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Hotspot Shield review

Solid VPN with multi-platform support and a useful free plan

Hotspot Shield review
(Image: © Future)

Tom's Guide Verdict

Hotspot Shield might not be the fastest provider on offer like in the old days, but you’ll get a fine variety of features, apps for anything, an intuitive interface, Netflix-unblocking power, and a capable support team to back you up when needed. On a downside, this old-timer suffers from a lack of configuration, slight logging concerns, and some half-helpful support guides.

Pros

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    Useful free version

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    Works with US Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, and BBC iPlayer

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    Apps for plenty of platforms

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    Excellent live chat

Cons

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    Some mild logging concerns

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    Self-support isn't quite up to scratch

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    iOS app underperforms

Hotspot Shield is a virtual private network (VPN) service that was first released in April 2008 for Windows and macOS operating systems by AnchorFree. It was operated by the same company until 2019. The aim behind was to provide “every person on the planet” with a solution that would keep all their data safe from cybercriminals and snoopers while providing free access to the information from otherwise blocked sites and services.

AnchorFree is based in Redwood City (California, the USA) with offices in Ukraine and Russia.

In 2010, Hotspot Shield VPN caught the world's attention when people utilized it to bypass government censorship and openly share information in the middle of Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. A year later, Hotspot Shield was upgraded to include support for iOS and Android.

Hotspot Shield has also launched its own unique Hydra protocol, which aims to maximize speed without making compromises on security. Apart from this, this VPN has undergone a couple of shifts in past years which culminated when Hotspot Shield became a part of a new company called Aura, which then merged with Pango Group.

Nowadays, Hotspot Shield’s core service holds more than 1,800 servers that stretch across over 80 countries and 115 cities across the globe. All of their servers are P2P-friendly and come with a built-in security suite sure to stop malware, stave off phishers, and keep you safe during your online ventures. They also provide a variety of apps for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, which means you can shield virtually all your devices with it.

It’s no wonder Hotspot Shield is widely regarded as one of the best VPN services in the industry. But, let’s see if it really deserves this reputation in our complete and unbiased Hotspot Shield review.

Hotspot Shield 1-minute review

When it comes to short-term plans, Hotspot Shield isn't typically the most budget-friendly choice, charging a hefty $9.99 per month on a rolling plan, and $7.99 per month on the 1-yearplan, which is better than nothing (we guess). 

However, Tom's Guide readers can claim a serious discount that drops the price to just $2.49 a month on the 3-year plan - quite a considerable saving. You can also trial the free VPN, which offers 500MB of data a day.

Hotspot Shield uses the Hydra protocol for the most part (IKEv2 is also available), so there's no OpenVPN for the desktop apps. While privacy purists will likely mourn that loss and it not being an open source product, Catapult Hydra is still used by McAfee, Telefonica, Bitdefender, and plenty of other reputable companies, so we're pretty confident of its security.

Fortunately, though, there’s OpenVPN support available for routers, and the support website has useful instructions on how to get this up and running.

In comparison with other leading VPNs, Hotspot Shield logs a little more user information, and while we're reassured that none of that can be traced back to the user, we're still awaiting an independent audit or (perhaps more so) a tightening up of the logging practices in general.

In its glory days, Hotspot Shield's connection speed was its major selling point. Now, with the introduction of WireGuard across its competitors, Hotspot Shield has remained much the same while others have taken off. Still, its delivery of 400-410Mbps is both stable and sufficient for most online activities.

Hotspot Shield's desktop apps are simple and user-friendly, and while they don't offer the same configuration as some rivals, they're a great choice for those who just want to get protected simply.

However, the mobile apps aren't as great, and the iOS offering in particular lacks some useful features, but if all you need is quick anonymity, they're simple to use, stable and get the job done.  

As for customer support, it’s pretty much what you’d expect to get: live chat, email, and a knowledgebase. While we weren’t overly impressed by all written guides, unless you need a step-by-step walkthrough of something technical, that shouldn’t be an issue.

All in all, Hotspot Shield is a fast, powerful VPN that's great for newbies and veterans alike, and while it lacks the configuration of some of its competitors, that won't matter to most users.

Hotspot Shield review - homepage

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Latest updates

Since many of Hotspot Shield’s colleagues are currently living in Ukraine during the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis, its team decided to support its teammates and the people of Ukraine by supplying free access to their highest, premium tier of service both to new and current users in Ukraine.

In addition to free subscriptions, these users will also get access to over 100 virtual locations and the fastest connection speeds, both of which are crucial for fast streaming and other forms of sharing information.

Besides, the latest update about Hotspot Shield broke the news regarding its merging with Aura, a “mission-driven” technology company based in Boston (Massachusetts, the USA). The company hasn’t changed hands since, and fortunately so.

Hotspot Shield on paper

Number of servers: 1,800+
Number of countries: 80+
Platforms supported: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, TV, routers
Simultaneous connections: 5
Split tunneling: Yes
Kill switch: Yes
Supported protocols: Catapult Hydra, IKEv2, OpenVPN (routers only)
Country of registration: USA
Support: 24/7 live chat, email, knowledgebase

Hotspot Shield review - pricing

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Hotspot Shield price: how much is it, and is there an Hotspot Shield free trial?

If you’re working on a small budget, you’ll be glad to hear that Hotspot Shield offers a surprisingly solid VPN at no charge at all. However, you’ll be limited to 500MB of data transferred per day, connection speeds of 2Mbps, and one location only (in the USA).

Other things you won’t get with a free plan are access to one-on-one customer support and the ability to use Shield on routers, smart TVs, or Linux. However, to be fair, in comparison to most other free services on the market, these restrictions are relatively mild.

If you’re looking for something with more power, Hotspot Shield’s paid VPN starts at $9.99 when billed monthly, and drops to $7.99 on the annual plan. That’s a bit steep in comparison with other cheap VPN services, but it’s a reasonable deal if you’re planning to use an antivirus, call blocker, or password manager. However, if you’re here for the VPN, most vendors charge around $3-5 for annual products and even less for long-term contracts.

Sign up through Tom's Guide, though, and you'll be able to take advantage of an exclusive deal not available anywhere else - just $2.49 a month on a 3-year plan. It's quite a commitment, but a very tempting price.

Since Hotspot Shield offers a 7-day trial across all platforms, be sure to try it out before making any commitments.

Unfortunately, payment via Bitcoin isn’t an option, but you can choose between all major credit cards and PayPal. Also, if anything goes wrong later you're protected by an unusually generous 45-day money-back guarantee.

How private is Hotspot Shield?

Unlike most other VPNs, Hotspot Shield uses its own proprietary, closed-source protocol called Catapult Hydra, which makes it hard for outside experts to check whether it provides proper privacy and fix any potential problems. Although Hydra should speed everything up, it’s no surprise that some users prefer the inherent security of an open-source platform that’s open for inspection.

On the other hand, the Hydra protocol is used by Bitdefender, McAfee, Telefonica, and other respectable brands, which goes a long way to demonstrate its reputation in the cybersecurity community.

Also, although Hotspot Shield doesn’t go into deep detail, it does explain a bit of how Hydra works. Apparently, it's based on TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.2, with AES-256 and 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). While this isn’t exactly cutting-edge technology, it should keep you on the safe side.

Besides this, Hotspot Shield offers additional security features such as an automatic kill switch which makes sure that your IP address won’t become accessible in the event of a VPN error. Even closing the client’s local TCP connections wasn’t enough to get around the kill switch or give rise to other issues. Plus, Hotspot Shield won’t leak your IP address while switching locations in-app, which is a surprisingly common issue.

Hotspot Shield review - app in use

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On the downside, Hotspot Shield can’t provide the same peace of mind when it comes to logging. Its privacy policy explains that Hotspot Shield doesn’t log “IP addresses, device identifiers, or any other form of identifier in combination with your VPN browsing activity.” In other words, those data points may be logged, just not in conjunction with your individual usage.

If you continue to scroll down, you’ll find out the specific types of information that may end up being recorded and stored including your unique device hash, your IP address, your approximate location, the length of your sessions, the bandwidth you’ve used, and the domains you’ve accessed.

Although Hotspot Shield claims that this data is anonymized and shouldn’t be traceable back to you, this hasn’t been tested in an independent audit, so we’ll have to take Hotspot Shield's word for it.

How fast is Hotspot Shield?

Since Hydra entered the picture, Hotspot Shield has maintained the top spot as one of the fastest VPN providers. While it still offers consistent and reliable speeds, however, other VPN services have been busy integrating WireGuard into their apps, resulting in lightning-fast speeds Hotspot Shield now simply can't match.

Our process uses several different speed testing sites and services, and we’ve performed tests at different times of the day to ensure a good spread and to confirm the consistency of a VPN’s connections.

Tests from a UK data center showed speeds between 300-310Mbps, which is roughly the same as the 280-300Mbps we saw last time around, promising a stable speed performance. After switching to IKEv2, speeds fell to 200-210Mbps, which is a negligible drop in speed. 

Last year these results would be seen as a superior, best-in-class performance, but now they seem painfully average in comparison with the competition. We're seeing numbers from almost all providers reaching at least 500Mbps (with ExpressVPN it’s 570-580Mbps) and some VPN providers (such as IPVanish, NordVPN, and ProtonVPN) are pushing well over the 700Mbps mark.

Nevertheless, these speeds are still nothing to be sniffed at and will offer you the sort of performance needed for most tasks - and in practice, if you're not running an internet connection that's over 300Mbps, you won't really notice any slow-down at all.

Hotspot Shield review - streaming

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How good is Hotspot Shield for streaming?

In the past few years, streaming services have started to crack down on VPN connections and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to track down ones that can consistently circumvent region controls.

Fortunately, Hotspot Shield has rallied from this crackdown, and currently performs well as a Netflix VPN. This is a big compliment since Netflix is one of the most difficult streaming sites to access with a VPN, and Hotspot Shield unblocked the USA content for us like it's nothing.

What’s more, we were also able to access overseas YouTube content, as well as the more tricky sites with sturdier anti-VPN measures like BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.

It's also worth noting that Hotspot Shield's Fire Stick VPN app was remarkably good at unblocking different regions on the Amazon device.

How good is Hotspot Shield for torrenting?

While Hotspot Shield’s official site doesn’t say much about torrenting (and understandably so), all its servers support P2P connections. This applies to the Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows clients, making Hotspot Shield a solid torrenting VPN for most users.

If you’re new to torrenting, Hotspot Shield’s knowledgebase offers plenty of information on the benefits of VPNs for torrenting and a few strategies that can help you stay safe while downloading torrents. However, if you simply type in the keywords “P2P” or “torrent” you won't find anything at all, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find everything you need to know about torrents in the Resources and Blog section.

Since there are no restrictions or bandwidth limits, you can use Hotspot Shield for torrenting like you would use it for any other kind of internet activity.

Besides providing open access to torrents, Hotspot Shield’s Smart VPN feature makes it easy to split-tunnel your activity or send only certain types of traffic through the VPN.

Hotspot Shield review - app interface

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How good are Hotspot Shield’s desktop apps?

The Hotspot Shield Windows 10 VPN and Mac VPN clients benefit from an intuitive, accessible interface, making them more beginner-friendly than most VPNs we’ve tried out so far. As soon as we clicked “On” we were able to connect to a server within 4-5 seconds, which is one of the speediest connections we’ve seen from a VPN.

Once the connection is made, you’ll be able to see your server’s location, along with your latency, load times, IP address, data usage, local network, and transfer speeds. The client’s presentation will allow you to check your connection status without being bombarded by unwanted information.

Hotspot Shield’s settings section offers a variety of options that will satisfy more tech-savvy users in a style that avoids overwhelming those with less technical know-how. For instance, you can configure Hotspot Shield to connect automatically to public networks or exclude certain types of traffic that you don’t want to go through the VPN.

Hotspot Shield also supports a series of keyboard shortcuts for simple and swift access to specific tools. For instance, you can use the “Ctrl+Shift+C” command to connect or disconnect from the VPN, while the “Ctrl+Shift+V” displays and enables choosing a virtual location.

How good are Hotspot Shield’s mobile apps?

The Hotspot Shield Android app offers a decent variety of features, but its iOS counterpart is far too limited. The Android app can automatically choose the optimal location and has quick access links to easily choose streaming or gaming servers. It also sports a link to servers optimized for “Social networks and Chat”, which is something we didn't see on the Windows app.

Also, while Android VPN users can enable a kill switch to protect their traffic, you can’t do that with the iOS version. The iOS app itself looks well-designed and is simple to use, but it's also so basic that we started wondering whether the developers gave up halfway and left the app unfinished. It doesn’t offer automatic connections nor automatic startup when you turn on your device, and there isn’t even an easy way to connect to the server that’s suited for your location.

To top it all off, the app hasn’t received many recent updates, so it’s hard to tell whether it will gain any functionality in the foreseeable future. There are far more comprehensive options to consider if you’re looking for an iPhone VPN.

However, these apps aren't bad - not by a long shot. They provide everything you’ll need to connect to the internet safely, and users with simpler needs shouldn’t even notice the lack of advanced settings in the iOS version. If you want a VPN that offers more support for smartphones and tablets, you can check out our guide to the best mobile VPN.

What customer support does Hotspot Shield offer?

If you run into any difficulties with Hotspot Shield, the various apps can give you instant access to advice on common issues and concerns by embedding documents from Hotspot Shield’s support section. However, if your issue is a bit more complicated you can visit Hotspot Shield’s comprehensive knowledgebase for more in-depth guides. 

As far as we can see, most of these guides are simple to understand and follow, and often equipped with suitable screenshots. Unfortunately, they aren’t as well organized as they could be.

If you get stuck with self-services or simply want more direct support, you can get in touch with Hotspot Shield’s support staff via email and live chat. After trying out our luck with live chat, we got connected with an agent in less than a minute, which is pretty fast.

While there’s always room for improvement when it comes to the quality of customer support (Hotspot Shield's weakest link being self-services), most users should find the help they need swiftly enough, and the live chat support was excellent.

Hotspot Shield: Final verdict

Although we wouldn’t go so far as to state that Hotspot Shield is the perfect VPN, it’s a pretty solid choice and it seems to be on the right track. It offers decent connection speeds, a sizable server network, a simple, user-friendly interface, some interesting features, superb live chat support, and a completely free plan. Combine all this with an affordable longer subscription (opens in new tab) and it'll be a great choice for many users.

Hotspot Shield is great for streaming and safely downloading torrents, but privacy purists may not be satisfied with the slight issues we found with the provider's logging policy. If that's you, we recommend a service like ExpressVPN (opens in new tab)