Hotspot Shield Elite is a premium VPN service that exists alongside Hotspot Shield’s free VPN. The premium VPN is a fast service that is great for unblocking censored content or geo-restricted websites. It even unblocks US Netflix! Sadly the VPN is still not the best for privacy, but for streaming, it is truly superb.
AnchorFree first released Hotspot Shield as a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) in 2008. Since then, its service has been split into two products: a free service, and a premium VPN called Hotspot Shield Elite. In total, more than 600 million users around the globe have installed the VPN.
The vast majority of those consumers use the free version, and there can be no doubt that Hotspot Shield has been an invaluable tool for people living in places suffering from website blackouts. For example, it was the main VPN used during the Arab Spring protests.
In this review, we will concentrate on the premium “elite” version of Hotspot Shield (the paid version). If you are only interested in the free version there is a specific section later in this review. The free version is also covered separately in the privacy and security portion of this review.
Up to five simultaneous connections
App for Windows, Mac OS X, macOS, iOS, and Android
You can only purchase Hotspot Shield Elite in a single plan. As such, no matter how long you decide to subscribe for, you get access to all of the VPN’s features. The only difference comes in the form of the cost. The VPN is discounted significantly if you commit for a longer period.
In order to enjoy the discounted monthly price, you need to pay for your whole subscription period upfront. In addition, AnchorFree sets up an automatic re-billing agreement with your bank account. Unless you cancel, it will charge you again when the subscription period ends.
The firm has a 45-day money-back guarantee. In addition, you can trial Hotspot Shield Elite for seven days, free of charge. This gives you plenty of time to cancel if you aren’t happy with the service.
You need to provide your credit card details in order to utilize the Hotspot Shield Elite free trial. Hotspot Shield will automatically move you onto the paid plan unless you cancel your subscription during the seven-day period. Bear in mind that if you don’t cancel the free trial, Hotspot Shield will put you on the monthly tariff when it transfers you to the paid service. This is the most expensive plan.
The best plan available for Hotspot Shield is a 2-year plan that reduces the monthly cost to the equivalent of $2.99 per month. An unlimited plan is also available on the website at a cost of $165. This is a good option for anybody looking for a streaming VPN.
However, allow me to remind you that the ability to unblock Netflix US (for example) is a fluid situation and it is possible that Hotspot Shield will one day stop having the ability to unblock the service. As such, an unlimited plan should only be purchased on the understanding that the service could change.
Hotspot Shield Elite accepts a large number of payment methods. These include PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB, Diners Club, and Union Pay.
With a Hotspot Shield Elite subscription, you get:
Servers in 25 countries
45-day money-back guarantee
Enhanced transport protocol technology
Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) and Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) leak protection
WiFi protection (auto connect)
Permission to use five simultaneous connections
Browser extensions for Firefox (very dated) and Chrome (excellent and up-to-date)
Malware detection (Chrome extension only)
Ad blocker/tracker blocker/cookie blocker (Chrome extension only)
Split tunneling (Chrome extension only)
App for Windows, Mac OS X, macOS, iOS, and Android
Option to switch languages in the app
No data limits or bandwidth limits on Elite subscription
Peer-to-peer (P2P) permitted
Hotspot Shield Elite provides access to servers in 25 countries:
This makes the VPN great for unblocking content around the globe.
The Chrome and Firefox browser extensions are proxy services (as opposed to a full VPN). The Chrome extension permits Hotspot Shield Elite users to connect to servers in 14 countries: the US, the UK, France, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, India, Germany, and Singapore. The Firefox extension is more basic and doesn’t allow subscribers to select a server location. Instead, it connects to a random “optimized location.”
Please remember that the proxy extensions will only work within the browser. They won’t provide the privacy you get when spoofing your location using the full VPN. As such, the proxy is a nice extra for those who want it. However, it should never be considered the same quality as the standalone VPN client.
Hotspot Shield uses the same encryption standards on both the free and Elite versions of the VPN. This is how Hotspot shield describes that encryption:
“Turning Hotspot Shield on encrypts all of the traffic between your device and our servers using TLS 1.2 with perfect forward secrecy (ECDHE), 128-bit AES data encryption.”
This level of security seems Okay and would usually be considered secure. Sadly, however, because Hotspot Shield implements a proprietary protocol called “Catapult Hydra,” we do not have the exact details about how encryption is being implemented. For this reason, I simply can’t say that it is definitively secure.
What we do know, is that Hotspot Shield claims that Catapult Hydra has been audited and that it is being used by some major players in the tech sector. Unfortunately, BestVPN.com have not seen that audit (or even any proof that it exists). For this reason, we cannot verify that this is actually the case.
As is always the case with VPN security – it is impossible to vouch for technology that is not Open Source – unless there is a publicly available third-party audit that has been carried out by a reputable firm.
“Your true IP address is stored only for the duration of your VPN session and is cleared after your session is closed. We do not associate your true IP address with your online activities and we do not store or log your true IP address after the end of your session.”
In addition, the policy now clearly states that:
This is good news indeed, it means that users of both the free and paid versions of Hotspot Shield no longer need to worry that IP addresses are being stored alongside connection logs.
Hotspot shield states that:
“When you launch Hotspot Shield, we also collect device-specific information, such as the hardware model, operating system version, browser type, language, wireless network, and mobile network information. This information does not identify you, and we use it to provide and improve the Services, troubleshoot, and perform analytics on our services.”
Despite Hotspot Shield’s claim that this data “does not identify you,” we tend to disagree. We feel that wireless network, approximate location, and mobile network id can be used to identify you. For this reason, we believe Hotspot Shield still has invasive data practices. No IPs is a good move (and certainly makes Hotspot Shield better on the desktop version), but the mobile app does tell AnchorFree (and its third party affiliates) a lot of high-risk data.
“If you use Hotspot Shield Elite, the premium subscription-based version of our product, we will not serve any ads and thus no information will be collected by our third party ad partners on the Elite product.”
On the free plan…
The free version of Hotspot Shield does serve users with adverts. However, the policy clearly states that:
“The ads you may see on the free, advertising-supported version of Hotspot Shield are generic – never based on your personal information.”
This helps to clarify that Hotspot Shield is not directly collecting information about people’s VPN use in order to allow Anchor Free (the company that owns Hotspot Shield) – or any of its third-party affiliates – to perform personalized advert targeting.
“We never share your personal information with unaffiliated third parties other than service providers that we use for internal technology and business operations (such as website hosting, payment processing, data analysis, information technology, customer service, and email delivery).”
This still seems like a rather long list of firms with which data can be shared (especially considering what Hotspot Shield is still collecting from users even on the premium version).
The Hotspot Shield website underwent a significant update in 2017. Navigation on the site hasn’t really changed; the improvements are largely aesthetic. They make the website more enjoyable to use.
Navigation is via a simple menu with just four options. “Pricing” takes you directly to the paid version of Hotspot Shield. Hovering over the “Products” drop-down menu brings up an easy-to-use window with downloads for all platforms.
A nice addition is that you can also change the language of the site in the footer.
Hotspot Shield’s customer support isn’t one of the service’s strong points. Nowadays, premium VPNs are very good at dealing with consumers in real time. The very best services provide 24/7 live chat to help customers use the service and deal with problems.
For customers using the free service, help desk responses are very slow indeed. Elite users are supposed to get a much better service. However, customer support seems to be under strain due to the massive number of users that the VPN has. Considering the cost of the elite service – which is very similar to other services that provide exceptional support – this is a disappointment.
Consumers experiencing problems would be wise to first attempt to solve them using the knowledge base in the Hotspot Shield Help Center. This resource could be useful, but it doesn’t have that many guides and is pretty limited.
In order to submit a request for help, you’ll need to click on the “Contact Support” button and open a support ticket. This ticket will be handled via the email address that you subscribed to Hotspot Shield with.
When you type in the form’s Subject field, it supplies a list of knowledge base articles that it thinks might help.When I filled out the form, the suggestions were no good. Thus, I had to continue filling in the rather invasive questions (it wanted to know details such as my operating system).
Signing up to Hotspot Shield
If you want to sign up to Hotspot Shield Elite, click through to its website and click on “Pricing” at the top of the page. Now select one of the subscription plans. The one year plan makes the cost much more reasonable. Next, choose whether to pay with a credit card or with PayPal.
We recommend against getting the lifetime subscription without first using the VPN for some time. After all, you don’t want a lifetime subscription to a VPN that you decide you don’t like in the long-term (however, this is not the best VPN on the market).
Having paid for your subscription, you’ll need to download the VPN software for your platform. The browser extensions also becomes available once you’ve subscribed. Although you get a 45-day money-back guarantee, some people may prefer to use the seven-day free trial instead.
To do this, simply download the VPN software before you subscribe. The Hotspot Shield Elite free trial can only be found in the VPN client app. There is no mention on the website of the seven-day trial.
Hotspot Shield Elite Free Trial
Click on the “Get Hotspot Shield” button to access the download page. The download of the installer will begin automatically.
This is the free version of the app. When you first launch it, you’ll be given the option to sign up for a seven-day free trial of the paid version. Enter your credit card details in order to access the free trial of Hotspot Shield Elite.
If you decide to go down this road, please remember to cancel before the week is up if you decide the service isn’t for you – or you’ll be charged for your first month. Note that using the seven-day free trial takes away your entitlement to the 45-day money-back guarantee.
Use a valid email address, as you need to verify the address to activate the service. If you only want to use Hotspot Shield free VPN, click on the back arrow in the top left corner of the seven-day free trial window.
The Hotspot Shield Windows client was recently redesigned. It is aesthetically pleasing and very easy to use. The main screen is uncluttered and the animation when you turn it on is really neat. AnchorFree definitely got this side of the product right; consumers will enjoy using this interface.
Once inside the app, you just get one large button to click and connect. Clicking on it connects the VPN and brings up the server locations menu. This is a little unorthodox, but it gets the job done. Simply connect, select your preferred location from the menu, and watch it reconnect to your selection.
The hamburger menu at the top left takes you to the Settings screen, where you can pick and choose all the usual VPN features.
The Settings screen allows you toggle on and off all the important features. These include automatic WiFi protection (auto-connect), a kill switch (which stops data from being sent outside of the VPN tunnel), and IP leak protection (IPv6 and WebRTC leak protection).
For ease of use, you can set the VPN software to various different languages.
As per the image below, the connection location shows in the bottom right of the app. As I had purchased a Hotspot Shield Elite subscription for the purposes of testing the VPN, I was able to select Sweden. There are 25 countries to choose from in the drop-down menu.
To the left of the map, the amount of data that you’ve uploaded and downloaded during the session is displayed. “Virtual Address” is the VPN server address that conceals your true IP address and makes you appear to be abroad.
Although the Chrome extension for Hotspot Shield comes with an ad blocker, the VPN doesn’t. This is because ad blocking has to happen at the browser level. Thus, if you want to use Hotspot Shield’s ad blocking, malware blocking, tracker blocking, and cookie blocking functions, you’ll need to install the Chrome extension as well as the custom VPN client software.
Chrome Browser Extension
Hotspot Shield Elite comes with a browser extension for Google Chrome. You can access it via the “Products” menu.
You can also install the extension from the Google Play store.
Once you’ve installed the extension, turn it on/off by clicking on the blue shield icon in the top right of Chrome. The icon shows a red dot if the VPN is off and a green dot if the proxy is connected. I tested to make sure it was working using ipleak.net and found it to be effective. I got one IP address in the Netherlands and a number of Google Domain Name System (DNS) addresses (in the Netherlands and the US).
Hotspot Shield claims that the proxy extension provides encryption. If this is true, then it must be providing a secondary layer of HTTPS. Sadly, I can neither verify nor refute this claim. If encryption is important to you, I recommend using the full VPN client.
The Chrome extension allows you to connect to 14 server locations. Three of those (the US, UK, and France) are only available to Hotspot Shield Elite users. The locations available to free VPN users are Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, India, Germany, and Singapore. However, because the free VPN comes with US only, consumers can actually pretend to be in 15 countries – without paying a dime!
I tested the default server on the Hotspot Shield Chrome proxy extension (without signing into my Elite account). This server is labeled “optimal server location.” I’m in the UK and it connected me to Germany automatically, so it appears that the UK, US, and France really are off limits to free users. The extension remembers your previous location even if you turn it off and close Chrome.
Ad, Tracker, and Cookie Blockers
The Chrome extension comes with a tracker blocker, ad blocker, malware blocker, and cookie blocker. All of these features are new. I switched them on and found there to be some rather serious side effects. I was automatically logged out of the online account that I was working in due to these “blocker features.” I couldn’t log back in until I switched them off. At least this shows that it is doing something!
I tested the advert blocker while connected to Germany. Without the ad blocker engaged, I was served German adverts. With the feature on, I was served absolutely no adverts. This is a very positive result, which seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea that Hotspot Shield is all about serving adverts. I was very impressed with this free extension.
Sites Settings (Split Tunneling)
Clicking on the “Sites settings” configuration option (in the Chrome extension) allows you to select websites that you don’t want to be affected by the proxy. You can also specify websites that the Hotspot Shield proxy extension will always cover – even if you’ve it set to “Off.” This is a useful feature that allows you not only to avoid accidentally accessing a particular website without the extension, but also to easily whitelist websites that you never want to access via the proxy.
This useful feature is called “split tunneling.” Sadly it is only available in the Chrome extension (not in the full VPN client).
When connected, the extension shows a Stop button, session duration time, and upload and download figures. It also shows you how many sites, adverts, and trackers it has blocked (if you have blocking enabled). You can switch server locations from this screen without having to turn off the proxy first.
Firefox Browser Extension
Strangely, the Hotspot Shield Firefox add-on never gets a mention on Hotspot Shield’s website. To find it, you must go to the Add-ons screen of Firefox and search for Hotspot Shield manually.
The Firefox extension was written several years ago and now looks extremely dated when compared to the new Chrome version.
The Firefox extension only lets you connect to a random “optimized” location. It has none of the excellent features found in the Chrome extension.
Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC, and IPv6 Tests)
The speed tests for this review were undertaken using Hotspot Shield Elite. The speed tests were performed from the UK, using a London server on beta.speedtest.net. Connection speeds were checked without the VPN connected first, to get base level results (for the UK and US). I tested the US server using a New York test server on beta.speedtest.net.
I tested both the Netherlands and UK from the UK test server in London. In each case, I amassed the results from five tests. Each colored block in the graphs represents the range of speeds encountered, from highest to lowest. Please check out our full speed test explanation for more details.
Hotspot Shield Elite performed at insanely fast speeds, which came extremely close to my connection speeds without a VPN. This does raise some questions about the strength of the encryption that Hotspot Shield Elite has implemented (which, I still have no concrete data on). Sadly, there’s no way to know whether the speeds are lightning fast due to extremely good traffic routing or because of rubbish encryption standards. I am on the fence, but my gut instinct tells me that these speeds are too fast to be well-implemented encryption up to the standards of OpenVPN.
Either way, if you want a VPN for streaming and you don’t really care about privacy – this VPN is probably for you.
IP leaks, WebRTC leaks, and DNS leaks
I tested for IP leaks while connected to Hotspot Shield’s UK server, using ipleak.net.
I detected no IP leaks, no DNS leaks, and no WebRTC leaks. Unfortunately, I was unable to test for IPv6 because my ISP doesn’t provide it. However, due to the fact that it has specific IPv6 protection built into the client, I would assume that this feature works. If you have IPv6, please feel free to comment on the feature below the article.
I was able to unblock Netflix with Hotspot Shield Elite connected to the US VPN server. It worked perfectly. I connected to the UK server, tried BBC iPlayer and again had no problem. This is excellent. It demonstrates that the elite version of the VPN works for unblocking content.
Sadly, the free version didn’t fare as well: it blocked Netflix and iPlayer and told me to upgrade to the paid version.
As for the paid version: if you want a VPN for streaming then this VPn is very good indeed because it is lightning fast and does unblock a lot of services!
There are versions of the Hotspot Shield app for the Windows, Mac OS X, macOS, iOS, and Android operating systems. The browser extension is available for Google Chrome on Windows, Android, Mac OS X, macOS, and the iOS operating systems. There is also an add-on for the Firefox web browser.
Hotspot Shield Free
However, considering the VPN is free and gives users a data allowance of 750 Mb per day, it’s still useful for people who are desperate to get around local regional restrictions and censorship. In fact, Hotspot Shield was the main VPN used during the Arab Spring. It was also used heavily in Turkey during website blackouts in and around the time of the military coup.
It is worth noting that free users only get access to the US server. Thus users are limited to only being able to pretend to be in the US.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the free version of Hotspot Shield does serve adverts and does permit advertisers to collect data about users, including their real IP address (if they are not connected tot he VPN).
Hotspot Shield Free Chrome Extension
Free users of the VPN can use the Chrome Extension to pretend to be in a larger number of countries (14). This is useful, but please be aware that the Chrome extension is a proxy service only (as opposed to a proper VPN service). The extension does encrypt using HTTPS, which is good.
Using the Hotspot Shield Free Service
You don’t have to give any information at all in order to download and install the free VPN. This means you can use it on as many devices as you want. Hotspot Shield treats every instance as a separate account.
CSIRO Study Results
We gave Hotspot Shield an opportunity to answer to CSIRO’s claims, this is what the firm told us:
“We never redirect our users’ traffic to any third-party resources instead of the websites they intended to visit. The free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, however, we collect no personally identifiable user data and intercept no traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions. We never share any personally identifiable information with any of the advertisers. Our users’ online privacy has always been our absolute priority.”
Very fast connections
Multilingual site and app
Very well designed app
Free version with 750 Mb allowance per day
Kill switch and auto-connect features
Easy-to-use browser extensions
Split Tunneling (on Chrome extension only)
Ad blocker/Cookie blocker that works well (Chrome)
No DNS leaks detected
Anonymous access to the free app
I wasn’t so sure about:
Slow customer support response time
Free version doesn’t unblock Netflix or iPlayer
Encryption implementation is still unverified
On the plus side, this VPN is fast and unblocks plenty of content. If you are looking for a good streaming VPN and you aren’t that bothered about it having unverified encryption: Hotspot Shield is very good for unblocking streaming content in HD.
As a streaming VPN there are few VPNs that are so quick – so take it for a test run!
As for the free Chrome browser and the free Hotspot Shield (750Mb per day) service? They are free, they work well, and they have been used by literally millions of people in times of desperate need. For this alone, Hotspot Shield deserves a big pat on the back.