Hotspot Shield VPN review


Hotspot Shield Premium is the commercial edition of the hugely popular ad-sponsored VPN service.

Paying to upgrade gets rid of the ads and gives you unlimited data transfer and full access to all of Hotspot Shield’s locations and features.

That means you’re able to choose from 80+ countries, a massive improvement on the 27 available just eighteen months ago.

  • Want to try Hotspot Shield Premium? Check out the website here

All servers are P2P-friendly, and built-in blocking of malicious and phishing sites helps keep you safe online.

There’s app support for Windows and Mac, plus Android and iOS. Hotspot Shield’s reliance on its proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol means you can’t set up the service manually, but the company has recently added support for routers and Android TV. (This should work with any routers which support DD-WRT or FreshTomato firmware – see the Router area of the Support site for the details.)

Hotspot Shield Premium supports up to five simultaneous connections, probably enough for most users, and standard for the industry. If you need more, setting it up on your router could be a solution (your devices all use the same single connection). But some providers allow more devices as standard: NordVPN allows six, IPVanish supports 10, StrongVPN can handle 12, and Windscribe has no limits at all.

Editor’s Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.

  • Hotspot Shield VPN is now available for Linux. (May 2020)

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Signing up for Hotspot Shield can get you up to three additional products, including 1Password (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

The biggest change since our last review is that Hotspot Shield is now owned by Pango, and signing up gets you access to three additional products, depending on your location: the 1Password password manager, a robocall and spam blocker (Robo Shield in the US), and an identity theft protection service (Identity Guard, US-only).

We don’t have the space to cover any of these, but they’re major products, and a very interesting addition to the service. If you’re interested in any of them, follow the link above to find out more.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield accepts a wide variety of payment methods (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Plans and pricing

This review isn’t about Hotspot Shield’s free product (which tops our best free VPN list) and a quick glance at the specs should tell you why: it has a 2Mbps speed limit, one location only (US), along with a 500MB daily data limit. It’s useful as a way to check out the apps, but that’s about it.

Hotspot Shield Premium, plus its call blocker, password manager and identity theft protection service is priced at $12.99, billed monthly. That’s at the top end of the usual VPN range, but still a very good deal if you’ll use even just one of the bundled extras.

The annual plan is an effective $7.99 a month, also expensive when compared to a pure VPN product, but not bad at all when you consider everything you’re getting.

A three-year plan is pitched at a very low $2.99 a month, but you only get the extra products for the first year. At that price, we’re not going to complain, but if you only need the VPN, there are a handful of better deals around (Surfshark’s two-year plan is just $1.99 a month).

Whatever you choose, you’re protected by a very generous 45-day money-back guarantee. That’s matched by one or two providers – CyberGhost also offers 45 days – but most stop at 30, and Private Internet Access only gives you a week.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield will notify you if your connection is interrupted or disconnects  (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Privacy

Understanding a VPN’s security usually starts by looking at its protocol support, encryption and authentication details. This can be hugely complicated, but just seeing that a service supports a secure protocol like OpenVPN can give you reassuring feedback about its safety.

Hotspot Shield is more difficult to assess, because it doesn’t support OpenVPN, or IKEv2, or L2TP/IPsec, or any of the other standard VPN protocols. Instead the company uses its own proprietary Catapult Hydra technology.

This isn’t as worrying as it might sound. Catapult Hydra’s focus is on improving performance, and the encryption side of the protocol uses much the same standards as everyone else.

For example, the Hotspot Shield website reports that Catapult Hydra is based on TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.2, with AES-128 encryption, 2048-bit RSA certificates for server authentication and keys exchanged via Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDHE) for perfect forward secrecy (keys last for only one session, with new ones generated next time). Which, for non-encryption geeks, is more than good enough to keep you safe.

One problem with proprietary technologies like Catapult Hydra is there’s no easy way to see what else is going on. OpenVPN is open source and any developer can look at the code, figure out how it works, perhaps find problems or suggest improvements – something which isn’t possible here.

That doesn’t mean you must take Hotspot Shield’s claims entirely on trust, though. The company points out that Catapult Hydra is used by ‘the majority of large cybersecurity companies that offer VPN services from within their apps, such as McAfee, Bitdefender, Cheetah Mobile and many others.’ In addition, ‘carriers such as Telefonica and KDDI also use Catapult Hydra to provide VPN services and Wi-Fi security to their customers.’

As a result, though the code isn’t publicly available, that doesn’t mean its functionality hasn’t been reviewed. These corporate customers need to understand Catapult Hydra to properly implement it themselves, and Hotspot Shield says the protocol has been ‘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.’

Privacy isn’t just about the low-level technicalities. Client implementation is also important, especially when it comes to blocking DNS and WebRTC leaks which might give away your real identity. Fortunately, testing Hotspot Shield’s clients and browser attachments at IPLeak and DNSLeakTest didn’t reveal any issues, with the service protecting us from snoopers at all times.

Your IP address could also leak if the VPN connection suddenly drops, at least in theory. Some of Hotspot Shield’s apps include a kill switch to prevent this by shutting down your internet until the VPN is back up, but does this really work?

Some quick Windows tests got off to a good start. Even with the kill switch turned off, the client didn’t leak our real IP address when we changed locations, and our IP address was exposed for typically no more than a couple of seconds if the connection dropped. When we turned the kill switch on, our IP address wasn’t visible at all.

Digging deeper, we found the client opened multiple local TCP connections to manage the tunnel. If we forced these to close, we wondered, would that break the client? Nope: it didn’t crash, leak our IP or even raise an alert, but just reopened the connections and continued as before. That ability to cope with unexpected events is a sign of smart engineering, and suggests the client will cope with oddball issues that we’ve seen break other apps.

  • Save 76% with our exclusive Hotspot Shield offer here

Hotspot Shield VPN review

According to its privacy policy, Hotspot Shield does not keep any logs on its users  (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Logging

Hotspot Shield makes apparently definitive no-logging claims on its website. A support page, for instance, states that: ‘Hotspot Shield doesn’t store or share any identifiers of our Users, including IP addresses. As we do not keep any activity logs of our users, whether they are free or Premium, we can ensure you 100% percent of privacy and anonymity while using our application. ‘

The VPN Privacy Notice gets a little more specific, stating that: ‘When you initiate a VPN connection, we collect your IP address, immediately encrypt it, and delete it at the end of your VPN session… The IP address is not associated with your VPN browsing activity. This means that we are not able to share your VPN browsing activity with anyone – whether it’s an ad network or government agency – because we simply don’t store that information.’

While that sounds encouraging, it’s not quite the full story.

For example, the privacy policy also tells us that the service collects information about: ‘How much bandwidth you use, and when and for how long you use our services… the browsers and… apps you use to access our services… we may collect device identifiers, browser types, device types and settings, operating system versions, mobile, wireless, and other network information (such as internet service provider name, carrier name and signal strength), and application version numbers… the nature of the requests that you make to our servers (such as what is being requested, information about the device and app used to make the request, timestamps, and referring URLs)… we may collect your approximate location by calculating an imprecise latitude and longitude based on your IP address.’

We suspect that’s a little more logging than you might expect.

Hotspot Shield says none of this information can be used to link your account to any VPN browsing activity, which is good to hear. But, unlike some competitors, the company hasn’t put itself through any form of public security or privacy audit, so there’s no confirmation of these privacy promises. We’re left to take Hotspot Shield’s words on trust.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

We used Ookla’s Speedtest to measure the performance of Hotspot Shield, among other sites (Image credit: Ookla)

Performance

Hotspot Shield makes big claims about the performance of its Catapult Hydra protocol, but does it live up to the hype? We checked the service out with SpeedTest, TestMy and other websites to find out.

Connecting to our nearest UK location returned speeds of around 69 to 71Mbps on our 75Mbps fiber broadband test line. The key detail here is the overhead: we experienced average speeds dropping by less than 1Mbps compared to non-VPN connections, a fraction of what we see from the competition (the average is around 2-6Mbps). Even if you have a relatively slow internet connection, Hotspot Shield should allow you to keep much more of that performance for yourself.

Next, we used the same benchmarking websites to check US servers from a US location, using a very fast 600Mbs connection. And the results were absolutely amazing, with median speeds ranging from 474-547Mbps across four separate runs, using two different websites and run at two separate times of day.

But forget our methodology, if we even just used the slowest single result from any of our tests – 447Mbps – that’s still more than twice the top speed we’ve seen from many competitors, and enough to take the performance crown from Speedify (still hugely impressive at 275-400Mbps).

Long-distance checks aren’t as useful as there are more factors which can influence performance, but as we’ve seen in previous reviews, Hotspot Shield also performed very well in these. UK connections to Europe and US servers delivered very similar results as our local UK servers, and even the farthest connections, like Vietnam, regularly managed more than 60Mbps.

These are stellar results in terms of top speeds and consistency, especially for the most distant locations. Wherever you’re aiming to connect, Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPNs around.

  • Save yourself a packet with our exclusive Hotspot Shield offer here

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield was able to unblock US and UK Netflix without difficulty, so we didn’t witness any nasty error messages (Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix

Connecting to a VPN can help you bypass all kinds of website restrictions, from streaming sites which block content in specific countries, to nations such as China which block a host of popular sites.

Measuring a VPN’s unblocking abilities is difficult as there are so many factors involved, but we try to get a feel for its effectiveness by checking how the service works with YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+.

Hotspot Shield gave us speedy access to geoblocked YouTube clips without any hassle at all. That’s good news, although also no great surprise, as YouTube is relatively easy to unblock.

BBC iPlayer does a much better job of detecting VPNs, but Hotspot Shield bypassed all that and allowed us to stream whatever content we needed.

Netflix is normally one of the most difficult streaming sites to access with a VPN, but again, no-one told Hotspot Shield, and it allowed us to view US and UK Netflix without difficulty.

US Amazon Prime Video spoiled the company’s perfect record, detecting our VPN and keeping us out. But Hotspot Shield restored its reputation by unblocking Disney+ from its US server, a task which defeats most other providers.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield allowed us to download torrents without any bandwidth limits or restrictions  (Image credit: uTorrent)

Torrents

Hotspot Shield doesn’t exactly highlight its P2P policy. There’s no mention of this on the front page of the website, or on most of its feature lists, or the opening page of its FAQs.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover some good news. The service fully supports P2P on all servers, so once you’ve connected with any of the clients (Windows, Mac, Android or iOS), you’re ready to start downloading.

The support site has a few simple guides for beginners, with advice on why you might want to use a VPN for torrenting, and pointers on How To Download Torrents Anonymously.

Whatever method you’re using, Hotspot Shield doesn’t have any bandwidth limits or restrictions, so you should be able to use the service as much as you like.

  • Check out our exclusive Hotspot Shield deal here

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield offers clients for most major platforms and browsers (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Client setup

Sign up for Hotspot Shield and you’re redirected to a web console, where you’ll find download links for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS clients, along with the Chrome extension.

If you’re hoping to find instructions for setting up connections manually on routers or other platforms, you’re going to be disappointed. Hotspot Shield used to support standard protocols such as OpenVPN, but you’re now only able to use its proprietary Catapult Hydra technology. The company claims this is worthwhile, quoting speed increases of up to 2.4x over long distance connections, but as nothing else supports Catapult Hydra, you can only use the service with Hotspot Shield’s own apps and clients.

These apps and clients are, at least, easy to install and use. The Windows client set itself up much like any other application, while the mobile apps and Chrome extension are available in the relevant app stores. Log in with the username and password you chose during signup and you’re ready to explore the service.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

The Windows client has been redesigned since we last saw it (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

Windows client

Hotspot Shield’s Windows client has had a redesign since our last review, but the core principles haven’t changed, and if you’ve ever used another VPN you’ll quickly feel at home.

A dark opening panel displays the current default location and a large On/Off button, for instance. Tapping the button got us connected at a very high speed, typically just two to three seconds to even the most distant servers. Most VPNs take at least five seconds to make a local connection, some require more like 10 to 15.

Once you are connected, a map appears showing your new virtual location, while other panels display a host of status information: your server IP address, load and latency, the amount of data used today, your current transfer speeds and the name of your local network (handy as a reminder when you’re connecting to wireless hotspots, say). It all looks great and is very well presented.

Clicking the current location displays a list of other countries and cities you can choose from. There’s no Favorites system, but Hotspot Shield has added a ‘Recently used’ list to speed up reconnecting, a welcome extra touch.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

There aren’t many options in the Settings panel, but you do get a kill switch and some other useful bits and pieces (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

Hotspot Shield’s settings dialog is equally simple, with very few options. It still covers the bare essentials, though, with switches to run the client when Windows starts, prevent IP leaks, and enable a kill switch to block internet access if the VPN drops.

There’s one welcome bonus feature in the client’s ability to automatically connect to Hotspot Shield when you access unsafe Wi-Fi hotspots, safe hotspots or all networks. That option isn’t available nearly as often as we’d like, and it’s good to see it here.

The ‘Smart VPN’ feature enables choosing domains that won’t be routed through the VPN, handy for websites which don’t work as usual when you appear to be in another location. If we connect from the UK to a US server, for instance, we wouldn’t be able to view BBC iPlayer. Add it to the ‘Web domain bypass’ list and iPlayer should work as usual, whatever our VPN location.

There’s no longer an option to browse key support FAQs from the client interface, unfortunately. A Support page includes links to open the FAQ and Live Chat pages on the Hotspot Shield website, though, so help isn’t far away.

  • Grab our exclusive Hotspot Shield deal giving you 76% off

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield’s Android app covers mobiles, tablets, and now runs on Android TV, too (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

Android app

The Hotspot Shield Android app has a similar interface to its Windows cousin, but is missing some of the extras. Choosing a location and getting connected works in much the same way, for instance, but the app doesn’t bother with the map, IP address, server load figures, speed data and all the other status information you’ll see on a PC: there’s mostly just a Stop button.

The Settings dialog covers the basics, with options to start when your device boots, or to automatically turn on Hotspot Shield for particular network types (secured, unsecured, mobile). There’s no integrated kill switch setting, unfortunately, but you do get a battery-saving extra in the ability to turn off the VPN when your device is sleeping.

An unusual but welcome Auto-Connect VPN feature enables automatically connecting Hotspot Shield whenever you launch specified apps.

Unlike the Windows client, the Android app still lets you browse through key help documents from within its interface, rather than having to open a separate browser and finding the relevant articles there.

There’s not a lot of power or configurability here, then, but the Android VPN app is certainly easy to use, and its ability to automatically choose the best server is a welcome advantage over the Windows client.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield’s iOS app is very similar to its Android offering  (Image credit: AnchorFree)

iOS app

Hotspot Shield’s iOS app is a close interface match for the company’s Android offering, with little more than a connect button, a world map and list of locations, and a very few settings.

What you don’t get is much in the way of functionality. There are no auto-start or auto-connect options, and no kill switch. The only option you get is an ‘Insecure connections’ setting which warns you if you’re connecting to an insecure network, perhaps prompting you to connect manually (and even that is turned off by default).

Overall, the iOS app looks good and is straightforward to operate, but it’s hard to see why it doesn’t have an option to connect to the best server for your location.

We browsed the app’s Version History page, looking for significant improvements we might have missed, but without success.

There’s vague talk of ‘improved connection quality’ and general optimizations, but the only real addition in recent months is the ability to activate Hotspot Shield’s bundled products (1Password, identity theft protection, call blocking) from within the interface.

Still, it’s simple, very fast and unblocks almost everything, and that’s going to be more than enough for most users.

  • Benefit from an exclusive Hotspot Shield offer with 76% off

Hotspot Shield VPN review

There is a browser extension available which allows you to connect to the VPN from within your favorite web browser (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Browser extensions

Many VPNs offer browser extensions, but they’re usually very basic, stripped-back tools with little more functionality than a Location list and a Connect button. That’s not the case with Hotspot Shield, though – its Chrome extension is stuffed with features, and more powerful in some ways than the desktop and mobile apps.

The opening interface gives no indication of this, as it looks much like the other clients: a mostly empty dark panel with a Connect button in the middle, and barely anything else. Point, click, and you’re connected.

It’s a near instant connection, too, because the browser extension is a simple proxy system which protects your browser traffic only. That won’t work in every situation, but if you’re mostly interested in unblocking websites, it could serve you very well.

The extension gets more interesting when you tap the Configuration button at the top-right. For example, you’re finally able to set a default server which you’d like Hotspot Shield to access when you first connect, or have it automatically connect to the nearest server. There’s also a problem, in you only get access to a relatively few servers: Canada, France, Germany, India, Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, UK and US (which the extension doesn’t list in alphabetical order, bizarrely). However, the extra control is still a welcome plus.

There are a bunch of privacy extras, starting with ad, cookie, tracker, malware and WebRTC blockers, along with a handy option to ignore any resources you’re accessing which are hosted within your local network.

Perhaps the best additions are the Auto Protect and Bypass lists, at least once you’ve found them (they’re in Chrome’s Hotspot Shield Settings page rather than the extension console). Add websites to the former and Hotspot Shield will automatically turn itself on whenever you try to access them, which is convenient for instance if you need the VPN to use them in full. Add websites to the Bypass list and Hotspot Shield will direct them through your regular connection, rather than the VPN tunnel, handy for sites which don’t work with a VPN, or which need to see your real location (a streaming platform which is only available in your country).

This isn’t quite as powerful as it looks, initially. The ad blocker isn’t as capable as the market leaders, for instance, and doesn’t have any settings or options to customize how it functions. Still, overall it works very well, and the Chrome extension is better than most of the proxy competition.

Although it’s barely advertised on the website, Hotspot Shield also has a Firefox extension. This works in almost exactly the same way as the Chrome extension, and looks the same, with just one minor omission (it doesn’t include an optional Sword Mode for feeding web trackers fake browsing information). Otherwise it’s just as capable and easy to use as the Chrome version, and is a welcome addition to the Hotspot Shield line-up.

Hotspot Shield VPN review

Hotspot Shield offers live chat to solve any issues you can’t figure out after searching its knowledgebase (Image credit: AnchorFree)

Support

If Hotspot Shield isn’t working for you, the various apps give you instant access to advice on common issues by embedding documents from the website. As usual, if your issue is more complex, you can head off to the support website for more in-depth guidance.

A web-based Support Center organizes its articles by platform, as well as categories like Payments and Subscriptions, Manage Account and Common Issues. There is some useful information on the website that you won’t always get elsewhere (release notes for all the latest apps, for instance), and the company has updated many articles since our last review, but they still can’t compare with the depth of web guidance you’ll get from providers like ExpressVPN.

If you can’t find an answer in the knowledgebase, you’re able to get in touch with the support team via live chat or email.

We tried live chat – the chat window quickly appeared, reported that we were first in the queue, and we were talking to a friendly and knowledgeable agent in under a minute.

There’s room for improvement on the support site, then, but many users should quickly find the core details they need, and the quality support team are on hand to help you with anything else.

  • Our exclusive Hotspot Shield deal offers a hefty saving

Final verdict

Hotspot Shield has issues – basic apps, no OpenVPN, a little logging – but if raw speed is your top priority, its incredible turbocharged performance could justify signing up all on its own. Give it a try.

  • Also check out the best VPN services of 2020
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