Hotspot Shield review (2019)

The last time I extensively tested Hotspot Shield’s Premium VPN service, it fared okay, but was still a long way from being considered a top-rated provider.

Prominent issues included a poor privacy policy, a limited number of server locations, and inability to unblock Netflix.

Since then, the company has been revamping its service, including expanding its network and honing its proprietary protocol.

But have things changed that much?

I’m eager to see exactly how far this VPN has come. To help you decide if it’s worth throwing your money at, in my 2019 review, I’ve been thoroughly testing the Hotspot Shield VPN service.

Before we get into the details, here’s an at-a-glance look at key data and scores logged during my assessment of Hotspot Shield. Note that although Hotspot Shield offers a limited free version, I’ll be focusing on the Premium (paid) service in this review.

Hotspot Shield key data

OVERALL RANK:  #4 of 42 VPNS
Speed
Score: 9/10
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Average Speed *:29 Mbps
Video Streaming Support:4K UHD
Streaming
Score: 9/10
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Netflix:Yes
Other Streaming Services:Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, ITV Hub
Security
Score: 8/10
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Encryption Type:256-bit AES w/ Perfect Forward Secrecy
Kill Switch:Yes
Log Policy:IP address logged for session duration
Protocols:Catapult Hydra
Value for Money
Score: 8/10
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Lowest Monthly Cost:$2.99
Money Back Guarantee:45 days
Websitewww.hotspotshield.com

I’ve been using Hotspot Shield day-to-day over the past couple of months to see how it stacks up against other VPNs I’ve tested. Aside from using it to browse the web, I’ve put the service through my usual rigorous testing including:

  • Speed tests
  • Streaming capability
  • Leak tests (WebRTC and DNS)
  • Customer support competency and speed
  • Privacy policy and terms of service checks

…and much more!

When it comes to speed, Hotspot Shield claims to be the fastest in the industry, but of course, many competitors make similar claims. I like a challenge and wanted to get to the bottom of whether or not the claims are really true in this case.

In addition, I set out to answer the following burning questions:

  • Has Hotspot Shield improved its privacy policy?
  • Can I use it to unblock streaming sites like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Prime Video?
  • Does Hotspot Shield offer value for money?
  • How do Hotspot Shield’s security features compare to those of other top-rated providers?

…plus lots more about this popular service.

I used Hotspot Shield on both mobile and desktop to ensure I got the whole user experience and to provide you with all you need to know about the service. Check out my overview and pros and cons summary below if you just need to quickly find out if this service might be for you.

Hotspot Shield overview

Hotspot Shield is a secure VPN ideal for streaming. It has a ton of location options, is great at unblocking, and pegs very fast speeds. This provider has a questionable logging policy, so may not be the best for torrenting. It might be a good option for users in China.

Hotspot Shield pros and cons

Here are some of the key advantages and drawbacks I discovered while using this service. You’ll find more detail about each below.

Pros:

  • Excellent speeds 
  • Expansive server network
  • Unblocks Netflix and other sites
  • Connect 5 devices simultaneously
  • 45-day money-back guarantee
  • May work in China

Cons:

  • No support for Linux or routers
  • Lackluster customer support
  • No cryptocurrency payments
  • Past privacy issues

Speed: How fast is Hotspot Shield?

Hotspot Shield’s tagline is “The Fastest Most Secure VPN Service.” I’ll get to the security part later, but first, let’s see about this speed claim.

Before I reveal my test results, it’s worth noting that VPN speed tests should be taken with a grain of salt.

My usual test method uses a virtual machine. However, this doesn’t work with Hotspot Shield’s proprietary protocol, so I had to settle for using an online speed tester. This is used by most VPN review publications, and will still provide a good idea of Hotspot Shield’s speeds as compared to those when not using a VPN.

Speed test for Hong Kong server.

I used a 60 Mbps connection in North America to measure the download speeds of various servers. I tested three VPN server locations—United Kingdom, United States, and Hong Kong—at three different times during the day. The test times were a minimum of four hours apart.

So how did Hotspot Shield measure up?

 No VPNUK ServerUS ServerHK Server
9 am EST34 Mbps11 Mbps21 Mbps26 Mbps
3 pm EST43 Mbps36 Mbps43 Mbps45 Mbps
9 pm EST30 Mbps27 Mbps25 Mbps28 Mbps

As you can see, Hotspot Shield fared pretty well in the speed tests. It had an average speed of 29 Mbps, which is only 7 Mbps slower than the average speed when not using a VPN. The one anomalous result occurred when connected to a UK server around 2 PM BST where the speed was only about one-third of the control speed. That’s not unusual to see, especially with servers that are geographically distant from the test location.

Perhaps most notable is that a couple of tests showed speeds faster than the control. This means that connecting to Hotspot Shield actually improved my connection speed (albeit very slightly) in some cases.

This seems implausible given that speeds should, in theory, slow down while connected to a VPN server. After all, traffic must be encrypted and pass through an extra server, so the laws of physics suggest that a speed up would be impossible.

According to Hotspot Shield, it comes down to the company’s proprietary protocol, Catapult Hydra. This is the only protocol offered within the service, and while it’s not open source, it is used by several reputable cybersecurity companies including McAfee and Bitdefender.

According to the Hotspot Shield website:

The uniqueness of the protocol that gives it a large performance advantage is how the payload is delivered inside the secured tunnels between the client and the server.

And here’s a snippet regarding Catapult Hydra from Hotspot Shield’s FAQ pages:

We do not modify encryption in any way, but we substantially impact the performance to provide the fastest VPN technology in the world for both users and businesses.

Catapult Hydra information.

It’s worth noting that I saw similar results last time I tested the service, so it’s probably not a fluke.

For a given location, you should be automatically connected to the fastest server. Many top VPNs show you the fastest servers for your location or list the ping speeds (denoting the latency) for each server, but that’s not the case here.

That being said, if you’re connecting to a US server, you can choose a city. Choosing a geographically close server should generally give you a faster connection.

Hotspot Shield server list.

Switching between servers is very fast, typically taking just a couple of seconds. I was able to stream 1080p HD video using various servers with no issues. I saw no noticeable slowdowns while browsing and didn’t experience any connection drops.

Note that these tests only serve as a general guide as to what you might see when using the service. The random nature of the internet and the many factors that can affect speed mean that you may see very different results.

Apps: Which devices will Hotspot Shield work with?

Hotspot Shield provides apps for all the major operating systems, including Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. There’s also a Chrome extension, but this only encrypts your browser traffic, leaving other apps on your device exposed.

You can connect up to five devices at a time under one paid plan. Each device will have access to all of Hotspot Shield’s 3,200+ servers spread across more than 70 countries.

Overall, the apps are modern and user-friendly. The desktop app has just one settings screen, which is great for beginners, but means there are limited options for advanced users.

One nonsensical and slightly annoying nuance is that you need to connect to a server before you can switch servers. By default, you’ll be connected to a server in the last location you chose, and once connected, you’ll be able to access the dropdown list to choose a new location.

This is the same in both the mobile and desktop apps. The mobile app is similar in design to the desktop client, but the settings screen has just one option: Unsecure connection. This is an automatic wifi protection feature. When enabled, your device will automatically connect to the VPN when you connect to an unsecure wifi network (one that requires no password).

Hotspot Shield mobile app interface.

While very few VPNs offer a Linux app, most provide tutorials for getting set up with Linux. However, Hotspot Shield states that it does not offer support for Linux, so those users will need to look elsewhere.

There’s no support for router configuration either. Most top providers give you the choice of buying a pre-configured router or configuring a router with the VPN manually, but Hotspot Shield doesn’t offer either of these options.

Streaming, Netflix, and Kodi

Does Hotspot Shield work with Netflix?

Yes!

Hotspot Shield easily unblocks Netflix US, Netflix UK, and a handful of other libraries. I tested it with several US servers, including those located in Chicago, Portland, and Miami, and they all worked with no issues.

For many VPN providers, you have to ask customer support which server to use. While this isn’t much of a hassle, it’s nice not to have to go through that extra step.

Netflix page.

In addition to US Netflix, Hotspot Shield reliably unblocks the UK catalog. Other countries are hit and miss. Sweden and Spain worked for me while Australia and Canada delivered errors.

Looking to stream from other sites? Hotspot Shield unblocked the following during testing:

  • BBC iPlayer
  • Hulu
  • Amazon Prime Video
  • ITV Hub
  • All 4

It has definitely improved its unblocking abilities since I last tested the service. And with great speeds, you should be able to stream HD video as much as you like.

Are you a Kodi user? Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield does not support Kodi configuration. It’s also not suitable for use with other devices that can often be configured with VPNs, such as Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, or Windows Phone.

Does Hotspot Shield allow torrenting?

Hotspot Shield does allow torrenting and the practice is backed by unlimited bandwidth and data and the use of shared IP addresses. However, what torrenters really need to know is whether or not this service has their back when it comes to privacy. So is Hotspot Shield suitable for torrenting? Let’s find out.

The company promotes the use of its service for torrenting using uTorrent and BitTorrent.

Hotspot Shield torrenting page.

And in its FAQ section, Hotspot Shield goes into further detail about why you should be using the service to hide your identity while torrenting, including making the following promise:

[…]we can ensure you 100% percent of privacy and anonymity while using our application.

Hotspot Shield torrenting information.

In spite of these claims, it appears that the company does log real user IP addresses, albeit temporarily. I dig into Hotspot Shield’s privacy policy more in the next section, but in short, I’d think twice before using it for torrenting.

Hotspot Shield does have some other privacy features beneficial to torrenters, including a kill switch (but only in the Windows client) and DNS leak protection.

Security, privacy, and logging

Hotspot Shield has come under fire in the past for its questionable logging practices, so I was keen to see how well the current iteration of the service protects user privacy.

Hotspot Shield is a product of AnchorFree, a Switzerland-based company. Switzerland is known for its privacy laws, and there is no reason on that level for the company to retain any sort of user logs.

However, Hotspot Shield’s privacy policy is confusing to say the least. It’s clear that the provider doesn’t store any traffic logs, but the subject of connection logs is murky.

Specifically, I want to know if a VPN is recording my IP address, as this information can be used to identify me.

In some parts of its literature, the company states that it never logs or stores IP addresses. Take this from the website help center:

We do not collect, store, or share any permanent identifiers of users, including IP addresses.

Hotspot Shield doesn't keep logs claim.

However, its privacy policy overview states:

Our VPN product will never store or log your IP address beyond the duration of your VPN session, and we always delete your IP address after you disconnect from the VPN.

This implies that IP addresses are collected and stored at some point, and indeed, this is confirmed later in the policy overview.

While not ideal, temporary storage of your real IP address isn’t the worst case scenario. And it should be noted that the IP address is encrypted so shouldn’t be readable to third parties.

The more concerning thing here is the lack of clarity in the language used, with several statements blatantly contradicting each other.

Adding to concern, Hotspot Shield doesn’t exactly have a rosy past when it comes to privacy. A 2016 report brought to light some of the company’s questionable activities, including using JavaScript codes for advertising and tracking purposes and redirecting e-commerce traffic through affiliate links.

In addition, a privacy advocacy group, the Centre for Democracy and Technology, filed a related complaint against Hotspot Shield with the Federal Trade Commission back in August, 2017.

Note that Hotspot Shield is in the process of updating its privacy policy.  The new policy will take effect at the start of October, 2019, but has already been published. It appears that not much has changed in terms of the temporary logging of encrypted IP addresses, but in fairness to Hotspot Shield, the language used is more clear in the updated version.

Encryption details are as follows:

  • 256-bit AES GCM encryption
  • 2048-bit RSA keys
  • ECDHE for perfect forward secrecy (to ensure past sessions can’t be viewed if an encryption key is compromised)

The Windows app is the only one that comes with a kill switch, although there are plans to add them to other versions too. The kill switch will stop your internet connection in the event the VPN connection is lost. This is disbaled by default so you’ll need to go to the settings screen to switch it on.

Hotspot Shield security settings screen.

The Windows app also comes with built-in DNS leak protection (labeled Prevent IP leak). This is enabled by default but can be toggled off in the settings screen. The service doesn’t guarantee WebRTC leak protection but I tested for these leaks and observed none.

Browserleaks.com test results.
Left: Without a VPN (from the UK). Right: With a Hotspot Shield US server.

IPv6 protection isn’t built in either so you may want to disable this (and perhaps WebRTC, too) to be on the safe side.

Hotspot Shield doesn’t give you any protocol options, which may be disappointing to more advanced users. Instead, it always uses its proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol.

I usually recommend the OpenVPN protocol as the gold standard in the industry. One of its benefits is that it’s open source so it can be reviewed by security experts. The lack of peer review opportunities is also one of the reasons I’m sometimes skeptical of VPN providers’ proprietary protocols.

However, this case is a little different as Hotspot Shields’s protocol is used by some top cybersecurity firms, including McAfee and Bitdefender. These companies evaluate the protocol before using it, and I’d say we can trust their judgement.

Does Hotspot Shield work in China?

Very few VPNs work reliably in China, so I was eager to find out if Hotspot Shield is one of them.

When it comes to use in China, there are really three categories of VPNs: the few that work reliably most of the time, others that are hit and miss; and the majority that don’t work at all.

Hotspot Shield falls into the middle category with some users having luck with the service and others having issues.

A segment of the website acknowledges that there are issues in China and some other countries, and advises users to try a different device if they run into problems. According to Hotspot Shield:

Connection issues can vary by platform because they use different servers to establish a connection.

Known blocked countries page.

A customer support representative indicated there are many active Hotspot Shield users in China, and one reddit user confirmed it was working fairly recently.

Reddit China VPN thread.

Note that Hotspot Shield’s website is blocked in China, along with the sites of most other VPN providers. As such, you’ll need to download the software and any installation and troubleshooting guides before you enter the country.

Is Hotspot Shield’s customer service any good?

Hotspot Shield offers lots of tutorials and FAQs in the support section of its website. If you’re still running into issues, you have two options. You can use the 24/7 live chat feature (outsourced to Zendesk) to get a quick response, or send an email in-house using a form in the support section of the website.

In my experience, the live chat customer support representatives were friendly and prompt. However, they had trouble answering basic questions about the service’s security and privacy features.

Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a response to a straightforward issue, for example regarding accounts, streaming, or minor technical issues, live chat would be a good place to start.

Hotspot Shield live chat capture.

With a somewhat subpar live chat feature, you’d hope that email support would be prompt and knowledgeable. However, my email questions have gone unanswered as of time of writing.

Servers and locations

When I last tested Hotspot Shield, it had a large number of servers but relatively small number of locations (just 25 at the time). Now that number has almost tripled to more than 70 locations with more than 3,200 servers spread across them.

Hotspot Shield server page.

There’s a possibility that some of these locations house virtual servers. However, customer support representatives would not disclose whether or not this is the case. They were also tight-lipped about whether or not Hotspot Shield owns or leases its servers. Most companies lease their servers so it’s not a big deal, but owning them is better for both privacy and performance.

Server locations include countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. There are 27 US cities to choose from and you can connect to servers in Russia and China.

Part of Hotspot Shield server list.

Hotspot Shield pricing

No matter how great a service is, I always ask the question: Does it offer value for money?

Hotspot Shield pricing.

Hotspot Shield costs $12.99 if you pay monthly, which is comparable to many many top-rated providers for the same term. It offers steep discounts for longer terms and the one-year subscription costs $6.99 per month, while a three-year term costs just $2.99 per month.

Hotspot Shield offers a few different payment methods, including credit card, PayPal, Neosurf, Alipay, and a few others. There is no cryptocurrency option which will be disappointing for some privacy-conscious users.

Plans come with a generous 45-day money-back guarantee.

Hotspot Shield coupon codes

There is no official coupon code for Hotspot Shield, however the discounted 2 year deal at $2.99 per month represents the largest saving available.

Hotspot Shield Coupon

Special Deal - save 76% on the 2 year plan

GET DEAL
Discount applied automatically

Should I buy Hotspot Shield?

After putting Hotspot Shield through some serious testing, would I recommend this service?

In short, yes, but only to certain users.

Hotspot Shield’s offering has definitely improved since I last tried it. It now has a server network rivalling some of the top providers in the industry and some excellent speeds to boot.

Considering its unblocking potential for Netflix and other streaming sites, this could be an ideal VPN for those looking to stream on a regular basis. It could also be a decent option for users in China.

If you’re mainly looking to torrent, I’d be hesitant to choose this service over others with better privacy policies. Beginners may also be better off with other providers given the lackluster customer support provided by Hotspot Shield.

Alternatives

Although Hotspot Shield has impressed me, it still has a couple of downsides: past privacy concerns and support. Thankfully, if those are deal-breakers for you, you have some great alternatives to consider.

ExpressVPN isn’t the cheapest VPN on the market, but it outperforms its rivals in almost every other area. It never logs any information that can identify users and comes with a suite of security features. It unblocks a ton of streaming sites, works in China, boasts blazing fast speeds, and works with pretty much any device.

If price is a problem, then NordVPN is a great budget provider. It works in China, and has a massive server network, top-notch security, and the ability to unblock plenty of popular streaming sites.

Hotspot Shield free version

As mentioned, Hotspot Shield does have a free offering. However, this is very limited and probably not worth your time. You get access to a single server location, slow connection speeds, a limit of 500 MB daily (enough to stream about half an hour of Netflix), no live chat support, and lots of ads.

More concerningly, Hotspot Shield’s privacy policy specifically mentions that users of the free version are subject to slightly different terms than paid users. The main issue is that third parties may have access to users’ real IP addresses.

If you’re thinking about using this service, we’d advise going for a budget paid provider like NordVPN instead.