- Table of Contents
- Hotspot Shield Review Overview
- Hotspot Shield VPN: Latest News and Updates
- Hotspot Shield Features
- Hotspot Shield Cost: Plans & Value for Money
- Apps & Support
- Servers & Server Locations
- Speeds & Performance Testing
- Streaming & Torrenting
- Hotspot Shield Security: Encryption & Protocols
- Privacy & Logs
- Customer Support & Service
- Ease of Use
- Bottom Line: Do I Recommend Hotspot Shield?
- Hotspot Shield Alternatives
I don’t recommend Hotspot Shield — it’s fast, but only because it cuts far too many corners. You’re better off with a trustworthy alternative like ExpressVPN, which you can try for free a 30-day money-back guarantee.
When I started research for this Hotspot Shield VPN review, I expected to find the usual questions. Is Hotspot Shield a good VPN? Is it worth the money? Is it better than NordVPN?
Instead, I found an awful lot of people wondering if Hotspot Shield was a computer virus.
To put it mildly, I didn’t get my hopes up. It’s as if I was considering buying a boat, and Google autocompleted my first search with “are Bertram boats supposed to attract krakens?”
- Best Hotspot Shield alternative
Although Hotspot Shield VPN is not actually malware, I understand why so many people think it might be. My initial experience with this VPN did little to improve my first impression. I don’t think I’ve ever had a VPN check so many boxes on my s*** list so quickly.
I’ll get into more of the reasons below, but here’s a sample: this VPN forces you to enter your home address along with your payment information.
How on God’s green earth do you spend years building a VPN without understanding that one of the biggest reasons to use one is to conceal your physical location? Hotspot Shield doesn’t even give any reason for requiring information that every other leading VPN manages just fine without.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this Hotspot Shield review isn’t just to vent my frustrations; it’s also to go in-depth on every aspect of this VPN and see whether it’s worth your time and money. To spoil the ending a bit, Hotspot Shield has some good qualities. But are there enough?
Does Hotspot Shield collect data?Hotspot Shield Free openly gathers user data and sells it to advertisers, who then display ads on the VPN app. At the Premium level, Hotspot Shield still gathers lots of data but claims to not relate it to individual users.
Can you use Hotspot Shield for free?Yes, but you shouldn’t, since the Free plan makes money by selling your data for ads.
Which is better, Hotspot Shield or NordVPN?NordVPN, hands down. It’s not only faster but also more secure, private and affordable.
Hotspot Shield Review Overview
|$7.99 per month for a 1-year plan ($95.88 for one year)
|Free trial available
|MacOS, Windows, Linux, Chrome, smart TVs, routers
|Worldwide Server Amount
|1,800 Servers in 80+ Countries
|Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+
- Great at unlocking streaming platforms
- Extremely fast
- Clean, pleasant user interface
- Decent customer service
- Unaddressed security flaws
- Proprietary, unaudited protocol that you’re required to use
- Limited feature availability
- Wildly overpriced
How Good Is Hotspot Shield VPN?
Hotspot Shield is a generic-at-best VPN service with massive security and privacy holes that charges more than its far worthier competitors. The only reason to pay for this VPN is if you’ve found it impossible to unblock streaming sites with any other VPN provider.
Hotspot Shield VPN: Latest News and Updates
We’ll update this section if anything major happens concerning Hotspot Shield or any of its parent companies. The biggest news recently is the Aura acquisition, which you can read about in the “who owns Hotspot Shield” section below.
What Is Hotspot Shield?
Hotspot Shield is a virtual private network (VPN) that you can use to protect your identity and personal information while using the internet. While active, Hotspot Shield conceals your IP address and encrypts all the data you send, making it theoretically impossible to trace anything back to you.
Who Owns Hotspot Shield?
This is a hard question to answer. Hotspot Shield has maintained the same name since it launched in 2008, but the company that developed it is suffering a decade-long identity crisis. I’ve seen it called by at least three different names: AnchorFree, Pango and Dnick.
AnchorFree seems to be the most common. However, when Aura acquired Hotspot Shield and some of its sister products in 2019, the seller was listed as Pango. To keep things as simple as possible, I will call them AnchorFree/Pango for the rest of the review.
What we do know for sure is that Hotspot Shield is now owned by Aura, a digital security company previously known for the identity theft protection app Identity Guard. Aura’s other products focus on financial security and family protection.
Aura has no parent company and has a decent record. Unlike Kape Technologies, one of the foremost drivers of VPN consolidation, it at least never made its money in malware.
Where Is Hotspot Shield Located?
Hotspot Shield’s management company, AnchorFree, is based in the United States. Aura, its parent company, is also headquartered in the U.S. America has data privacy policies that lag behind those in Europe, Canada and other developed nations.
How Safe Is Hotspot Shield?
It’s hard to say because we don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the curtain of its exclusive protocol Catapult Hydra. But I’m inclined to argue that it’s not very safe.
Catapult Hydra is only available on Hotspot Shield. Of course, other VPNs have exclusive protocols, but Hotspot Shield is the only one that doesn’t offer OpenVPN or WireGuard as an alternative. It also minces words about whether or not Hydra has passed an independent audit.
The most damning indictment of Hotspot Shield came in December 2017, when a researcher pointed out a vulnerability that made it possible to see the name of a user’s WiFi network and potentially narrow down their IP address.
Often, a VPN is defined by the way it responds to an encounter with a white hat hacker. Does it immediately leap into action to fix the flaw, like NordVPN and VyprVPN did? Or does it do the exact opposite, like Hotspot Shield?
The researcher informed AnchorFree/Pango of the bug in December, and didn’t hear back from them for two full months. Frustrated with the lack of response, the white hat hacker took his information to the press, which forced AnchorFree/Pango to finally patch the vulnerability.
Hotspot Shield VPN is regularly used by activists living under oppressive regimes. Who knows how many dictators were able to find their enemies’ locations during the two months AnchorFree/Pango spent sitting on its hands? Maybe none. But even one would be far too many.
How Has Hotspot Shield Changed Over Time?
Hotspot Shield VPN was launched for Windows and macOS in 2008. iOS and Android apps followed in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
In 2010, Hotspot Shield briefly achieved fame as the VPN of choice for Arab Spring protesters. It’s also been used to bypass censorship in Turkey and Hong Kong. After Aura acquired it in 2019, Hotspot Shield significantly overhauled its visuals and interface.
Hotspot Shield Features
Hotspot Shield is a pay-to-win product. It locks industry-standard features behind paywalls or leaves them off a vast swath of operating systems. Without these features, Hotspot Shield is one of the barest-bones VPNs I’ve tested in some time.
Not that being uncluttered is a bad thing. On the contrary, all a VPN really needs to do is connect you to a working server and hit one or two other beats.
On the main page, you can do exactly one thing: connect to a VPN server. Once you’re connected, the screen fills with a wealth of data, some of it more useful than the rest.
You can set Hotspot Shield VPN to automatically start when you log onto your computer and automatically connect when it opens. However, you can’t specify which server it will connect to, and it’s unclear how the VPN chooses.
There are two features under the “advanced” tab: reinstalling the VPN and choosing between two protocols. If picking between two protocols is too overwhelming, Hotspot Shield can also automatically select one for you. By sheer coincidence, it’s almost always Catapult Hydra.
On its Windows and Android apps, Hotspot Shield offers two additional features. First up is a kill switch, which automatically drops your internet connection if your VPN connection ever breaks. The second is split tunneling (here called Smart VPN), which improves speeds by allowing you to run low-risk apps without the VPN.
Both the kill switch and split tunneling are great, but they should be available for all users. There’s no technical reason to exclude them from macOS, iOS or Linux.
The actual advanced features of Hotspot Shield are only available for an extra fee. I saw this message while attempting to pay for my subscription:
Even if you’re using the best VPN on the market, I don’t advise trusting it to keep you safe from malware and phishing. That’s not what it’s for. A good antivirus program will do the same job more effectively.
Hotspot Shield offers two more services in its “Security Suite,” a bundle of products owned by parent company Aura. 1Password is a password vault, and Robo Shield blocks spam calls. They’re both fine at their jobs, but their presence here is nothing but marketing.
What Is Hotspot Shield Catapult Hydra Protocol?
Catapult Hydra is Hotspot Shield’s secret sauce. It’s a proprietary protocol developed by the team at AnchorFree/Pango. As far as I know, it’s the only VPN protocol other than ExpressVPN Lightway to be built from scratch rather than based on an open-source protocol (e.g., NordVPN NordLynx is based on WireGuard).
Note: Although it’s often referred to by the shortened name “Hydra,” Catapult Hydra should not be confused with the Hydra protocol offered by SlickVPN.
According to Hotspot Shield, Hydra works similarly to OpenVPN, with TLS 1.2 handshakes and RSA authentication. Then it adds secret algorithms that allegedly makes it way faster than everybody else’s protocols.
Hotspot Shield is confident that Catapult Hydra works. So confident, in fact, that until recently, Hydra was the only protocol you could use. It has since caved and started offering IKEv2, but that’s it.
This was the equivalent of a five-alarm fire for my BS detector, but I wanted to give Hotspot Shield a chance. After all, some people swear that Catapult Hydra lives up to the hype. Check out “Hotspot Shield Security” and “Speed & Performance Testing” sections to learn how this secret sauce really tastes.
Hotspot Shield Cost: Plans & Value for Money
Hotspot Shield is a more a la carte service than most VPNs, so its pricing is a little complicated. On the other hand, the value for your money isn’t complicated at all — this VPN is more overpriced than a Starbucks latte.
Hotspot Shield Free costs $0 per month. It only allows one device, 2 Mbps of connection speed, 500MB of data daily and only one virtual location in the U.S. (not clear where).
Hotspot Shield Premium costs $12.99 month-to-month, or $7.99 per month if you subscribe for a year at a time. It includes the full suite of features, including the entire server network, unlimited bandwidth and data, and five simultaneous connections.
Hotspot Shield Premium Family costs $19.99 month-to-month, or $12.99 per month for a year. In addition to the total feature package, it offers five user accounts, each of which can connect up to five times simultaneously. (It’s not worth it. Just install the VPN on your router if you have that many devices.)
If you want to add malware protection to any plan, it’s an extra $5.99 per month.
There’s a seven-day free trial, but it’s not easy to find (check it out at this link). Any premium plan comes with a money-back guarantee for 45 days. I was able to get my money back without any drama.
Payment options include credit card, debit card or PayPal but no cryptocurrency or anonymous options.
Can I Use Hotspot Shield for Free?
You can, but you shouldn’t. Read the free plan above one more time, and you’ll see that it makes the VPN essentially unusable. Download speed of 2 Mbps is barely enough to load a web page, and if you’re not in the U.S., you’re screwed.
What’s worse, the free plan has ads. To ensure those ads are as creepy and invasive as possible, Hotspot Shield sells your browsing activity logs to Google. Hotspot Shield Free is more or less the exact opposite of a VPN. Instead of a virtual private network, it’s a veritable public nuisance.
Apps & Support
Hotspot Shield VPN works on the following apps:
- Desktop: Windows, macOS, Linux
- Mobile: iOS, Android
- Browser: Chrome, all Chromium browsers (Edge and Opera)
- Routers: Any that support DD-WRT or FreshTomato
- Other: Smart TVs
Bear in mind that all apps outside Windows and Android lose access to many functions, including the kill switch and split tunneling.
Servers & Server Locations
The closer you are to a VPN server, the better performance you’ll see. Therefore, a VPN needs to have as diverse a server network as it possibly can. If all its data centers are clustered in the U.S. and Europe, most people in the world won’t be able to use it effectively.
Hotspot Shield has more than 1,800 servers in just over 80 countries. That’s simultaneously impressive and lackluster. Getting servers in more than 80 countries is impressive — that’s about 20 more than NordVPN and almost as many as ExpressVPN.
But 1,800 servers is not very many. Given Hotspot Shield’s large user base, I expected a lot more. The limited number explains why several of the servers I tried were operating at over 50% capacity, putting them at risk of slowdowns.
I will give Hotspot Shield some credit for its server network’s diversity. Kenya, Algeria and Uzbekistan are not places you often see VPNs going, and there are more rare locations than what’s pictured here (Peru and Chile also appear, for example).
In this specific case, focusing on breadth over depth makes sense. I’m happy to see more VPNs going into under-served locations instead of doubling down on North America and Europe.
Speeds & Performance Testing
I conducted all these speed tests using the Catapult Hydra protocol. Hotspot Shield claims it’s the fastest VPN protocol known to man, and I wanted to test that theory. I used speedtest.net to check the latency (ping), download speed and upload speed of six increasingly distant server locations.
|Download speed (Mbps)
|Upload speed (Mbps)
|Portland, Oregon, USA (unprotected)
|Portland, Oregon, USA (protected)
|Boston, Massachusetts, USA
|Isle of Man, U.K.
Though it’s likely that not every server I tested was really in that location (especially Nepal, whose speed suggests a virtual server), I had to admit it: Catapult Hydra is extremely fast. Since it’s the only protocol this VPN wants you to use, it’s safe to say Hotspot Shield has excellent speeds in general.
Latency rose sharply as I got farther away but within expected limits. On the other side of the world, anything under 400 ms is pretty good. Upload speeds were also very consistent on all but the most distant servers.
With all that said, I still have my doubts that Hotspot Shield is too fast. Catapult Hydra is not open source, so I have no idea what’s really in there. Download speeds that are nearly unaffected by crossing the Atlantic Ocean make me suspect that this protocol cuts corners on encryption.
But that’s only circumstantial evidence. All I can say for sure is that Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPNs on the market, even beating ExpressVPN in download speeds.
Streaming & Torrenting
I tested six streaming services with Hotspot Shield active: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer.
I tried each with a few different servers (except BBC iPlayer — it only works in the U.K., where Hotspot Shield only has one location). Hotspot Shield got into all of them and played every video with absolutely no lag.
Is Hotspot Shield Good for Streaming & Torrenting?
Definitely. Streaming HD video requires about 5 Mbps. As long as your unprotected connection is faster than that, you’re in business.
Its speeds are easily fast enough for torrenting, and Hotspot Shield allows P2P file sharing on all its servers. Due to security and privacy issues, I don’t recommend Hotspot Shield for torrenting, but it’s a perfect P2P VPN from a purely technical perspective.
Does Hotspot Shield Work with Netflix and Other Streaming Sites?
Yes. It can get through content blockers and maintain fast enough speeds to watch videos without interruption. Streaming is easily the top use case for Hotspot Shield.
Hotspot Shield Security: Encryption & Protocols
Near the top of this article, I explained that a vulnerability was discovered in Hotspot Shield in 2018 and subsequently repaired by the development team. I also explained why I don’t entirely trust the team’s fix. I won’t rehash all of it. Suffice it to say that the incident knocked several points off Hotspot Shield’s security score.
As discussed in the “Features” section above, Hotspot Shield offers exactly two protocols. One is IKEv2, which is fast but less secure than either OpenVPN or WireGuard. The other is the much-discussed Catapult Hydra.
I’ll be blunt: I’m not prepared to say that Catapult Hydra is secure. Yes, it uses almost the exact same bones as OpenVPN, including RSA authentication and AES-256 symmetric encryption (also known as bank-grade or military-grade encryption). But I don’t know what else is in there or what it means for security.
Hotspot Shield claims on its website that it built Catapult Hydra to match the security of other protocols while getting much better speeds. As a rule, increasing performance tends to decrease security — that’s why PPTP, the fastest VPN protocol, should never be used.
The website goes on to claim that the “Catapult Hydra security code is evaluated by 3rd party security experts from more than 60% of the world’s largest security companies.” But if those experts generated a report, Hotspot Shield hasn’t made it public. An independent audit is a great way to build trust in a privacy service, but if you don’t share the results, you end up looking more suspicious.
At the bare minimum, Hydra did manage to pass our IP leak tests, which means it did not disclose our IP address or DNS requests. So it’s possible my suspicions don’t amount to much. Still, I’d rather be too cautious than not cautious enough when dealing with a protocol that isn’t open source and has a minimal track record.
Is Hotspot Shield a Virus?
No, it’s not a virus, nor is it malware. But the free version of Hotspot Shield has been known to install a toolbar without the user’s consent. The toolbar generates ads, changes the user’s home page and even redirects searches to websites affiliated with Hotspot Shield and its parent companies.
It also has a record of sneaking onto devices by hitching a ride on other freeware. And it can be hard to remove. So perhaps a different answer is warranted: Hotspot Shield is only sometimes a virus, in the same way that a dandelion is only a weed if you don’t want it on your lawn.
Privacy & Logs
What was intended as the most reassuring phrase in the policy is actually a flag red enough to see from space. The VPN won’t say outright that it won’t record your browsing activities, and admits in the same paragraph that it logs the domain names users visit.
That’s not the end of it. Hotspot Shield collects your IP address at the start of every session and does the following things with it:
Let’s not forget that this VPN demands your home address before you can sign up. That’s no fewer than three enormous exceptions — IP address, device hash, real-world address — carved out of this so-called “no log” policy.
And we’re still not done! God help you if you use the free version of Hotspot Shield (which we’ve already established is basically malware). Then you get the joy of having this horrifying paragraph apply to you:
This policy asks us to imagine that Hotspot Shield gathers all this information on users, builds relationships with third-party advertisers, but then doesn’t make money off that groundwork because it pinky swore that it wouldn’t. That’s a big enough leap of faith to make Kierkegaard tremble.
If you don’t believe me, believe Washington, D.C. watchdog group Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). In 2017, CDT submitted a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Hotspot Shield was so bad at keeping its promise to protect user privacy that it amounted to deceptive advertising.
Customer Support & Service
The Hotspot Shield app is conscientious about customer support. From the clearly marked “support” tab, you can access three help options: FAQ, live chat or message.
The FAQ, located on the Hotspot Shield website, has a fairly limited number of articles, but they’re well-written and helpful. Most areas that might require troubleshooting are covered.
Live chat is unnecessarily hard to find. The button on the desktop app doesn’t take you there. Instead, you have to go to the FAQ and scroll down to the bottom.
Live chat is done through a bot that answers questions to the best of its ability. It’s basically a search engine, but one that does its job well. If the bot can’t tell you what you need to know, you can get specific answers by sending an email. It normally takes about one business day. I tried twice, and both times the answer was friendly and helpful.
Ease of Use
It’s very easy to use Hotspot Shield because there’s hardly anything there. You’ll use nothing but the server list for 95% of the time you spend on this VPN. Type in the search bar to find a country, click on a country to see what servers are available, then click a server to connect to it. That’s it.
There are a few odd choices, though, like whatever is happening here:
I’m not a professional software designer, but I’m pretty sure that having two pop-up messages asking the same question isn’t exactly best practices. Still, aside from the odd misstep, the user interface is one of Hotspot Shield’s bright spots.
Bottom Line: Do I Recommend Hotspot Shield?
If I’ve seemed angry during the course of this review, it’s righteous rage at the injustices perpetrated by Hotspot Shield. This may well be the fastest VPN of them all, but it sold its soul to clinch that title.
Hotspot Shield is the exact opposite of Windscribe. Windscribe is a scrappy VPN service that looks and acts like a dumpster fire but does its job amazingly well. Hotspot Shield is the Patrick Bateman of VPNs: handsome, well-dressed, successful, but ultimately rotten to the core.
In other words, no, I don’t recommend it. Check out one of the alternatives in the next section instead.
Hotspot Shield Alternatives
If I’ve managed to convince you not to use Hotspot Shield (and I sincerely hope I have), here are a few VPNs that deserve your attention instead.
ExpressVPN is my favorite VPN. It’s fast, secure and takes its no-log policy seriously. Normally when I recommend it, I provide a caveat that it’s on the pricey side, but it’s actually cheaper than Hotspot Shield. So go nuts! Read my full ExpressVPN review for more information.
NordVPN and VyprVPN are both examples of VPNs that take security seriously. Both of them have discovered vulnerabilities in the last few years and raced to fix them immediately, keeping users updated all the way. Read my full NordVPN review and VyprVPN review for more information.
Windscribe is the best choice for a free VPN service that doesn’t make up the difference by selling your information to advertisers. Its premium subscription is worth it too. Read my full Windscribe review for more information.
- $6.66per month annually (15 months for $99.95); $12.95 monthlyExpressVPN is an easy-to-use and highly secure VPN, but it can be pricey.Pros
- Extremely fast & easy to use
- Servers in 105 countries
- Kill switch, split tunneling & no logs
- Unblocks all major streaming services
- Excellent security record
- $4.13 per month for a 2-year plan ($99.12 for two years); 11.95 monthlyA fast VPN service at a fair price.Pros
- Easy to operate
- Unblocks every major streaming service
- Great savings on one- & two-year plans
- Includes a kill switch & ad blocker
- Strict no-logs policy
- $1.67per month for a 3-year plan ($60 for 36 months)Promising, but speeds can be uneven.Pros
- Excellent security protocols
- Easy setup on every app
- Great at unblocking streaming sites
- Affordable prices
- Exclusive DNS infrastructure
- $9month for a 1-year plan ($49 per year)The only real point of criticism is its speed.Pros
- Dedicated streaming servers
- File sharing services allowed
- Anonymous payment via BitPay
- Unlimited simultaneous connections
- Browser extensions
- Free account with up to 10 Gigabyte per month