Hotspot Shield review: A VPN that gives you all the bang for your buck unless you’re on Linux

Ali Qamar Last updated: June 1, 2022
Disclosure

Hotspot Shield VPN boasts simplicity, a large pool of servers, but its privacy promise is complicated

Choosing the best VPN for you is not an easy task, and we know it. The market is overcrowded with options that look too similar, so you can’t really tell the difference between services until you take a look under the hood so that you can see and understand the differences. That takes a bit of expertise because if you do look under the hood and see nothing but a bunch of twisted irons instead of a working machine that makes sense and you can understand, then the experience will not be beneficial. Not to worry. It’s my job to tell you what’s under the hood, how it works, and why it’s good for you.

I will tell you everything you need to know about this VPN in this Hotspot Shield review. First, I will show you in detail its features, performance specs, free version, subscription packages, customer support, and the VPN app. Then I will show you how it compares to NordVPN, which is one of the industry’s top leaders. Last but not least, I will also show you how it compares to the industry’s averages so you can see if this is the VPN that suits your needs.

I must confess to you that I am excited about reviewing Hotspot Shield at last. Of course, not every VPN network has more than 3,200 servers in over 70 countries, so as I was preparing this review, I was looking forward to diving into the network. But enough of my chatter! So roll up your sleeves, and let’s dig in!

Hotspot Shield’s general panorama

This will be a Hotspot Shield extensive review. I will analyze all its mean features in detail, but we start by looking at the big picture with a quick overview.

I will start with the good news. The speeds are astonishing for both download and upload. This is one of the rare good VPNs that offer a free option whose only limitation is the daily traffic, which has a quota of 500 MB daily.

A question that will probably be nagging at your mind is, does HotSpot Shield work with Netflix? I’m pleased to tell you that it does, and it also unblocks other video streaming platforms.

Now for the other side of the coin. Your account will get you five simultaneous connections only, which is not necessarily enough for every user. In addition, the service is based in the US, a member of all the Eyes alliances – Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes. This is not so good from the privacy perspective because the US enforces strict data retention laws, and, as Edward Snowden has shown us, the country doesn’t think much of its citizens’ rights to privacy. The last thing I am not crazy about is the customer service. It includes no phone or live chat, so if you need help, you must submit a ticket and wait for an answer. That’s a slow procedure most of the time.

Hotspot Shield VPN’s background

The company called Anchorfree was founded in 2005, then it changed its name to Pango. It’s Hotspot Shield’s parent company.

As we write this, the VPN’s network comprises more than 3,200 servers scattered around 70 countries globally. Very few VPNs in the market boast such a high number of nodes in their networks. In the information age, size isn’t everything, of course. But that vast number of servers almost guarantees that you can connect to one of them physically close to you. And this does matter because the distance to the server affects your internet speeds, especially if the server’s bandwidth is not great.

The service is headquartered in Redwood City, California, in the USA.

Let me guess your thoughts. Did I not say the USA? The country with a notoriously intrusive government when it comes to surveillance? The one with those stringent data retention laws? Isn’t that a rather unfriendly location for a VPN supposed to keep me hidden, safe, and anonymous? Yes, it’s all true.

I prefer VPNs based in countries like Panama, Switzerland, Seychelles, and other jurisdictions whose stance on privacy is to support it instead of impairing it. However, this one is based in California, and that detail could be worth ignoring if the service is excellent. You’ll be the judge.

But Hotspot Shield is aware that its geolocation can be a source of hesitance for prospective users. So it’s releasing transparency reports every year since 2017 to reassure its users about its commitment to their privacy. The 2019 transparency report shows 56 requests for user data, of which none was honored. That should improve our peace of mind about the service’s location.

Data logging policy

If you think that you are safer on the internet just because you use any VPN, think twice. Take most of the free VPN services available. They charge you nothing, they hide your IP address, and they encrypt your traffic. So far, so good, right? Not really. Consider that whenever something is free in the digital world, it’s because the actual product is you.

The free VPNs that some people naively use still have to pay for bandwidth, electricity, and all the expenses they incur. And how do they do that? They collect your data, and they sell it to data-mining companies who know how to interpret it and squeeze profits out of it. So using a free VPN did not make you any safer. In reality, it left you more exposed to third parties.

That’s why if you’re going to use a VPN, it has to be a paid service or the free version of a serious service that keeps the minimal possible amount of data about its users. The best VPNs keep no data, but at the bare minimum, they need to keep the service going – usernames, passwords, payment information. So the crucial questions in this regard would be: is Hotspot Shield for free? Is Hotspot Shield safe? The answers are: it depends, and yes, for the most part.

Hotspot Shield is not a free service in the usual sense, but it offers an option free of charge as long as you don’t use more than half a GB daily. The safety question remains open, and it has nothing to do with the price but with the data, the network collects, as explained earlier.

It all comes down to the data the network collects and keeps. Hotspot Shield says it has a “no-logging policy.” That is the standard policy in the world’s best VPNs. Pango, the parent corporation, states that the network “does not record your VPN browsing activities in any way that can be associated back to you.”

Please notice something. It says it keeps no record of your browsing activities. It does not say it doesn’t hold a record of other types of data. So what is the data they do log? According to the company itself, they record the following information:

  • Communication details (email, phone, chat)
  • ID verification details
  • Payment information
  • Device hashes
  • Geolocation
  • Domains accessed by users – anonymized, theoretically untraceable to individuals
  • Bandwidth use
  • Length of VPN sessions

If you use the Android free version of the service, it will also provide your geolocation to the company’s sponsors.

Hotspot Shield keeps more information about your activities than the average VPN service, which is not a good thing. The metadata they log looks harmless, but other excellent services, like ExpressVPN, do not collect any metadata at all.

If you are using the free version, you’re getting a better service than other free services for sure, and you are giving up much fewer data to the provider than you would to other free VPNs. If, on the other hand, you are paying a fee, maybe the metadata collection is not to your liking unless the network’s performance is outstanding. But is it? We’ll see it a little later in this review.

Kill switch

A VPN creates a digital tunnel for your traffic to flow. Your data remains safe as long as it’s within that tunnel. But, suppose, for any reason, the tunnel breaks down. In that case, your information starts to leak to the internet, and your safety is no longer guaranteed. That’s why there is a thing called a “kill switch.”

The Kill Switch is a computer program that is aware at all times of your VPN connection. If it breaks down, the switch automatically disconnects you from the internet or kills online applications. Thus, it prevents your information from leaking into the internet unencrypted or for your private IP address to be shown.

Hotspot Shield has a kill switch, but not on all platforms. It’s on offer only if you’re on Windows, iOS, macOS, or Android.

Split tunneling

Split tunneling is a feature that enables you to assign a portion of your traffic to flow through the VPN while the rest goes out in the usual way. For example, let’s say that you live in the US and you want to see a Netflix show while you do other work on the same computer or another device. In this case, it would be helpful for you to have your Netflix traffic go unencrypted and the rest of your data go through the VPN. You would save time and bandwidth in that way, and steaming speeds would be higher.

Suppose the scenario I described in the prior paragraph sounds very good to you. In that case, Hotspot Shield is probably not the best option for you. It has no split tunneling, so if that’s a feature you want, you’ll have to look for it in another VPN.

Does Hotspot Shield work with Netflix?

The answer, as it happens with many features in Hotspot Shield, is it depends.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a free service available, and it won’t be handy if you want to see Netflix. First, you have a 500 MB daily quota, so you would run out of data before an hour or so if you could see any streams. Second, you’ll probably run into a paywall if you try to use Netflix with the free service.

If, on the other hand, you pay for a Hotspot Shield Premium subscription, Netflix will work just fine, and you will also be able to use torrents without any problems.

Encryption

Hotspot shield encryption

The standard encryption in Hotspot Shield is AES 128, but it also supports AES 256. The latter option is the industry standard, and it’s unbreakable with the currently available cryptographic and computing resources. Why is it that Hotspot chose the weaker, 128-bit standard as a default is anybody’s guess. Even the best supercomputers in the world can’t hack it in a period shorter than the universe’s age.

But even the 128-bit version can’t be cracked, so your data will stay safe regardless of the option you choose. So rest assured that your ISP will never know how much GB of your traffic is spent in downloading “The Bachelorette” episodes.

Protocols available in Hotspot Shield

Maybe you already know that all the information that bounces around the internet is divided into packets. So your documents, movies, music, webpages, and other data have to be split into smaller pieces (the packages), then sent across the network, collected on the other side, and put back together in the correct order. Those pieces of software perform this task we know as Internet protocols.

Protocols decide what the path that a given stream of packages will follow to reach their destination is. It’s not just about choosing the shorter route. You could have a fast and reliable path to the node in the network you want your packages to reach that is vulnerable to third-party surveillance, for instance. At the same time, another way, slower, more prolonged, could help ensure that nobody notices your traffic. So it’s all about priorities and trade-offs. When privacy is at stake, you need to sacrifice some of your performance, generally. That’s what protocols do for you and your privacy.

Internet protocols come in two flavors: open-source and proprietary.

Open-source protocols are the industry standard because they are backed up by an active community that keeps them tested, audited, and updated. Because everybody can use these types of protocols, everything about them is transparent. We know how they work, and several extensive audits and tests certify their high quality from both the commercial and the academic world. This category includes OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IKEv2, SSTP, and many others.

Proprietary protocols are the opposite thing. A private organization develops them, the code is secret, and we don’t know what they do because they’re essentially a digital black box. No academic or expert group can test them or audit them because they’re not free to use them. So when it comes to proprietary software, you have to trust the developer’s word because nobody else can vouch for it.

Open-source protocols are the rule in the VPN market because the thorough testing they face ensures reliability, and they cost nothing. Hotspot Shield, unfortunately, is against the industry standard on this issue. Instead, it has its own proprietary protocol, Catapult Hydra. No OpenVPN nor SSTP for this service. The company says that options such as IPsec or OpenVPN have latency and performance challenges that render them inferior to Catapult Hydra. Their protocol, they say, allows a faster connection to the VPN server, the economy of data within the tunnel, and transfer speeds 2.4 faster than OpenVPN’s in long-distance connections.

I am no fan of proprietary software when it comes to encryption and online privacy. While Catapult Hydra is similar to OpenVPN because it’s based on the Open SSL library, which is similar, I would always trust OpenVPN more. The reason is that a small army of security experts is always working hard to test OpenVPN. That can’t be done with Catapult Hydra because you can’t test it, and you can’t see inside it.

Hotspot Shield free version

Free VPNs are almost always bad news for the reasons we explained earlier in this review.

The Hotspot Shield free version seems to be an exception to that rule because it’s part of a paid service, and the only ad support is for the Android app.

The free option is free for several reasons. It has no kill switch, multihop, or Netflix access, allowing for only one VPN connection. And you can’t use more than 500GB in traffic.

So the free service in this VPN doesn’t collect your online data as most other free VPNs do. That’s excellent. But it also doesn’t give you much service. That’s not so great.

Let me be clear about one thing. Suppose you’re serious about your online safety, privacy, and anonymity. In that case, you must always choose to pay for a premium VPN service. There’s no way around this. Unfortunately, I still can’t tell you if Hotspot Shield is the service you should buy, but we’ll find that out before this review’s end. 

The main point to convey is that free VPNs are not a serious option if you care about your privacy. That being said, there is a use case for Hotspot Shield free service. Suppose that you don’t use Android, for a start – that’s the platform supported with advertising. Then suppose that you don’t care about Netflix and need a VPN only now and then, and your transfer volume is small.

If that is you, then this option will serve you well. Just remember about Android, the Hotspot Shield VPN free download. Any service supported by advertising is probably observing your online behavior to offer you bait to click. So avoid it at all costs.

I am putting Hotspot Shield to the test

I need to know if Catapult Hydra’s speeds are as good as advertised, and I also want to find out if Hotspot Shield is safe in terms of information leaks. That means testing Hotspot Shield Premium because the 500MB limit in the free version limits the results I could find.

Testing speeds

Speed matters to me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Having privacy is excellent, and I know that you have to pay for it by sacrificing a little performance. But a little only. Suppose the speeds are reduced so much that my online experience is ruined. In that case, the privacy that the service gives me is too expensive, especially since many good VPNs can provide me both things simultaneously.

Before I share my findings with you, please consider that speed results in this review (in any review) need to be taken with a grain of salt. Internet connections are complicated things in which many factors affect the final result. Your ISP, the zone you live in, the weather, your modem, your computer, the operating system you prefer. Each of those things (and many others) have their influence, so the results I found are but a rough guide, not immutable truths to be quoted dogmatically.

That being said, let me show you what I found testing the Premium service speeds in a Mac and a Windows system – my ISP advertises my internet transfer rates at 100Mbps.

Download speed tests
Mac
Without VPN78Mbps
With VPN58Mbps
Windows
Without VPN85Mbps
With VPN79Mbps

So, as you can see, download speeds performed pretty well on both systems. Windows did slightly better with a 7.05% loss (25.6% loss on the Mac). It was nothing I noticed at all unless some of my largest torrents were active.

Upload speed tests
Mac
Without VPN29Mbps
With VPN28Mbps
Windows
Without VPN40Mbps
With VPN22Mbps

Things look different for upload speeds. Again, Mac performed way better than Windows here, with a minuscule 0.2% loss in speed compared to 26% on Windows.

Ping/Latency time
Mac
Without VPN9ms
With VPN63ms
Windows
Without VPN11ms
With VPN65ms

Ping or latency speeds, on the other hand, are disappointing. They go up by 540% in Windows or 430% in Mac.

So, in a nutshell, the latency for Hotspot Shield is terrible. But download and upload speeds are up there with among the best ones in the market.


DNS leak test

A DNS leak happens when your private IP address becomes available to the world because a DNS query – a DNS query is a connection your system establishes to a DNS server so that it can translate a domain name (say google.com) into an IP address (8.8.8.8, in this case). This type of leak can happen when a VPN is configured manually, if the bad guys can alter your router, or if you chose a manual DNS setup, so it’s not necessarily a problem with the VPN itself. Either way, if the problem is there, it must be diagnosed and addressed.

Every test I did in this area returned the IP address of the server I was using, so you’ll be pleased to know that Hotspot Shield passes the DNS leak test.


WebRTC leak test

WebRTC is a set of technologies that allow two browsers on the internet to find each other and establish a connection for real-time audiovisual communication. It’s every bit as cool as it sounds, but it has a problem. The WebRTC paradigm demands each browser to know the other one’s precise IP address to create a connection. This is problematic for VPN users since the whole point in using one is to hide your private IP from the internet. However, a premium VPN service will allow you to both use WebRTC technologies and hide your IP address, tricky though it is.

The good news, again, is that Hotspot Shield VPN passed the test with flying colors.

So the verdict is in regarding security. Hotspot Shield is a secure VPN in terms of data leaks.


Hotspot Shield subscription plans

1 Month1 Year2 Years
Monthly price (in USD)12.997.996.99
Yearly price (in USD)155.8895.8883.88
Your savings (in USD)0.00%38.00%46.00%

So now you know the technical specifications that matter most in any VPN and how good Hotspot Shield is in those terms. So the next logical question is, how expensive is this service?

You have three plans to choose from if you want to join Hotspot Shield: one month, six months, or twelve months. Of course, the longer you commit to the service, the lower your cost will be, so, effectively, you can pay anywhere from 6.99 to 12.99 USD monthly. And there’s a 45-day money-back guarantee available.

Your fee will buy you an unlimited number of server switches, five concurrent connections, device management for the computers, tablets, or smartphones you want to use with Hotspot Shield at any time.

So if you want to enjoy all the advantages Hotspot Shield has to offer, you must be willing to pay 13 USD every month. This is a slightly high price considering that the average premium service in the VPN market costs 10 USD for similar services as those in this provider – some like ExpressVPN and NordVPN are even better. But the cost could be worth it for those users who find that this is the VPN that suits their internet use perfectly.

Manual configurations and browser extensions

If you are a Linux user who needs instructions on setting up manually Hotspot Shield as your VPN, you’re out of luck. There are Hotspot Shield free downloads of applications for the supported platforms and operating systems (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS), and Linux is not among them. And there are no instructions available for manual configuration either.

There is a browser extension available for Google Chrome.

Customer support

Since this is a VPN in which the apps do most of the work, you probably won’t need any customer support from the company. But if you do, here’s how to proceed.

The website boasts 24/7 customer support, but that is a questionable claim.

The only possible way to get help is to use the ticket submission system, which means that you can’t talk or chat with any living human being.

The lack of phone support is standard in the industry. But the contrary holds for live chat support, so it’s easy to miss that feature because having a ticket taken care of can take days. In contrast, a live chat session can put you back on track in just a few minutes.

Customer reviews for customer service are excellent, nevertheless. For example, four-fifths of the customers gave them five stars on Trustpilot.

The Hotspot Shield app

Hotspot Shield compatibility

There are Hotspot Shield free downloads for the apps that support four operating systems: Android, Mac, iOS, and Windows.

Both of the app stores have the app rated above four stars.

The Google Chrome browser extension is highly rated too.

Does Hotspot Shield VPN work in China?

A question about VPN services that everybody wants to be answered is the one that heads this section. However, VPNs are illegal in China, so you can’t expect any provider to advertise how their product can help the citizens and visitors of one of the world’s most dictatorial countries to break the law of the land.

But does it work in China, anyway? The jury is still out on that. Hotspot Shield users report conflicting results on this issue. While some of them claim total success bypassing the Great Firewall of China, some others say they can’t use the service at all.

If this is an issue close to your heart (or your wallet), then you need to choose a VPN with a proven successful track record in evading the Chinese forces of repression.

Hotspot Shield vs. NordVPN

NordVPN is one of the industry’s big names. So it’s a good thing for Hotspot Shield that both services are pretty similar.

NordVPN has even more servers (5,200) than Hotspot Shield (3,200+), so it wins out.

NordVPN is also better in that it’s headquartered in Panama. It’s a country outside the world’s intelligence alliances with very privacy-friendly legislation, not subject to international surveillance or data retention laws. Hotspot Shield’s home country, the US, is the opposite in this regard, so NordVPN wins out again.

And now for the logging policies. I described earlier in detail the types of data that Hotspot Shield admittedly logs. NordVPN’s policy is not to log any of those things, except for the data that could tie your web traffic back to you. So yet another point for NordVPN.

Hotspot Shield assigns you dynamic IP addresses that change with every session. At the same time, NordVPN gives you the same shared IP address every time you use it – you can always pay extra to have the same dedicated IP address.

That difference is not so crucial, but it shows NordVPN’s superior versatility and technical expertise. But the IP rotation system in Hotspot improves safety. On the other hand, it makes it harder for third-party observers to keep their eyes on you. So this is a case in which a more uncomplicated, not-so-advanced solution renders better practical results.

So those are the differences. Next, let’s see how both services resemble each other.

Both VPNs have kill switches, but not on Linux if you’re on Hotspot Shield. There’s no split tunneling in either. Both work with Netflix and torrents. Both services are effective against WebRTC and DNS leaks. The one thing that Hotspot Shield did better for me than NordVPN was speed performance.

Comparing both VPNs leads to an apparent conclusion. NordVPN is better in every aspect but one: speed; otherwise, the only meaningful difference between both is respect for your privacy that you can expect from each.

So I find myself in a rare situation while writing my honest review about Hotspot Shield VPN in that it’s possible to choose between this service and other premium ones based on just two criteria. But, unfortunately, things are rarely that simple.

If what you need or want the most is high speeds, Hotspot Shield is the VPN for you. If, on the other hand, privacy is your top priority, then NordVPN is the better choice.

Hotspot Shield VPN: The verdict

At last, you know everything you need to know about the features in Hotspot Shield Premium and Free VPN, the pricing plans, and how the service compares with one of the world’s top VPNs.

So what’s the final word on this VPN?

My objections to this VPN are not practical. I do not particularly appreciate that it logs more metadata than it needs to keep the network going; the Californian geolocation makes the company vulnerable to governmental interference, even if their transparency policy intends to compensate for that. Also, its use of proprietary software as the service’s cornerstone doesn’t make me happy either because it lacks the guarantees that open-source technologies have.

However, the company says that it prefers its own proprietary platform because it’s faster than OpenVPN and the other open-source protocols. Given the results I found while testing the network’s speeds and later comparing it to NordVPN’s speeds, I can’t argue with that.

The monthly fee of premium version is about three dollars higher than the market’s average, but so is the overall performance you get from it.

If the membership is relatively expensive, the truth is that you get a lot from it:

  • Higher speeds than the average
  • Netflix and torrents functionality
  • Security against DNS and WebRTC leaks
  • Thousands of servers worldwide
  • Good friendly apps for almost every operating system
  • Simplicity of use

So I can recommend subscribing to Hotspot Shield, except if you fit into one of two cases:

  1. The jurisdictional issue is crucial to you for whatever reason, so getting a US-based VPN is not a thing for you.
  2. You are a primarily Linux user. In this case, the service offers little or no support for your needs. You will need to configure everything manually (no app for Linux), and there’s no relevant information available to help you.