Hotspot Shield is a popular VPN with just enough interesting and unusual features to help it stand out from the crowd.
The core service has a sizeable network of 3,200+ servers across 80+ countries and 125 cities. All servers are P2P-friendly, and built-in blocking of malicious and phishing sites helps keep you safe online.
- Want to try Hotspot Shield Premium? Check out the website here
There are apps for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, a command line app for Linux, and a TV app for Amazon Fire TV or any smart TV with access to Google Play. And if all that still isn’t enough, the support site has guides on manually setting up the service on these and other platforms (routers, too).
There’s no WireGuard support, unusually. Hotspot Shield’s apps use the company’s own Hydra protocol, instead, with OpenVPN or IKEv2 available as a backup in some situations.
The service supports from 5 to 25 simultaneous connections, depending on your plan.
Hotspot Shield pricing
Hotspot Shield’s free VPN plan offers one location (US), almost no features, no email or live chat support, and a host of annoying ads on the mobile apps. There’s also a big plus – there are no annoying ‘per month’ bandwidth limits, and you can use it as much as you like – but unless you really have no VPN budget at all, it’s impossible to recommend.
That’s at the high-end of the normal VPN price range. Most providers charge around $3 to $5 a month for annual products, and even less for longer-term contracts (Private Internet Access offers a three-year plan covering up to 10 devices for $2.19 a month).
Hotspot Shield does have one handy option in the Family plan, which gets you coverage for five people, with five devices each, for only $19.99 billed monthly, or $11.99 on the annual plan.
If you’ll use all those licenses, that translates to $2.40 per user per month.
There’s no Bitcoin payment option, unfortunately, but you can use a card or PayPal, and if anything goes wrong later you’re protected by an unusually generous 45-day money-back guarantee.
Understanding a VPN’s security usually starts with looking at its protocol support, encryption and authentication details. This can be hugely complicated, but just seeing that a service supports a secure protocol like OpenVPN gives some reassuring feedback about its safety.
Hotspot Shield’s Hydra protocol is more difficult to figure out, because it’s the company’s own proprietary technology. Unlike the open source OpenVPN, WireGuard or ExpressVPN’s Lightway, the code isn’t available to the public, so experts can’t check for privacy issues.
Hotspot Shield does explain a little of how Hydra works, though. It’s based on TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.2, with AES-256 and AES-128 encryption, 2048-bit RSA certificates for server authentication and keys exchanged via Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDHE) for perfect forward secrecy (keys last for only one session, with new ones generated next time). Which, translated, means it uses lots of top-notch encryption technologies which are more than enough to keep you safe.
There is still some logging, the policy explains, including:
- ‘the duration of VPN sessions and the bandwidth consumed’
- ‘the domains that have been accessed by our users, but on an anonymized basis such that we do not know which user accessed which domain (we also aggregate this information on an approximately monthly basis)’
- ‘device hashes, which are used to identify devices and associate them with other data we collect… Device hashes are not linked to VPN browsing activity’
- ‘we do collect and use IP addresses [in the context of] protecting against fraud in connection with financial transactions with us, [and] deriving non-identifiable items of information, such as your approximate geographic location and information about your internet service provider or carrier’
This gives some scope for building a profile on how you use the service. For example, the company could keep a record of the time and date of every session, the device used, your approximate location and how much data you transferred.
Hotspot Shield clearly says none of this information can be used to link your account to any VPN browsing activity, which is good to hear. But, unlike some competitors, the company hasn’t put itself through any form of public security or privacy audit, so there’s no confirmation of these privacy promises. We’re left to take Hotspot Shield’s words on trust.
Hotspot Shield’s apps include a kill switch to block your internet connection if the VPN drops, preventing IP leaks. It’s a very useful feature, but not all kill switches deliver on their promises, so we were keen to run some tests.
Our checks showed positive results for the most likely cause of problems. When we forcibly closed the connection or terminated the Hotspot Shield process, simulating a crash, the kill switch activated, the app recovered and reconnected, and our traffic was never unprotected.
We did find problems with some more extreme situations. If we stopped Hotspot Shield’s Windows service, for instance, the VPN dropped, but this time the kill switch didn’t activate, and the device automatically switched to its regular unprotected connection.
We tried turning our router off and on, and watched closely. Usually the VPN was activated as soon as the router was up, but sometimes our device was able to use an unprotected connection for a period of time. Once, the app gave up any reconnection attempt entirely, and our traffic would have remained exposed until we noticed and reconnected manually.
This isn’t a total disaster. Hotspot Shield protected us against the most common connection drops, and you may never run into some of the other scenarios. But our tests show there are at least some circumstances where the kill switch won’t protect you, and that is a concern.
Hotspot Shield makes big claims about the performance of its Catapult Hydra protocol, but does it live up to the hype? We checked out the service with SpeedTest’s website and command line app, along with a number of other benchmarking sites to find out.
Tests from a UK data center revealed Hydra download speeds of 375Mbps. That’s a big jump from the 230-270Mbps we saw last time, but it still leaves Hotspot Shield in a miserable 19th place out of our last 20 speed tests. Many providers hit 700Mbps and more, with TorGuard, Surfshark and Norton all beating 950Mbps.
Switching to the IKEv2 protocol only reduced download speeds to around 230-260Mbps.
We tried something completely different: another UK location, connecting with Hydra via a Three 5G broadband router capable of 250-300Mbps. But the results were very similar at an average of 180Mbps.
This may not matter much if you’re only using a VPN for browsing or streaming tasks. Even Hotspot Shield’s lowest 180Mbps speed is still enough to run four 4K streams simultaneously and still have bandwidth left for browsing. But if you’re planning some serious torrenting, or otherwise need the maximum possible VPN performance, Hotspot Shield probably isn’t the provider for you.
Netflix and streaming
Hotspot Shield claims to be the ‘best Netflix VPN’, avoiding detection and getting you ‘unrestricted access to the content you love.’ Sounds promising, but we decided to check this by trying to access Netflix and a bunch of other top streaming services from Hotspot Shield locations around the world.
Our US tests got off to a great start, as Hotspot Shield’s specialist streaming location unblocked US Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video.
Need access to other Netflix libraries? The service also got us into Netflix UK, Australia, Canada and Japan.
The perfect record came to an end in Australia, where Hotspot Shield got us access to 9Now, but failed with 10 play.
The service recovered for our final tests in the UK, though, unblocking BBC iPlayer, ITV and Channel 4.
11 successes out of 12 is a spectacular result, and if you’re looking to unblock Netflix (or most other platforms), Hotspot Shield is a must for your shortlist.
(Other providers worth considering include ExpressVPN, Hide.me, NordVPN, PureVPN and Surfshark, VPNs which all scored 100% in their last unblocking tests.)
Like most VPNs, Hotspot Shield doesn’t like to boast about its P2P support, but pay close attention to the website and you’ll discover some good news.
The service fully supports P2P on all servers, so once you’ve connected with any of the clients (Windows, Mac, Android or iOS), you’re ready to start downloading.
We don’t like to take website claims for granted, so we verified Hotspot Shield’s torrent-friendliness by successfully downloading torrents while connected to the US, UK and Japan.
Search the support site for the keywords P2P or torrent and you won’t find anything at all, but there are a few simple guides for beginners in the Resources and Blog sections (try searching here), including advice on why you might want to use a VPN for torrenting, and pointers on how to download torrents anonymously.
Whatever method you’re using, Hotspot Shield doesn’t have any bandwidth limits or restrictions, so you should be able to use the service as much as you like.
Hotspot Shield’s Windows app opens with a dark panel displaying the current default location, a large On/Off button, and a tiny sidebar with more options. There are more buttons and settings than most apps, but it’s not difficult to use, and even total VPN newbies are likely to be exploring the app’s features right away.
Tapping the On button got us connected in a reasonably speedy 4-5 seconds. Some VPNs are faster – IVPN’s WireGuard connections can be up and running in around a second – but others can take 10 to 20 seconds, sometimes even longer.
Once connected, a map appears showing your new virtual location, while other panels display a host of connection details: your server IP address, load and latency, the amount of data used today, your current transfer speeds and the name of your local network (handy as a reminder when you’re connecting to wireless hotspots, say). This is a little cluttered and could intimidate not-so-technical users, but if you’re not interested in the stats, they can all be safely ignored. Just hit the Disconnect button when you’re done, and they’ll all disappear.
Clicking the current location displays a list of other countries and cities you can choose from. There are no server load figures or ping times to help with your decision, though, and no Favorites system to group commonly-used locations, a surprise considering the rest of the app looks so feature-packed.
Hotspot Shield’s settings dialog is more capable, with a choice of protocols (IKEv2 or Hydra), and switches to run the client when Windows starts, prevent IP leaks, and enable a kill switch to block internet access if the VPN drops.
There’s a handy bonus feature in the client’s ability to automatically connect to Hotspot Shield when you access unsafe Wi-Fi hotspots, safe hotspots or all networks. That option isn’t available nearly as often as we’d like, especially on Windows, and it’s good to see it here.
The ‘Smart VPN’ feature is an extended split tunneling option which enables choosing both websites and apps that won’t have their traffic routed through the VPN. If a website doesn’t work as usual when the VPN is on, or perhaps gaming performance is affected, add them to the Bypass list and they’ll use your regular connection instead of the VPN tunnel.
Support for keyboard shortcuts is a small usability plus. Ctrl+Shift+C connects and then disconnects, for instance, while Ctrl+Shift+V displays and enables choosing a virtual location.
This all worked well for us, but if you run into difficulties, a Support page includes links to open the FAQ, Live Chat and ‘Leave a message’ pages on the Hotspot Shield website.
Hotspot Shield’s Mac app is a stripped-back version of the Windows edition, with many features dropped and some unexpected and unnecessary differences.
The opening panel has the same color scheme and visual style, for instance, but there’s no ‘Auto’ option to automatically choose a location, no tooltips to explain the interface, and the sidebar has text options rather than icons.
The Mac location picker uses a conventional list, rather than the tiles used on the Windows app, and there are no Streaming or Gaming icons to access specific server types more quickly.
The Settings box is distinctly short on options. You can choose Hydra or IKEv2 protocols, and optionally launch and connect when your Mac starts. But there’s no kill switch, no Smart VPN split tunneling, no configurable IP leak protection, and no keyboard shortcuts. And although the Mac app can be set up to raise an alert if you access insecure Wi-Fi, it doesn’t have the Windows option to automatically connect.
If you only need the VPN basics, and you never use the Windows app, this may not matter very much. But for everyone else, the interface inconsistencies and serious shortage of features make this a poor Mac choice. Most providers do a far better job with their desktop apps.
Android and iOS apps
We hoped Hotspot Shield’s mobile apps would bring a more consistent look and feel to the range. But that’s not quite how things worked out.
The apps appear very similar, at first glance. The same stripped-back look, the black window with a blue Connect button, the simple location list just a tap away. But then you begin to notice the differences.
When we chose the UK on the Windows app location list, it gave us five options: Auto (because it’s our closest location), Streaming, Gaming, United Kingdom and Coventry. But the iOS app lists four options (it doesn’t support the Auto feature), and the Android app only has two (it doesn’t have any gaming or streaming recommendations for the UK).
However, Android users do get a ‘Social networks and chat’ mode, where they can connect to a suitable server in a couple of taps. We’d expect that to be a very cross-platform feature, just a quick way of choosing from a group of servers, but no: it’s not available on iOS, Windows or Mac.
Get connected on Android and the app displays a bunch of status details: IP address, server load, latency, peak speeds and more. This includes one or two interesting details which aren’t available on Windows, including location ratings for streaming and gaming.
Connect to the iOS app and you might expect something similar, but no – there’s just a ‘Disconnect’ button, with no status details at all.
The apps do at least have some useful settings. The Android app can connect when your device starts, or the app starts, or when you access unsecured Wi-Fi. There’s split tunneling, too, though only for apps: it doesn’t work with websites. Recent additions include a kill switch and an ‘Always-on VPN’ feature, which automatically reconnects if the VPN drops.
The iOS app also now supports ‘Always-on VPN’ and includes a feature you won’t find on Android: a choice of protocol, in Hydra or IKEv2. But that’s about it.
These aren’t bad apps – far from it. They’re easy to use, for the basics at least, speeds are okay, and they unblock almost anything. But Hotspot Shield hasn’t done a great job of transferring the best Windows app features to the rest of the range, and the inconsistencies across platforms could be very frustrating.
Many VPNs offer browser extensions, but they’re usually very basic, stripped-back tools with little more functionality than a Location list and a Connect button. That’s not the case with Hotspot Shield, though – its Chrome extension is stuffed with features, and more powerful in some ways than the desktop and mobile apps.
The opening interface gives no indication of this, as it looks much like the other clients: a mostly empty dark panel with a Connect button in the middle, and barely anything else. Point, click, and you’re connected.
It’s a near-instant connection, too, because the browser extension is a simple proxy system which protects your browser traffic only. That won’t work in every situation, but if you’re mostly interested in unblocking websites, it could serve you very well.
Tap the Configuration button top-right and you’re able to set a default server which you’d like Hotspot Shield to access when you first connect, or have it automatically connect to the nearest server.
There are a bunch of privacy extras, starting with ad, cookie, tracker, malware and WebRTC blockers, along with a handy option to ignore any resources you’re accessing which are hosted within your local network.
Perhaps the best additions are the Auto Protect and Bypass lists, at least once you’ve found them (they’re in Chrome’s Hotspot Shield Settings page rather than the extension console). Add websites which require the VPN to Auto Protect and Hotspot Shield automatically turns itself on whenever you try to access them. Add websites to the Bypass list and Hotspot Shield directs them through your regular connection, rather than the VPN tunnel, which is handy for sites that don’t work with a VPN, or which need to see your real location (a streaming platform which is only available in your country, say).
This isn’t quite as powerful as it looks. The ad blocker isn’t as capable as the market leaders, for instance, and doesn’t have any settings or options to customize how it functions. Still, overall it works very well, and the Chrome extension is better than most of the proxy competition.
Although it’s barely advertised on the website, Hotspot Shield also has a Firefox extension. This lagged a little behind the Chrome build in our last review, and for example didn’t include Sword Mode for feeding web trackers fake browsing information, but recent updates have fixed that, and the extensions now appear identical.
There’s a lot to like here, and both the Chrome and Firefox builds are welcome additions to the Hotspot Shield line-up. We’d like to see the company develop them further, though. The Chrome extension’s privacy tools have been flagged as ‘beta’ for a long time; it’s time to get them finished, and begin thinking about what comes next.
If Hotspot Shield isn’t working for you, the various apps give you instant access to advice on common issues by embedding documents from the website. As usual, if your issue is more complex, you can head off to the support website for more in-depth guidance.
A web-based Support Center organizes its articles by platform, as well as categories like Payments and Subscriptions, Manage Account and Common Issues. There is some useful information on the website that you won’t always get elsewhere (release notes, for instance), but most articles can’t match the depth you’ll get with providers like ExpressVPN.
The ‘Why is my speed slow when I’m connected?’ Android article, for instance, suggests ‘it’s normal to experience speed reduction from 30-50% when using any VPN service’ (we’re not so sure about that).
The article only contains a single sentence explaining how you might fix the problem: ‘Sometimes switching the connection OFF and ON a few times can help the app search for servers that are physically closer to you and potentially faster.’ That’s the best they have to offer? Really? (There are other articles with more detail on this, but that’s no help if you find this one first.)
The vast bulk of the article – 330+ words and no less than 15 screenshots – explains how to take a speed test and send it to Support.
Fortunately, if you can’t find an answer in the knowledgebase, you’re able to get in touch with the support team via live chat or email.
We tried live chat – the chat window quickly appeared, reported that we were first in the queue, and we were talking to a friendly and knowledgeable agent in under a minute.
There’s room for improvement on the support site, then, but many users should quickly find the core details they need, and the quality support team are on hand to help with anything else.
Hotspot Shield review: Final verdict
Hotspot Shield is a decent VPN with plenty of apps, which unblocks almost everything, and has good live chat support for help if you need it.
But it’s also slow, with a flawed Windows kill switch and a bunch of usability and other annoyances, and a lack of significant updates recently suggests we won’t see major improvements any time soon.