Tech

Hotspot Shield review: This speedster VPN's still got it

hotspot shieldImage: Hotspot Shield

At a Glance

Expert’s Rating

Pros

Good speedsFree version availableStreaming supported servers

Cons

ExpensiveNo independent auditSome privacy issues

Our Verdict

Hotspot Shield is a good-quality VPN with some of the fastest speeds I’ve ever seen from a VPN. It also has a slick desktop app and a large server network. Privacy is an issue though as there is no independent audit and the service collects user data that may be uncomfortable for some.

Price When Reviewed

$12.99 per month

Best Prices Today: Hotspot Shield

RetailerPriceAura$12.99View DealPrice comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwideProductPricePrice comparison from Backmarket

Hotspot Shield in brief:

P2P allowed: YesDevice connections: 5 simultaneous connectionsBusiness location: United StatesNumber of servers: 1,800+Number of country locations: 90Cost: $12.99 per month or $95.88 for a yearly subscription

In our previous reviews, Hotspot Shield has been our reigning speed champion, taking our top spot for fastest VPN by a mile. But with so many VPN services bolstering their servers and adopting faster protocols, it’s worth taking another look to see how it stacks up in today’s market.

Further reading: See our roundup of the best VPN services to learn about competing products.

What are Hotspot Shield’s features and services?

Sam Singleton

When you start Hotspot Shield it shows a matte-black background with a giant power button in the center of the window. The default screen includes two tiles below the power button. One is for choosing your location, and the other displays your cumulative daily data usage. It’s a pleasing user interface that continues to feel slick and modern — even though it hasn’t changed in years.

Sam Singleton

When you open up the server locations tab, you’ll find an extensive list of 1,800 or so servers spread across an impressive 90 countries. Before Hotspot Shield changed ownership to Aura, it had over 3,200 servers. When we previously reached out to Aura to ask why it decided to drop server count the company said, “Aura uses more powerful servers and has a more efficient software stack. We have continued to innovate on the VPN infrastructure stack leveraging our proprietary Hydra technology, which has led to an architecture that utilizes a smaller number of specialized servers that work together to deliver a superior VPN experience.”

Hotspot Shield also supports streaming services such as Netflix. Rather than making a blanket statement that its servers will work with streaming, it actually has dedicated streaming servers in both the U.S. and UK. In addition to streaming locations you can choose servers dedicated to gaming as well.  

Zooming back out to the home screen, there are a number of options on the left rail to choose from. These include a handy built-in speed test, account information, a support page, and a settings menu.

Sam Singleton

The settings area has a number of useful items. There’s an internet kill switch that stops all web traffic if the VPN connection crashes, and resumes only when you reconnect to the VPN. There’s also an “Auto-protect” feature that will automatically connect to the VPN when you’re on public Wi-Fi.

In fact, since our last review, Hotspot Shield has added a number of great new features that can be turned on under the settings menu. It now offers split tunneling which allows you to pick and choose which apps or websites should be run through the VPN and which should be excluded. Additionally, it added support for the WireGuard protocol.

Ian Paul

Once you’re connected, the app displays small informational tiles that show your VPN location, the VPN IP address you’re using, the amount of bandwidth you’ve used going up and down, speed data, plus the name of the local network you’re currently on. The server information tile also has some nice data in it, including your current IP address, the load of the server (as a percentage), the latency, and length of time connected. 

Hotspot Shield supports up to five simultaneous device connections, which for a service this pricey is on the low side and hasn’t been changed in recent years. The service has apps for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. There are also instructions for setting up a router, as with numerous other services.

How much does Hotspot Shield cost?

Hotspot Shield is one of the more expensive VPNs at $12.99 per month. There is also a yearly plan that drops the price to $7.99 per month or $95.88 for the whole year. In the past, these higher prices could be justified as Hotspot Shield offered its subscriptions as bundled services — not just the VPN, but also a password manager, antivirus, and call blocker. Nowadays, though, many other services are offering these same features for no additional price.

Hotspot Shield does offer a free version of its VPN for no charge whatsoever. The free version limits you to 500MB of data per day, connection speeds are capped at 2Mbps, and there is only one U.S. server available. You’ll also have to wade through quite a few ads while using it, especially with the Android app. Still, these restrictions aren’t a dealbreaker and are actually relatively mild compared to those of many other free services.

Hotspot Shield accepts payments via credit card and PayPal.

How is Hotspot Shield’s performance?

For a long time, Hotspot Shield’s Hydra protocol was the flat-out fastest VPN you could find. In recent years, however, that’s changed, as many competitors have adopted the new-ish WireGuard protocol. The lightning-fast speeds of WireGuard mean that Hotspot Shield no longer stands alone at the top of the heap of fastest VPNs.

When testing Hotspot Shield’s performance, I measured connection speeds across its servers in six different countries around the world and then compared them to my baseline internet speed. I did this using both its proprietary Hydra protocol as well as WireGuard.

The average download speeds for the once vaunted Hydra were 61 percent of base download speed. Upload speeds clocked in at 70 percent of my base upload speed. That’s not bad, but it’s no longer great either. Just like an aging Usain Bolt, the competitors were bound to catch up eventually, I guess.

When connected to WireGuard, however, I actually noticed a slight speed increase, with download speeds jumping to 64 percent of base while upload speeds remained about the same. This just goes to show that Hydra isn’t what it once was and, quite honestly, I’d be hard pressed to recommend it over WireGuard going forward.

All of this is not to say that Hotspot Shield is slow. It’s still much faster than many other VPNs, but it no longer runs away with the fastest title. Other VPNs such as NordVPN and ProtonVPN have caught up and overtaken it.

For those who’re looking to use Hotspot Shield to unblock streaming content, you’re in luck. It worked surprisingly well when it came to accessing geo-restricted content on sites such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and others. The service maintains a few streaming optimized servers in the U.S. and UK, but I actually found that even random servers I connected to in places like Japan and Australia allowed me to access content as well.

How is Hotspot Shield’s security and privacy?

Sam Singleton

Hotspot Shield offers three protocols: WireGuard, IKEv2, and its own proprietary protocol called Catapult Hydra. There isn’t too much known about Hydra, but it is used by Kaspersky, Bitdefender, and McAfee, among other trustworthy security brands and I suppose that goes a long way towards demonstrating its reliability.

The service also offers a kill switch, turned off by default, which in my testing successfully blocked my internet traffic when my VPN connection was unexpectedly terminated. It’s worth noting, however, that the kill-switch function only works with the Hydra protocol, not with WireGuard or IKEv2. This is highly unusual and quite vexing as I’ve never come across a VPN that doesn’t allow its kill-switch feature to work across all protocols.

Sam Singleton

While the security might be top-notch, Hotspot Shield drops the ball when it comes to privacy. Its parent company Aura still collects the domains you visit, as did the previous Hotspot Shield owners. Not the specific URLs, mind you, just the higher-level domains. Aura says it does this in order to, “monitor, support, and optimize our VPN services.” As a side note, this optimization is likely one of the reasons Hotspot Shield is able to stay at the top of our speed rankings. 

In addition to the domains, Hotspot Shield also creates a hash based on your device attributes and uses that to measure bandwidth use, provide support, analytics, and so on. Your IP address is also kept (in an encrypted state) during your VPN session and then deleted. Finally, the company also collects the duration of your sessions and bandwidth consumption. Aura says it does this “to monitor, support, and optimize our VPN services, as well as enforce free app usage limits.”

Although Hotspot Shield claims that this data is anonymized and logs can’t be traced back to specific users, this has unfortunately never been verified by independent audit. So it’s up to you whether you’re willing to take them at their word.

Is Hotspot Shield worth it?

Hotspot Shield is a great option if your only concern is VPN speeds for streaming, gaming, and so on. It’s no longer the standout that it once was, as other VPNs have caught up, but it’s still plenty fast. The Windows and Android apps are easy to use and it works with Netflix and other streaming services.

The company’s privacy policy leaves a lot to be desired though, and proprietary VPN protocols, even one with wide support like Hydra, are still a little questionable. The reality is that there are other VPN services that log far less data, and still have acceptable speeds. Go with Hotspot Shield for the speed, but not the privacy.

Editor’s note: Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, this review is subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the service. Any changes to text or our final review verdict will be noted at the top of this article.

Best Prices Today: Hotspot Shield

RetailerPriceAura$12.99View DealPrice comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwideProductPricePrice comparison from Backmarket

Sam Singleton is a tech editor and PCWorld’s jack of all trades. When he’s not on the hunt for the best computer deals he’s covering VPNs, productivity software, laptops, and a wide gamut of consumer-grade hardware and software.

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