Hotspot Shield is a VPN that offers a free plan as well as the option for premium upgrades. Although it doesn’t quite live up to its claim of being the “world’s fastest VPN,” it still reached some respectable speeds during our Hotspot Shield review testing.
This VPN has some great features, such as split tunneling, but as you can read about in our ExpressVPN review, other VPNs offer similar features without the lousy privacy. If you’re looking for a proven, secure VPN that respects user privacy, be sure to check out our best VPNs list. Otherwise, read on to see all the positives and negatives of using Hotspot Shield.
Strengths & Weaknesses
- Free plan
- Split tunneling
- User-friendly interface
- Decently fast
- Collects & sells user information
- Very expensive
- Questionable security
Alternatives for Hotspot Shield
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 5
- : No
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, regional payment systems, WebMoney
- : 5
- : PayPal, Credit card, AmazonPay
- : 10
- : Credit card, Google Pay, AmazonPay, ACH Transfer, UnionPay, Crypto Currencies, PayPal (via Paddle)
- : 6
- : PayPal, Credit card, AliPay, UnionPay, Webmoney, Monero
- : Unlimited
Starting with the desktop client, Hotspot Shield offers a decent spread of features. You can have the software start automatically when you boot up your computer and have it connect automatically, as well.
Hotspot Shield is lacking some customizability here, though, as it doesn’t allow you to choose where the VPN will connect to automatically. It will only connect to the most recent location you’ve used.
There’s also a kill switch, which for some reason is found under the “advanced” tab in the settings. We consider this something essential to VPN security and more fit for the “general” tab.
Also found in the “advanced” tab an option called “auto-protect,” which will automatically connect to the VPN if it detects you are on a public WiFi connection.
One of the best features in the desktop client is the “smart VPN,” which has its own tab in the settings. This allows you to set up a list of programs that will bypass the VPN as a basic form of split tunneling.
Although you can see some examples of more robust implementations of split tunneling in our ExpressVPN vs CyberGhost article, this is a great feature to now have in the Hotspot Shield app. It was one of our key issues we had in our previous Hotspot Shield review.
Hotspot Shield also offers a number of features in its browser extension that are not built into the desktop client. These are mostly focused on ad and malware blocking, which can be nice to have but will often not offer the same level of protection as some of the best antivirus software.
The browser extension offers a tracker blocker, cookie blocker, ad blocker, malware blocker, WebRTC blocker and a feature simply called “sword.” Sword is designed to feed online trackers false information to help obfuscate your real online activity and identity.
All of the features in the browser extension are still in beta, so it’s difficult to determine how well they work. They also only function while the VPN is connected, so they’re best used as an added layer of protection rather than a frontline defense.
Finally, Hotspot Shield also offers iOS and Android apps that have most of the same features as the desktop client, including the “smart VPN,” a kill switch and auto-connect options.
Hotspot Shield VPN Features Overview
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : No
- : 5
- : 1800 Servers in 80+ countries
- : Windows, MacOS, Linux, Fire TV, Android TV, Smart TVs
- : Android, iOS
- : Chrome
- : 128-AES, 256-AES
- : IPSec, OpenVPN, Hydra, IKEv2, Wireguard
- : No
- : 24/7 (paid plans)
- : 24/7
- : No
- : No
Let’s start with the good. Hotspot Shield offers a free VPN plan that gives users limited use of some of the features and a bandwidth cap of 500MB per day. Although 500MB per day for free is nice — and a good way of offering potential customers a way to test the VPN before buying — it isn’t good enough to make it onto our best free VPN services.
- : 1
- : Unlimited GB
- : 5
- : Unlimited GB
- : 5
- : Unlimited GB
- : 25
- : Unlimited GB
- : 25
When it comes to comparing the free vs premium plans, the premium plans offer higher speeds compared to the capped 2 Mbps of the free version. They also offer access to the features we mentioned before and more servers.
With the free plan, access to streaming services is limited and many of the features — such as malware protection and the “smart VPN” — are locked along with many of the servers.
Premium vs Family Plans
The Hotspot Shield premium plans are broken into two tiers, each offering both monthly and annual options. The lower tier, called Premium, allows for up to five connected devices and comes in at the same price per month — or even higher — than the best VPNs on the market.
For example, if you look at our Private Internet Access review, you’ll see it allows for 10 simultaneous connections for around $10 per month, which goes down to only $3.33 per month if you sign up for a year.
Hotspot Shield’s annual Premium option drops the per-month cost down to about $8, but this is still higher than the annual options of even some top-shelf competitors.
If you take a look at our NordVPN review, you’ll see that NordVPN offers better prices for both the monthly and annual periods. NordVPN goes even further by offering two-year and three-year plans that bring the cost down to only a few dollars each month, which is less than half of Hotspot Shield’s annual plan’s per-month cost.
The Family plan is a step up from the Premium plan, coming in at $20 monthly or about $12 per month if you opt for the annual plan. This is at the very top end of the scale for personal VPN pricing, but this can be attributed to the fact that the Family plan allows for up to 25 connected devices.
If you’re looking for a VPN service that will protect tons of devices at once without breaking the bank, consider checking out our Windscribe review. Windscribe’s plans allow for unlimited simultaneous connections, and they are considerably cheaper than the plans offered by Hotspot Shield.
When it comes time to make your payment, Hotspot Shield does not accept any form of cryptocurrency, instead limiting your options to basic credit or debit cards and PayPal. There is a generous refund policy, though, allowing users a 45-day money-back guarantee, like CyberGhost also offers (read our CyberGhost review).
Ease of Use
Hotspot Shield has made a number of positive changes to the desktop client since our last Hotspot Shield VPN review. The menus have been cleaned up a bit, with text now being on the left and the toggle switches on the right. This subjectively looks nicer, and the colors of the menus have changed to give the client a nice night-mode look, which can help with eye strain.
These changes give the settings a slightly less cluttered feeling, despite it having a bit more options than before. The main menu of the software is mostly the same, with a large button in the middle for connecting and a field at the bottom that shows your currently selected server.
Clicking the currently selected country in the bottom left opens up the server list, which is well-organized with a search bar at the top. The list is alphabetized by country, and each one has a corresponding flag, which makes searching easier.
There are also a variety of shortcuts built into the software that let you do things like connect to the VPN by simply pressing Ctrl + Shift + C, which is a huge boon to those of us obsessed with macros and efficiency. Although it would be nice to have a world map to show server locations, there’s not too much room for improvement here from a usability standpoint.
Hotspot Shield’s biggest claim to fame — and something it emphasizes heavily in its marketing — is that it’s the “world’s fastest VPN.” There is a speed test built into the desktop client, but we ran our tests on a third-party site to ensure accurate results.
We also usually standardize the protocol we use during each speed test to make sure our comparisons are fair, forcing every VPN service to use OpenVPN during testing. However, this is not possible with Hotspot Shield because it does not offer OpenVPN as a protocol.
|United Arab Emirates|
As we’ll look at in more detail in the “security” section, Hotspot Shield instead touts a unique algorithm called Catapult Hydra. The proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol supposedly lends itself to speed and is the secret sauce that makes Hotspot Shield faster than its competition, so we did all of our testing using this protocol.
Testing Hotspot Shield Using Catapult Hydra
Starting off with our local test in the United States, we saw incredibly fast speeds, with almost no loss at all with our ping and download speeds, and a strange gain in our upload speed. This increased upload speed was a repeatable phenomenon that we tested on more than one day, but we were never able to solve how it happened.
Under normal circumstances, a VPN cannot make your connection faster than it already is. This difference is potentially caused by our internet provider throttling our unprotected connection but not being able to monitor and control our VPN connection as tightly.
That said, the U.S. saw amazingly high speeds in our tests and felt very responsive in real-world use, as well. The UK saw a drastic downward trend, though, losing third of our download speed and much more of our upload speed. That said, this server still performed well overall — 200 Mbps is nothing to sneeze at — and the real-world performance was very quick.
Things worsened in Japan, though. Here we saw our highest ping time, as to be expected from such a long-distance connection. However, we also saw our lowest upload speed, along with another drop in download speeds.
The result was a noticeably slower connection that could take several seconds to start loading websites and videos before the connection stabilized. Aside from the relatively long initial wait, the Japan connection could still handle HD video and wouldn’t buffer or stutter outside of the extended loading time.
The United Arab Emirates yielded similar results both on paper and during actual use. HD videos could play fine and wouldn’t need to buffer once playing, but there would be several seconds of initial waiting when first loading in a video or even just a website.
Finally, we saw a slight improvement in Brazil, likely driven by the shorter distance between us and the server, compared to the more distant Japan and UAE servers. Brazil loaded in websites and videos noticeably quicker than the previous two servers, but it still suffered with its on-paper results, compared to the U.S. and UK.
Although Hotspot Shield is certainly serviceable when it comes to speed, it’s lacking in some locations, especially when it comes to upload speeds. If you’re sending large files often or are the kind of person who seeds torrents, then this will make a huge impact on your performance.
Hotspot Shield holds its own in terms of speed, but ultimately it isn’t fast enough to earn it a spot on our fastest VPNs list.
The main elements that make up the foundation of any VPN’s security are the protocol and encryption it uses to make your data private. As we just mentioned in the “speed” section, Hotspot Shield uses a unique protocol that aims to make VPN connections much faster than ever before.
The Catapult Hydra protocol uses TLS 1.2 to establish the connection, with RSA certificates serving as authentication, as well as ECDHE to ensure perfect forward secrecy.
This is very similar to how OpenVPN works, which you can read about in our VPN protocol breakdown. Despite being mostly standard in the security sense, Hydra supposedly brings optimized algorithms into play to accelerate the overall performance of the VPN.
Hotspot Shield also offers IKEv2 as a protocol, which is fast and reasonably secure, but it still isn’t considered as safe as OpenVPN, the widely accepted industry standard. OpenVPN is the ideal protocol for most uses and has a reliable track record, with WireGuard emerging as a major competitor.
It would be very nice to have OpenVPN as an option while using Hotspot Shield, especially considering that the protocol is open source and would be free from licensing costs. Both Hydra and IKEv2 are paired with AES-256 encryption, which is very strong, as we discuss in our description of encryption article.
However, we continue to feel a bit uneasy recommending that people use Hotspot Shield for security. That’s due to the proprietary nature of Hydra, the fact that its code is not open source and the lack of a track record with this new protocol, compared to a tried and true industry standard like OpenVPN.
Although some other VPN providers offer proprietary protocols — as you can see in our VyprVPN review, for example — we generally think people should stick with what’s been tested and known to work. Our best VPN services for China gives an excellent overview of the most secure VPN options.
Although none of this data is personally identifiable, there are two things here that are huge red flags. The first is that Hotspot Shield gathers device information, including your browser type, device type, operating system and even your device’s settings. This forms a device fingerprint that can be used to identify and track you.
Additionally, any VPN collecting location information should be something you immediately avoid. That said, it’s not using your phone’s GPS or anything. Instead, it uses your IP address to get an “approximate location” to help select the nearest server to you.
To make matters worse, if you use the free version of the service, Hotspot Shield will serve you ads and sell your information. In its opt-out notice (which only applies to certain states), Hotspot Shield admits that it will sell data including identifiers, approximate geolocation, and internet or device activity. This is a fatal blow to any VPN and largely defeats the purpose of using a VPN for more privacy.
When it comes to streaming, Hotspot Shield actually holds its own, which adds some small credence to the performance of the Catapult Hydra protocol. All the U.S. streaming services worked well for us, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.
The UK was a bit of a mixed bag, though. We were never blocked from using BBC iPlayer, but often the show we were watching would just freeze and the buffering wheel would come up for minutes at a time. Sometimes refreshing helped, and sometimes it didn’t.
YouTube and Twitch worked just fine on the UK server, though, and even felt impressively fast, so it’s hard to nail down why BBC iPlayer was behaving so strangely. However, refreshing the page could often remedy the issue.
Because of this inconsistency with BBC services, we suggest that those who are looking for a reliable VPN for streaming should take a look at our best VPN for BBC iPlayer article.
Hotspot Shield has expanded its server network considerably since our previous review. The last time we looked, Hotspot Shield had servers in only 25 countries, which it has since expanded to a much-more-respectable 80 countries.
The total server count has also improved greatly, to an impressive 3,200 servers. Although this isn’t the best network we’ve seen (that honor probably goes to HideMyAss, which has servers in over 190 countries), this will still serve most people’s needs. There are servers spread throughout Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa.
For customer service, Hotspot Shield offers live chat support, along with the option to send an email. Both of these contact methods are restricted to premium plan users, though. If you’re using the free VPN, you’ll be limited to only the FAQ for help.
We were able to get a message back from the live chat within a few minutes every time, and the email support didn’t take too long, either. The answers were always cordial and seemed to give us what we needed.
However, as we mentioned earlier, we were sometimes able to find contradictory information around the site that left us questioning how good the customer support really was.
If you’ve had experiences using Hotspot Shield’s free or premium plans, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.
Hotspot Shield FAQ
What Is Hotspot Shield?
Hotspot Shield is a virtual private network, or VPN. VPNs work to protect your online privacy and security by encrypting your connection and sending it to a server where it will be relayed to the destination website. This makes your real location and identity much more difficult to determine.
Is Hotspot Shield VPN Free?
Hotspot Shield offers a free plan that allows for up to 500MB of bandwidth a day. Several features are unavailable with the free plan, and your speed is also capped at 2 Mbps.
Is Hotspot Shield safe?
Because of Hotspot Shield’s use of its proprietary protocol, Catapult Hydra, it’s not so simple to say whether or not this VPN is safe. Overall, Hotspot Shield seems to offer the level of protection that most people want, and we never detected any IP or DNS leaks. However, Hydra cannot be trusted as much as a time-tested protocol, such as OpenVPN.