HotSpot Shield Review
Hotspot Shield is a fast, light, average Joe’s VPN that doesn’t want to spend all its time worrying you with things like encryption protocols or city-specific server locations.
This is a VPN that’s up and off to the races before most of the competition is even out of bed, but does that make a complete VPN experience that every kind of user can get behind?
Read on in our Hotspot Shield VPN review to find out!
Checkout and Install Process
In comparison to the rest of the VPN providers we’ve reviewed so far, Hotspot Shield (and its parent company, AnchorFree) offers the fewest different payment options we’ve seen thus far. On their checkout page, you’ll see the choices for:
- Credit Cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB, Diner’s Club
And that’s about it. Usually we like to see at least the option for Bitcoin here, so without even that on offer we had to ding Hotspot Shield a few vital points.
The service recovers some ground though in the platform support department, offering compatible apps for the following operating systems and smartphone ecosystems:
- Windows XP and above
- OSX 10.9 and above
- iOS 8.0 and above
- Android 2.2 or newer
- Windows Phone 8
Thankfully, Hotspot Shield is one of the few services that actually lets you choose your username and password, and while I don’t condone making things too obvious, at least you can enter in something that’s easier to remember than a random jumble of numbers and letters.
As a fast, lean, feature-light VPN, Hotspot Shield didn’t need more than two minutes to make it from the download page to getting connected to our first server.
Spend as long as I have in the VPN business, and you’ll start to see a trend emerge between the two different types of VPN providers: services for enthusiasts, and the providers for everybody else.
While some options like PureVPN don’t mind giving you multiple pages to dig through in the app with control over all the knobs and whistles, others, like Hotspot Shield, offer as minimal of an approach as possible instead.
To start, Hotspot Shield on Windows 10 looks very much like, well, Windows 10. Many of the design elements feel as though they could have been pulled straight out of my Start menu, and Hotspot Shield even emulates the same tile style that was first so divisive on Windows 8.
Server selection is handled by a simple drop-down menu from the 640 x 480 (un-resizable) main window. Here you’ll see the toggle that turns your connection on or off, as well as the odd inclusion of a ticker at the bottom of the window which is always there to remind you of the exact number of days left to go in your subscription.
When it comes to the available settings, it’s more about what isn’t available here than what is. Hotspot Shield keeps the level of control their users have to a minimum, only giving you the option to “Prevent IP Leak” as any form of security changes or actual setting configuration.
Other than that, the only other toggles you have access to control whether or not the VPN launches on startup, or if it automatically connects when it detects you’re on an unsafe WiFi hotpsot - and that’s it. Hotspot Shield dumbs the VPN experience down to the absolute minimum, and won’t even let you change your encryption settings if you wanted to (which we’ll cover more in a bit).
Overall though, I don’t necessarily mind when a VPN is this light on extra features or settings controls, as long as its performance can stand up to the task. So, how does Hotspot Shield fare when the rubber meets the road?
Performance and Speed
In our speed testing on a simultaneous 1GB up/down fiber optic line from Portland, Oregon, we connected to two different servers offered by Hotspot Shield from different corners of the globe, and specifically in the cities of: New York and London. Each server test was run five times at specific intervals to see how the bandwidth was affected during off-peak hours (6AM local), peak (9PM local), and once more on a Monday at 9PM PST, which is the busiest day for VPN providers collectively.
You’ll notice that we only wrote “two” servers in the above introduction rather than the standard four, and this is because of a few issues. One, Hotspot Shield works on a country-based connection only, meaning that if you want to connect to say, the LA server in the United States, your only chance is to connect to the service and hope it puts you as close to Southern California as you can get.
After multiple tries we were finally able to get to New York servers online for testing there during off-peak hours, while the UK servers always defaulted to London anyway so we were able to test that country as normal.
In New York City during off-peak hours at 6AM EST, we found that off a base speed of 590.82Mbps download and 879.66Mbps upload, Hotspot Shield’s link brought our average speeds down to around 245.34Mbps down, and 59.47Mbps up.
Finally, we give every VPN we review a shot to take our “best of the worst” challenge, which is a single speed test run on the closest possible server to our home base in Portland. While normally this would net the fastest time, the trick is we run it on Monday at 9PM PST, otherwise known as the worst possible commute hour (and day) for VPN networks on the West Coast.
In this test, because Hotspot Shield only let us connect to the main “United States” server, we ended up connection from a small town in Nebraska called Milford, rather than in Seattle or anywhere else on the West Coast. Even still, Hotspot still held its own, running with a 98.40Mbps download speed alongside a 56.99Mbps upload score, taken off a base speed of 734.10Mbps down and 722.81Mbps up.
On iOS10 the mobile app for Hotspot Shield looks just as sleek and modern as it does on the desktop version. And, just like it was there, everything is straight to business with no fluff or filler to be found.
The mobile version of Hotspot Shield offers a connect/disconnect button, along with a side-scrollable list of servers that you can connect to. Once you find the server you want, simply press the connect button and you’ll be live.
Performance on the app was quick and punctual, with the average connection taking a mere milisecond to get in. Once we were up we ran several speed tests on the most local server in Portland, (despite our connection going up in San Jose, California).
While most only dropped our speeds a mere 5%, one test actually increased our speed, from 226.55Mbps average up to 230.67Mbps.
Ultimately the app ran quite smooth, but at one point, the Hotspot Shield app froze on an upgrade screen that wouldn’t let me go back to the main menu, and even after closing and re-opening the app the screen was still stuck. In order to get things working properly I had to uninstall and re-install the app from scratch, which was really more of a small annoyance than anything else.
Security and Encryption
Like everything else on Hotspot Shield, its encryption methods are straight, to the point, and require no extra interactions from the customers to work properly.
Hotspot employs the popular OpenVPN service to protect its lines, and while I certainly have no problem with OpenVPN (and actually prefer it when the option is offered), I’d still like to have seen a few more options when it came to the total selection here.
PPTP or even L2TP would have been nice, and although things do get mixed up slightly by the use of IPSec on the mobile app (at least in the case of iOS), to me this still isn’t enough to keep Hotspot Shield in contention with the big boys on the subject of security and encryption.
As much as I’d like to have more to say in this department, as we’ve already mentioned previously Hotspot Shield is pretty minimal when it comes to extra features like we’ve seen on other plentiful providers in this department such as PureVPN.
That said, we did notice that there was an automatic ad-blocking/anti-phishing filter installed on our connection while we were using it, though we had no control over how it behaved or what it tried to stop, which was aggravating to say the least.
Also, you can run your entire VPN from the comfort of a Chrome extension, if that’s more your style. We were able to access all the same servers via the Chrome extension, and getting it switched on was only a matter of flipping one toggle in the top-right hand corner of our browser.
The Chrome browser extension functioned just as effectively as the desktop application, and came with just about the same number of features to boot. Performance wasn’t noticeably affected while browsing medium-to-heavy content pages like Twitter and Youtube, and all the same DNS Leak results were posted while connecting through the extension that we saw while using the desktop app.
For all the positive marks that Hotspot Shield racks up in places like speed and performance, I’d like to see more than one “Submit a Ticket” support option to get a hold of someone who can help out in a crisis.
One surprising little detail was found in the customer support ticket page, wherein if you typed the subject of your problem in the ticket submission box, it would automatically run a parallel search of those words in the knowledgebase to see if any of their guides might help solve the issue first.
The ticket submission page itself is laid out great as well, with the option to add attachments or mark the priority of your issue to get ahead in the queue.
Once we submitted our ticket, it took a little more than a day and a half for a customer service rep to respond via email. The response itself was informative, descriptive, and it was clear the person resonding understood the topic and solved our problem quickly.
Hotspot Shield’s knowledgebase is relatively basic compared to some others we’ve seen on competing sites, but still contains enough information to bring the layman user up to speed on the terms they need to know to use their VPN effectively without putting themselves at risk.
Disappointingly the company doesn’t have any blog to speak of, nor does it offer up any kind of community forum where concurrent users would be able to come and voice their opinion on how the product could be improved.
Despite its quick speeds and flawlessly-functional desktop and mobile apps, there is one area where Hotspot Shield could stand to make some major improvements: its logging policies.
The company uses confusing double-speak and a whole heaping pile of legalese to hide how it uses your information, and is undoubtedly has one of the more (if not the most) confusing Privacy pages in the business today.
Nothing is laid out in a way that makes things easier to read or digest, and actually finding out how Hotspot Shield uses your data could take a team of legal experts to decipher from this wall of text.
While the company says it doesn’t collect any personal information “not transcribed in this notice”, it does transcribe this: “examples of Personal Information include name, email address, mailing address, mobile phone number, and credit card or other billing information.”
This means quite literally all that information could be turned over to the Feds at any moment, though the company says your original IP won’t be tied to it so your computer’s activity or address can be linked up. They do still track the IP when you log in though, which could turn a lot of privacy-minded users off to the idea of using Hotspot entirely:
“When you use our Service, we may automatically record certain information from your web browser by using different types of proprietary technology (such as cookies), which may include your IP address or unique device ID. For example, we may collect your IP address when you commence your use of the Service; we do not, however, store logs associating your IP address with your online activities that take place when you are using of the Service.”
Hotspot Shield is based out of California, which means it’s in the US and has to participate as a member of the Five Eye surveillance collective).
Unfortunately, both P2P traffic and torrenting are strictly forbidden by AnchorFree and Hotspot Shield across the board. This means if you’re caught torrenting on Hotspot Shield’s network they’ll have the right to ban your account and not refund you money for however long you still have left on your subscription.
Cancel and Uninstall Process
To uninstall Hotspot Shield, we only needed to find the app in our Programs and Data list on Windows 10, and right-click it to choose the “Uninstall” option from the drop-down menu. From here, Hotspot Shield first asked if there was any reason we were uninstalling in a box that linked back to its knowledgebase, in case any issues we were having could have been solved that way instead.
After answering that we were whisked away to an uninstall screen, which took about 30 seconds to run through before Hotspot Shield and all its corresponding components were removed.
Once that was done, we went to our account page to cancel the account. Like most other services, Hotspot Shield asked a brief question about why we were choosing to leave, and kept our subscription open until the next bill date on the cycle.
On TrustPilot, Hotspot Shield ranks among the top of all VPN providers, squeaking into a second place finish with a score of 9.4, awarded by 205 separate reviews. Of those reviews 86.8% were 5 stars, 9.8% voted 4 stars, 1% voted 3 stars, 0.5% voted two stars, and 2% voted one star.
Both PCMag and TechRadar gave Hotspot Shield great marks (4 stars and 4.5 stars out of 5, respectively), taking special note of the fast download speeds and offering of a free version as high points for the minimalistic service.
BestVPN.com on the other hand wasn’t so kind, specifically focusing on the company’s hazily vague logging policy and poor customer support as reasons enough not to give the service a shot in the first place.
Among the competition, Hotspot Shield is definitely one of the more flexible in the mix when it comes to offering up a number of different payment plans and membership tiers to suit every type of customer.
The price breakdown for what Hotspot Shield supports is as follows:
- 1 month for $11.99/mo
- 6 months for $4.99/mo ($29.94 upfront)
- 1 year for $3.99/mo ($47.88 upfront)
- Or, the “Forever” plan, which is $99.99 upfront for a lifetime membership
Hotspot Shield does offer a free version, however speeds are limited and you might find yourself hitting a paywall if you try and navigate to specific websites like Netflix or the BBC iPlayer. You’re also capped on your data, which maxes at 256MB a day for mobile users, and 750MB a day for desktop users. Both limits run on a clock that resets once every 24 hours.
Lastly, Hotspot Shield also offers a business plan for enterprise users, priced at:
- 20 devices a month for $19.95
- 60 devices a month for $54.95
- 100 devices a month for $84.95
For the novice user who just wants a VPN they can quickly and easily connect to, Hotspot Shield is a fast and light provider that does what it needs to to get the job done (but not much more else on top of that).
If you’re someone who prefers a little more control over how your VPN behaves, or at the very least like to be able to select your server by city instead of entire countries, then you’re probably better off going with an equally quick competitor like Private Internet Access instead.
Hotspot Shield benefits from fast speeds on most of the servers we could connect to, but unfortunately without the option to actually specify which servers we wanted to run in the United States (and no server in Singapore to speak of), we were really cut short on opening up the software to see what it could really do where we would have gotten the best speeds possible.
However, if you’re the “I don’t care about cities, I just want the country” type of VPN user and don’t want to bogged down with any details about how your VPN actually works underneath the hood, Hotspot Shield could be a solid pick for you.
- Cut-and-dry design
- Fast servers where tested
- Free version available
- Windows 10 and mobile app were fast/reliable
- No manual configuration
- No way to connect to specific servers in countries
- Few extra features
- Vague logging policy
- Based in US
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