Last update: 03.21.2019
A strong VPN contender if you’re a casual user looking to access geo-restricted content. But their questionable privacy practices and location make us hesitant to heap praise. Read our in-depth Hotspot Shield review to find out more.
In our Hotspot Shield review we’ll be looking at the well-known virtual private network (VPN) service from AnchorFree that launched a decade ago. Due to the popularity of its free VPN service, this provider has grown in the past years to boast 650 million users worldwide. Out of these only a small fraction are premium VPN subscribers.
Last year was surely not the best for Hotspot Shield. Credible sources (Centre for Democracy and Technology as well as Carnegie Mellon University) accused them of snooping on users and selling data to advertisers. Even though the company claimed that the allegations were unfounded and absolutely false, such an accusation can leave an unfortunate stain.
Nevertheless, if you’re a traveler or you just want to stream geo-restricted videos and music, you may have found your brand.
Let’s look how this VPN provider stacks up in our in-depth Hotspot Shield review.
Security and privacy: Is Hotspot Shield safe to use?
Hotspot Shield has the following security features:
- effective kill switch
- IPv6 and WebRTC leak protection
- proprietary Catapult Hydra
- split tunneling
- malware protection
There aren’t too many settings to modify when you use any of the Hotspot clients. But you can set this service to automatically connect to a VPN server when your device connects to a public wifi hotspot, such as in a café or a library.
This service also boasts cloud-based malware protection, which clearly offers you a safer virtual experience. For example, while browsing geo-blocked web content.
We do miss the OpenVPN protocol support, which is one of the most secure and fastest channel for encrypted internet traffic. However, Hotspot uses its own patented VPN protocol called the Catapult Hydra Protocol instead. This is not a new protocol per se; it’s more like a modification or enhancement of TLS and OpenSSL.
However, it’s important to state that Hotspot Shield has a sketchy past when it comes to keeping users’ data and privacy safe.
Hotspot’s data privacy problems
In 2017 there was a case when the Center for Democracy & Technology filed a report accusing the company of “logging connections and using third-party tracking to serve targeted advertising.” As a response, David Gorodyansky, the CEO of AnchorFree, said that these allegations were unfounded.
Hotspot Shield doesn’t log personally identifiable data or any data that could be directly linked to a person.
Recently, security researcher Paulos Yibelo claimed to have found a major security bug that could leak generic information like the user’s country. He was able to find out the physical locations of users based on the data he retrieved.
He also said that he was occasionally able to retrieve true IP addresses, which AnchorFree claimed was impossible since their programmers also investigated the security bug and patched it.
Does Hotspot Shield keep logs?
We still can’t recommend Hotspot Shield it due to other issues, like their invasive data practices.
“When you visit our websites, we may collect device-specific information, such as the unique mobile ID, hardware model, operating system version, browser type, language, internet, service providers and mobile network information.”
They promise not to share anything with any third party or governments, but still “advertisers may be able to collect certain information independently from you or your device.” This includes your MAC address (Media Access Control), a unique 12-character hardware identifier, which could lead to discovering your physical location.
Of course, the MAC address of a device can be changed as often as you want relatively easily.
Another concern for the privacy-conscious user is that Hotspot Shield is based in the US. This country is the main international surveillance master, the “all-seeing eye” of the 5 Eyes alliance.
To be frank, we can only recommend this VPN service if you don’t really care about your maximum online anonymity. But let’s see what else is revealed in our Hotspot Shield review.
Speed and performance
Compared to the competitors’ 8-12 seconds on average, Hotspot Shield can connect to its servers in about 2 seconds. Now, that’s what we call fast.
As we have mentioned, this VPN uses its own Catapult Hydra Protocol, which is supposed to double the download speeds for large files. This is done by creating multiple channels for data in order to increase speed and reliability.
We conducted our speed tests with these baseline speeds:
And, this is what we saw when connecting to different regions of the world:
- Download: 149 Mbps
- Upload: 30 Mbps
- Dropoff: 47%
- Download: 106 Mbps
- Upload: 72 Mbps
- Dropoff: 62%
- Download: 161 Mbps
- Upload: 15 Mbps
- Dropoff: 42%
- Download: 215 Mbps
- Upload: 13 Mbps
- Dropoff: 24%
While this provider may not win the fastest VPN title in 2018, our Hotspot Shield review readily admits that this is certainly one of the fastest services out there.
Hotspot Shield has more than 2,500 servers in 25 countries around the world. This is a good number of servers, but a low country count, especially when considering the competition.
To compare, NordVPN has 5,200+ servers in more than 62 countries, and ExpressVPN has 3,000+ servers in 94 countries.
Ease of use and multiplatform support
Hotspot Shield supports the following platforms:
Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide support for routers, game consoles, or the Amazon Fire TV Stick.
The apps are pretty easy to download and install – and of course easiest for the mobile apps. This interface is a paradise for a VPN newbie wanting to quickly connect to a VPN server to browse blocked content. But, it could be less impressive for an advanced user who would prefer more freedom to set up privacy preferences.
By default, Hotspot Shield starts automatically with Windows; you can change this setting here. The IP leak prevention option is also on by default, but you can decide to turn it off. You can also turn the Kill Switch on or off here if you will.
In the Settings menu you can also turn on the VPN for certain networks:
- Unsafe WiFi Hotspots (on by default)
- Safe WiFi Hotspots
How to use Hotspot Shield for free
Since it may not be that obvious for beginner VPN users how to use this app for free, we thought it’d be a good idea to dedicate a separate section to it in our Hotspot Shield review.
First of all, there are a number of options for you to download the desired client on the official website. Even though there are separate buttons or links for the Premium and Free versions, somehow you will end up installing the very same application. This can be somewhat confusing.
Why? Because you will be offered to either click the Start 7-day trial button or you can choose to click the Sign in link, but there is no apparent link or button for a free VPN version.
Well, after contacting the live chat support, finally, we managed to put the pieces together about how to use Hotspot Shield for free.
After you install your client, the welcome screen actually has a hardly visible small gray arrow in the top left corner of the app window. If you click this arrow, you will skip this screen and finally start your free VPN experience.
And that’s how you get the free version. Of course, there are some limitations to Hotspot Shield’s free plan which we discuss further below.
Hotspot Shield for Netflix and Kodi
Well, this is definitely not practical with the free version – here’s what you’ll see if you try to access Netflix:
Here’s the good news though: you can use the premium version of Hotspot Shield for Netflix. However, you should know that this is not a lifetime guarantee.
We managed to stream Netflix US, UK, and AU without any issues. But, we couldn’t bypass the detection measures with the Canada and Japan servers. If you were to fail to access Netflix, you can find information on the website to help you out.
Of course, streaming is not exclusively a Netflix thing. Although 30% of VPN users target Netflix shows, there are several other popular media centers too. Hotspot Shield VPN does a good job, for example, of streaming BBC iPlayer content.
What about Kodi?
Technically, yes you can, since Hotspot Shield has good enough speeds to make your Kodi experience enjoyable. However, when it comes to their logging practice, this is an area we’d recommend you be more careful.
It’s fine to bypass geo-blocked content, but when it comes to pirated streaming, we wouldn’t recommend it.
Hotspot Shield for P2P and torrenting
Similar to the Netflix situation, the free Hotspot Shield may not be the best choice for torrenting and other P2P file-sharing activities due to the daily 500 MB bandwidth limit.
However, you may be totally fine with the Premium version, which provides you with more server choices and unlimited bandwidth, not to mention greater speeds.
It’s also important to mention that this service also gives you protection against malware (both the free and paid plans), suspicious third-party ads, and phishing. But, if you are concerned about the connection logs AnchorFree may or may not be keeping, you should try a more trustworthy service.
Hotspot Shield has the following support options:
- An FAQ database
- Support ticket
- Live chat support
When writing this Hotspot Shield review, we had to use the Hotspot live chat support to figure out several issues. We found the support not only friendly and helpful, but also quite fast. Of course, a few of the replies were templates, but, on the whole, we were satisfied with the answers.
You can also try to use the Support menu from the main menu to open the FAQ section or send a direct question to the support team.
Although there is nothing cheaper than a free VPN, the Hotspot Shield Premium subscription pricing is more in the middle range:
- 1 month: $15.99
- 6 months: $10.99
- 1 year: $6.99
- 3 years: $2.99
There is a free version of Hotspot Shield, but it comes with these limitations:
- there is a daily bandwidth limit of 500MB
- there is a limited number of US servers for you to connect to and they may well be virtual ones
- you can only use the free VPN app with one device
- you can’t access Netflix
The supported payment methods include the main credit and debit cards (e.g., Visa and MasterCard), PayPal as well as other alternatives, such as WebMoney and Alipay. Unfortunately, there is no Bitcoin option.
There is a 7-day trial for free, but you have to provide your credit card details and AnchorFree automatically puts you into the most expensive monthly plan unless you cancel in time.
Hotspot Shield offers one of the longest refund periods, which is a 45-day money-back guarantee. All things considered, this VPN may be a bit pricey for what it has to offer when compared to competitors, especially its lower tier plans.
It is certainly a great plus that Hotspot Shield has a free version even if a limited one. The majority of the 600 million customers use the free VPN option. If they are fine with it, you may also become a satisfied customer unless you need airtight online security and anonymity.
We certainly wouldn’t recommend this VPN for political activists, hackers, and other users for whom privacy is the most important factor.
Hotspot Shield has been around for a decade already with over 2,500 servers in 25 countries offering 300,000 IP addresses. Although it’s not the fastest VPN in 2018, it does have great streaming speeds depending on your location and which server you are connecting to.
Hopefully, this Hotspot Shield review helps you see more clearly. If you are still uncertain, we suggest you to read more of our VPN reviews and comparisons.
What is your VPN experience?
Have you ever tried to use Hotspot Shield or any other VPN apps before? What are your impressions? Is there anything important we missed in our Hotspot Shield review?
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