In 2013, Hotspot Shield was awarded the Appy Award for Best Online Security/Privacy Application. In the same year, the app was included on Softonic’s Best Apps of Mobile World Congress, Forbes magazine named its parent company, AnchorFree, America’s sixth most promising company, and Business Insider named it as one of the 15 most important security startups.
It seems though that AnchorFree’s glory days are long gone.
The text above is a conversation I had with Hotspot Shield’s live chat support. There is no other way to describe this other than lazy. Even on the website, I was unable to find the list of servers and their location. Here’s another thing, for the life of me, I can’t find the live chat support window again. It randomly popped up at the bottom right corner of the screen as I was navigating the website (trying to dig out information about its features). Problem is, I cannot remember where, and I can’t seem to find it again.
Update: I was able to find the live chat again, it only pops up once you visit the ‘Pricing’ page. I have yet to understand why that is though.
Hotspot Shield does offer a 7-day trial period. Almost all VPN service providers offer a money back guarantee period, but that means having to buy a subscription and asking to be reimbursed if you choose to cancel. Not having to go through that process is a big plus for me.
Download and set up were easy, and I have to give it to AnchorFree for their aesthetic choices; the iOS app is clean and very elegant. Using it, however, was a bit perplexing.
Once you open the app, you are confronted with a connect button and nothing else (seen on the left), which connected me to a US server by default. I was only able to pick a location after I had connected; only after you connect to your last location will you be able to access the drop-down menu to choose a different one. This is particularly strange, but at least I was finally able to find out where Hotspot Shield’s servers are located.
Another UI design gaffe I noticed in the iOS app was the fact that the first two buttons on the side menu – the blue box at the top and ‘My Account’ right below it – both lead to the same tab. Though minor, such irregularities do take away from the overall experience of using the app; one can’t help but think why such an obvious redundancy would be left there.
Server Network and Switches
Looking at the country selection drop-down menu, I counted:
- The Americas: Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the United States
- Europe: Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom
- Asia: China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan
- Oceania: Australia
24 countries in total. Not the greatest network by any measure, but it does cover most of the major markets. Similar to all respectable VPNs, there are no limits on server switches or bandwidth.
Here I must note that the number of locations is greatly reduced in the Chrome extension; only the US, UK, Canada, France, Russia, India, Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore are available.
Platforms & Simultaneous Connections
Hotspot Shield offers native apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. It also offers browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. The service also allows for 5 simultaneous connections.
Torrenting & Netflix
Hotspot Shield does work with US Netflix, though there are specific steps you would have to take to be able to access it. It only works for Elite accounts (the paid version of Hotspot Shield). Here’s how to do it:
- Select the Virtual Location
- Verify that you have the location’s IP address here
- Clear your browser\app’s cookies and cache
- Connect Hotspot Shield
- Go to Netflix
Hotspot Shield also gives instructions on anonymous torrenting.
On the Chrome extension, AnchorFree offers a range of blockers: tracker, malware, ads, cookies, and WebRTC, and the ability to bypass local networks. Those features however as labeled as beta.
One Protocol to Rule Them All
Hotspot Shield uses a proprietary protocol developed by AnchorFree called Catapult Hydra.
Previously, AnchorFree used to use standard IPSec and OpenVPN protocols to power Hotspot Shield but later decided to drop them in favor of its own protocol after it says it realized that those protocols resulted in major performance and latency issues.
The company claims that Catapult Hydra is faster to connect to a VPN server and is particularly superior to other protocols when it comes to long-distance connections. It also claims that the protocol has been audited by third-party experts and is used by several antivirus companies to power their own VPN services, such as McAfee, BitDefender, Cheetah Mobile, and carriers Telefonica and KDDI.
Location & Logs
AnchorFree is headquartered in Mountain View, California. The US is not the greatest choice to base your VPN company. This makes it subject to search warrants, retention laws, and gag warrants. Not to mention the slew of privacy scandals involving the CIA, the NSA, and Five Eyes, the shady global surveillance alliance.
Hotspot Shield, however, claims that it keeps no records, which means that there is nothing to submit even if asked.
However, in November of 2017, the company issued a transparency report in which it stated that “AnchorFree has never provided the identity or other personal information regarding our users to the government.” The report, however, came in response to a complaint filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), alleging that Hotspot Shield had violated its anonymous browsing promise. The Washington based privacy group had claimed that the VPN provider was intercepting and redirecting web traffic to partner websites, including advertising companies.
CDT had partnered with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to analyze the app. They also found that Hotspot Shield monitors information about users’ browsing habits while the VPN is in use and that the app transmits some sensitive cell carrier information on mobile users over an unencrypted connection.
AnchorFree denied all those claims. The investigation by the FTC is still ongoing.
Later on, in February 2018, a security researcher by the name of Paulos Yibelo uncovered a bug in the app that leaked user data, namely, which country they were located in and their Wi-Fi network name.
This is especially distressing as Hotspot Shield is particularly popular in sensitive zones. For instance, its Egyptian user base grew from 100,000 users to one million in the wake of the Arab Spring.
In 2013, the usage of Hotspot Shield increased in Turkey in response to efforts by the Turkish government to censor social media and international websites. Similarly, Hotspot Shield’s use increased in Hong Kong after the outbreak of the 2014 Hong Kong protests.
What’s more, the company has set up auto-reply emails that contain VPN software attachment for countries that have blocked its website.
As mentioned above, support was far from satisfactory. The support representative I spoke with failed to tell me which countries were included in Hotspot Shield’s server network. I emailed them to inquire about the number of servers and received a response about two hours later. While they refused to declare how many servers we have “due to security reasons”, they did point me to a page that displays their virtual locations (which apparently does exist, contrary to what the live chat support had told me.)
Let’s see if the claims regarding Catapult Hydra speed performance are true. I ran speed tests on servers located in the US, the UK, Germany, and Russia.
Download speed decreased by:
- 4.9% in the US
- 0.9% in the UK
- 6.8% in Germany
- 22.7% in Russia
Upload speed, on the other hand, decreased by:
- 27.8% in the US
- 2.3% in the UK
- 21.5% in Germany
- 29.2% in Russia
Those are impressive numbers, particularly for the American and European countries. There is no question about it, Hotspot Shield is fast.
Price & Verdict
Hotspot Shield follows a freemium model. The free app acts more like a proxy and includes a bandwidth cap. In light of the accusation leveled at AnchorFree, we recommend staying away from the free app.
The premium “HotSpot Shield Elite”, on the other hand, comes in 4 packages: a month, six months, a year, and three years, which range between $3.49 to $12.99 (see above). Hotspot Shield is not cheap. Is it worth it? Well if are willing to tolerate all the red flags listed above for the sake of a fast connection, then this might be for you.
For more choice, don’t forget to take a look at our top-rated VPNs below
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