Hotspot Shield Review
- Hotspot Shield is an easy-to-use VPN with a decent server network and reasonably fast speeds.
- Hotspot Shield works well with various streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.
In our last review, we also had concerns about the cost of Hotspot Shield’s premium plans and its inconsistent streaming performance. However, the VPN’s biggest plus was offering 500MB of data free daily.
We put the VPN through the wringer again in this review, examining its features, speed, server locations, security and customer service. Read on to see if the VPN has improved or declined in any way.
07/27/2022 Facts checked
We retested Hotspot Shield and rewrote the review. The VPN service now offers unlimited data on the free plan.
Hotspot Shield cannot be entirely trusted because it collects user data and shares that information with third parties. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CTC) has filed complaints accusing Hotspot Shield of unfair and deceptive trade practices.
You can use Hotspot Shield free, although you’ll be limited to 160 physical servers and protection for one device. If you have any challenges, you can only access the FAQ section since the live chat and email support options are only available to premium users.
The free version of Hotspot Shield is not safe. Although you get AES-256 encryption, there’s no kill switch on the free version so your data may not be at risk of being exposed. Besides, the VPN has a track record of logging and sharing customer data.
Hotspot Shield Alternatives
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Hotspot Shield Review: Strengths & Weaknesses
- Free plan
- 45-day money-back return
- Automatic kill switch
- Fast speeds
- Easy to install
- Hydra protocol concerns
- No dedicated IPs
Hotspot Shield is essentially bare-bones when it comes to features. Additionally, most of its features come with a caveat because you’ll need to see if Hotspot Shield offers them on the plan you want (it restricts some features on the free plan) or on the device you use.
Automatic Kill Switch
Your VPN connection is as stable as your internet connection. If your internet connection drops unexpectedly, your IP might leak, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. A kill switch is a critical VPN feature since it is a vital fail-safe. Discover how it works in our article on kill switches.
Hotspot Shield offers a kill switch, but it’s only available on the Windows client. In other words, if you’re using Mac, Android, iOS or Linux devices, you can’t access this all-important feature.
Hotspot Shield calls its split tunneling feature “smart VPN.” With this feature, you can select which apps and websites bypass the VPN tunnel and which ones the VPN should protect. Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield’s smart VPN feature is available only on Windows and Android.
Streaming & Gaming Modes
Hotspot Shield has optimized servers for streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Twitch and Disney+. If you’re into gaming, you’ll love the offer of gaming-optimized servers for popular games, including Fortnite and Roblox.
Ad and Malware Blocker
Hotspot Shield offers a malware blocker that works on mobile and desktop apps. The VPN draws on a database of more than 3.5 million known or suspected websites to protect you from a wide range of security risks. It offers protection against four main kinds of malware sites: trojan sites, phishing sites, infected sites and spam sites.
However, Hotspot Shields’ browser extension adds a few more features on top. Aside from the malware and ad blocking, you’ll find a cookie blocker, WebRTC blocker and an option to bypass your local network. There’s also Sword, a tool that hides your real web activity by showing trackers fake web activity. All things considered, you might be better off with one of our best antivirus software.
Hotspot Shield VPN Features Overview
|Payment methods||PayPal, Credit card|
|Supports split tunneling|
|Free trial available|
|Worldwide server amount||3,200 servers in 80 countries|
|Desktop OSes||Windows, MacOS, Linux|
|Mobile OSes||Android, iOS|
|Can be installed on routers|
|Can access Netflix US|
|Can access BBC iPlayer|
|Can access Hulu|
|Can access Amazon Prime Video|
|Encryption types||128-AES, 256-AES|
|VPN protocols available||OpenVPN, Catapult Hydra, IKEv2|
|Enabled at device startup|
|Passed DNS leak test|
|Malware/ad blocker included|
Hotspot Shield offers three plans: Free, Premium and Premium Family. The last time we reviewed Hotspot Shield, the VPN service had a daily data limit of 500MB on the free plan. However, the VPN doesn’t place caps on your bandwidth or data any longer, regardless of the plan.
On all the plans, you get AES-256 encryption and access to both the proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol and IKEv2. Moreover, all plans work on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Chrome.
Each plan is covered by a 45-day money-back guarantee, which is a plus because most VPNs offer only a 30-day guarantee. It’s worth noting that the VPN doesn’t support crypto payments yet.
Hotspot Shield Free Plan Restrictions
Hotspot Shield’s free plan comes with several restrictions. First, you can only connect one device at a time. However, the Premium Family plan allows up to 25 simultaneous connections.
Furthermore, Hotspot Shield’s free version gives you access to 160 physical servers and one virtual server out of its full fleet of over 3,200 servers. Unfortunately, if you have any difficulties while using the free version of Hotspot Shield, you can only get help from the knowledgebase.
Premium & Premium Family Plans
To enjoy the benefits of the Hotspot Shield Premium plan, you’ll have to pay $12.99 monthly or $7.99 per month on the yearly plan. However, this is quite pricey. Even ExpressVPN, generally considered one of the more expensive yet high-performing VPNs, costs $12.95 per month.
On the other hand, the Premium Family plan will set you back $19.99 per month or $11.99 per month if you want to pay for a year up front. These price points are also on the high side, considering our overall best VPNs range from as little as $2.19 per month to $6.67 per month.
Both Premium plans add compatibility for the Linux operating system, smart TVs and routers. Also, the Premium plan upgrades your server list to 500 fast physical servers and over 115 virtual servers. For streamers and gamers, the Premium plans offer streaming and gaming modes, which are supposed to make streaming and gaming a breeze.
The main difference between the Premium plan and the Premium Family plan is the number of devices you can connect to simultaneously. You can connect up to five devices with the Premium plan, compared to 25 devices on the Premium Family plan.
The average number of simultaneous connections on offer in the VPN space is around five or six devices, so Hotspot Shield’s offer is within the acceptable range. ExpressVPN offers five simultaneous connections, while NordVPN offers six. If you want an unlimited number of connections, try Surfshark or Windscribe. Alternatively, you can read our best VPN for multiple devices to learn more.
Overall, Hotspot Shield’s monthly and annual prices are expensive. Hotspot Shield doesn’t match the performance of many of our best cheap VPNs, which are both better and cost less.
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
Ease of Use
Hotspot Shield has apps for all the major operating systems, including Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, Chrome, Linux, smart TVs and routers, but there are restrictions depending on the plan.
Its apps are generally attractive and easy to navigate. We like that Hotspot Shield includes explanations beneath its features, making it easy for new users to find their way. This is a feature of some of our beginner-friendly VPNs.
The Hotspot Shield app for desktops is neatly laid out and attractive. The minimalist design and the sleek interface are reminiscent of ExpressVPN and CyberGhost, some of the most user-friendly VPNs.
When you open the app you’ll be greeted by a huge quick-connect button, which is right at the center and hard to miss. You’ll find a dropdown panel on the right side that houses all the settings. In that panel, you’ll find buttons to tweak all the settings you need.
You can run a speed test to check how your server performs and you can view your account details. There’s also an “about us” section and button to help you access customer support. The button you’ll most likely use is the “settings” menu.
Under settings, you can set up Hotspot Shield to work the way you like it. This includes choosing how and when the VPN connects, split tunneling, protocols, the kill switch and WiFi protection.
You can either connect to a Hotspot Shield server by clicking the quick-connect button or clicking the currently connected country to reveal the server list. It would be nice to have a server map like NordVPN’s, though. Once you connect, the VPN gives detailed information regarding the connection, something we found rather impressive.
The data the VPN displays includes your IP, server load percentage, latency, connection time, data use and peak speed.
Hotspot Shield’s mobile apps are similar to its desktop apps. The layout is also straightforward: a large auto-connect button and a tab showing you which country you’re currently connected to. You’ll see “auto” if you’re not connected to any server. Click on the “auto” tab to see the servers at your disposal.
The settings menu is at the top left-hand side of Hotspot Shield’s desktop client. Clicking on it will take you to the settings tab, where you can set up your Hotspot Shield VPN to suit your taste. The connection center is where you can decide when your VPN connects. You can also add trusted WiFi networks and select the apps that your VPN should protect.
Alternatively, you can access the settings menu from the “accounts” button at the bottom right of the Hotspot Shield app. That button also contains details on your subscription, such as the plan you’re on and the number of devices connected. You’ll be able to access Hotspot Shield’s knowledgebase from there.
Because VPNs reroute your traffic, they will reduce your speeds to an extent, but the best ones have very little impact. Without a fast VPN, you’ll experience lags and buffering while streaming or playing online games.
Overall, Hotspot Shield’s speeds are decent, but not fast enough to justify its claim to be the “world’s fastest VPN.” As expected, you will likely experience slow speeds while using the free version. If you want a tried-and-tested list of blazing-fast VPNs, read our best fast VPN guide.
Hydra Protocol Speed Test
Hotspot Shield VPN developed the Hydra protocol to address high latency challenges with OpenVPN. In fact, Hotspot Shield promises that Hydra is twice as fast as OpenVPN. As a result, we were keen to find out if the protocol lives up to the claim. Some people suspect Hydra is not doing enough encryption, which is why it’s that fast. But since it’s proprietary, there’s no way to verify that.
During our testing, we noticed significant speed drop-offs in the U.S., Australia and Singapore; however, Hotspot Shield’s download and upload speeds are good overall. This means it’s useful for data-heavy activities like streaming and gaming. Also, the latency in Australia is quite high, but because latency typically increases the farther away you are from a server, the figure makes sense.
We tested the speeds for a handful of locations using the IKEv2 and Hydra protocol in turn. As expected, Hydra was almost twice as fast as IKEv2.
How We Ran Our Hotspot Shield Speed Test
First, we tested our internet speeds (download speed, upload speed and latency) without a VPN. Those values served as our benchmark to help us gauge speed drop-offs. Next, we connected to various VPN servers on different continents to get a bird’s-eye view of how Hotspot Shield performs.
You can use the built-in speed test feature if you want to test Hotspot Shield’s speeds yourself. Simply click the “speed test” button on the mobile or desktop client and give it a few minutes to compile the results. Note that your VPN speeds might differ from ours, depending on the quality of your internet connection and location.
For the best protection, you need a VPN with strong encryption and a variety of protocols. AES-256, the military-grade encryption, is standard for many secure VPNs. Hotspot Shield supports both 128-bit AES encryption and 256-bit AES encryption, but it uses 128-bit AES encryption as a standard. Learn more about these two encryption standards in our post on AES encryption.
This section will dig further into Hotspot Shield’s security features, starting with its protocols.
Hotspot Shield’s Protocols
As protocols go, OpenVPN is the gold standard — as you can see in our VPN protocol breakdown. It offers an excellent balance of speed and security and is practically uncrackable.
Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield only offers the OpenVPN protocol on routers. On mobile and desktop apps you get access to two protocol options: IKEv2 and the Catapult Hydra (not to be confused with SlickVPN’s Hydra protocol).
Let’s start with Catapult Hydra. Hotspot Shield developed this proprietary protocol based on OpenVPN to reduce latency. This move is not uncommon in the VPN space, as some of our overall best VPNs have their own protocols: NordVPN (NordLynx protocol) and ExpressVPN (Lightway protocol).
As you saw in our speed tests, Hydra can make your VPN connection faster.
For security, Catapult Hydra uses proven TLS-based security for server connections. It also uses RSA certificates with 2048-bit keys for server authentication and the elliptic-curve Diffie-Hellman algorithm (ECDHE) for perfect forward secrecy. If those terms sound like jargon, all you need to know is that Hydra uses industry standards for security. However, it’s not open source so it can’t be verified.
There’s also the IKEv2 protocol, although we are not too keen on recommending that one. In fact, Hotspot Shield itself warns users in its apps that the IKEv2 protocol is “easy for internet providers to block.” That means that it may not work well in highly restrictive countries like China. That said, IKEv2 can be good for mobile connections.
Overall, Hotspot Shield performs creditably when it comes to VPN security. However, we’d like to see the VPN make OpenVPN available on its mobile and desktop devices. NordVPN is a great example of a VPN that has a proprietary protocol (NordLynx) but still offers the OpenVPN protocol. Also, NordLynx is open source, which ensures transparency.
Such information includes your name, username, email address and billing information. The VPN also collects connection duration and bandwidth used, device information, diagnostic information and location information.
Further, the VPN service will share your information with third parties, including affiliates, law enforcement and government agencies. This news is troubling since the core job of a VPN service is to keep your data, regardless of what it is, away from third parties.
Additionally, in 2017, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), working with developers of Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Mobile App Compliance System, found that Hotspot Shield was sharing sensitive user data with third parties. This data included the names of wireless networks, media access control addresses and device IMEI numbers.
What Is Hotspot Shield’s Parent Company?
Hotspot Shield is owned by Pango Inc., which is part of Aura’s ever-increasing portfolio of companies. Aura is a technology company whose holdings include IdentityGuard for identity theft protection, FigLeaf and PrivacyMate for privacy, and Intrusta for malware and device protection.
Aura acquired Pango in July 2020. It’s worth noting that Aura is based in the U.S. — a Five Eyes country with a history of gag orders and warrants. This means that the company will be forced to hand over your data when authorities request it.
As a result, most VPNs are founded in jurisdictions without data retention laws. For instance, Surfshark and ExpressVPN were founded in the British Virgin Islands.
When it comes to streaming, Hotspot Shield actually does a great job. First of all, it had no difficulties unblocking Netflix, and in almost all cases, it worked on the first try, including unblocking Netflix U.S.
Apart from Netflix, we could easily stream Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Hulu, and YouTube. The streams were smooth, and we did not experience any lags or buffering while streaming in full HD.
In our last Hotspot Shield review, we observed that the VPN struggled with BBC iPlayer, with the buffering wheel popping up continually. This time around, we had no hiccups with service, and we could watch shows in the U.K.
Hotspot Shield’s VPN server network is respectable. Regarding sheer server count, Hotspot Shield holds its own, with over 3,200 servers in its fleet. It’s still behind NordVPN, which counts over 5,000 servers.
In the last few years, Hotspot Shield has increased its VPN server locations from 25 countries to well over 80 countries and 35 U.S. and European cities. It doesn’t quite match the server locations of ExpressVPN (94 countries) and HideMyAss (over 290 locations), though.
Hotspot Shield has 28 servers in the United States. On the other hand, it has only four server locations in both the U.K. and Canada. Most countries on Hotspot Shield’s server list have one Hotspot Shield server.
Hotspot Shield’s free version gives you access to around 160 physical servers and one virtual server. This is impressive considering that Windscribe, the best free VPN, offers access to only 10 server locations on its free plan. However, unlike Windscribe, Hotspot Shield’s free version doesn’t come with an automatic kill switch and a malware and ad blocker.
Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield doesn’t offer a dedicated IP address service. Such IPs are important if you want to use sensitive services like online banking. If you need a dedicated IP, you can use one of our best VPNs with dedicated IPs.
Hotspot Shield offers three customer support options: an FAQ, live chat support and email support.
However, the FAQ section is not comprehensive and the VPN could take a cue from how detailed, organized and informative ExpressVPN’s FAQ section is. Hotspot Shield’s FAQ section could also do with some updating, as some of the information there could be confusing and even misleading.
Live chat and email support, the other two customer service options, are only available for Premium plan users. We tested the email support service with a dummy query and we received a response within 24 hours, just as Hotspot Shield promised.
Live Chat Support
We tested the live chat support and found it prompt and responsive. At the start, we had to answer some questions from the bot but it connected us to a live customer support agent in minutes. While we waited for an agent, the live chat service told us the number of people ahead of us.
The agent was kind and thoughtful, providing comprehensive details on our query and even offering links and resources to help us learn more. We asked both simple and technical questions and the agent provided helpful responses.
The Verdict: Hotspot Shield VPN Review
Hotspot Shield is a handy and easy-to-use VPN that performs quite well in terms of speed and its ability to access streaming services. It also boasts a respectable server network, making it a handy choice for geoblocking. Its customer service is responsive, and you can try it out with a 45-day money-back guarantee.
Despite all the positives, Hotspot Shield does a shoddy job of keeping your data private. The VPN logging policy intimates that it’s willing to sell your information. That defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place. In addition, the VPN is pricey compared to other VPNs with more features and additional options.
Do you agree with our conclusions regarding Hotspot Shield? What ratings would you give to the VPN service personally, based on your experience? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, thanks for reading.