The more we learn about big data and big tech, the more we understand about what they do with our private information. Not long ago, most of us were happy to make the trade, data for free services. Now, fewer and fewer think it’s worth it. A VPN is the only way to protect your privacy online.
Hotspot Shield is one of the most popular VPN’s which offers both a free service and a premium service. But how good is it really? Here’s our Hotspot Shield VPN review.
How A VPN Works
Before we get into the Hotspot Shield VPN review, let’s take a look at how a VPN works. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it’s a way to protect your privacy and data when you’re online.
When you’re connected to the internet, your data is exposed online. Nefarious snoops can eavesdrop on the traffic your computer sends to the servers out in the world. Plus, any website you visit can see and track your IP address.
Your ISP, too, tracks every data packet that you send out into the world. They have a list of every site you’ve ever visited. Whether governments or data breaches, your surfing traffic isn’t safe.
A VPN makes sure none of that happens. It starts with an app or a browser extension on your internet connected device. The app or extension encrypts your outgoing traffic so no one can read it on its way out.
Next, the VPN server sends your traffic out into the world. If anyone snoops on your traffic going out from the VPN server, they won’t get your IP address or connect your traffic back to you. Your ISP also doesn’t know what sites you visit, because the only server they see is the VPN.
To sum it up: A VPN encrypts your data to the VPN server, and it hides your identity from the servers to which your traffic goes.
What To Look For In A VPN
When you’re looking for a good VPN, there are a few things you need to consider.
- Encryption Protocol: There are various levels of security protocols in free public VPN service. OpenVPN is fast and secure, but avoid PPTP or L2TP/IPSec.
- Logging Policy: VPN’s have different policies about what they keep track of when you use their service. If you want a truly private VPN, you need one with a no-log policy.
- Server Location: If you’re looking to get content that’s restricted by area, you need server locations in different areas of the world.
- Server Speed: If you’re just doing some internet browsing, you might not need a blazing fast connection. If you want more, the fastest servers will get that done.
- Streaming/ Torrenting: VPN services each have different policies on streaming or torrenting. If you want to do either, you need a VPN that does it well.
- Device Support: How many devices do VPN support at one time? Mobile? Desktop? Does it have browser extensions?
As you evaluate any VPN, like we are in this Hotspot Shield VPN review, you should look at each of these. Depending on what you want from a VPN, different features will be more or less important to you.
Paid VPN vs Free VPN
Hotspot Shield is one of several VPN services that offer a free version on top of their premium service. It’s common for these VPN’s to use a limited version of their premium service as a taste of their paid version.
There are a lot of ways that companies like this limit their service. Windscribe limits the number of servers customers can use. They give a data cap of 2 GB a month if you don’t give them an email, and 10 GB a month if you do.
Tunnelbear doesn’t limit the number of servers, but they do severely limit the data. They only allow 500 MB a month. Yes, that’s 500 MB a month.
Hide.me limits data to 2 GB a month, and they limit the number of server locations and one simultaneous connections to one.
Hotspot Shield does the same. Here are their limits:
- There is only one US location
- Limit of 500 MB per day
- No streaming services
- Shows ads for sponsors on some browsers.
- The free server is slower than other US servers
These limits are similar to other free services. If you want to use the free service, and can handle the limits, it’s a great VPN to get for nothing.
Hotspot Shield VPN Review
So, here we go on our Hotspot Shield VPN review. Here are the features that we think matter about Hotspot Shield VPN.
Encryption Protocol: Fast, secure encryption
The encryption protocol is how a VPN keeps your data safe in transmission from your computer the VPN server. It’s an important part of the Hotspot Shield VPN review.
Most VPN’s use one or more standard protocols, typically ones like OpenVPN, PPTP, or L2TP/IPsec. Every protocol has different strengths, but the most common one is OpenVPN with a combination of speed, stability, and security.
Hotspot Shield uses a proprietary encryption protocol they call “Catapult Hydra.” They have over 30 patents for the technology that runs their VPN system, and they claim that it powers 60% of the world’s largest tech security companies.
So, why doesn’t Hotspot Shield use the same protocols as other VPN’s? Their website claims that they used to use OpenVPN and IPsec, but those protocols didn’t have the speed that they wanted.
Catapult Hydra is their answer to the problem. They used similar encryption protocols but with faster speeds. There are a ton of performance benefits like:
- Connection to a VPN server is established much faster
- Time to first byte for each client connection inside the tunnel saves 1.2 RTTs
- Less data is transferred inside the tunnel
- Connection speed for long-distance connections is 2.4x faster than for OpenVPN tunnel between the same client and server
Logging Policy: Questions about logs
One of the reasons people use a VPN is to keep their traffic anonymous from an ISP. That doesn’t count for much if the VPN itself keeps logs of your traffic. If you really want privacy, you need a VPN that can’t connect your personal information to your traffic.
Hotspot Shield claims to have an airtight no-logging policy. From their website:
We do not collect any personally identifiable information on Hotspot Shield. We do not collect, store, or share any permanent identifiers of users, including IP addresses. We do not keep any activity logs for any of our users, whether they are free or Premium. Please note that Hotspot Shield only enables privacy and encrypts user Internet sessions when it is connected.
Just about every VPN claims to have a no-logging policy, but it doesn’t always work out that way. In this, the details really matter. For example, PureVPN claimed a no-logging policy, but when the US Government appeared with a warrant, they surrendered the logs.
Hotspot Shield’s history with logs is unclear. On one hand, the Center for Democracy and Technology filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming that Hotspot Shield sold its user data to advertisers.
Server Locations: 70 Countries
Hotspot Shield has servers in 70 different countries, so users can change their virtual locations to different places around the world.
People use VPN’s to get around geographic content blocks or local laws. Many countries block all sorts of websites such as:
- Torrenting sites
- Social media
- Uncensored news
- Geographic blocks on content, like streaming video
While Hotspot Shield has servers in 70 countries, it doesn’t have as many servers as other services, at least as far as their app suggests. If you look on the app, most of their 70 countries have only one location. That doesn’t mean that they have only 70 servers, though. Hotspot Shield says that they have more than 3,200 servers globally.
Compare that with NordVPN that has several servers in each country: 3 servers in Egypt, 40 in Finland, and 26 in India. But Private Internet Access has fewer servers, with locations in only 26 countries.
Server Speed: Varies wildly by location
No Hotspot Shield VPN review would be complete without some real-world speed tests. We tested the server speed for Hotspot Shield using several servers across their network in both the paid version and the free one.
When testing these servers, don’t just look at upload and download speeds, though they are important. Ping is important for anything that requires quick changes and interactions. Think about online games or video chat.
Remember that server speed always depends not just on the VPN’s capabilities but also on the amount of traffic going through the network. We tested these servers on a 100 Mbps upload/download. Here are the numbers we got when we did the speed test without an active VPN using speedtest by Ookla. In the tests below, we always used the default test server suggested by the testing website.
You can see that the speeds for the internet without a VPN are just about 100 Mbps with a ping of 4 ms for a test server in Chicago.
Free Server Test
The free server is located in the United States, but there are no details about where it’s located and what capabilities it has. Here are the numbers.
The free server has dramatically slower speeds than the internet service alone. The ping is slower by 24 ms, that’s six times the ping without the VPN. The download speeds are incredibly low, only 20% of our internet services capabilities.
Paid Server Tests: The United States
We used the same procedure to test the paid servers. We started with a couple servers located around the United States. We chose the first one as Chicago, since that’s the closest to where the review was written. Here are the numbers:
You can see that the speeds can vary widely depending on which server you used. While most servers worked really well, the numbers from the Los Angeles server are disconcertingly slow. We decided that the numbers were too different from the other servers, so we ran the test again. This time it came up with even worse numbers.
Paid Server Tests: Worldwide
One of the primary benefits of a VPN is spoofing your location, so it can appear like you’re anywhere in the world. People use it to get around all sorts of government or corporate blocks or censors. We chose each of these servers to try to cover most of the world.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
|Bosnia and Herzegovina
International servers also vary wildly from place to place. Most of them hovered somewhere around 20 Mbps downloads with a little more variation in upload speeds.
How might these speeds affect your traffic? Upload and download speeds would dramatically affect performance for just about any website, but you’d see the most performance changes for torrenting or downloading large files. Ping will matter more than others for any rapid response sites like video chat.
We tested that by using Facetime to call someone in the other room through the Columbia server. There was just a little bit of lag, but we didn’t have any problems having a conversation. It worked great.
All of these speeds are fast enough to stream music or TV through services like YouTube or Netflix, though you may experience more difficulty if you’re browsing other sites at the same time.
Streaming and Torrenting: Works Perfectly
We tested two services to see how it does with streaming video. The first test was with Netflix, because we wanted to watch Star Trek: Discovery without subscribing to CBS’s app. We did it through the Cambodia server, and it worked pretty well. Everything streamed the way it was supposed to in the resolution it was supposed to. It did take some time to refresh the site and navigate from item to item, which reflects slower pings and data speeds.
We also tested Hulu. Now, we know that Hulu doesn’t work outside the United States. That makes a VPN important if you’re outside the US and you want to binge on your Hulu account. Hulu claims that VPN’s don’t work, but we started streaming our shows when we were connected to a server in the US.
We also tested a torrent through The Pirate Bay, using both servers in the United States and abroad, and it worked perfectly. Of course, performance all depended on how fast each server is.
Device Support: 5 Devices At The Same Time
Hotspot Shield has apps for the two major mobile operating systems, and they work just as simply as the app on your desktop or laptop. Download the app, log in, click “connect,” and you’re ready to go. It’s really simple. They also support a Chrome extension, so if you want to add it just to your browser, you can.
Hotspot Shield also supports up to five connected devices at the same time. That’s not as much as some other services. Private Internet Access allows up to 10 connections, and NordVPN allows 6.
Price: More expensive than other options
Hotspot Shield VPN is an expensive VPN compared to other services. Their monthly plan costs $12.99 every month. Compare that to some of their competitors. NordVPN goes for much less at $6.99 a month. Windscribe’s premium service goes for just a little more, $9.99 a month.
Does this Hotspot Shield VPN review make it worth the extra cost? We think it might be. The extra technology behind the Catapult Hydra protocol, and the detail put into that, give a window into the quality that Hotspot Shield can provide. In the end, whether it’s worth the extra cost is up to you.
Competition: Lots of options
There is a lot of competition for Hotspot Shield, both VPN’s with free versions and paid-only VPN’s. So, no Hotspot Shield VPN review would be complete without looking at their competition.
PureVPN: Bad record on logging
PureVPN has a lot of things going for it. There are a lot more locations with servers in 180 countries. The biggest difference there is that PureVPN has 150 servers in Africa. PureVPN also can be set up to work with a router, so you can get every single device on your WIFI to work through your VPN automatically.
PureVPN is also headquartered in Hong Kong. Right now, their political situation is relatively free, but their relationship with China is suspect. China could quickly turn this VPN into an information collection machine. Their logging policy also has been used to identify and prosecute criminals in the United States. They also block Netflix in the US.
I don’t think that this VPN is the best choice. Their logging policy makes the primary advantage of a VPN moot. If having african servers is a really big deal, this VPN might work for you, but there are probably great VPN’s that have the same servers without a bad logging policy.
Private Internet Access: Customizable settings
Private Internet Access’s claim to fame is how easy they let you customize their service based on your need for speed and security. Their many options help you to find the balance you’re looking for. Private Internet Access has a proven record on their no-logs policy. They have been dragged into court, and they wouldn’t and couldn’t identify their users with their traffic.
Private Internet Access has servers all over the world, but their selection is limited. They have no servers in Africa, and only one server location in South America. If having locations in South America and Africa are important, this is not the right service for you.
Private Internet Access also has great speed. You can check out their website and test each of their locations to find the one with the best connection for you. I ran a test, and it is a great way to find a server that’s right for you.
Tunnel Bear: Easy to use with few options
Tunnel Bear may be the easiest VPN to use for non-technical people. If you haven’t used it, you can’t believe that it’s that easy to use. You open up the app and click a location. Then you’re on the way.
It even has a fantastic little animation of a bear tunneling through the ground a popping up in the location. Seriously, this VPN is so easy, it’s definitely the right choice for people who are low-tech. If you’re not comfortable with settings and options, this is the right VPN for you.
Their security features are independently audited. They’re one of the few VPN’s that regularly publish a transparent audit so you can trust their security.
They do have a limited number of server locations, only 22 in the world, mostly focused on the United States and Europe. So, if flexibility in server location is key for you, this isn’t the right one.
Tunnel Bear is a great service, but it’s best for people who aren’t tech geeks. If you need lots of server locations, it might not be right for you.
In this Hotspot Shield VPN review, we’ve taken you through what we think are the most important features of this VPN service. Hotspot Shield has tons of servers around the world, which makes it easy to spoof your location anywhere.
These servers don’t always have the best speeds, though. Our tests show a lot of variability, especially in overseas locations.
Torrenting and streaming works really well, and the speed variability doesn’t matter as much for streaming media. While we like faster speeds, the range of performance is fast enough to stream HD well.
Hotspot Shield is also more expensive than other services. With $12.00 a month on their monthly plan, they cost more than twice as much as their competitors. In the end, their a great service, but it isn’t a hands-down leader.
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