Hotspot Shield Review
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
For the purposes of this review, we took advantage of the seven day trial of the Elite service, and tested the Mac version.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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:
We then ran a test with Hotspot Shield active and using an IP address in the USA:
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:
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:
This issue always resolved following a page refresh but caused occasional irritation nonetheless.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.