Hotspot Shield Review

Hotspot Shield is a VPN that is treading an uncharted road with its revolutionary Catapult Hydra protocol. During our testing we weren't able to determine whether it's as good as the service claims, but we're not too comfortable recommending it. Read our full Hotspot Shield review to see why.

By Brian MurrayWriter
— Last Updated: 30 May'19
2017-08-09T22:38:31-08:00
Table of ContentsRating
Features
75%
Good
Pricing
40%
Terrible
Ease of Use
80%
Good
Speed
60%
Fair
Security
60%
Fair
Privacy
50%
Poor
Streaming Performance
50%
Poor
Server Locations
45%
Poor
Customer Service
60%
Fair
User Reviews & Comments

Fair
Starts from $ 299 per month
Free plan available
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Hotspot Shield is a VPN provider that’s trying to be a disruptor in the industry, vying hard for a place at the table with the best VPN providers. It uses a proprietary protocol, called Catapult Hydra, that offers incredible speeds on paper, but made us scratch our heads.

In an industry where one-upmanship is a daily attitude, Hotspot Shield wouldn’t be the first to cut corners to get ahead. That said, we were forced to reveal to the company that we were reviewers to get some of the answers we needed for this review because it’s a tight-lipped operation in regards to its proprietary and patented protocol.

Though the answers we were able to get were illuminating, the situation with the proprietary technology is still complicated, so we invite you to stick with us and see what could be a VPN breakthrough in the making.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Strengths:

  • Lots of rare features
  • Responsive customer service
  • Huge knowledgebase
  • Clean and attractive interface

Weaknesses:

  • Lacking in server locations
  • Inconsistent performance
  • Customer service only for premium customers
  • Add-on purchases

Alternatives for Hotspot Shield

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top features

Features

75% - Good

Hotspot Shield offers VPN clients for iOS, Android, Windows and macOS, as well as an extension for Google Chrome.

The desktop client covers most key VPN features. In the settings menu, you’ll find options to run the client on start-up and configure it to automatically connect with “unsafe” WiFi, safe WiFi and other networks. There’s also a killswitch and a DNS leak protection option, which are great for ensuring security.

The major thing that’s missing from the settings is split tunneling. It’d allow you to choose which programs use the protected VPN connection and which use the faster but unprotected standard internet connection. If that stands out to you, check out our ExpressVPN review to read about its excellent split tunneling.

As for the Google Chrome extension, it lacks all the features we just mentioned, but it has many interesting features the desktop client doesn’t. For starters, there’s a malware blocker, which is nice to have but likely won’t be able to compete with the best antivirus software.

There’s also an ad blocker, a cookie blocker and a tracker blocker, which together go a long way toward improving online anonymity and preventing anyone from tracking you around the web. There is a WebRTC blocker, too, which further obscures your IP address and online identity.

Hotspot Shield Sword

The most interesting feature of the extension, though, is called “sword.” It feeds fake information to trackers that aren’t already blocked as a final nail in the coffin for anyone or anything trying to track you or gather information about you online.

It’s important to keep in mind that all the features in the Chrome extension are in beta, so the effectiveness of the blockers could be spotty.

Despite its many features, we gave Hotspot Shield a relatively low score in this category because it doesn’t let you change your VPN protocol or encryption. That’s something we’ll continue to explore in the “speed” and “security” sections because it’s a complicated matter.

Hotspot Shield VPN Features Overview

Starts from$ 299per month

General

Payment methods
PayPal, Credit card
Accepts cryptocurrency
Simultaneous connections
5
Supports split tunneling
Unlimited bandwidth
Free trial available
Refund period
Worldwide server amount
25
Desktop OSes
Windows, MacOS
Mobile OSes
Android, iOS
Browser extensions
Chrome
Can be installed on routers

Streaming

Can access Netflix US
Can access BBC iPlayer
Can access Hulu
Can access Amazon Prime Video

Security

Encryption types
256-AES
VPN protocols available
Catapult Hydra
Enabled at device startup
Allows torrenting
No-logging policy
Passed DNS leak test
Killswitch available
Malware/ad blocker included

Support

Live Chat
office hours
Email support
24/7
Phone support
User forum
Knowledgebase

Pricing

40% - Terrible

On the surface, Hotspot Shield has a standard pricing model that is common in the VPN market. You can pay by the month for your subscription, but significant savings are offered if you sign up annually or for three years.

Free
  • 500MB per day U.S.-only server
  • 1 Included Devices
Monthly
  • 29 server locations
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
Yearly
  • 29 server locations
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
1-year plan $ 5.99 / month
$71.88 billed every year
3 Years
  • 29 server locations
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
3-year plan $ 2.99 / month
$107.64 billed every 3 years

The monthly pricing is on the high side. The annual and triennial options bring the price down but not to an impressive degree. If you look at our Windscribe review, for example, you’ll find that Windscribe offers a more affordable monthly rate, as well as an annual subscription that‘s almost half the cost per year of Hotspot Shield.

Hotspot Shield Free Plan

Hotspot Shield also offers a free plan that gives you protection for a single device and just 500MB of daily bandwidth. Though 500MB a day is nothing to sneeze at, the free plan is limited to only a handful of U.S. servers, doesn’t get customer support and Hotspot Shield runs ads in your browser while you use it, which puts it far from our best free VPN list.

On top of the already high base pricing, there are also many add-ons that Hotspot Shield hides until you go through checkout or log in for the first time. When we asked about the pricing for those add-ons, we were told we couldn’t be given an answer. Only after we finished our “press pass” and revealed that we were reviewers were we given a price.

The add-ons include an upgrade from the base package’s five devices to 10 devices and a “speed boost” that gives you access to less populated VPN servers. Each of those is an additional $8.99 per month, or 70 percent of the price at checkout if you choose a longer period.

Ease of Use

80% - Good

The desktop client and Google Chrome browser extension are quite beautiful and give you a streamlined way to jump into a protected connection. When you open the client or extension, you’re presented with a clean screen that has a single large button that you can press to connect the VPN.

The drawback to the ultra-streamlined design is that it requires an extra step when you want to connect to a specific location. If you want to access a British IP address, for example, instead of selecting the server and connecting like you do with most VPNs, you must first connect, then select the server you want, then reconnect.

That minor inconvenience is compounded by the fact that the VPN routinely has trouble connecting and often needs a second or even a third try to connect to the location you choose.

Aside from that, the look and overall layout of the client is good. The settings menus are easy to navigate and all the options in the settings are worded clearly, making it simple to configure the client to your liking.

Speed

60% - Fair

Speed is where Hotspot Shield’s interesting story begins to unfold. The provider uses unique technology to run its service, namely a proprietary protocol called Catapult Hydra.

Though that sounds awesome, it caused serious head scratching around our workplace. Our speed testing returned results that are, quite frankly, impossible.

Location: Ping (ms)Download (Mbps)Upload (Mbps)
Unprotected (Virginia)14
72.165.77
New York City2071.324.35
UK9974.25.02
Switzerland11769.783.30
Japan10870.995.68
Argentina16571.484.41

Every location we tested effectively retained our unprotected speeds. The UK server gave us a faster connection than we had while unprotected.

From what we were able to gather while speaking with Hotspot Shield, performance is the main focus of the Catapult Hydra protocol. It uses unique algorithms to find and establish a connection with the server, while most of the security aspects of the protocol are handled by standard means that we’ll look at in the next section.

Though the ping times are low and the sustained speeds are insane, the on-paper numbers aren’t representative of how using the VPN felt. When the rubber meets the road, Hotspot Shield is wildly inconsistent.

Sometimes, we connected to a server so fast that we didn’t even notice. About half the time, though, it took two or three tries, each lasting 20 or so seconds, before it connected.

Hotspot Shield Netflix Slowdown

Though surfing the web was fast and responsive at times, it sometimes took websites, such as Hulu and Netflix, 30 or so seconds to load. Plus, there were times when certain elements of the website, such as login buttons, would be broken or missing after the website finally loaded.

Sustained downloads didn’t fare much better with torrents and Steam downloading at roughly a quarter of the speed we’re used to and often fluctuating significantly during the downloads.

If you’re looking for a VPN that’s not just fast on paper, but responsive and quick when being used, read our fastest VPN roundup.

Security

60% - Fair

The most important thing in most people’s minds when it comes to the VPN they choose is security. Keeping your data safe and ensuring that a VPN can protect you is a responsibility we don’t take lightly when assessing VPNs, which is why we reached out to Hotspot Shield directly for this section.

The development team was critical in helping us discern what was going on under the hood of Catapult Hydra. Without them giving us that information, we would’ve been taking shots in the dark.

We were told that though the performance of the VPN is being accelerated with unique algorithms, the security code is standard for the most part and could even be altered in the future to work with other protocols.

For now, though, Catapult Hydra uses TLS v1.2 to establish a connection with RSA certificates for authentication, as well as ECDHE, which helps ensure forward secrecy. That’s almost identical to OpenVPN and offers strong security.

The protocol is paired with AES 256-bit, which offers an effectively unbreakable encryption on the data as it’s being transferred. That’s what we were told, anyway, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. The security code is evaluated by many third-party security companies that are interested in using the Catapult Hydra protocol.

Catapult Hydra Doubts

During our testing, we were unable to find DNS leaks or any other glaring vulnerabilities. That said, though everything was great on paper, there were several things that caused us to doubt some of Hotspot Shield’s claims.

We have our reservations about the protocol because it defies the logic of how encryption and VPNs work. No matter what anyone does with algorithms and code, at the very least, the process of encryption will take time for your computer to perform.

That means there’ll be operating overhead and subsequent loss of speed as your computer encrypts the data before sending it, but that’s not what we saw with Hotspot Shield, despite it claiming that it uses AES 256-bit encryption.

If Hotspot Shield made some kind of earth-shattering breakthrough, it would’ve changed everything we know about encryption and data transfer. Because that hasn’t happened, though, it’s unlikely a discovery was made.

We also found several instances of conflicting information, such as being told that AES 256-bit encryption is used while this post on the Hotspot Shield knowledgebase says SSL encryption is. That leads us to believe there’s information we’re not being told and raises a lot of red flags.

Privacy

50% - Poor

The Hotspot Shield privacy policy is far from the most concise we’ve seen, but it’s written in a manner that’s easy to understand if you give it a careful reading.

Your IP address is recorded when you connect with the VPN to get a city-level idea of your location. That’s used to automatically find a nearby server for you. Hotspot Shield discards your IP address after your VPN session ends.

Plus, when you launch the application, even if you’re not connecting, information is gathered and stored regarding the hardware, operating system and language and network settings you’re using, as well as your unique mobile ID.

Hotspot Shield uses cookies to monitor how people use its website. That’s practically inescapable online, as you can read in our anonymous browsing guide. Additionally, almost all the information we just mentioned the app gathering is also collected when you visit the website.

Though none of the information that’s stored is personally identifiable, it’s still a lot more than necessary for providing a VPN service. We like to point to NordVPN as an example of a service with a pristine privacy policy, which you can read more about in our NordVPN review.

Streaming Performance

50% - Poor

As we noted in the “speed” section, Hotspot Shield’s performance varied wildly, not only in loading times and browsing performance, but also when it came to connecting to potentially blocked content.

When we tested Netflix, it worked at first, but we were cut off when we tested it again to confirm our results about an hour later. Hulu blocked us consistently, informing us that it knew we were using a proxy and that we’d need to turn it off to watch anything.

We were able to fool BBC iPlayer into thinking we were in the UK every time we tried it (check out some other of the best VPN for BBC iPlayer). Amazon Prime Video was like Netflix, though, in that it only worked some of the time. Needless to say, Hotspot Shield won’t be joining our best VPN for Netflix or best VPN for Amazon Prime lists any time soon.

We were told that’s a known issue with no ETA on a fix and that the solution is to disconnect and reconnect to get a better randomly assigned IP address.

The streaming performance was just as inconsistent. Sometimes videos would load instantly and look great. At one point, we had the VPN on while watching YouTube without even realizing it.

At other times, though, videos took 15 seconds to load and looked nice and retro at 480p. If you’re searching for a consistent and reliable way to stream foreign content, be sure to check out our best VPN for Netflix article.

Server Locations

45% - Poor

Hotspot Shield has a list of 25 countries that it has servers in. In the list of locations in the client, each option is displayed as just the country, except the U.S., which is a drop-down menu that shows an exhaustive list of cities.

The locations cover North America, South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania. That’s good coverage given the number of servers, but the location count is anemic.

As you can see in our HideMyAss review, some of the top dogs in the industry in terms of locations offer upward of 280, and even middle-of-the-pack providers offer at least 40 or so options.

Customer Service

60% - Fair

Customer service is a mixed bag with Hotspot Shield. There’s a live chat feature tucked in the bottom right of the screen on the website. You can use it even when you’re not signed in, but if your email doesn’t have a premium account associated with it, you might not get answers. That’s because Hotspot Shield sells customer service as a premium feature.

If you send an email, you’ll quickly get an automated response. There’s an automated system in place that seems to scan your email for keywords to offer a relevant response with links to pertinent articles. The articles are chosen from the extensive knowledgebase on Hotspot Shield’s website.

That’s great, but when we contacted customer service from an email not associated with our account, we immediately got a second automated reply saying that nobody was going to read our email because the address we sent it from wasn’t on file.

That’s a ridiculous policy that we urge Hotspot Shield to reconsider. Having a spouse or sibling on the same account is common, and if they need help with something but their email isn’t on the account, they’re out of luck here.

Though the live chat representatives are friendly and helpful, and the knowledgebase is extensive, it can be hard to get detailed, specific answers when you need them. For example, as we mentioned in the “pricing” section, we couldn’t even get a pricing quote for the speed boost service and device package.

That’s not the fault of the customer service reps, as they were cordial and helpful. From our perspective, it seems clear that internal corporate policies prevent them from giving out certain information and limits how helpful they can be. That’s an easy fix and would take the customer support from mediocre and even frustrating at times to almost flawless.

The Verdict

Though we respect even attempts at mold-breaking innovation, it must be a worthwhile and effective innovation to receive our genuine recommendation and your hard-earned money.

Hotspot Shield delivers on its promise of faster speeds, on paper, but in practice much of that was lost. Plus, there are lingering, almost anti-consumer practices in place, such as hiding the pricing and availability of add-on sales and making customer service a premium feature.

Hotspot Shield’s unique technologies are closely-guarded secrets, and the information we were given left us scratching our heads. We have serious doubts about how the protocol functions, so we’re not ready to recommend it.

We’re interested to see how things pan out with Catapult Hydra because it’s the kind of technology that, if legitimate, could change the world of cryptography.

What do you think of Hotspot Shield? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Hotspot Shield Review

Breakthrough or scam? Only time will tell.

Hotspot Shield is a VPN that is treading an uncharted road with its revolutionary Catapult Hydra protocol. During our testing we weren't able to determine whether it's as good as the service claims, but we're not too comfortable recommending it. Read our full Hotspot Shield review to see why.
Starts from$ 299per month
Visit Hotspot Shield

3 thoughts on “Hotspot Shield”

  1. These guys use unethical & aggressive billing practices. I have had so many problems getting rid of Hotspot shield. First, when it came time to renew and I did not want to it hijacked my screen forcing me to put in my payment info. The only way I could stop it was through task manager and shutting down the application. Then after I cancelled about 7 months later I see charge of 35 dollars for hotspot shield which I don’t even have installed. How they got my new visa number I do not know. I’ve never had this happen to me with any other subscriptions. Avoid hotspot shield.

  2. That’s why, when I firstly install it and want to sign it, I tried several times to input my “ABSOLUTE” eMail (gMail) ID and password; however, it still can’t accept, even though I tried to click on “Restore Password” button. Moreover, the interface is still not user-friendly and accessible to people with disabilities.

  3. Hotspot Shield User Rating

    I use Hotspot Shield. My subscription is Premium unlimited. In other words, Premium for life. From my perspective, Hotspot Shield works well and I frequently check my IP address at different chosen location, it always indicates my chosen country. I have not experienced any lag watching streaming videos.

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Hotspot Shield Review

Breakthrough or scam? Only time will tell.

Hotspot Shield is a VPN that is treading an uncharted road with its revolutionary Catapult Hydra protocol. During our testing we weren't able to determine whether it's as good as the service claims, but we're not too comfortable recommending it. Read our full Hotspot Shield review to see why.
Starts from$ 299per month
Visit Hotspot Shield
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