AnchorFree (based in California) first released the US-based VPN service Hotspot Shield as a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) in 2008. Since then, its service has been split into two products: a free service, and a premium VPN called Hotspot Shield Elite. In total, more than 600 million users around the globe have installed the VPN showing just how popular this product is on the global stage.
Overall, we score this provider down due to being based in the US making it a poor option for those wanting ultimate privacy. However, this is a fast VPN that is considered better for unblocking than for privacy. Not supporting OpenVPN, we had to test Hotspot Shield Elite differently to other providers but the speeds we got were essentially 75% of our baseline speeds...very impressive! With these speeds, and a focus on streaming, it makes Hotspot Shield Elite a great option for those wanting to access streaming services such as US Netflix.
- Jurisdiction USA
- Simultaneous connections 5
- ProPrivacy.com SpeedTest (average) 75.5 Mbps
- Countries 25
The vast majority of those consumers use the free version, and there can be no doubt that Hotspot Shield has been an invaluable tool for people living in places suffering from website blackouts. For example, it was the main VPN used during the Arab Spring protests.
In this review, we will concentrate on the premium "elite" version of Hotspot Shield (the paid version).
With a Hotspot Shield Elite subscription, you get:
- Servers in 25 countries
- 45-day money-back guarantee
- Enhanced transport protocol technology
- Kill switch
- Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) and Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) leak protection
- WiFi protection (auto connect)
- Permission to use five simultaneous connections
- Browser extensions for Firefox (very dated) and Chrome (excellent and up-to-date)
- Malware detection (Chrome extension only)
- Ad blocker/tracker blocker/cookie blocker (Chrome extension only)
- Split tunneling (Chrome extension only)
- App for Windows, Mac OS X, macOS, iOS, and Android
- Option to switch languages in the app
- No data limits or bandwidth limits on Elite subscription
- Peer-to-peer (P2P) permitted
With servers in 25 countries, Hotspot Shield Elite is undoubtedly a great VPN for unblocking content around the globe.
Speed and Performance
Make no mistake - Hotspot Shield is fast. Really fast!. The speed tests for this review were undertaken using Hotspot Shield Elite. The speed tests were performed from the UK, using a London server on beta.speedtest.net. Connection speeds were checked without the VPN connected first, to get base level results (for the UK and US). I tested the US server using a New York test server on beta.speedtest.net.
I tested both the Netherlands and UK from the UK test server in London. In each case, I amassed the results from five tests. Each colored block in the graphs represents the range of speeds encountered, from highest to lowest. Please check out our full speed test explanation for more details.
Hotspot Shield Elite performed at insanely fast speeds, which came extremely close to my connection speeds without a VPN. Hotspot Shield achieves these mind blowing speeds by using its own proprietary protocol called 'Catapult Hydra'. AnchorFree says the protocol optimizes the VPN data transport, giving it a large performance advantage in terms of how the payload is delivered inside the secured tunnels between the client and the server.
While the speed gains are undeniable, the closed nature of this protocol raises some privacy concerns as it can't be fully audited.
Either way, if you want a super fast VPN for streaming and are less concerned about privacy - this is probably the right product for you!
Does Hotspot Shield unblock Netflix?
If you are looking for a VPN for Netflix, Hotspot shield elite may be worth considering. I connected to the US VPN server and the service worked perfectly. I connected to the UK server, and I was able to unblock BBC iPlayer without any issues. This is excellent. It demonstrates that the elite version of the VPN works for unblocking content. Hotspot Shield is also able to unblock Youtube videos that are restricted in your region.
IP leaks, WebRTC leaks, and DNS leaks
I tested for IP leaks while connected to Hotspot Shield's UK server, using ipleak.net.
I detected no IP leaks, no DNS leaks, and no WebRTC leaks. Unfortunately, I was unable to test for IPv6 because my ISP doesn't provide it. However, due to the fact that it has specific IPv6 protection built into the client, I would assume that this feature works.
Ease of Use
Hotspot Shield have a browser extension which is available for Google Chrome on; Windows, Android, Mac OS X, macOS, and the iOS operating systems. There is also an add-on for the Firefox web browser.
Hotspot Shield Free Review
However, considering users get a data allowance of 750 Mb per day, it's still useful for people who are desperate to get around local regional restrictions and censorship. In fact, Hotspot Shield was the main VPN used during the Arab Spring. It was also used heavily in Turkey during website blackouts in and around the time of the military coup.
You can only purchase Hotspot Shield Elite in a single plan. As such, no matter how long you decide to subscribe for, you get access to all of the VPN's features. The only difference comes in the form of the cost. The VPN is discounted significantly if you commit for a longer period.
In order to enjoy the discounted monthly price, you need to pay for your whole subscription period upfront. In addition, AnchorFree sets up an automatic re-billing agreement with your bank account. Unless you cancel, it will charge you again when the subscription period ends.
The firm has a 45-day money-back guarantee. In addition, you can trial Hotspot Shield Elite for seven days. This gives you plenty of time to cancel if you aren't happy with the service.
You need to provide your credit card details in order to utilize the Hotspot Shield Elite trial. Hotspot Shield will automatically move you onto the paid plan unless you cancel your subscription during the seven-day period. Bear in mind that if you don't cancel the trial, Hotspot Shield will put you on the monthly tariff when it transfers you to the paid service. This is the most expensive plan.
The best plan available for Hotspot Shield is a 2-year plan that reduces the monthly cost to the equivalent of $2.99 per month. An unlimited plan is also available on the website at a cost of $165. This is a good option for anybody looking for a streaming VPN.
However, allow me to remind you that the ability to unblock Netflix US (for example) is a fluid situation and it is possible that Hotspot Shield will one day stop having the ability to unblock the service. As such, an unlimited plan should only be purchased on the understanding that the service could change.
Supported Payment Platforms
Hotspot Shield's customer support isn't one of the service's strong points. Nowadays, premium VPNs are very good at dealing with consumers in real time. The very best services provide 24/7 live chat to help customers use the service and deal with problems.
However, customer support seems to be under strain due to the massive number of users that the VPN has. Considering the cost of the elite service - which is very similar to other services that provide exceptional support - this is a disappointment.
Consumers experiencing problems would be wise to first attempt to solve them using the knowledge base in the Hotspot Shield Help Center. This resource could be useful, but it doesn't have that many guides and is pretty limited.
In order to submit a request for help, you'll need to click on the "Contact Support" button and open a support ticket. This ticket will be handled via the email address that you subscribed to Hotspot Shield with.
When you type in the form's Subject field, it supplies a list of knowledge base articles that it thinks might help. When I filled out the form, the suggestions were no good. Thus, I had to continue filling in the rather invasive questions (it wanted to know details such as my operating system).
Hotspot Shield Elite Trial
Click on the "Get Hotspot Shield" button to access the download page. The download of the installer will begin automatically.
When you first launch it, you'll be given the option to sign up for a seven-day free trial of the paid version. Enter your credit card details in order to access the trial of Hotspot Shield Elite.
If you decide to go down this road, please remember to cancel before the week is up if you decide the service isn't for you - or you'll be charged for your first month. Note that using the seven-day trial takes away your entitlement to the 45-day money-back guarantee.
Use a valid email address, as you need to verify the address to activate the service.
Privacy and security
CSIRO Study Results
We gave Hotspot Shield an opportunity to answer to CSIRO's claims, this is what the firm told us:
"We never redirect our users’ traffic to any third-party resources instead of the websites they intended to visit. The free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, however, we collect no personally identifiable user data and intercept no traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions. We never share any personally identifiable information with any of the advertisers. Our users’ online privacy has always been our absolute priority."
Hotspot Shield uses the same encryption standards on all versions of the VPN. This is how Hotspot shield describes that encryption:
"Turning Hotspot Shield on encrypts all of the traffic between your device and our servers using TLS 1.2 with perfect forward secrecy (ECDHE), 128-bit AES data encryption."
This level of security seems Okay and would usually be considered secure. Sadly, however, because Hotspot Shield implements a proprietary protocol called "Catapult Hydra," we do not have the exact details about how encryption is being implemented. For this reason, I simply can't say that it is definitively secure.
What we do know, is that Hotspot Shield claims that Catapult Hydra has been audited and that it is being used by some major players in the tech sector. Unfortunately, ProPrivacy.com have not seen that audit (or even any proof that it exists). For this reason, we cannot verify that this is actually the case.
As is always the case with VPN security - it is impossible to vouch for technology that is not Open Source - unless there is a publicly available third-party audit that has been carried out by a reputable firm.
“Your true IP address is stored only for the duration of your VPN session and is cleared after your session is closed. We do not associate your true IP address with your online activities and we do not store or log your true IP address after the end of your session.”
In addition, the policy now clearly states that:
This is good news indeed, it means that users of all versions of Hotspot Shield no longer need to worry that IP addresses are being stored alongside connection logs.
Hotspot shield states 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.”
Despite Hotspot Shield’s claim that this data “does not identify you,” we tend to disagree. We feel that wireless network, approximate location, and mobile network id can be used to identify you. For this reason, we believe Hotspot Shield still has invasive data practices. No IPs is a good move (and certainly makes Hotspot Shield better on the desktop version), but the mobile app does tell AnchorFree (and its third party affiliates) a lot of high-risk data.
"If you use Hotspot Shield Elite, the premium subscription-based version of our product, we will not serve any ads and thus no information will be collected by our third party ad partners on the Elite product."
On the free plan...
The free version of Hotspot Shield does serve users with adverts. However, the policy clearly states that:
“The ads you may see on the free, advertising-supported version of Hotspot Shield are generic – never based on your personal information.”
This helps to clarify that Hotspot Shield is not directly collecting information about people’s VPN use in order to allow AnchorFree (the company that owns Hotspot Shield) – or any of its third-party affiliates – to perform personalized advert targeting.
“We never share your personal information with unaffiliated third parties other than service providers that we use for internal technology and business operations (such as website hosting, payment processing, data analysis, information technology, customer service, and email delivery).”
This still seems like a rather long list of firms with which data can be shared (especially considering what Hotspot Shield is still collecting from users even on the premium version).
On the plus side, this VPN is fast and unblocks plenty of content. If you are looking for a good streaming VPN and you aren't that bothered about it having unverified encryption: Hotspot Shield is very good for unblocking streaming content in HD.
As a streaming VPN there are few VPNs that are so quick - so take it for a test run!
As for the free Chrome browser and the free Hotspot Shield (750Mb per day) service? They work well and have been used by literally millions of people in times of desperate need. For this alone, Hotspot Shield deserves a big pat on the back.