Hotspot Shield Review 2021

When I started research for this Hotspot Shield VPN review, I expected to find the usual questions. Is Hotspot Shield a good VPN? Is it worth the money? Is it better than NordVPN?

Instead, I found an awful lot of people wondering if Hotspot Shield was a computer virus.

To put it mildly, I didn’t get my hopes up. It’s as if I was considering buying a boat, and Google autocompleted my first search with “are Bertram boats supposed to attract krakens?”

overhead view of boat and wake
Answer: they weren’t originally, but Bertram just went for it once they realized they had a brand going.

Although Hotspot Shield VPN is not actually malware, I understand why so many people think it might be. My initial experience with this VPN did little to improve my first impression. I don’t think I’ve ever had a VPN check so many boxes on my s*** list so quickly.

hotspot shield vpn demands address
It’s mandatory. MANDATORY.

I’ll get into more of the reasons below, but here’s a sample: this VPN forces you to enter your home address along with your payment information.

How on God’s green earth do you spend years building a VPN without understanding that one of the biggest reasons to use one is to conceal your physical location? Hotspot Shield doesn’t even give any reason for requiring information that every other leading VPN manages just fine without.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this Hotspot Shield review isn’t just to vent my frustrations; it’s also to go in-depth on every aspect of this VPN and see whether it’s worth your time and money. To spoil the ending a bit, Hotspot Shield has some good qualities. But are there enough?

Product

Hotspot Shield

$7.99
per month for a 1-year plan ($95.88 for one year)

Get Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield Review Overview

Hotspot Shield Specs:

WebsiteHotspot Shield
Our Rating50/100
Pricing$7.99 per month for a 1-year plan ($95.88 for one year)
Free trial availableYes
Money-Back Guarantee45 Days
Desktop OSesMacOS, Windows, Linux, Chrome, smart TVs, routers
Mobile OSesAndroid, iOS
Worldwide Server Amount1,800 Servers in 80+ Countries
Simultaneous Connections5
Streaming AccessNetflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max.

PROS

  • Great at unlocking streaming platforms
  • Extremely fast
  • Clean, pleasant user interface
  • Decent customer service

CONS

  • Highly suspicious privacy policy
  • Unaddressed security flaws
  • Proprietary, unaudited protocol that you’re required to use
  • Limited feature availability
  • Wildly overpriced

How Good Is Hotspot Shield VPN?

Hotspot Shield is a generic-at-best VPN service with massive security and privacy holes that charges more than its far worthier competitors. The only reason to pay for this VPN is if you’ve found it impossible to unblock streaming sites with any other VPN provider.


Hotspot Shield VPN: Latest News and Updates

hotspot shield homepage
Hotspot Shield claims to be the world’s fastest VPN.

We’ll update this section if anything major happens concerning Hotspot Shield or any of its parent companies. The biggest news recently is the Aura acquisition, which you can read about in the “who owns Hotspot Shield” section below.

What Is Hotspot Shield?

Hotspot Shield is a virtual private network (VPN) that you can use to protect your identity and personal information while using the internet. While active, Hotspot Shield conceals your IP address and encrypts all the data you send, making it theoretically impossible to trace anything back to you.

Who Owns Hotspot Shield?

This is a hard question to answer. Hotspot Shield has maintained the same name since it launched in 2008, but the company that developed it is suffering a decade-long identity crisis. I’ve seen it called by at least three different names: AnchorFree, Pango and Dnick.

AnchorFree seems to be the most common. However, when Aura acquired Hotspot Shield and some of its sister products in 2019, the seller was listed as Pango. To keep things as simple as possible, I will call them AnchorFree/Pango for the rest of the review.

What we do know for sure is that Hotspot Shield is now owned by Aura, a digital security company previously known for the identity theft protection app Identity Guard. Aura’s other products focus on financial security and family protection.

Aura has no parent company and has a decent record. Unlike Kape Technologies, one of the foremost drivers of VPN consolidation, it at least never made its money in malware.

Where Is Hotspot Shield Located?

Hotspot Shield’s management company, AnchorFree, is based in the United States. Aura, its parent company, is also headquartered in the U.S. America has data privacy policies that lag behind those in Europe, Canada and other developed nations.

If Hotspot Shield had a stellar privacy policy, I might be willing to let this slide. However, combined with the unsettling liberties it takes (see the “Privacy” section), the fact that it’s based in a jurisdiction without many data protections makes me very nervous.

How Safe Is Hotspot Shield?

It’s hard to say because we don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the curtain of its exclusive protocol Catapult Hydra. But I’m inclined to argue that it’s not very safe.

Catapult Hydra is only available on Hotspot Shield. Of course, other VPNs have exclusive protocols, but Hotspot Shield is the only one that doesn’t offer OpenVPN or WireGuard as an alternative. It also minces words about whether or not Hydra has passed an independent audit.

The most damning indictment of Hotspot Shield came in December 2017, when a researcher pointed out a vulnerability that made it possible to see the name of a user’s WiFi network and potentially narrow down their IP address.

Often, a VPN is defined by the way it responds to an encounter with a white hat hacker. Does it immediately leap into action to fix the flaw, like NordVPN and VyprVPN did? Or does it do the exact opposite, like Hotspot Shield?

The researcher informed AnchorFree/Pango of the bug in December, and didn’t hear back from them for two full months. Frustrated with the lack of response, the white hat hacker took his information to the press, which forced AnchorFree/Pango to finally patch the vulnerability.

Hotspot Shield VPN is regularly used by activists living under oppressive regimes. Who knows how many dictators were able to find their enemies’ locations during the two months AnchorFree/Pango spent sitting on its hands? Maybe none. But even one would be far too many.

How Has Hotspot Shield Changed Over Time?

Hotspot Shield VPN was launched for Windows and macOS in 2008. iOS and Android apps followed in 2011 and 2012, respectively. 

In 2010, Hotspot Shield briefly achieved fame as the VPN of choice for Arab Spring protesters. It’s also been used to bypass censorship in Turkey and Hong Kong. After Aura acquired it in 2019, Hotspot Shield significantly overhauled its visuals and interface.


Hotspot Shield Features (90/100)

Basic Features

Hotspot Shield is a pay-to-win product. It locks industry-standard features behind paywalls or leaves them off a vast swath of operating systems. Without these features, Hotspot Shield is one of the barest-bones VPNs I’ve tested in some time.

Not that being uncluttered is a bad thing. On the contrary, all a VPN really needs to do is connect you to a working server and hit one or two other beats.

On the main page, you can do exactly one thing: connect to a VPN server. Once you’re connected, the screen fills with a wealth of data, some of it more useful than the rest.

hotspot shield vpn dashboard
It’s nice to see your server load and speed, but knowing how much data I’ve used today isn’t all that helpful unless on the free plan.

You can set Hotspot Shield VPN to automatically start when you log onto your computer and automatically connect when it opens. However, you can’t specify which server it will connect to, and it’s unclear how the VPN chooses.

hotspot shield vpn preferences
This screenshot demonstrates about 75% of Hotspot Shield’s features.

There are two features under the “advanced” tab: reinstalling the VPN and choosing between two protocols. If picking between two protocols is too overwhelming, Hotspot Shield can also automatically select one for you. By sheer coincidence, it’s almost always Catapult Hydra.

On its Windows and Android apps, Hotspot Shield offers two additional features. First up is a kill switch, which automatically drops your internet connection if your VPN connection ever breaks.  The second is split tunneling (here called Smart VPN), which improves speeds by allowing you to run low-risk apps without the VPN.

Both the kill switch and split tunneling are great, but they should be available for all users. There’s no technical reason to exclude them from macOS, iOS or Linux.

Advanced Features

The actual advanced features of Hotspot Shield are only available for an extra fee. I saw this message while attempting to pay for my subscription:

hotspot shield vpn antivirus sale
I don’t need my VPN to relentlessly upsell me on useless products. That’s what Jiffy Lube is for.

Even if you’re using the best VPN on the market, I don’t advise trusting it to keep you safe from malware and phishing. That’s not what it’s for. A good antivirus program will do the same job more effectively.

Hotspot Shield offers two more services in its “Security Suite,” a bundle of products owned by parent company Aura. 1Password is a password vault, and Robo Shield blocks spam calls. They’re both fine at their jobs, but their presence here is nothing but marketing.

What Is Hotspot Shield Catapult Hydra Protocol?

Catapult Hydra is Hotspot Shield’s secret sauce. It’s a proprietary protocol developed by the team at AnchorFree/Pango. As far as I know, it’s the only VPN protocol other than ExpressVPN Lightway to be built from scratch rather than based on an open-source protocol (e.g., NordVPN NordLynx is based on WireGuard).

Note: Although it’s often referred to by the shortened name “Hydra,” Catapult Hydra should not be confused with the Hydra protocol offered by SlickVPN.

According to Hotspot Shield, Hydra works similarly to OpenVPN, with TLS 1.2 handshakes and RSA authentication. Then it adds secret algorithms that allegedly makes it way faster than everybody else’s protocols.

Hotspot Shield is confident that Catapult Hydra works. So confident, in fact, that until recently, Hydra was the only protocol you could use. It has since caved and started offering IKEv2, but that’s it.

airplane sitting on tarmac
“Thank you for flying Dave’s Airlines! Instead of planes from Boeing or Airbus, we only fly our own secret, patented DavePlanes … where is everybody going?”

This was the equivalent of a five-alarm fire for my BS detector, but I wanted to give Hotspot Shield a chance. After all, some people swear that Catapult Hydra lives up to the hype. Check out “Hotspot Shield Security” and “Speed & Performance Testing” sections to learn how this secret sauce really tastes.


Hotspot Shield Cost: Plans & Value for Money (60/100)

Hotspot Shield is a more a la carte service than most VPNs, so its pricing is a little complicated. On the other hand, the value for your money isn’t complicated at all — this VPN is more overpriced than a Starbucks latte.

hotspot shield vpn pricing
Unlike many VPNs, Hotspot Shield’s three pricing tiers have different features.

Hotspot Shield Free costs $0 per month. It only allows one device, 2 Mbps of connection speed, 500MB of data daily and only one virtual location in the U.S. (not clear where).

Hotspot Shield Premium costs $12.99 month-to-month, or $7.99 per month if you subscribe for a year at a time. It includes the full suite of features, including the entire server network, unlimited bandwidth and data, and five simultaneous connections.

Hotspot Shield Premium Family costs $19.99 month-to-month, or $12.99 per month for a year. In addition to the total feature package, it offers five user accounts, each of which can connect up to five times simultaneously. (It’s not worth it. Just install the VPN on your router if you have that many devices.)

If you want to add malware protection to any plan, it’s an extra $5.99 per month.

There’s a seven-day free trial, but it’s not easy to find (check it out at this link). Any premium plan comes with a money-back guarantee for 45 days. I was able to get my money back without any drama.

Payment options include credit card, debit card or PayPal but no cryptocurrency or anonymous options.

Can I Use Hotspot Shield for Free?

You can, but you shouldn’t. Read the free plan above one more time, and you’ll see that it makes the VPN essentially unusable. Download speed of 2 Mbps is barely enough to load a web page, and if you’re not in the U.S., you’re screwed.

What’s worse, the free plan has ads. To ensure those ads are as creepy and invasive as possible, Hotspot Shield sells your browsing activity logs to Google. Hotspot Shield Free is more or less the exact opposite of a VPN. Instead of a virtual private network, it’s a veritable public nuisance.


Apps & Support (90/100)

hotspot shield vpn platforms
These apps support Hotspot Shield VPN.

Hotspot Shield VPN works on the following apps:

  • Desktop: Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Mobile: iOS, Android
  • Browser: Chrome, all Chromium browsers (Edge and Opera)
  • Routers: Any that support DD-WRT or FreshTomato
  • Other: Smart TVs

Bear in mind that all apps outside Windows and Android lose access to many functions, including the kill switch and split tunneling.


Servers & Server Locations (80/100)

The closer you are to a VPN server, the better performance you’ll see. Therefore, a VPN needs to have as diverse a server network as it possibly can. If all its data centers are clustered in the U.S. and Europe, most people in the world won’t be able to use it effectively.

Hotspot Shield has more than 1,800 servers in just over 80 countries. That’s simultaneously impressive and lackluster. Getting servers in more than 80 countries is impressive — that’s about 20 more than NordVPN and almost as many as ExpressVPN.

But 1,800 servers is not very many. Given Hotspot Shield’s large user base, I expected a lot more. The limited number explains why several of the servers I tried were operating at over 50% capacity, putting them at risk of slowdowns.

hotspot shield vpn africa and asia servers
A few of the less common spots where Hotspot Shield has server locations.

I will give Hotspot Shield some credit for its server network’s diversity. Kenya, Algeria and Uzbekistan are not places you often see VPNs going, and there are more rare locations than what’s pictured here (Peru and Chile also appear, for example).

In this specific case, focusing on breadth over depth makes sense. I’m happy to see more VPNs going into under-served locations instead of doubling down on North America and Europe.


Speeds & Performance Testing (95/100)

I conducted all these speed tests using the Catapult Hydra protocol. Hotspot Shield claims it’s the fastest VPN protocol known to man, and I wanted to test that theory. I used speedtest.net to check the latency (ping), download speed and upload speed of six increasingly distant server locations.

Location:Ping (ms)Download speed (Mbps)Upload speed (Mbps)
Portland, Oregon, USA (unprotected)2640.415.87
Portland, Oregon, USA (protected)6736.445.81
Boston, Massachusetts, USA18229.785.81
Isle of Man, U.K.31230.475.85
Algeria31726.675.82
Nepal36137.074.80

Though it’s likely that not every server I tested was really in that location (especially Nepal, whose speed suggests a virtual server), I had to admit it: Catapult Hydra is extremely fast. Since it’s the only protocol this VPN wants you to use, it’s safe to say Hotspot Shield has excellent speeds in general.

Latency rose sharply as I got farther away but within expected limits. On the other side of the world, anything under 400 ms is pretty good. Upload speeds were also very consistent on all but the most distant servers.

With all that said, I still have my doubts that Hotspot Shield is too fast. Catapult Hydra is not open source, so I have no idea what’s really in there. Download speeds that are nearly unaffected by crossing the Atlantic Ocean make me suspect that this protocol cuts corners on encryption.

But that’s only circumstantial evidence. All I can say for sure is that Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPNs on the market, even beating ExpressVPN in download speeds.


Streaming & Torrenting (98/100)

I tested six streaming services with Hotspot Shield active: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer.

I tried each with a few different servers (except BBC iPlayer — it only works in the U.K., where Hotspot Shield only has one location). Hotspot Shield got into all of them and played every video with absolutely no lag.

Is Hotspot Shield Good for Streaming & Torrenting?

Definitely. Streaming HD video requires about 5 Mbps. As long as your unprotected connection is faster than that, you’re in business.

Its speeds are easily fast enough for torrenting, and Hotspot Shield allows P2P file sharing on all its servers. Due to security and privacy issues, I don’t recommend Hotspot Shield for torrenting, but it’s a perfect P2P VPN from a purely technical perspective.

Does Hotspot Shield Work with Netflix and Other Streaming Sites?

Yes. It can get through content blockers and maintain fast enough speeds to watch videos without interruption. Streaming is easily the top use case for Hotspot Shield.


Hotspot Shield Security: Encryption & Protocols (60/100)

Near the top of this article, I explained that a vulnerability was discovered in Hotspot Shield in 2018 and subsequently repaired by the development team. I also explained why I don’t entirely trust the team’s fix. I won’t rehash all of it. Suffice it to say that the incident knocked several points off Hotspot Shield’s security score.

As discussed in the “Features” section above, Hotspot Shield offers exactly two protocols. One is IKEv2, which is fast but less secure than either OpenVPN or WireGuard. The other is the much-discussed Catapult Hydra.

hotspot shield vpn protocols
If only it were easier to tell which one the app wanted you to pick.

I’ll be blunt: I’m not prepared to say that Catapult Hydra is secure. Yes, it uses almost the exact same bones as OpenVPN, including RSA authentication and AES-256 symmetric encryption (also known as bank-grade or military-grade encryption). But I don’t know what else is in there or what it means for security.

Hotspot Shield claims on its website that it built Catapult Hydra to match the security of other protocols while getting much better speeds. As a rule, increasing performance tends to decrease security — that’s why PPTP, the fastest VPN protocol, should never be used.

The website goes on to claim that the “Catapult Hydra security code is evaluated by 3rd party security experts from more than 60% of the world’s largest security companies.” But if those experts generated a report, Hotspot Shield hasn’t made it public. An independent audit is a great way to build trust in a privacy service, but if you don’t share the results, you end up looking more suspicious.

hotspot shield vpn hydra ad
Only Hotspot Shield lets you defend your internet connection with your very own disturbingly buff cyborg!

At the bare minimum, Hydra did manage to pass our IP leak tests, which means it did not disclose our IP address or DNS requests. So it’s possible my suspicions don’t amount to much. Still, I’d rather be too cautious than not cautious enough when dealing with a protocol that isn’t open source and has a minimal track record.

Is Hotspot Shield a Virus?

No, it’s not a virus, nor is it malware. But the free version of Hotspot Shield has been known to install a toolbar without the user’s consent. The toolbar generates ads, changes the user’s home page and even redirects searches to websites affiliated with Hotspot Shield and its parent companies.

It also has a record of sneaking onto devices by hitching a ride on other freeware. And it can be hard to remove. So perhaps a different answer is warranted: Hotspot Shield is only sometimes a virus, in the same way that a dandelion is only a weed if you don’t want it on your lawn.


Privacy & Logs (30/100)

In 2019, around the time of the Aura acquisition, AnchorFree/Pango changed its privacy policy to apply to all its products equally. Unfortunately, this failed to make things any more convenient because AnchorFree/Pango still has a separate privacy policy from its parent company. To get the full picture of Hotspot Shield’s privacy, you have to read both policies.

hotspot shield vpn privacy intro
We’re not off to a great start here.

Let’s start with the privacy policy specific to Hotspot Shield. Here we see the following “key assurance:” Aura does not record your VPN browsing activities in any way that can be associated back to you.

What was intended as the most reassuring phrase in the policy is actually a flag red enough to see from space. The VPN won’t say outright that it won’t record your browsing activities, and admits in the same paragraph that it logs the domain names users visit.

Allegedly, it’s impossible to connect those domains with any individual user or device. But the privacy policy soon contradicts that. Hotspot Shield identifies individual devices using device hashes — essentially fingerprints — that it uses for vague purposes like “understanding how you interact with our VPN.”

That’s not the end of it. Hotspot Shield collects your IP address at the start of every session and does the following things with it:

hotspot shield vpn ip address policy
“OK, so we have your IP address and we’ve used it to pinpoint what building you live in, but it’s not like we know your apartment number

Let’s not forget that this VPN demands your home address before you can sign up. That’s no fewer than three enormous exceptions — IP address, device hash, real-world address — carved out of this so-called “no log” policy.

And we’re still not done! God help you if you use the free version of Hotspot Shield (which we’ve already established is basically malware). Then you get the joy of having this horrifying paragraph apply to you:

hotspot shield vpn ad policy
“Personalization is conducted by our advertising partner Google, and counseling services are provided by our psychiatry partner Dr. Hannibal Lecter.”

This policy asks us to imagine that Hotspot Shield gathers all this information on users, builds relationships with third-party advertisers, but then doesn’t make money off that groundwork because it pinky swore that it wouldn’t. That’s a big enough leap of faith to make Kierkegaard tremble.

If you don’t believe me, believe Washington, D.C. watchdog group Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). In 2017, CDT submitted a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Hotspot Shield was so bad at keeping its promise to protect user privacy that it amounted to deceptive advertising.

Caption: A selection from the 13-page complaint. To be fair, the selection is from Hotspot Shield’s pre-Aura privacy policy. It’s possible the acquisition has improved things.

hotspot shield vpn ftc complaint
A selection from the 13-page complaint. To be fair, the selection is from Hotspot Shield’s pre-Aura privacy policy. It’s possible the acquisition has improved things.

There are only two slight consolations. First, the overall Aura privacy policy doesn’t contain anything that contradicts this one. And second, there haven’t been any news stories about Hotspot Shield selling or turning over user logs. That’s the only reason it scrapes a 30.


Customer Support & Service (85/100)

The Hotspot Shield app is conscientious about customer support. From the clearly marked “support” tab, you can access three help options: FAQ, live chat or message.

hotspot shield vpn support
I don’t know why they have to be marked “Premium” when I’m already using Premium, but that’s a small quibble.

The FAQ, located on the Hotspot Shield website, has a fairly limited number of articles, but they’re well-written and helpful. Most areas that might require troubleshooting are covered.

Live chat is unnecessarily hard to find. The button on the desktop app doesn’t take you there. Instead, you have to go to the FAQ and scroll down to the bottom.

hotspot shield vpn live chat
It’s not hiding, but it’s not exactly announcing itself either.

Live chat is done through a bot that answers questions to the best of its ability. It’s basically a search engine, but one that does its job well. If the bot can’t tell you what you need to know, you can get specific answers by sending an email. It normally takes about one business day. I tried twice, and both times the answer was friendly and helpful.


Ease of Use (90/100)

It’s very easy to use Hotspot Shield because there’s hardly anything there. You’ll use nothing but the server list for 95% of the time you spend on this VPN. Type in the search bar to find a country, click on a country to see what servers are available, then click a server to connect to it. That’s it.

hotspot shield vpn interface
Hotspot Shield’s app is undeniably frictionless, eliminating almost all choke points. 

There are a few odd choices, though, like whatever is happening here:

hotspot shield vpn two messages
Whose idea was this?

I’m not a professional software designer, but I’m pretty sure that having two pop-up messages asking the same question isn’t exactly best practices. Still, aside from the odd misstep, the user interface is one of Hotspot Shield’s bright spots.


Bottom Line: Do I Recommend Hotspot Shield?

If I’ve seemed angry during the course of this review, it’s righteous rage at the injustices perpetrated by Hotspot Shield. This may well be the fastest VPN of them all, but it sold its soul to clinch that title.

Hotspot Shield is the exact opposite of Windscribe. Windscribe is a scrappy VPN service that looks and acts like a dumpster fire but does its job amazingly well. Hotspot Shield is the Patrick Bateman of VPNs: handsome, well-dressed, successful, but ultimately rotten to the core.

In other words, no, I don’t recommend it. Check out one of the alternatives in the next section instead.


Hotspot Shield Alternatives

If I’ve managed to convince you not to use Hotspot Shield (and I sincerely hope I have), here are a few VPNs that deserve your attention instead.

ExpressVPN is my favorite VPN. It’s fast, secure and takes its no-log policy seriously. Normally when I recommend it, I provide a caveat that it’s on the pricey side, but it’s actually cheaper than Hotspot Shield. So go nuts! Read my full ExpressVPN review for more information.

NordVPN and VyprVPN are both examples of VPNs that take security seriously. Both of them have discovered vulnerabilities in the last few years and raced to fix them immediately, keeping users updated all the way. Read my full NordVPN review and VyprVPN review for more information.

Windscribe is the best choice for a free VPN service that doesn’t make up the difference by selling your information to advertisers. Its premium subscription is worth it too. Read my full Windscribe review for more information.

1

ExpressVPN

Product

$6.66
per month annually (15 months for $99.95); $12.95 monthly

Extremely fast & easy to use

Servers in 94 countries

Kill switch, split tunneling & no logs

Unblocks all major streaming services

Excellent security record

ExpressVPN is everything a VPN should be, but it's expensive.

Get 49% Off ExpressVPN
2

NordVPN

Product

$4.13
per month for a 2-year plan ($99.12 for two years); 11.95 monthly

Easy to operate

Unblocks every major streaming service

Great savings on one- & two-year plans

Includes a kill switch & ad blocker

Strict no-logs policy

A good VPN service with a fair price.

Get NordVPN
3

VyprVPN

Product

$1.67
per month for a 3-year plan ($60 for 36 months)

Excellent security protocols

Easy setup on every app

Great at unblocking streaming sites

Affordable prices

Exclusive DNS infrastructure

Promising, but weak in performance.

Get VyprVPN
4

Windscribe VPN

Product

$9
month for a 1-year plan ($49 per year)

Dedicated streaming servers

File sharing services allowed

Anonymous payment via BitPay

Unlimited simultaneous connections

Browser extensions

Free account with up to 10 Gigabyte per month

The only real point of criticism is its performance.

Get Windscribe VPN

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