Last update: 01.15.2019
A strong VPN contender if you’re a casual user looking to access geo-restricted content. But their questionable privacy practices and location in a 5-eyes country makes us a little 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 service 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.
Obviously, a free VPN always comes with a price, which here are the annoying third-party ads and limitations. These are not there in the paid Premium plan, starting at $3.49 if you sign up for 3 years.
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.
Based on our in-depth Hotspot Shield review, this VPN offers great download speeds. This makes it ideal for streaming and you may well use it for Netflix or for torrenting–although that might require more security and less logging.
Although this VPN service only provides servers from 25 countries, it has 2,500+ servers with 300,000 IP addresses to offer, which is quite impressive. At the same time, you don’t have the choice of city servers when using the app.
Hotspot covers the most common platforms: Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, and browser extensions. These clients are one of the simplest and easiest to use in the VPN market. However, more advanced users may miss the option of fine-tuning their app.
If you’re ready for more, dive into our Hotspot Shield review.
Security & Privacy: Is Hotspot Shield safe to use?
If you mainly need a VPN for streaming media from behind the comfort of a spoofed IP address, Hotspot Shield could be just the right service for you. However, if you’re more into online security and privacy, you might want to think twice before you go for the premium version.
Our Hotspot Shield review indicates that this VPN service has a sketchy past when it comes to keeping users’ data and privacy safe.
Hotspot’s data privacy problems
If we rake over the not-so-distant past, we’ll find some worrisome details about this VPN service and how loosely they used to handle user privacy and security. For example, 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.
There’s also another potential privacy issue that can affect Hotspot Shield VPN users: the company’s usage of Gmail.
As you may have heard, Gmail seems to provide access to private email messages for third-party app developers. This could get real nasty when it comes to trusting an email service provider with all your sensitive information.
No Hotspot Shield review would be complete without mentioning this important aspect. If you want to learn how this Gmail privacy issue may affect Hotspot Shield or any other VPN services, read our more detailed post.
Maximum privacy? Not really…
So, is it safe to use Hotspot Shield for security and privacy? Based on our Hotspot Shield review, we still can’t recommend 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.”
Does that make you feel safe?
Even if they promise not to share anything with any third party or governments, “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.
So, are you or are you not fully protected? It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, the MAC address of a device can be changed relatively easily as often as you want.
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 Five Eyes alliance.
This simply means that the company can be forced by law to provide user data for related government agencies or to monitor internet traffic. In addition to this liability, the majority of the servers are located in the Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes countries, which doesn’t sound too good when it comes to perfect privacy.
Twenty percent of its US and European VPN servers are virtual servers. These are only offered to free users. The Hotspot virtual servers are located where they’re claimed to be, unlike the ones in our PureVPN review.
Good Hotspot Shield features
Our Hotspot Shield review may have been a bit too negative on security and privacy so far, but let’s balance that out with some positive vibes if possible.
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.
So, does this make Hotspot Shield safe enough?
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: One of the fastest VPNs in 2018?
Although not all reviewers would agree, we do believe that Hotspot Shield has a pretty fast service–at least that’s what we’ve seen while researching for this Hotspot Shield review.
Consider that there are 650 million Hotspot shield users globally and what kind of constant pressure they put the 2,500+ servers under. And still, their connection times are astonishing. 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:
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.
How to download and install it
You can simply download any of the major platform clients, including Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, Chrome, and Firefox.
You will find at least two Download VPN buttons on the homepage of the official Hotspot Shield website, links at the bottom of the pages (under the Products section), or in the Products menu.
You may either download and install this app directly or start by choosing the Premium plan. If you leave out the latter, you will always have an option to upgrade within your client.
The installation of the clients is pretty straightforward. Once you’re done, the app starts automatically. On the welcome screen, you are prompted to click the Start 7-day trial button or you can choose to click the Sign in link if you have a premium account already.
You may wonder what’s happened to your Hotspot Shield free version. Please find more details on this in the next section.
If you go for the 7-day trial, you will have to enter your credit card details and your email address as well to sign up for your account. However, you need to be careful because if you forget to cancel your subscription in due time, your default monthly Hotspot plan will auto-renew every month at a rate of $12.99. Interestingly, this rate is €15.99, instead of €11.00 (if converted directly) when you visit the website from Europe. Geo-restriction at play?
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, as we have mentioned above, 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. Or, is there?
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.
However, before you think this might be the deal of the century, let us explain what the price is for your free VPN.
First, there is an ugly daily bandwidth limit of 500MB. Do you want to use the free Hotspot Shield for torrenting? You can forget about that for sure unless you are fine with downloading only one episode of your favorite TV show every day and maybe checking out some geo-blocked websites.
If that’s all you want, and you don’t mind the occasional third-party ads in your browser, you may be satisfied with this service.
Second, there is a limited number of servers for you to connect to and they may well be virtual ones, too. Third, you can only use the free VPN app with one device. And, finally, you don’t have the 24/7 live chat support.
If you still think that these conditions are all fine with you, feel free to download this VPN app.
How to use Hotspot Shield VPN
After you launch your client, you will see a dark blue screen with a big Power button. Click this button to connect to a default server. One click, and your IP address is spoofed, you can start accessing geo-restricted content.
Once you have connected to a server, the screen changes to a dashboard view. On the top third of the screen, you will see a big Stop button with a timer, which displays the time you have been spending using the current server choice.
Below, you can also see the download and upload traffic in numbers, your virtual IP address, a global map indicating where you are browsing from, and a drop-down menu with the list of country locations to choose from.
If you click the 3-Bar icon in the top left corner, you can access the main menu. Here you will find the following menus:
- Upgrade to Premium
- Like Us on Facebook
We would like to share some more details about the Settings menu since the rest of the options are quite clear.
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, which is to make sure that all your online applications are cut off the internet and no automatic connection is created via your ISP (Internet Service Provider) as soon as the VPN server connection drops. This is a very important feature with regard to your online privacy.
In the Settings menu you can also turn on the VPN for certain networks:
- Unsafe WiFi Hotspots (on by default)
- Safe WiFi Hotspots
The last setting you can change is the language. You can choose from 10 languages, including English, Portuguese, French, Russian, and Japanese.
Basically, that’s it–this is how easy it is to use Hotspot Shield. 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.
A week ago Hotspot Shield VPN was having an issue with connecting to certain servers. The main problem is that the Chinese server is one of those susceptible. When we contacted support about this bug, they told us that they had been working on it. Apparently, there had been several user complaints.
That being said, we checked again and this VPN still can’t connect to China, New Zealand, and South Korea. We haven’t checked all the servers so there could be more.
This is what you’ll see on the app (left) and on the ipleak.net site (right):
Users wanting to appear like they are located in China should be aware that they’ll be connected to Japan instead.
The same scenario is true for New Zealand and South Korea, which will connect you to Pakistan for some reason:
Hopefully, the developers of Hotspot Shield will find the solution and fix this bug because it may cause some uncomfortable situations for users.
Hotspot Shield for Netflix
Well, this is definitely not practical with the free version–unless you’re a very patient person who can survive with 500MB streaming per day. As a matter of fact, it’s even worse 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 JP without any issues. But, we couldn’t bypass the detection measures with the Canada and Australia servers. If you were to fail to access Netflix, you can find information on the website to help you out.
It was also eye-pleasing to see high speeds even for 4K streaming. This is what the dedicated Netflix speed test showed after we connected to the Japan server:
Netflix does everything in its power to detect users who try to access their servers with VPN IP addresses. While most VPN providers are trying hard to be one step ahead, many fail in this race against Netflix.
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.
Hotspot Shield for 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 500MB 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.
Live chat support
While a few months back reviews and users were complaining about the quality of the customer support and the lack of live chat support, we are glad to announce that things have improved significantly.
When writing this Hotspot Shield review, we actually had to use the Hotspot live chat support to figure out several issues, such as how to use the free VPN or how to use this VPN for torrenting. 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.
Apps and extensions
This VPN supports the main platforms, Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS, and there are free proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox. There may be minor differences between these clients, such as which servers you can connect to, but basically, they are more or less the same.
Hotspot Shield has no support for routers, game consoles, or the Amazon Fire TV Stick, which could be a big minus for some.
If you don’t need ultra-high privacy, you may find this app very easy for whichever client you use. The premium version allows you to use 5 devices with one subscription, which is good news for those using multiple devices.
Pricing: Good features with good prices
There are several reasons why users choose a certain VPN service provider and consider it as the best VPN. Price is surely one of these even if it’s probably not the most important one. Although there is nothing cheaper than a free VPN, the Hotspot Shield Premium subscription pricing is more in the middle range:
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, which may discourage some potential customers.
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.
Bottom line of our Hotspot Shield review: Pretty good for casual usage
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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