them and find an alternative provider.”
That’s pretty unequivocal. They go on to take the next logical step, detailing what would happen if their VPN servers were seized physically;
“Even if a government agency physically seizes one of our VPN servers and succeeds in breaking disk encryption on those servers, they would not find any logs or information that would reveal what any individual user was browsing, viewing, or doing online via a VPN connection.”
At this stage in proceedings, it’s probably fair to take them at face value.
Of course, we’d strongly recommend sticking to a paid VPN service if you’re worried about censorship.
Platforms & Devices
A VPN is only as good as it’s range of native apps. After all, nobody wants to be stuck using an unsupported version of a piece of software, while looking at upgrades enjoyed by more popular platforms. Worse still, your favourite device might not be supported, which defeats the purpose of using the VPN in the first place.
The Premium version of Hotspot Shield only allows for five devices to be connected per account, which is pretty stingy when factoring in the high asking price.
With 15 years of experience, you’d expect Hotspot Shield to have apps for almost every platform imaginable, and they do come up with the goods.
They might not be as popular as they once were, but desktop devices are still a staple of any home, and they’re seeing increasing use during lockdown. Happily, you’ll find apps for every major OS:
They also have a Chrome extension, which has over 2m users according to the App Store. It reviews well, and it’s free to use. It doesn’t display ads, and you can also sign in to a Premium account. (You’ll need a paid sub if you want to be able to choose a different server location.)
The desktop app is reasonably slick, with a simple UI that is easy to understand. You can keep an eye on your daily data use, although there’s no way to bring up more advanced information.
Hotspot Shield is available on both iOS and Android devices, with native mobile apps for each platform:
The mobile apps are similar in look and feel to the desktop client, with an uncluttered design and UI. In practice, it works in the same way, as you just tap on a location to connect to the servers.
Using a VPN via a router is a nifty trick that can be used to bypass any limitations in terms of the number of devices you’re allowed to connect at any one time. After all, every device will be connected through the router, so you won’t have to worry about getting a Family plan for home use.
Here’s a list of compatible brands:
As you can see, there aren’t many compatible devices, but you can purchase a wireless router which is pre-installed with Hotspot Shield, directly from their website. (You’ll still have to pay for a subscription as well.)
Overall, Hotspot Shield does well, covering the majority of bases when it comes to compatibility.
Encryption & Security
Encryption is used to keep the data sent to and from your device secure while the VPN is in use. It’s an integral part of any VPN service, as you don’t want anyone else to have access to your personal data due to a security flaw.
Hotspot Shield benefits from secure AES-256 encryption, which takes years to crack. Often referred to as ‘Military-Grade Encryption’, that’s mostly marketing, although it has been used by the U.S. military for some tasks in the past. In any case, it’ll keep your data safe and secure.
They note that Hotspot Shield tiers “use industry-standard SSL encryption and do NOT modify or customize the encryption in any way.” While the free version is limited in many ways, it will provide data encryption, which is important.
Their protocols vary depending on the device being used. There’s Openvpn TCP, Openvpn UDP, Wireguard, and IPSec. Then there’s ‘Catapult Hydra’, which is a proprietary VPN protocol produced by AnchorFree. (Or Pango, as they now prefer to be called.)
They claim that it’s an improvement on the likes of the standard IPSec and OpenVPN protocols they used in the past, which had a major impact on speeds and latency. (Their current superfast connection speeds do give some credence to this claim.)
As you can see from the image above, there were only two protocols to choose from on the Mac app. I went for Hydra, to test the speeds and security.
They claim that Hydra servers “have a built-in database that protects you from more than 50 million malware, viruses and phishing scams every day”.
They look to its use in other apps as a means to verify that it works from a security perspective;
“Catapult Hydra security code is evaluated by 3rd party security experts from more than 60% of the world’s largest security companies that use our SDK to provide VPN services to their users.”
McAfee, BitDefender, and Cheetah Mobile are some of the companies who use the protocol, along with carriers such as Telefonica and KDDI.
They claim that users should be able to see the following benefits compared to a common protocol;
- Connection to a VPN server is established much faster
- Time to first byte for each client connection inside the tunnel saves 1.2 RTTs
- Less data is transferred inside the tunnel
- Connection speed for long-distance connections is 2.4x faster than for OpenVPN tunnel between the same client and server
However, it’s worth noting that a number of VPN companies now produce independent audits to verify any security claims, as well as potential flaws. As of now, Hotspot Shield has done nothing of the sort, instead relying on its use by others as a means of proving it’s legitimacy.
It’s certainly a positive step they could take in the future if they really want to be seen as a great tool for online privacy. After all, otherwise we’re just taking their word for it that it works as intended.
Judging from the evidence above, it’s clear that Hotspot Shield is a capable VPN provider, with a lot to offer to the average user.
The custom protocol is interesting, their speeds are incredible, and it’s seen practical use as a means to bypass government restrictions in the past, on multiple occasions. Hotspot Shield is also fairly consistent, and the premium edition is capable in terms of unblocking multiple streaming services.
There are a few flaws which hold it back from achieving a perfect score, such as the high price of entry, and the various limitations found with the Free edition, which also comes packaged with ads.
Considering the above, if you’re on the hunt for a free VPN, it’s probably better to take advantage of the seven-day trial if possible.
The difference between the two versions is astounding, and the unpaid edition of Hotspot Shield is little more than a glorified advert for the full-fat service.
It’s to be expected, but it’s not like you’ll be disappointed if you do opt for the Premium version of Hotspot Shield.