Hotspot Shield VPN review
Hotspot Shield is a popular VPN service with a lot to offer. It has a free version, unblocks Netflix and many other streaming services, supports torrenting, and has a few cool extra features like the proprietary Catapult Hydra tunneling protocol. Also, the Windows and other apps of Hotspot Shield VPN are really user-friendly.
In addition, Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPNs that few competitors can match. In 2019, they were even awarded Ookla’s Speedtest badge for being the fastest VPN in the world.
Granted, the award was two years ago, and speed is but one component that makes a quality VPN. For this reason, in this Hotspot Shield VPN review, I'm going to test their speeds, additional features, security, apps, and customer support. Let's find out whether this service is worthy of the CyberNews badge.
|Support:||Knowledge base, FAQs, email, 24/7 live chat|
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Hotspot Shield pros & cons
- Very good speeds
- Free version
- Top-notch security features
- Unblocks most streaming services including Netflix
- 24/7 live chat customer support
- Good global coverage
- Limited protocol selection
- Lacks transparency
- Doesn't work in China
Speed performance: Is Hotspot Shield fast?
After using their proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol, there remains little doubt whether they deserve Ookla's speed badge. The download speed amplitude ranges from a 1% drop to 28%. On average, it's only a 15% drop-off. In contrast, the upload speeds were less fast. They range from a very impressive 0% up to 95%, making the average ~80% reduction.
- Baseline: 300 Mbps download/300 Mbps upload
|Location||Download speed||Upload speed|
Hotspot Shield also has IKEv2 tunneling protocol. Its average speed according to our scores was 262.2 Mbps, while uploads were 45.4 Mbps. That said, there were some connection issues as I wasn't able to connect to their server in Florida. Still, the download speed drops ranged from 2% to 32%, putting the average at 20%. Their upload speeds performed much worse, ranging from 3% to 98%, with an average of 86% drop.
Overall, I have to admit that Hotspot Shield, even without WireGuard, has one of the best VPN speeds on the market. Especially when using their Catapult Hydra protocol as IKEv2 introduced too much inconsistency with upload speeds.
Streaming: does Hotspot Shield work with Netflix?
One of the best ways to make the most out of your VPN speeds is by streaming media. The good news is that Hotspot Shield can be used to unblock geo-restricted streaming content, and having one of the fastest speeds certainly doesn't hurt.
I managed to unblock the US Netflix library using Hotspot Shield. During the test, there was no image quality loss, and the video loaded instantly. For a bystander, it would be pretty hard to tell whether I'm using a VPN at all. Netflix experience was that smooth.
The same cannot be said about BBC iPlayer. Although it did work and unblocked videos, there was some buffering at the start. Otherwise, the streaming quality was good, and I didn't experience any stutters.
The service also proved capable of unblocking YouTube. So, even if you're trying to watch videos that are blocked in your country, you'll be able to get through. Just keep in mind that after typing in your password, Google will ask you to confirm that it's indeed you because the service sometimes tends to get a bit sensitive to unfamiliar IPs.
Like many others before it, Hotspot Shield stumbled when unblocking DAZN. Although it's a niche streaming service, it has harsh anti-VPN measures that few providers can bypass, making it the ultimate test.
Is Hotspot Shield good for torrenting?
Good VPN speeds can also be useful in other areas – P2P downloads being one of them. It doesn't necessarily mean using sketchy torrenting websites for warez downloads. If you're using the Battle.net app to download Call of Duty: Warzone files, the client uses P2P. So, to download the game, you need your VPN to be P2P-compatible.
Hotspot Shield doesn't blacklist P2P connections, although the speeds aren't as high as you would expect. My download speed never exceeded 2.3MB/s (18mbps). It took me 17 minutes to download a 1.8 GB file.
Although this isn't a bad score, this does catch you a bit off-guard, mostly when other connections were much faster. However, download speeds depend on various factors, including the number and location of seeds, so I may have just been unlucky.
Is Hotspot Shield safe & secure?
Hotspot Shield is a safe VPN service from a technical standpoint. No DNS leaks, strong encryption, and proprietary tunneling protocols guarantee your security.
However, when we look at their business location and owners, there's a lot of questions that are left unanswered. All of this makes it difficult to evaluate whether your online activity will remain anonymous.
Hotspot Shield will not only hide your IP address but will also encrypt the connection between your device and the VPN server. For that, it uses the AES-128-CBC cipher, widely regarded as uncrackable. Many governmental and financial institutions adopted it for classified documents. There are just too many variables even for modern computers to figure out, so decrypting it would take an indefinite amount of time.
With that said, most VPNs opt for the more secure AES-256 cipher. Since Hotspot Shield has speed as a top priority, the faster AES-128 is understandable.
Hotspot Shield uses the secure SHA-256 hash function for authentication. This is the standard in the VPN industry, albeit some take it up a notch with SHA-512.
Overall, this is a strong encryption suite, but it doesn't go as far as some others.
Your connection will be encrypted regardless of which tunneling protocol you pick. However, different tunneling protocols have different strengths and use cases. Though, with Hotspot Shield, you'll be limited to two protocols selectable in advanced settings.
Catapult Hydra – the proprietary tunneling protocol developed by Hotspot Shield is based on OpenSSL, which is used by HTTPS websites, as well as the ubiquitous OpenVPN protocol. This is probably their secret ingredient why their speeds are so fast, although not much is known about it.
IKEv2 – although a slightly older protocol, it's still widely used when you have to maintain a stable connection. This makes it perfect for mobile devices because it allows switching between Wi-Fi and mobile data seamlessly.
Knowing how many antivirus services with VPN features rely on Catapult Hydra adds a bit of credibility. It's in the best interest of companies like McAfee or Bitdefender to associate only with the services that meet their strict requirements. Though, a transparent public audit or going open-source would help a lot more.
Hotspot Shield has a kill switch security feature to stop all your traffic if you suddenly disconnect from a VPN server. It isn't toggled on by default, so you'll have to remember to turn it on.
During my tests, the kill switch worked well when I killed the VPN connection process. The app showed that the kills witch is engaged and would start to reconnect.
When the app's background process was killed, the app would detect that there is an issue. Then it initiated a restart, resolving your connection. So, at no point was my IP exposed during the test.
Hotspot Shield's location is one of the worst places on the planet for a service that hinges on privacy. The United States is a founding member of the Five Eyes alliance. This, along with the country's powerful intelligence agencies make it suboptimal for VPNs that cater to the most privacy-minded users due to their excessive logging.
The VPN does promise no logs to your activity, but there are exceptions when using the free version. Since the free app has ads, they reserve the right to show your approximate city-level location. It also includes your device's advertising ID, IMEI, MAC address, and even wireless carrier. In short, if you value your privacy, you shouldn't touch their free client.
Sadly, their paid version isn't without concerns, either. They state that they take measures to delete your IP address right after your session ends. However, if they are required by law to keep this information for a longer period, they will comply. So, the principle of how this VPN operates is that purging an IP address seems to be a privilege, which can be revoked if the need arises.
The fact that the service isn't accepting anonymous payments makes it only worse. So, if you're thinking that paying with cryptocurrencies could act as a necessary veil of shadow, this isn't the case.
Last year, Hotspot Shield switched owners and was acquired by a cybersecurity company called Aura. This business entity was formed after the identity risk management service iSubscribed Inc. merged with credit management and identity theft solutions company Intersections Inc.
The company releases annual transparency reports, which is the right direction for a cybersecurity company go. That said, it's worth mentioning that an extensive third-party security or privacy audit wouldn't hurt.
Hotspot Shield features
Many VPN providers have quite similar features, but they call them differently. SmartVPN is just your good-old split tunneling. So, you can exclude some apps or webpages from the VPN tunnel, making them connect directly.
Sadly, the only customization option for this feature is pausing – you can temporarily suspend the tunnel. It also isn't possible to use split tunneling in inverse mode, so you won't be able to use the VPN only with a select handful of apps. So, take note if you're planning to use a VPN with only some key apps or websites.
The feature is only reserved for Windows and Android users (the latter have a strange implementation of it). So, if you're using iOS or macOS, you won't find it on your app.
With Premium Hotspot Shield subscription, you also get three separate products: 1Password, Hiya, and Aura antivirus. So, it greatly expands the usage scenarios beyond VPN usage.
If you've been a CyberNews reader for a while, you might even read our review. It's one of the best password managers on the market, so getting it as an addition to your subscription is a good deal.
Not only does it encrypt your vault with a military-grade cipher, making your passwords safe - it also has a scanner to check if your data ends up on the dark web. To learn more about this password manager check our 1Password review.
A call from an unknown number is always unsettling. Especially after you pick up and hear a pre-recorded message with a robot voice. So, this app is specifically designed to figure out whether a call is coming from scammers, telemarketers, or from your long-lost cousin.
It uses crowdsourced data to determine whether the caller appeared in any blacklists showing it on-screen while the phone is still ringing. With an app, you can also send particular types of calls directly to voicemail. Although, the app has access to your contacts, meaning that if you're very privacy-conscious, the premise might not seem that appealing to you.
This antivirus includes additions like personal data monitoring, Wi-Fi security, and malware detection. So, you'll be able to remove accumulated junk files or malicious programs with the click of a button.
However, Aura is a recent addition to the antivirus market, so there are almost no reviews or reports on how it performs. As it stands now, I'd wait for independent malware labs to test them first before I'd install it on my device.
Does Hotspot Shield VPN work in China?
A while back, Hotspot Shield used to be a good option for China, but they haven't kept up with the times. Even though their Catapult Hydra tunneling protocol offers obfuscation and is pretty fast, this won't help you if you want to bypass the Great Firewall of China.
Another tunneling protocol that they have – IKEv2 isn't really the caliber that would be needed to bypass this block. The website itself is blocked, and most users on online forums confirm that Hotspot doesn't work. Especially since July, when the restrictions tightened to suppress human rights marches in Hong Kong.
If you're looking for an excellent VPN for this task, check out a list of the best VPNs for China.
Plans & pricing
Hotspot Shield breaks the mold when it comes to VPN pricing. Unlike most providers on the market, their pricing plans don't all offer the same features. Plus, they also have a free version, which is quite restrictive but does give you a peek at the service.
|Free||1 simultaneous connection, 1 country, 2 Mbps connection speed cap, daily 500 MB cap||$0.00|
|Plus||5 simultaneous connections, Linux, Smart TV, Router support, 85 countries, 1 Gbps connection speed cap, no data cap, 24/7 customer support||$9.99 a month or $83.88 a year|
|Premium||All the benefits of the Plus plan + an antivirus, spam-call blocker, and password manager||$12.99 a month or $95.88 a year|
|Family||All the benefits of the Plus plan with 5 member accounts||$19.99 a month or $143.88 a year|
The shortest subscription duration is 1 month. It's also the most expensive and will cost you $9.99 for Plus, $12.99 for Premium, or $19.99 for the Family plan. Keep in mind that only Premium and Family options will have a 45-day money-back guarantee.
The second option is a 1 year plan. Similarly, the price will be $83.88 for Plus, $95.88 for Premium, or $143.88 for Family subscription. If you're counting the prices rounded per each month it does look cheaper: $6.99, $7.99, and $11.99 per month, respectively.
Premium (or like it used to be known Elite Premium) plan is a package deal that includes a password manager, an antivirus, and a spam-call blocker. Not a bad deal. However, other subscription options don't offer quite a low number of features considering the price.
Another drawback is that the service accepts only credit cards and PayPal. There are no options to pay with cryptocurrencies, so it's another hit for your anonymity.
Hotspot Shield has a free version, so you can try the service without adding payment information. With it, you'll be able to connect to several US servers.
Although, this comes with strict restrictions. You'll be capped at 500MB per day, one connection, and your speed will be throttled down to 2 Mbps. So, you won't be able to take advantage of the amazing speeds with the Free version.
The final issue is that this version has ads and collects usage logs. This isn't impressive, considering that other VPNs have free versions that are more respectful of your privacy.
Hotspot servers and locations
According to their page, Hotspot Shield now has around 1,800 servers in 85 countries. Though, it's worth noting that some of them are virtual locations. This means they aren’t physically located in said countries. Instead, they’re just configured to appear as such for anti-geo-blocking purposes.
Their fleet isn't the biggest, but it does cover quite a lot of countries. Here's how their network breaks down:
|Regions||Number of countries|
|Asia Pacific||28 countries|
|Middle East and Africa||7 countries|
If you're planning to connect to Europe, Asia Pacific, or the Americas you'll have lots of server locations to choose from.
Interface and ease of use
Both Windows and macOS apps have the same sleek design. The colors and the positioning of the UI elements make the client look modern and easy on the eyes. I didn't notice that animations would stutter. Their UX team did a great job.
The server connections get resolved in the blink of an eye whether you're on Windows or macOS. It also shows you latency, your connection speed peaks, server load, your "new" IP address, and a graph of how much data you have sent and received.
It's worth noting that feature-wise, there are some differences between the two apps. macOS seems to be missing split tunneling. And even if you opt for the Premium plan, you won't be able to download the Aura antivirus from the Hotspot Shield app (something you can do if you're a Windows user). I've looked for other ways to download it, but with no luck.
There is support for Linux, but only Red hat and Debian-based systems. So, compatibility isn't spectacular, much like the app isn't spectacular. You can log in and check the available servers, but there are no adjustable options within the app. Sadly, there's also no kill switch or auto-connect.
Hotspot Shield mobile apps
Android and iOS apps look like a copy-paste version of their desktop client with adjustments for smaller-screen devices. So, not only does it look great, it's relatively easy to pick up even for novice users.
Even on iOS, you're getting the identity scan, password manager, and spam-call blocker. Although, you'd have to install them separately. As a whole, their premium option addition translates well to iOS, which usually is neglected in terms of features.
The same applies to Android, which is given the usual additions like split tunneling. Yet, the Android version of this feature connects you to a VPN server when you open a specific app, which isn't split tunneling as it works for your whole connection. There were also other options like "Disconnect on sleep" and "Show personalized ads," which are disabled by default. While a convenient feature, it's very different from its desktop equivalent.
If you're a frequent user of Proxy add-ons, you'll feel right at home with Hotspot Shield's Chrome and Firefox browser extensions. Although it uses an unspecified tunneling protocol, the add-on as a whole gives you a lot of control over what you want to block.
The most impressive feature was the ability to select specific websites that will always be protected by the proxy, even if the proxy connection is not turned on. It also allows you to add websites that you don't want to go through the proxy. Though I was disappointed by the server selection - you can only choose from 9 different countries.
Like any other VPN service on the market, Hotspot Shield has a customer support website, where you can find various guides and answers to most FAQs. So, this should be your first step when trying to resolve an issue. Incidentally, it's also the only customer support option for free users. While I'm not a fan of paywalls, many services with free versions restrict the customer service.
So, to access their live chat, you'll need a paid account. Suppose your query proves to be too difficult for a customer support agent to solve on the spot. In that case, it will be converted to a ticket, and you'll get a reply via mail.
I didn't experience any issues with the apps, so I contacted them to ask additional questions about their service. The queue times were short, and the customer support agent did their best to help me out, although, as it turned out, he wasn't too proficient in Linux.
Is Hotspot Shield any good and worth getting?
Hotspot Shield isn't a bad VPN service. Their speeds rival even competitors with the super-fast WireGuard or Lightway protocols. This is great, because Hotspot is also great for streaming Netflix and torrenting - both speed-intensive activities.
You also get additional products with their Premium subscription, and all users will have access to a large global network of servers.
However, while Hotspot Shield is undeniably good for entertainment and most simple tasks, it does have things to improve on. For example, this isn't the best choice for the most privacy-conscious users because of the US jurisdiction of the business, as well as a lack of anonymous payment options and transparency when it comes to security and privacy.
So, if you're a political activist or whistleblower, this might not be the best option on the market for you. The fact that they use virtual locations doesn't help.
How much does Hotspot Shield cost monthly?
The shortest and cheapest monthly plan of Hotspot Shield will cost you $9.99. It will be a lot less expensive if you get an annual plan.
Is Hotspot Shield completely free?
Yes. Hotspot Shield does have a free version. However, its capabilities are restricted, and you will be paying with your privacy (the app will show you ads and gather data on you).
Can I trust Hotspot Shield?
Hotspot Shield has had some perceived privacy issues in the past, but these have been solved. It remains to be seen what changes the new owners of the brand will make in the future.