We understand it can be hard to choose which VPN is the best for you. On the surface, many VPNs look similar. It’s not until you get look under the hood that the differences become obvious. That’s why I’m excited to be looking at Hotspot Shield today. There are only so many VPNs out there with servers numbering in the thousands, and Hotspot Shield is one of them with over 3,200 servers in over 70 countries.
Today, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about Hotspot Shield— the VPN’s features, performance, the free version, subscription information, customer support, and the Hotspot Shield app. Next I’ll compare it to NordVPN, one of our recommended VPNs. Finally, I’ll see how Hotspot Shield compares to the rest and whether it has what you are looking for. That’s enough chatting; let’s get started!
Hotspot Shield Pros and Cons
Let me give you a quick overview of the places where Hotspot Shield shines and where it’s lacking.
Hotspot Shield Pros:
- Speed: Hotspot Shield performed lightning fast during download and upload speed tests.
- Can access Netflix: This could change, but for now Hotspot Shield works with Netflix and other video streaming websites
- Free option: Hotspot Shield offers a free version that is convenient but capped at 500 MB per day.
Hotspot Shield Cons:
- Only five simultaneous connections per subscription: Five just doesn’t cut it for some people.
- Strict data retention laws: The United States is not the best place to base a VPN service given it’s membership in Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes.
- Slow customer support: You can only contact support by submitting a ticket, with no phone or live chat support available.
Okay, let’s take deeper look.
About Hotspot Shield
Hotspot Shield is a VPN service from a company called Pango, formerly Anchorfree, that was started in 2008 and now has over 3,200 servers in more than 70 countries. That’s an impressive number of servers; only a handful of VPNs have more. The number of servers is important for a VPN service because your distance to the server you’re connected to directly factors into your internet speed.
Hotspot Shield is based out of Redwood City, California. I know what you’re thinking. “Uh oh, doesn’t the United States have strict data retention laws?” Yes, yes they do. The United States is a part of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and Fourteen Eyes international surveillance alliances, which means Hotspot Shield could be forced to provide your data if requested. But Hotspot Shield knows this might be a source of uncertainty and that’s why they have committed to releasing yearly transparency reports. Their most recent 2019 Transparency Report showed they received 56 requests for user data, and zero user data released. That makes me feel better.
Hotspot Shield Features
Will Hotspot Shield Log My Data?
Using a VPN doesn’t automatically make you more secure. Instead of your internet data going to your ISP, it goes to the VPN company. If your VPN service is keeping logs of that data, then it could come back to bite you. Like most VPNs, Hotspot Shield says they have a “no logging” policy. On the Hotspot Shield website, Pango says it
“does not record your VPN browsing activities in any way that can be associated back to you.”
That sounds good, but what do they record?
Hotspot Shield says they record:
- Duration of VPN sessions
- Bandwidth consumed
- Domains that have been accessed by users (but on an anonymized basis)
- Location information
- Device hashes (used identify devices with the other data they collect)
- Account information
- Billing and payment information
- Identity verification information
- Communication information (via email, phone or chat).
On the Android free version of Hotspot Shield, they also provide location information to their ad partners.
Overall, this is more information than I would like for Hotspot Shield to collect and a little more than the average VPN. For example, ExpressVPN, one of our top VPN choices, doesn’t log this kind of metadata.
Does Hotspot Shield Have A Kill Switch?
A kill switch is a software tool that will automatically shut down your internet if you lose connection to a VPN server. This is a crucial feature if you are serious about maintaining your privacy, because otherwise your real IP address becomes visible and could be tied to your VPN activity. Well, the answer for Hotspot Shield depends on the device you are using. Hotspot Shield only offers a kill switch for Windows devices.
Does Hotspot Shield Offer Split Tunneling?
Split tunneling lets you route some traffic through your local network and some through the VPN. This can lower your bandwidth, if, for example, you’d like to watch American Netflix while you surf the web securely encrypted via VPN. Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield doesn’t offer split tunneling. If you’re looking for a VPN that offers split tunneling, I would look elsewhere.
Can I Use Netflix with Hotspot Shield?
With Hotspot Shield Premium, you will be able to watch Netflix and torrent files. The free version of Hotspot Shield on the other hand doesn’t work well with Netflix. You will probably see a paywall when trying to access video streaming sites like Netflix. And anyways, with a limit of 500 MB per day, you would run out of data before you got through one episode of Stranger Things .
Hotspot Shield Encryption
The standard encryption for your data when using Hotspot Shield is 128-bit AES encryption, but they also support 256-bit AES. This encryption method is pretty much unbreakable when implemented correctly. They say it would take 14 billion years to decrypt AES-128 using the world’s current supercomputers. Let’s just say your ISP probably won’t find how many gigabytes of Jackie Chan films you’ve been torrenting.
Hotspot Shield Protocols
Internet protocols determine how data packets are dispatched across a network. You can think of protocols as the different routes cars can take to get between their origin and their destination. You could take a government highway to get to your safe house in the woods, but then security cameras might have recorded you. Or you could take back roads the whole way, but it might take you days. This is the kind of trade off you often face, between security and performance.
OpenVPN is an open-source VPN protocol used to make secure tunnels for your web traffic. OpenVPN is considered the gold standard among VPN protocols, because it offers a good balance of speed and security. It offers up to 256-bit encryption using the Open SSL library and many other security features that can be configured as desired. Other protocols include PPTP, L2TP, IKEv2/IPSec, SSTP, and many more.
Hotspot Shield bucks the trend of VPNs using popular VPN protocols like SSTP or OpenVPN. Instead they use their own proprietary protocol called Catapult Hydra. Hotspot Shield says that they used to use popular VPN protocols like standard IPsec and OpenVPN, but found performance and latency challenges. They claim that Catapult Hydra offers:
- Faster connection to a VPN server
- Less data transferred inside the tunnel
- Connection speeds are 2.4x faster for long-distance connections compared to OpenVPN.
In reality it’s not completely different than every other VPN protocol out there. Hydra is based on the Open SSL library, similar to OpenVPN. For privacy, I would trust an open-source VPN protocol like OpenVPN more than Catapult Hydra, because it has been tested more thoroughly by security professionals. It’s hard to find back doors in code when you can’t even see it.
Hotspot Shield Free Version
Whenever you hear the words “free VPN”, a little alarm should go off in your head. VPN companies have to make money somehow in order to pay for their servers and infrastructure. And the saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” holds true for most free VPNs. This often means giving your data to advertising partners or other third parties; not ideal if you care about privacy.
Surprisingly, Hotspot Shield’s free version is only ad-supported on their Android app. But it’s not all gravy baby, as the free version has a daily bandwidth limit of 500 MB per day. I wouldn’t recommend the free version of Hotspot Shield if you are serious about privacy or want to watch Netflix. On the other hand, if you only need a VPN occasionally and don’t use Android, then I would absolutely recommend the free version of Hotspot Shield. It’s fast and 500 MB of data per day lasts a while as long as you’re not downloading or streaming content.
Testing Hotspot Shield
There’s only one way to find out if Hotspot Shield’s proprietary Catapult Hydra results in faster speeds: real world speed tests of Hotspot Shield Premium. (Note: I’m not speed testing the free version, because speed doesn’t matter when you have a 500 MB data limit and get hit with Hotspot Shield’s paywall when you try to access bandwidth-heavy content like Netflix). I’m also going to be doing some leak tests to test Hotspot Shield’s reliability.
Like most people, internet speed matters to me. It doesn’t matter how secure I am if my internet is crawling along at the speed of a snail. I’m looking for both speed and performance.
Keep in mind there are many factors that your internet speed will depend on when using a VPN – time of day, location, internet service provider, software, hardware, VPN server location, and on and on. I tested Hotspot Shield Premium in Poland on a Macbook Pro running Mac OS X Catalina and a Lenovo Thinkpad running Windows 10. My advertised internet speed is 70 Mbps.
As you can see, Hotspot Shield Premium decreased my download speed by around 30% on my Mac and 18% on my Windows. While Hotspot Shield performed slightly better on Windows in this category, I’m impressed with the performance on both. I wouldn’t notice the reduced speed even unless I was torrenting some gigantic files.
Next, I tested the difference in upload speeds with and without the Hotspot Shield Premium. In this case, the Windows connection performed a little worse with a decrease of 26% compared to only 0.2% on my Mac.
Finally, I looked at the ping, or latency, in milliseconds. In this category, Hotspot Shield was quite slow. I saw a ping increase of 540% for Windows and 430% for Mac. Overall, besides ping, these are among the fastest speeds I’ve seen for VPNs.
DNS Leak Test
DNS leak tests are important to do to make sure your device is sending all DNS traffic through the VPN tunnel. This type of leak can also happen if your VPN was configured manually, if an attacker got control of your router, or if you chose to do a manual DNS setup.
Unfortunately I’m not testing Hotspot Shield while sitting on a beach in the Bahamas, so that means Hotspot Shield passed the DNS leak test. So far so good!
WebRTC Leak Test
Do you want to use a VPN with Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or Opera? Then you need to know about WebRTC leaks.
WebRTC, otherwise known as Web Real-Time Communication Test, is a collection of standardized technologies that allow web browsers to communicate directly with each other rather than going through an intermediate server. WebRTC allows for faster speeds for video chat, live streaming, and file transfers. Who doesn’t want that?
Well, there are some security issues arise from the fact that WebRTC needs your private IP address. Let me explain the difference between public and private IP addresses. Public IP addresses are issued by your ISP, or Internet Service Provider. They’re globally unique and can only be assigned to one device, typically a router. Public IP addresses allow users to directly access the Internet.
Private IP addresses, on the other hand, are issued by a router to each device in your network. They’re used mostly for computers, smartphones, and tablets. I performed a WebRTC leak test and you can see the results below.
Because the IP address shown above isn’t my real IP address, I know that Hotspot Shield passes WebRTC leak tests.
Hotspot Shield Subscription
So now that you know what Hotspot Shield Premium has to offer, the real question is… what’s it gonna cost you?
You can choose to pay for Hotspot Shield every month, year, or every two years. Like with most VPN services, the monthly price gets lower as your commitment increases. If for some reason, you don’t like Hotspot Shield Premium, you can get a refund using their 45-day money back guarantee.
Included in your subscription is an unlimited number of server switches. You can also connect up to five devices simultaneously. You are able to delete devices from your subscription to change which five devices you want to use Hotspot Shield with at any time. If you compare five devices to other VPNs, it’s on the lower end. Some VPNs, like Private Internet Access and Windscribe, offer an unlimited number of devices to connect.
As far as I know, there aren’t any instructions for how to set up a manual configuration of Hotspot Shield on unsupported operating systems. Hotspot Shield has applications for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. If you’re looking for a VPN to use on Linux or Amazon Fire TV, look elsewhere.
A Hotspot Shield extension is able for Chrome.
Hotspot Shield Customer Support
Hopefully you won’t need to use their customer support, but just in case, here are the details on how you can troubleshoot problems.
Hotspot Shield says they offer 24/7 support, but I would say that’s misleading. They use a ticket submission system for customer support, which means you can’t reach them by phone or live chat. I’m not surprised they don’t offer phone support, because that is rare among VPN services. But I am disappointed they don’t have live chat support. Waiting to hear back after submitting a ticket can take days; live chatting takes minutes. Let’s see how their customers feel though.
Customer Support Ratings
On Trustpilot, you’ll see that they have an overall customer rating of 2.5 from 225 reviews. This sounds bad, but they did have a good number of perfect five star reviews (80%). Most of the customers who gave Hotspot Shield a one-star review reported either difficulty receiving a refund or a long wait time from customer support.
The Hotspot Shield App
Hotspot Shield App has applications for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. The Android app has a 4.2 rating on the Google Play Store. The iPhone app has a 4.5 rating on the iOS App Store. The Chrome browser extension has a 4+ rating on the Google Chrome Web Store. I would consider ratings above four to be excellent for a VPN.
Hotspot Shield Vs. NordVPN
NordVPN is a leading VPN with a lot of similarities to Hotspot Shield. They both have high numbers of servers, but NordVPN does win with over 5,200 servers compared to Hotspot Shield’s 3,200+ servers. NordVPN also beats Hotspot Shield in that NordVPN is based out of Panama, a country not subject to an international surveillance alliance or data retention laws. Hotspot Shield is based out of the United States, which is part of the Five Eye international surveillance alliance and comparatively strict data retention laws.
Neither VPN logs data that could tie your web traffic back to you, but Hotspot Shield Premium does log more information. They log the duration of your VPN sessions, the bandwidth consumed, and the domains that you accessed (but on an anonymized basis). This is all information that NordVPN says they don’t store.
Both have kill switches, an essential security feature, but Hotspot Shield only offers it on Windows. Neither offers split tunneling. You should be able to stream from Netflix and torrent files with both VPNs. NordVPN gives you the same shared IP address each time (unless you want to pay extra for a dedicated IP address), while Hotspot Shield will give you a dynamic IP address that changes every time you connect. I prefer how Hotspot Shield regularly rotates its IP addresses, as it makes it harder for a hacker to track you.
Now that we’ve gone over how NordVPN and Hotspot Shield’s features compare, let’s talk about their performance during tests. Hotspot Shield worked significantly faster on my Mac and slightly faster on my Windows than NordVPN. Neither system had any DNS or WebRTC leaks. Overall, if speed is your priority, I would recommend Hotspot Shield. But if you value privacy, I would go with NordVPN.
Recap of Hotspot Shield
Hotspot Shield might be the VPN for you if you like:
- Can access Netflix: Hotspot Shield works with Netflix and other video streaming websites.
- Speed: Hotspot Shield performed lightning fast on both my Mac and Windows computers.
- Highly-rated app: Both Android and Chrome users rated the Hotspot Shield app at least four stars.
- Free option: Hotspot Shield offers a free version with a daily 500 MB bandwidth cap.
On the other hand, you might want to avoid Hotspot Shield if you can’t stand:
- Only five simultaneous connections per subscription: Although you can purchase another subscription or router for more connections.
- Split tunneling: You’ll be able to access public and private servers at the same time.
- Kill switch Only for Windows: Disappointing if you want to use the Mac, iOS, or Android Apps.
- Strict data retention laws: The United States is a part of Five Eyes and could request your data from Hotspot Shield.
- Data logging policy: It’s undeniable that Hotspot Shield logs more than they need to, and more than their competitors like ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
- Slow customer support: You can only contact support by submitting a ticket, with no phone or live chat support available.
Any questions or comments you’d like to add? Have you used Hotspot Shield before? Let us know below — we’re excited to hear from you. To check out more of our favorite VPNs, check out the best VPNs of 2020.