Hotspot Shield is an easy-to-use VPN with particular appeal to more casual users, with its pleasingly lightweight clients focusing on always-on protection for open networks and geo unblocking. Unfortunately, this simplicity comes at the cost of obscuring potentially important technical information from users. The existence of a time-unlimited free version is welcome, though limited in its usefulness by heavy restrictions.

Pricing & Plans

Hotspot Shield’s sole paid-for plan is called Elite. There is also a time-unlimited free trial, but this only allows use of the US servers, prevents access to some premium streaming websites such as Netflix and Hulu, and injects advertisements into webpages viewed while connected. Elite users are not subject to any such restrictions.

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Depending on the country from which you pay, AnchorFree offer a variety of different payment methods as well as a 30 day money-back guarantee. Yearly and six-monthly subscriptions are offered as standard, with some countries also providing for monthly subscriptions or adding options such as paying by cell phone.

At the time of writing, users wishing to pay from the US are subject to higher prices and fewer payment options: the ‘special offer’ present from other billed countries for a year of Elite membership for $29.95 is one of the cheapest we’ve seen, and the usual price of $49.99 is still lower than average.

Features

Hotspot Shield is a service offered by AnchorFree, a US-registered company with slick PR and a history of attracting lucrative investments from big corporations such as Goldman Sachs. As well as offering servers in the United States, elite users can connect to servers in 17 other countries across the world thanks to recent expansions in the company’s lineup. What’s more, up to five devices can be registered to and simultaneously connected from an Elite account at any one time.

Visit Hotspot Shield »

Security & Privacy

Hotspot Shield is not hugely forthcoming on the technical details of their products, and the precise level of security and privacy offered by the service is not spelled out on their website – somewhat discouraging for users for whom privacy is a serious concern. However according to the Help Desk agent we contacted, the Windows client uses OpenVPN with 256-bit AES encryption.

AnchorFree does promise not to collect, store or share any ‘permanent identifiers’ of users, though they do make use of targeted advertising for free users.

The website

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We found the Hotspot Shield website to be generally well-presented and easy to use, with what information there is easy to find – though with the disclaimer that it’s quite heavy on advertising-speak and light on technical specifics. There is also a regularly-updated blog prominently linked from the main site and focusing mostly on guides to unlock geo-restricted content. Naturally this involves downloading, installing and signing up for Hotspot Shield Elite, it’s not unusual for promotional codes to be included in blog posts offering discounts to new users as well as genuinely helpful instructions.

Support

Hotspot Shield’s first stop for support is a searchable knowledge base, discovered by clicking the ‘support’ link on the main page of the site. This presents a list of popular questions and guides, with each article including a helpful/unhelpful button as well as options for users to submit a request directly to support or ask their question on the Forum.

The Forum is divided into sections for Feature Requests and Help. Posting in the help section results in a reply by a customer support agent within a day or so, though often these are to inform posters that their question has been escalated to a support ticket – not so helpful for passers-by searching for help with a common problem. We also felt the Forum is oddly sparse for a service boasting 200 million users.

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Customer support can be contacted directly by either of these above methods, or by clicking the pop-out support link on the main website. Users are asked to type their question, and then offered a list of potentially helpful topics from the knowledge base to consider. If desired, users can then proceed to fill out a form to escalate their question to customer support’s direct attention – a process involving giving one’s full name, email address, ZIP code and country of residence. Users can log in to the site to see the status and progress of their ticket, as well as submitting comments and uploading supporting files, but anyone hoping for a quick response or to talk to someone in real time will be disappointed – it took us several days to get a response to one of our tickets, and the other was closed without response.

The Process

Signing Up

Downloading the client is easy and installation didn’t give us any problems, though we were prompted for a phone number to send download links for iOS/Android versions of the client and asked if we wanted to install a browser addon and use Hotspot Shield as our default search provider. New users are automatically given a one-day free trial of the Elite version of the VPN which is active as soon as the client is installed. Adding a paid subscription after the trial expires requires registration with a full name, email address, ZIP code and country of residence.

The Windows VPN client

The new 4.x client is a big improvement over the old 3.x version, and is sleek, smart and instantly familiar to anyone who uses a smartphone – our only gripe with this interface is that it may not be obvious for users unfamiliar with Android app design how to open the options menu. Installation was smooth, though we were a little dismayed when the installer unceremoniously dumped us out of our browser session without warning.

Once the client’s up and running, it automatically establishes a VPN connection and pops up the main screen with three buttons: one to change countries, one to change the status of your current network, and one to select protection type. By default, the client will attempt to decide how safe your current network is and therefore whether it needs to use the VPN only for ‘selected sites’ or for all internet activity, though it’s not clear what criteria it bases this assessment on. The list of selected sites includes major streaming sites as well as google and Facebook by default, though users can edit it freely. It’s also possible to manually toggle between Selected Sites and Full Protection modes in case the client gets it wrong.

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Connection and server changes are simple and happen very fast, and client settings (once discovered) are laid out clearly and unfettered by the sorts of advanced options which could confuse less tech-savvy users. Hotspot Shield operates on an ‘always-on’ policy which treats disconnection from the VPN as an unusual and temporary event; by default, it starts the client and VPN along with Windows, and once users figure out how to pause protection by bringing up the options menu, will only pause it for 15 minutes unless the user selects otherwise.

Users of the free service, meanwhile, will find that once their Elite trial expires a new header bar will appear at the top of any website they visit while connected to the VPN. This will show the Hotspot Shield logo on the left, a stat box on the right showing how much bandwidth you’ve used, and a banner ad in the middle. We’re a bit leery of anything that injects code into websites as you view them, but considering you’re getting unlimited free VPN use we didn’t find the adverts too intrusive and the entire header bar can be closed once each site has loaded. You can check how this compares to other free VPNs on our 5 Best Free VPNs page.

Performance (Speed, DNS and IP Test)

Performance on both Elite and free was generally good, with the occasional slow connection fixed by reconnecting – sadly there’s no option to choose a different server manually, or report poor performance. We generally had no issues with streaming HD content and were able to sustain connections over several hours good enough to not notice we were connected to a VPN at all.


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No VPN, UK. Elite VPN, UK.
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No VPN, US. Free VPN, US.


The UK speed test conducted using the Elite service was anomalous in two ways: first, because we couldn’t get past a 413 error when attempting an upload speed test, and second because the reported download speed was higher than is physically possible on our connection – despite using a speed test that compensates for compression.

DNS and IP leak tests raised no issues, with AnchorFree supplying their own DNS server.

Other Platforms

AnchorFree provide clients for Windows, Mac, iOS (using IPsec) and Android. When trying the free version on Android, it was interesting to see the client connecting immediately to what it claimed was a server apparently in the country we were connecting from, and not otherwise available on the country list – only for an IP test to reveal the server was actually in the USA.

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It’s worth adding that, if allowed to by the user’s settings, the mobile client is particularly good at quickly and seamlessly connecting to the VPN when faced with a new open WiFi network.

Conclusion

We liked

  • Simple, clean interface
  • Ease of use
  • (Mostly) good speeds and reliable connections
  • Focus on always-on protection
  • Wide variety of countries to choose from
  • Low price

We weren’t so sure about

  • Lack of technical information
  • Occasional hiccups with some servers
  • Lack of live support
  • No secure payment method
  • No P2P protection
  • Ads injected by free version

We hated

  • Lack of concrete information on protocols and encryption
  • Slow responses from support

Overall, Hotspot Shield is a VPN client that fits a particular niche very well. For users who just want a fast, cheap way to access their favourite streaming website or don’t want to worry about their security when surfing from open WiFi hotspots, Hotspot Shield is great – it connects quickly, has a no-nonsense interface and offers a generally very reliable service. A paucity of technical information and poor showing from customer support, however, means that users with more serious concerns about their privacy or greater technical requirements should look elsewhere.

Visit Hotspot Shield »