Hotspot Shield Review

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Summary

While Hotspot Shield does its job effectively, it probably won’t appeal to technical users who want access to the “nuts and bolts” of their VPN connections. The simplicity of the offering isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, as users with basic requirements may find it does everything they require – but detailed information as to how the product actually works is disappointingly thin on the ground.

AnchorFree, the developers of Hotspot Shield, boast online that their product has been downloaded more than 100 million times. This VPN product’s popularity could well be explained by its user-friendly approach, which hides the technicalities of the product behind a slick but somewhat limited user interface.

This is a VPN product that could work well for non-technical users who have no desire to bog themselves down in details.

Packages & Pricing

Hotspot Shield’s service offerings are relatively straightforward. There is a free, ad-supported version available with limited functionality, and an “Elite” version available to subscribers. The paid version is offered on two payment models. The first is an annual subscription at $29.95, with credit / debit or PayPal payment options.

Hotspot shield order page

The second option is a fortnightly subscription, with payment taken via a mobile phone using the Mopay service. Presumably this is intended for those aiming for total privacy, but they pay both for the privilege, and for not committing to a year’s subscription at one time. At the time of writing, the quoted price of €2.46 per fortnight equates to around $83 per year.

For those choosing the annual payment option, the $29.95 yearly cost is reasonable and substantially lower than several similar services.

There is a free seven-day trial version of the Elite package available to all, allowing anyone to try the full-featured version of Hotspot Shield with no risk. Pleasingly, AnchorFree request no payment details up-front for those evaluating this version.

The Free Version

Although the free version of Hotspot Shield installs exactly the same program files to your computer, certain functionality is blocked via a login system.

You can use the free version without logging in, but you cannot then, for example, switch your VPN connection to an alternative country. This makes the free version inadequate for those who wish to use their VPN software to access TV and streaming media services in a range of countries.

In addition, when the program is running in free mode, it is supported by adverts. This results in additional browser tabs frequently opening in an unprompted fashion. Often, these tabs include video ads which play automatically, which can be irritating and intrusive.

Hotspot Shield Service Comparison

The “Elite Version”

The Elite version of Hotspot Shield, for those subscribing or using the seven day trial, unlocks the functionality closed off by the free version, and also switches off the adverts. In this configuration, it is easy to switch your VPN connection to other locations, with IP addresses in the UK, USA and Australia available as options.

In addition, each license for the Elite version is valid for use on up to five devices – this is truly decent value, but its important to note that by “devices,” the developer really means “computers” – subscriptions for iOS and Android are separately chargeable.

Customer Service

AnchorFree offer support for Hotspot Shield via email and Web forum. Elite subscribers also have “dedicated” support with access to live chat. However, when we tried to access this, there were no operators available.

No agents available on live chat

Telephone support is conspicuous by its absence also, with no sign of a phone number either within the program or on the developers website.

We put the email support to the test when trying to clarify the technology the product uses. We sent two query emails; one was answered quickly, albeit with a very verbose (4 word) answer, and the other received no reply. In general, therefore, the customer service for this product can be described as “patchy at best.”

Security

AnchorFree provide very limited information as to the type of VPN technology used by their product or the level of security encryption provided.

However, the company are keen to highlight that users browsing though a Hotspot Shield connection are offered some level of safety by their Malware Protection service, which alerts users to malware sites, and also “phishing and spam sites” for those using the Elite version.

This kind of protection is, of course, a separate matter to encryption, and despite extensive browsing of their website, we were unable to find detailed information on the technology used, beyond the fact that the software forces all Web browsing onto the secure HTTPS protocol.

An enquiry to the support department revealed that the VPN technology used is OpenVPN, but no other information was forthcoming.

The process

Registering

For the purposes of this review, we took advantage of the seven day trial of the Elite service, and tested the Mac version.

Hotspot shield registration

Registration was straightforward, with only minimal details (email and password) required to use the trial version. No personal details were requested at all, allowing this product to be used with a high level of personal privacy if desired.

Hotspot Shield Registration

 

Installation and Configuration

Installation was via a standard Mac (.dmg) installation file. As noted above, you install the same file for both the free and Elite versions. As you can see from the screenshot, the developer also includes an uninstall utility.

Hotspot shield install

After double-clicking the package file, a regular Mac software installation begins. This is a pleasingly “unbloated” piece of software, taking up just 3.5MB of space.

Hotspot shield install 2

Once the software is installed, it begins to work straight away, installing a small icon on the Mac’s menu bar. Although account management is handled via the default Web browser, the software detected my registration for the Elite trial and ran in “paid” mode automatically.

The interface itself is very straightforward, with three screen tabs: “Protection,” “Share” and Preferences.”

Main Hotspot Shield tab

The main “Protection” tab shows basic connection information and allows you to change the location of of your VPN connection, choosing between Australia, United Kingdom and USA. The free version disables your ability to make this selection. During our tests, we found that if you don’t select a specific location, the connection tends to originate in the USA.

From this screen you can use the “Test protection” link to confirm your connection data:

Hotspot Shield Test Connection

The other two tabs offer some further basic options. The “Share” tab allows you to promote the program via various social networking channels. The “Preferences” tab provides language settings, and allows you to control the basic behavior of the program when connecting to new networks (by default, it is “always on.”) Here, you can also select whether the program starts automatically on reboot.

Although the interface is slick and simple overall, there were a couple of things we didn’t like:

Firstly, the program seems to make the assumption that you will want to use it all the time, in that it’s not instantly apparent how to switch it off! To do so, you must first use the “pause protection” option, which then allows you to click the red “x” to close the program. Secondly, the program window, when open, assumes an “always on top” position, forcing you to minimise it to see what you’re doing – it’s more of an irritation that a problem, but it’s clumsy coding that someone really should have noticed.

Downgrade to free

Finally, it’s worth mentioning a little about how the free version works. The installed program, as stated above, is exactly the same, with functionality controlled via a sign-in mechanism. Should you “sign out” on the main program window, the program “downgrades” and restricts functionality, as shown in the screenshot above.

 Connection Speeds and reliability

We used Speedtest.net to gain an idea of how much difference connecting through Hotspot Shield’s VPN service made to our Internet speed.

First we ran a speed test with the software disabled:

Speed test disconnected

We then ran a test with Hotspot Shield active and using an IP address in the USA:

Speedtest Connected US

As you can see, the difference in download speed was minimal, which is a pleasing result. However, the ping time increased significantly. In addition, the quoted upload speed of 22Mbps is clearly an anomaly! Despite repeating the test several times, we experienced very similar results, both in terms of ping times and strangely reported upload speeds.

Next, we connected via a UK IP address, with the following results:

Speedtest connected UK

Once again, the download speed was impressive, just 0.03Mbps slower than the speed with Hotspot Shield disabled. The ping was improved over that to the US, probably representative of our geographical location in Europe. Once again, the reported upload speed was somewhat bizarre, and it shall remain a mystery why the speed test gives these strange results when using Hotspot Shield.

Regardless, in actual operation, Hotspot Shield deserves praise for having a minimal impact on download speed, and over several days of testing with various streaming services, we experienced a good quality of service with minimal buffering.

We did, however, occasionally find Web pages would refuse to load on first attempt when browsing via the service:

Occasionnal errors

This issue always resolved following a page refresh but caused occasional irritation nonetheless.

Compatibility

We tested Hotspot Shield on a MacBook Pro using the latest Mountain Lion (10.8) operating system.

Although we didn’t have chance to test the solution in a Windows environment, AnchorFree state that it is fully compatible with XP, Vista and Windows 7 and 8.

There are also mobile versions available for Android (2.x and 4.x) and Apple iOS devices. We had the chance to put the latter to the test.

Hotspot Shield on iOS

Our initial feeling upon downloading Hotspot Shield to an iPhone was one of slight disappointment. After reading that a subscription covered multiple “devices,” we were surprised that this didn’t include mobile devices, only computers.

Subscriptions to Hotspot Shield on iOS are, however, inexpensive, quoted at £7.99 on the UK iPhone used for testing.

The Hotspot Shield product for iOS differs significantly from the desktop version. It is marketed as a privacy app, and encourages you to run it in “always on” mode. It also offers data compression, intended to save your download allowance during mobile browsing.

Sadly, the installation procedure is unintuitive, requiring you to install and digitally sign the VPN configuration – something quite simple that seemed to send us in circles before we got it working. In addition, the “always on” setting seems unreliable, requiring us to manually enter the iPhone’s VPN settings to activate the connection.

Hotspot Shield iOS

Once connected, download speeds are good, with VPN activation having minimal impact. However, upload speeds test slower via the VPN and ping speed is increased. In real terms, however, normal iOS users are unable to notice much impact on performance.

Speed without VPN

Above are the speeds achieved over WiFi with the VPN switched off. In the image below, Hotspot Shield is active. As you can see, the download speed difference is minimal:

speed with vpn

We carried out similar tests connected to 3G with WiFi disabled. Here the difference was slightly more pronounced, with a standard connection achieving 6.27Mbps and 3.88 Mbps for download and upload respectively, with a slightly less impressive 5.82Mbps and 2.82Mbps whilst connected to Hotspot Shield’s VPN. To be fair to the product, environmental factors have far more impact on 3G connections, which could explain the differences. All in all, the performance hit as a trade-off for privacy is respectable.

We would need to spend considerably longer with the product to give a definitive view on the benefits of the product’s data compression feature, but a quick browsing session suggested, based on the product’s own stats, that it had saved us nearly half a MB of data downloads. If this is true, then long term use of the product really could save some money for those on restrictive data tariffs.

Bandwidth savings

Finally, an important point about the iOS version: We were unable to find any way to select a host country for the VPN connection. On this basis, unlike the desktop product, it won’t be helpful to those wanting to use streaming media and TV services in the “wrong” countries.

Customer Area

AnchorFree offer a simple online customer area for the management of Hotspot Shield accounts. This shows the devices protected by the software (as mentioned above, one licence covers up to five), allows you to download the software to new computers, and view basic account stats. It’s basic, but effective and well designed.

HS My account

Conclusion

We liked

  • The unrestricted free trial and minimal details required to get started
  • Minimal impact on connection speeds
  • Solid performance for streaming video
  • Low cost – especially for multiple computers
  • Potential financial savings from using the mobile version – if the in-app stats are accurate!

We weren’t so sure about

  • The lack of technical information as to how the product actually works
  • Poor detail in answers to technical support questions

We hated

  • Intrusive video ads in the free version
  • Ignored emails to the support department
  • The messy iOS installation procedure

AnchorFree Hotspot Shield is a good product on a basic level, and for those who just want an easy way to stream video from other countries, it is cheap and effective. It’s not, however, a product for demanding or technical users. Trying to establish exactly how it works was frustrating and left us with unanswered questions. A little less “sales speak” and a few more facts on the developers website would provide more assurance. Still, this isn’t a product that those with simple needs should overlook – it’s inexpensive and it works.

 

  • George
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    This is my VPN of choice, it is simple to use and effective.

  • Dude
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    I’ve been using it for the past 2 months. It’s good as in it works on the iPad @ airports, however the speed it -horribly- slow. I have a 40MB down pipe and with Hotspot turned on (macbook), I get around 5MB, turn it off.. I’m around 32. When trying to stream, that makes all the difference in the world.

    I would recommend going with PrivateInternetAccess – I have it on my PC and never have trouble with speed – then again, I do have a choice of about 20 servers…

  • Bill
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    The free trial Elite version, for Windows (I am using Win7) does not allow me to select a UK or Australia virtual IP. It just keeps going back to the US IP, when I select the other two.
    I am in Canada and would like to have a UK virtual IP.

    • L Taylor
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      Just like comment from “Bill” earlier, I have hotspot elite downloaded on my PC having paid for 6 months. I use windows 7. Initially hotspot elite worked very well and I was very happy living abroad and being able to watch BBC live and download programmes, but after a general update, hotspot elite will not allow me to select UK virtual IP , it just keeps going back to the US IP all the time. I have written twice to the dedicated help support, but have had NO response, and I am very disappointed indeed. Sadly I shall not renew my subscription.

  • Bob
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    I love this software and the added security it provides. I does cause some interesting anomalies though. Web pages think you are at the proxy ip address so they give weather, shopping, and adds from that local. The price is reasonable with the yearly subscription. I do find answers to support requests to be a bit slow though. Hopefully they will offer more proxy countries in the future.

  • Nicola
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    Hot Spot Shield was installed as part of a Filezilla download I made. I now get annoying flashing adverts from Hot Spot Shield at the top of my browser:

    I find this an incredibly low minded attempt at sales and marketing and could never recommend this product on this basis.

  • David Moore
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    HSS masks a user’s true IP and location at some but not all sites. I am in Indiana. Turn on HSS. Most “what is my IP” sites think I am in California. Good. But type “what is my IP” into Google search: Google says “Your public IP address is …” with my correct Indiana IP. My university’s Unix system knows my correct IP when I log in from my home PC with HSS enabled. The site whatismyip.com also knows my correct IP. And the routing table from Run –> cmd –> netstat -r is exactly the same with and without HSS. So we can’t trust HSS to reroute all our Internet traffic, and they don’t tell us enough to guess why.

  • jason
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    I have the free 6 month elite vpn trial my first experience of Hotspot Shield was not good I could not even install the software on windows 7 64 bit so i gave up for a couple of months,I received an email saying they had updated the software so I tried again.I now have it installed on my pc and i honestly have to say that its one of the worst vpn software applications ive ever used.The service is very limited with only 3 servers and painfully slow I have a 100 mbps connection and while the vpn is running i max`s out at a painfully slow 4.25 mbps,ive also tried astril vpn this is able to max out my 100 meg connection from various servers.I can not recommend Hotspot Shield to anyone and i certainly would not pay for it I actually about to remove it from my pc even though its free for the next 4 months.

  • mamap
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    Watch out!
    It might be leaking your ture IP. Check it yourself by accessing a https based IP trace site like https://www.whatismyip.com (and http://www.whatismyip.com. Are those two IPs are the same?)
    I’m certain that you are dead if you have another un/tap driver for another openvpn client on the same PC.
    But, I saw this happen with the Elite( or recent) version even though I had it alone on my PC).
    I’ve seen this since the beginning of the service. I’ve warned them a couple times but they never listened to me.
    Anyway, you’ve been warned.

  • mamap
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    Pete,
    Would you confirm that?
    I’ve seen this happen on all of my PCs, in Win XP, 7 & 8.
    So, I guess I must not be the only one who encountered this problem.
    I wonder why nobody else seems to notice since it’s existed and been the most used VPN service for 6-7 years?

  • mamap
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    Never mind!

    I finally found someone else saying this other than myself!

    h*tp://www.dslreports.com/forum/r28340944-How-does-Hotspot-Shield-VPN-handle-SSL-traffic-

    h*tps://anonymous-proxy-servers.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=7323
    BTW, I actually told them about this just a year ago before the above post (h*tps://anonymous-proxy-servers.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=27421#p27421)

    Anyhow, also, I guess the post by David Moore here is kind of confirming it.

    I always wondered why nobody else seemed to notice that since it’s been around and been the most popular VPN solution for about 7 years.

    I’m sure many HS users are leaking their true IPs w/o their knowledge!

    Again, you’ve been warned.

  • mamap
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    Other Post:

    h*tp://forums.comodo.com/general-security-questions-and-comments/why-hotspot-shield-and-proxpn-still-show-true-ip-address-t83732.0.html

    h*tp://www.techsupportalert.com/content/how-protect-your-online-privacy.htm?page=2#comment-91711

    Also, I really think you’d better mention this issue, as a lot of people might be leaking their true IPs w/o their knowledge using it.

  • ASAD
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    You want to give us free 2 days or 3 but in first you want money plz give 2 or 3 days free

  • John
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    I paid for the upgrade, at around $30 for 1 year it is really great value!!!!

    When it works it works really, really great. I am in Australia and get good speed from the UK that I am very happy with. I have tried demos of other companies at 2-3 times the cost and got lower speed.

    However it frequently drops back to the “free version” (around every 2-3 weeks) even though I am paid up for a year.

    The “help desk guys” are very good and always fix the problem with 24 hours but then a couple of weeks later it drops off again.

  • Jeff MacArthur
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    I have had a subscription to Hotshot for 8 months now and can NEVER EVER get a reply to any email. I have had problems and cannot get any help..ever.
    I am so tired of sending emails asking why no one answers that I am going to spend the money and call long distance to California and hopefully someone will answer the phone.
    I will not renew with company again and advise anyone to look around for some one more reliable

Author Picture Written by Pete Zaborszky
Pete runs Best VPN and wants to get detailed information to the readers. He is dedicated to being the best and providing the highest quality at anything he does. You can also find him on Twitter or Google+


Operating Systems

  • Mac Compatible
  • PC Compatible

Devices

  • Android Compatible
  • Cellphone access
  • iPad Compatible
  • iPhone Compatible
  • Tablet Compatible

Payment Options

  • American Express
  • Paypal
  • Visa / Mastercard

Support Types

  • Forum
  • Live Chat

IP Types

  • Dedicated IP
  • Shared IP (Dynamic)

Protocols

  • OpenVPN