Virtual Private Networks, often abbreviated as VPN, are one of the most popular online encryption tools in our current digital security landscape. The need to protect our assets is exacerbated every day, as hackers and cybercriminals are getting better at stealing identities, credit card numbers, and intercepting information.
The VPN market is well covered, though, as there are options for every taste, need, and budget. There are sophisticated VPNs that require advanced configurations and provide end to end encryption, and there are free choices for those that don’t have the means to invest in a paid service.
Hotspot Shield, the VPN company we will review today, is a “freemium” service, which means that it has a free version with the ability to upgrade to a fully functional, paid app, the Hotspot Shield Elite.
Hotspot Shield has been working to protect people’s privacy and security for a few years now. It is owned and managed by the American company AnchorFree, and it has received generally positive reviews about its server network, performance, speed, and ability to block connections to malicious websites.
However, the service does have some drawbacks. Since it is based in the United States, it is subject to certain law enforcement agencies. In addition, Hotspot Shield has been the subject of controversy regarding traffic spying.
The free service allows a great deal of data to be shared daily, but you have to endure some annoying ads. The premium offering, Elite, is very fast and is excellent for online streaming and unblocking restricted international sites.
PRICING & PLANS
There is a free VPN offering, which is very convenient for users that don’t have privacy at the top of their priorities list. It can be downloaded on desktop computers as well as on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
Obviously, there are no payments involved in the free edition of Hotspot Shield. With it, users can enjoy up to 500 MB of daily free data, which is one of the best numbers in the industry, considering that most free VPN brands have similar data caps in a whole month.
However, the caveat with the free service is that its users would only be able to connect to American servers, as opposed to the 24 available nations in the Hotspot Shield Elite version. The paid app also features five different connections at the same time, and costs $13 per month. It is rather expensive.
As it happens with most reputed VPN services, Hotspot Shield Elite’s prices go down as the commitment lengthens: for the six-month subscription, the cost is $9, and for the year-long plan, the fee is $6. There is also a lifetime plan available for $120.
One of the most notorious disadvantages of Hotspot Shield is that it is among the few VPN brands that don’t accept cryptocurrencies as a means of payment. The implemented methods are credit cards (Visa, Master Card, American Express, Diners Club, Union Pay, JCB, and Discover), store gift cards, and PayPal.
Hotspot Shield is among the few VPN services that doesn’t currently accept bitcoins. You’re limited to paying with a regular old credit card, PayPal or store gift cards; the last option theoretically provides anonymity. There’s also a seven-day trial period.
PRIVACY & LOG POLICY
Speaking of activity logs, the company says that “when you launch Hotspot Shield, we also collect device-specific information, such as the hardware model, operating system version, browser type, language, wireless network, and mobile network information. This information does not identify you, and we use it to provide and improve the Services, troubleshoot, and perform analytics on our services.”
No IPs are being stored, but wireless networks, location, and mobile networks have been used to identify users in the past, so be careful. We are dealing with an enterprise that has been known for redirecting user traffic to third parties and tracking users.
The fact that Hotspot Shield is US-based is a little problematic when it comes to complying with law enforcement agencies if an investigation arises. The company is subject to warrants and government letters. However, the VPN brand claims to keep no logs.
Hotspot Shield’s server network evaluation depends on whether you are using the free or paid version. The former is pretty limited, as it only allows users to connect to US-based servers. The latter is a little broader at 24 countries, but still short of what you would expect from a company that charges $13 for their service.
However, there is some good news. The 24 servers are spread among several continents, including North America, Central America, South America, Europe, and Asia. It only lacks servers in Africa and Oceania.
On top of that, Hotspot Shield has servers in some countries with sensitive censorship situations, including China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Inhabitants of those countries can visit restricted sites while using Hotspot Shield.
The number of servers is considerable as well: there are 2,500. Some of the covered countries are the US, the UK, France, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, India, Germany, and Singapore.
SPEEDS & PERFORMANCE
The Hotspot Shield Elite version has incredibly fast browsing and downloading speeds. It is said that VPNs often slow down connection rates by approximately 10%, but that isn’t true with this alternative.
Now, that happens for a reason. Either the company is well-equipped to provide lightning-fast traffic rerouting, or it doesn’t offer strong enough encryption. There aren’t clues to either option, so we can give Hotspot Shield the benefit of the doubt on this one.
For streaming, Hotspot Shield is one of the best VPN brands out there, with fast speeds, almost no buffering and the ability to unblock the US Netflix region, Hulu, and other American services or platforms. For privacy, though, there may be better options.
When it comes to performance and possible leaks, Hotspot Shield VPN reported no IP leaks, DNS leaks or WebRTC leaks, which is welcome news to users around the world.
Hotspot Shield Elite can work with Netflix and Hulu, both of which are American services. In addition, the British platform BBC iPlayer also ran smoothly, another advantage for the company. The free version didn’t work with either network, though.
PROTOCOL & ENCRYPTION
Hotspot Shield implements a proprietary protocol, which doesn’t always represent good news because there aren’t many measures or data to compare with others. The name of the protocol is Catapult Hydra.
Catapult Hydra implements similar SSL/TLS underpinnings as OpenVPN, which is the industry gold standard. However, its main attraction is that it optimized long-distance online connections without sacrificing performance or security.
The company, therefore, doesn’t have any of the other known, famous protocols, such as OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, or even PPTP. That can be seen as a weakness since users don’t have any other alternative but to accept the Catapult Hydra, whether they like it or not.
The thing about Catapult Hydra is that it remains a protocol whose code is not known. It is understood, however, that the measure implements antivirus software and has been audited by third parties with various degrees of success.
As for encryption, Hotspot Shield implements the military-grade AES 256-bit one, which is a positive development. The handshake and authentication use SHA-1 and RSA-2048-bit encryption.
Hotspot Shield Elite users can enjoy some interesting features and offerings, including servers in 24 countries, an outstanding 45-day money-back guarantee, an enhanced transport protocol technology, and a kill switch to take down your Internet network in the event of a VPN connection loss.
The Elite version also has Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) and Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) leak protection, excellent (and necessary) security features in our current reality.
It also comes with WiFi protection (auto-connect,) permission to use five simultaneous connections, browser extensions for Firefox and Chrome, malware detection for the Chrome extension, an ad blocker/tracker blocker/cookie blocker (also exclusive to the Chrome extension), and split tunneling.
Hotspot Shield Elite has apps for Windows, Mac OS X, macOS, iOS, and Android, with the option to switch languages in the app and no data bandwidth limits. Peer-to-peer (P2P) activity is permitted, for the benefit of torrent lovers. The bandwidth is unlimited for Elite subscribers.
EASE OF USE
Hotspot Shield’s client is not only colorful and attractive, but it is also very straightforward to install and use in all of its presentations and operating systems. The display clearly shows a “Connect” button, as well as configuration options.
The client software can run on Windows 7 or newer, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or newer, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or later, and iOS 9 or later. There are detailed setup instructions for each platform on the VPN’s website. A negative: there is no Linux support and no help to set up the service in routers.
The VPN browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox, both of which have ad-blocking software, are very good, especially the former. The desktop shows a dark blue color. In general, the website is user-friendly and easy to navigate.
Users can find several helpful tools in the Hotspot Shield’s Help Center. If you are a beginner in the VPN world, you can find all kinds of articles about the service and hows it works. Also, there are FAQ sections, tutorials, notes, and a very useful online chat.
If a VPN service is to be taken seriously within the industry, it has to provide a live chat feature. Hotspot Shield does, thankfully, and it is a nice complement to the email support, the Facebook page, the useful links and articles, and the FAQ section.
Hotspot Shield excels in this department: there is no denying that the company works hard to make sure their customers have free services or the option to back out of a paid agreement if they don’t like the features.
There is, in addition to the Hotspot Shield’s free version, a week-long trial period for users to try the Elite version before signing up.
On top of that, the company offers a very convenient 45-day money-back guarantee to allow dissatisfied users to ask for their refund in case of disappointment with the service. Most VPN brands in the market offer less than two weeks, and some of the best put their limit in the month mark.
As you have seen by now, there are plenty of things not to like about the Hotspot Shield VPN service. For starters, there have been several complaints about data tracking and spying, so it may not be the best VPN app for privacy-conscious users.
The Elite version is rather expensive, topping nearly all of the elite VPN clients and companies at $13 per month. It is good that they offer a free trial and a 45-day money-back guarantee, but $13 is costly for a VPN.
Since it is based in the United States, Hotspot Shield can be subject to warrants, government letters, and subpoenas.
It has a proprietary VPN protocol, which means that you don’t have access to OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec or any other encryption measure. You have to stick with the client software.
AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield VPN has several pros and cons, which makes it a polarizing figure in the VPN market. However, we tend to think that the positives outweigh the negatives, and so does the industry: it is not by chance that the brand has more than 600 million users around the world.
Of course, most of those people use the free version, but that doesn’t mean that the Elite is bad. It is just a tad expensive, and while the company doesn’t exude confidence while protecting your privacy, it does offer the chance of enviable streaming experience.
The free version allows a great deal of daily data, while the Elite has servers in censorship-heavy places, such as China and Russia. Hotspot Shield has great speeds, stable performance, few leaks, and the ability to block malicious pages.