VPN Review: Hotspot Shield
From Panama to the British Virgin Islands to Malaysia, plenty of VPN services are located in exotic or tropical countries, linked only by the protection they offer users from US or European law. In many cases, these 'headquarters' consist of little more than a PO box. Who thought that a mailbox could offer so much protection! Hotspot Shield's PO box is in Silicon Valley, California's tech Mecca, and the heart of global surveillance-capitalism. Our test reveals whether Hotspot's 'shield' can protect you from the attacks of today's data-crazed Internet landscape.
What is Hotspot Shield?
Hotspot Shield is a US-based VPN produced by AnchorFree. The first desktop apps were launched for Windows and Mac in 2008, with iOS and Android apps as well as a browser extension for Google Chrome added later on. Today, Hotspot Shield is one of the most well-known and used VPN providers on the market.
Pros and Cons
Missing a lot of basic functions (such as quick connect and split tunneling)
Installation and Features
After installing Hotspot Shield's desktop client, the only thing standing between you and surfing anonymously is log in, using your premium account's registration data. It took us less than a minute to download, install, and establish the first VPN connection using the client. A premium account allows for up to five devices to be connected to five simultaneous connections.
Hotspot Shield's desktop client is simple, yet elegant, not appearing to offer anything more than a large on/off button. A secure VPN connection can be established with a mouse click, however, not to the fastest available server, but rather from among the list of servers in operation at the time. This selection is shown on a small globe in the interface's upper right, and organized alphabetically (whereby the US and UK are given special positions at the top of the list).
As soon as you've established a VPN connection, a small world map with the server's location, your VPN's IP, and information about the upload and download speeds appears in the top right corner of the screen.
In some aspects, Hotspot Shield's desktop client is so minimalist that additional functions would do it some good. The lack of a 'quick connect' feature for easily connecting raises more questions than it answers, while the server list could use more options. Favorites can't be marked, and no information about servers is provided prior to connecting. Server categories, like those for P2P, or streaming are also not offered.
Under settings, the typical functions for a VPN, such as a kill switch and IP leak protection, are available. You can also configure Hotspot Shield to automatically connect to a VPN server when using insecure networks, such as hotspots.
Hotspot Shield fulfills all of the basic expectations, albeit without trying to wow its users with features. In particular, the absence of split tunneling, which allows you to designate which apps use the VPN connection you've establish and which don't, is lamentable. As Hotspot Shield uses proprietary protocols, users also have no choice in how they are protected, but more on that below.
The mobile version of Hotspot Shield is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the desktop client, with only a few exceptions. Immediately apparent is that the mobile app has a "quick connect" feature (the "optimal" connection mode). This doesn't show the server's location, however. Similarly to the desktop client, you can also select a server based on its general location.
Under options, the possibility also exists to automatically establish a VPN connection when using certain types of networks. The mobile app lacks a kill switch, but, as modern Android devices are automatically integrated with this function, this isn't really a big issue.
The mobile version also has a few extra features: When you are connected to a VPN, you can activate battery-saver mode, check your data usage, or remove unnecessary data from your phone. How this last function fits into the rest of Hotspot Shield's suite isn't particularly clear to us, but perhaps it's useful to some customers.
Simplicity is Hotspot Shield's priority. Since many VPNs clutter their clients and apps with extra features, making operation by regular users complicated, the company's focus on directness and ease of use is praiseworthy. A number of functions, such as "quick connect" or split tunneling are missing, while more information about servers prior to connecting would do the provider a world of good.
Score: 3.7 / 5
With 3,200 servers spread across 70 countries, Hotspot Shield has a relatively strong network, even compared to the industry's heavyweights, like NordVPN or ExpressVPN. Nevertheless, it is still outside of the highest echelon.
Most of Hotspot Shield's servers are located in Europe and North America. For the US, the option exists to select servers based on their exact location (city). Hotspot Shield is also well-represented In Asia, as well as Central and South America. As in so many cases, only Africa seems to have been overlooked by the developers. Overall, Hotspot Shield's server coverage is good.
Score: 4 / 5
We were unable to evaluate Hotspot Shield using our standard testing protocol since the provider does not offer any OpenVPN servers. Instead, we tested the program manually: Without a VPN connection, our download and upload speeds were 45 MB/s and 11 MB/s, respectively; with a VPN, 39 MB/s and 10 MB/s, respectively.
This means that Hotspot Shield uses 87.5% of the existing bandwidth, performing very well.
Score: 4.3 / 5
Security and Privacy
Because Hotspot Shield uses its own, proprietary protocol, its users are even more dependent upon the company's guarantees of security and anonymity than usual. In the realm of data privacy, however, you'd have to be born yesterday to blindly trust a Silicon Valley-based tech company. For example, we noticed differences in how encryption is described on the company's German and English-language pages:
(In German) "When using Hotspot Shield, leading security solutions, such as 256-bit AES data encryption are used, to ensure that your information is protected, and that even when using public WLAN hotspots, you can't be observed or followed."
(In English) "For security, Hotspot Shield VPN encrypts all your traffic using TLS 1.2 with perfect forward secrecy (ECDHE), 128-bit AES data encryption, and HMAC message authentication."
On paper, encryption seems to be air tight, however, since the company's "Catapult Hydra" protocol is not open-source, questions about its exact functionality and mode of encryption are raised. Tech and data security specialists from websites like ProPrivacy remain skeptical about Hotspot Shield's commitment to user privacy.
A further area for concern are the provider's logging practices.
Score: 1 / 5
The Hotspot Shield client has an integrated help center, which as of the time of writing, was only available in English. It is convenient to be able to directly contact support through the app, at least in theory. While support ticket forwarding functioned perfectly, our attempts to use the chat feature were unsuccessful.
Hotspot Shield guarantees a 24/7 live chat, however, we weren't able to get past the loading screen during testing. Our email to customer support about the issue could also not help solve the problem, even though it was received rather promptly (within two hours).
Score: 3.3 / 5
Hotspot Shield's monthly subscription price is one of the more expensive among the VPNs that we evaluated. As usual, however, the prices decline in relation to the length of the contract that is agreed upon. The yearly and three-year packages are more affordable, however, by no means contenders for the cheapest VPN provider.
A current price list can be found below:
|Free||3-year plan||1-year plan|
|Price per month||$0.00||$2.99||$7.99|
|Contract period (months)||0||36||12|
|Data volume||15 GB||unlimited||unlimited|
|Number of devices||1||5||5|
|Number of servers||2,500||2,500||2,500|
|Number of countries||1||25||25|
Hotspot Shield also has a free version, which offers 500 MB of data volume (daily), albeit limited to a single server location, the US.
In terms of functionality, Hotspot Shield doesn't really have many shortcoming, offering good speeds, a developed server network, and well-designed apps. Unfortunately, we've been unable to definitively disprove any of the privacy allegations about the provider: Its opaque, proprietary protocol is dubious, as are the company's logging guidelines. For data privacy enthusiasts, there are simply way too holes in Hotspot's 'shield', particularly in comparison to other providers. Those who value performance or usability more than privacy, will, on the other hand, be very satisfied with Hotspot Shield.
Based on the customer reviews that we evaluated, the service was only deemed to be satisfactory, which can be traced, in large part, to the numerous negative ratings on Trustpilot. Many users criticized the company's pricing policy, accusing them of dishonesty owing to the trial subscription's automatic conversion into a paid subscription, and the limited features of the free version.