Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.
- Hotspot Shield is now available for TVs. (January 2020)
- Pricing changes. $7.99 per month for a 1-year plan and a new 3-year is available for $2.99 per month. (February 2020)
- The number of locations has increased to over 80 countries. (February 2020)
- Hotspot Shield VPN is now available for Wi-Fi routers. (April 2020)
- Hotspot Shield VPN is now available for Linux. (May 2020)
Founded by the US internet security firm AnchorFree, Hotspot Shield is the VPN service that has a free and premium version.
The ad-supported free version has a 500MB daily traffic limit and offers a limited server coverage, while the paid version provides access to the full set of 3,200+ servers in more than 70 countries.
The free plan allows you to connect only one device. With one premium account, you can connect up to five devices at the same time. This is the maximum number and it cannot be increased by installing on a router as the provider doesn’t support any.
Netflix, Hulu, Snapchat, Amazon Prime, YouTube all have something in common. They are subject to varying degrees of censorship and geo-blocking for various reasons. Not all VPN providers are equally capable of bypassing these restrictions but Hotspot Shield has had enviable success with most of them except BBC iPlayer.
All of the provider’s servers are P2P-optimized, which means that torrenting is supported.
Plans and pricing
The premium version of Hotspot Shield can be purchased under several pricing models. The first is the 1-month option at the pricey $12.99. The second is the 1-year plan available for $7.99 a month ($95.88 billed annually). The cheapest is the 3-year subscription at only $2.99 a month (billed $107.64 every three years), classifying Hotspot Shield as one of the most affordable VPN services on the market.
Sometimes a 2-year plan is available which costs $6.99 per month (billed $167.76 every two years). Whichever subscription you opt for, there are multiple payment methods at your disposal - credit cards, PayPal, Alipay, gift cards, and more. However, these may not all be available at your current location.
There is no traditional free trial. That said, you can test the service out without being charged for it during the first seven days after you’ve signed up for a subscription plan. You need to cancel it if you don’t want to continue and be charged. All the plans are covered by a 45-day money-back guarantee.
Privacy and logging
While most VPNs list the familiar transfer protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2, L2TP, and PPTP, Hotspot Shield has a slightly different approach. Instead, it uses its proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol, which it claims provides superior performance and reliability.
The website states that this protocol is used by many large cybersecurity companies that offer VPN services such as McAfee, BitDefender, Cheetah Mobile, and others. It is also used by carriers such as Telefonica and KDDI to provide VPN services and wifi security to their customers.
Catapult Hydra is based on Transport Layer Security (TLS) 1.2 with AES-128 and AES-256 encryption. The Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (EDCHE) creates new keys for every session, while the 2048-bit RSA certificate facilitates server authentication.
Hotspot Shield’s Windows app deploys a kill switch whenever the VPN connection drops. This feature instantly shuts down the entire Internet access, protecting you from becoming exposed online.
The Android client allows you to create a list of apps that will only activate when the VPN is on. If you’re using a Windows device, you’ll be able to choose whether you want to automatically connect to the provider when accessing various wifi hotspots (unsafe or safe), as well as all networks. The ‘Web domain bypass’ option allows you to create a list of websites you want to bypass the VPN connection.
Unlike some of its competitors, Hotspot Shield still hasn’t invited an independent auditor to confirm its no-logging claims. However, AnchorFree has issued a Transparency Report for 2018, listing all the data requests it received during that year from various parties and how much information was shared with them.
Privacy-focused users might also have an issue with the location of the provider’s headquarters - the United States. The authorities there have been known to spy on netizens on its soil and have previously demanded from some VPNs to hand over their users’ private information, sometimes resulting in logging scandals.
Hotspot Shield is only compatible with those platforms it has apps for. These are Windows, Android, Mac, and iOS, and setting them up is very simple. There are also proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox. No other devices are supported.
The VPN vendor’s main quality is its superb performance. It delivers consistent and lightning speeds from most servers and even those far away from the user’s current location still don’t suffer any major latencies. This may well be due to Catapult Hydra’s performance-boosting capabilities.
Hotspot Shield has a solid support section with information about the installation and use of clients for various platforms, payments and subscriptions, accounts, common issues, and release notes. If you’d like to learn more about the provider and its uses, head over to the blog section where you can read content like ‘Digital DNA - the data trail we leave behind’ and ‘A day in the life of an internet user’s data (infographic)’.
You can also get in touch with a member of the Hotspot Shield team who can answer all your questions directly and quickly. This is possible via web form and live chat on the website.
Setting aside the limited platform support, Hotspot Shield has everything a self-respecting VPN service needs to have - Netflix-unblocking capabilities, strong security, P2P-friendly servers, and blazing speeds.