Hotspot Shield Review

Hotspot Shield is a US-based VPN from AnchorFree operating right out the Silicon Valley. Hotspot Shield VPN comes as an app and a browser extension in both free and paid packages.


AnchorFree released their VPN back in 2008 as a fully-fledged and free service we now know as Hotspot Shield Elite – their paid plan. This metamorphosis left the users of the free app with a limited, to say the least, and ad-supported version that has very little practical value.

More troubling, though, is the privacy concerns raised by a non-profit advocacy group Center for Democracy & Technology.


Pricing and Plans

The free version doesn’t require registration, and you can use it on an unlimited number of devices – it’s cross-platform, available from the website and mobile app stores. It’s very basic and ad-supported.

The paid Elite plan kicks in at $13 a month, $54 per six months, $72 a year, and $120 per life. It does away with the limitations and lets you stream, and access a modest network of 20 server locations.

The monthly subscription is not the most affordable option out there, but the annual plan is priced reasonably. As for the lifetime subscription, commitments of this magnitude require a leap of faith, which isn’t an option in the world of the VPNs.


Features

The software for the free and Elite packs is identical. It has an option to subscribe to the paid plan right from the app. Note: if you subscribe to Elite through the desktop app the money-back guarantee is 45 days, not 30 as in the browser extension. And once you submit your payment details, you get a 7-day free trial.

Usability is smooth, as the desktop app, mobile client and the browser extension are sleek but stripped down to the few very basic toggles and a connect button.

Hotspot Shield is available for Win, Mac, iOS, Android, and major browsers.

The free desktop app-based VPN from Hotspot Shield allows you to connect to the US server only. Other than that, you can configure the auto-start and language options and toggle the IP leak protection.

The browser extension is available for all major browsers, but it brings very little to the table. You can’t connect to the US or UK servers at all. Instead, the app automatically detects the “optimal connection” and grants you 12 server locations like Chile and Singapore, but will you need them? You decide.

Also, Hotspot Shield is evasive about the number of servers, IP addresses, and encryption options it provides. Either it’s a usability flaw, or they intentionally avoid giving out the most relevant information to the prospects.


Tests

I was impressed by the sharp increase in the upload speed during my performance tests. These are my stats before connecting to VPN:

and these are two results I got by connecting to a US server via the desktop app:

The security tests were mostly fine, with successful WebRTC and IPv6 leak tests:

The DNS leak tests were inconsistent across browser extension, which leaked, and the desktop app, which didn’t:

Since the desktop app let me connect to the US server and performed impressively well in my speed tests, I headed to Netflix only to be greeted by the VPN pop-up:

The free app doesn’t give you access to the UK servers at all. So there’s no value in Hotspot Shield free VPN for you if access to BBC iPlayer from outside the UK is a requirement.


Privacy

The free app is ad-supported, which implies two layers of ads – one greets you at launch as Hotspot Shield offers its Elite plan. The other isn’t as obvious, but it’s the reason the privacy advocates took the issue to the FTC. The complaint states the VPN provider not only collects user data and intercepts traffic, but also injects JavaScript codes for ads and redirects users’ traffic to affiliated e-commerce domains.

In layman terms, they sell your data while the app description states the opposite – no logs, complete confidentiality, and anonymity, no sharing your personal information with others. It’s misleading at best. If you ask me, ads embedded in the desktop app, aka adware, are enough of a turnoff, but I’d rather you decide for yourself.

The Hotspot Shield’s Privacy Policy and ToS aren’t reassuring. For instance, they collect your personal data and share it with third parties. The “however” in Privacy Policy always means everything that precedes it is irrelevant, as in:

The bottom line is you don’t need to worry about data retention laws in Sweden because Mullvad has nothing to hand over to law enforcement if they receive a court request.

AnchorFree installs its own certificate as a Trusted Publisher and may update and install such certificates without notice, which is intrusive for a VPN that claims to protect you.


Security

The Elite version uses OpenVPN, but the technicalities under the hood of the free version are unclear. There’s a kill switch called IP leak protection, but that’s about it.

Let’s not forget the US-based VPNs are black-listed by most privacy advocates due to data retention laws and surveillance. So there’s a laundry list of reasons why Hotspot Shield (especially in its free iteration) isn’t the go-to option if privacy is on your must-have features list.


Final Thoughts

Hotspot Shield might be free (and affordable in its long-term paid version) but the provider says 90+ percent of its customers use the free app. That means they have to monetize your traffic and your data. Privacy intrusion never comes alone – it always compromises your security. Is it worth it? You tell me.

2.8

Pros:

  • Affordable long-term plan
  • Free version available
  • Impressive speeds
  • Geared toward non-technical users
  • 30-day refund policy

Cons:

  • No advanced customization
  • Logging, tracking libraries, ad JavaScript injection
  • Shares your data with third parties routinely
  • Free version is barely useful
  • No Netflix, no BBC iPlayer
  • Avoid using it for torrenting due to the US copyright laws
  • Support is ticket-based and slow