With more than 650 million users worldwide, Hotspot Shield is among the world’s most popular VPN solutions. But is it worth the price tag?
This VPN is unusual in that it’s based on a proprietary variant called Catapult Hydra, not the industry-standard OpenVPN. The free version limits you to 750MB of data daily, but this cap can be lifted by upgrading to the premium version.
Hotspot Shield does its job through thousands of servers worldwide, which means less competing traffic, and a reduced chance of performance-inhibiting bottlenecks. These servers are, however, clustered in just a handful of countries, so your mileage may vary according to where in the world you’re connecting from.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good interface – if you’re connecting in an unfamiliar location, after all, you don’t want to have to spend 10 minutes tweaking settings.
The Hotspot Shield GUI is about the most attractive we’ve ever seen – it’s a major selling point. It’s elegant, functional, and easy to navigate. You’re presented with your upload and download speeds as well as your virtual IP address. Servers can be selected via a world map – which, as well as being intuitive, makes you feel like you’re repositioning the GoldenEye satellite over Severnaya!
Given this VPN’s name, you’d expect it to be geared toward protecting you in a WiFi hotspot. One of the most useful features in this situation is automatic connection to unsafe networks – which saves you the trouble of having to remember to turn your VPN on and off.
The free version of Hotspot Shield, like just about every free product of this sort, is funded through advertising. This not only means visual intrusion onto your screen space, but that your data is at risk of being sold to the highest bidder. The company responsible for Hotspot Shield, Anchorfree, maintains it does not share browsing history, but it does share “approximate” location information. Some users might be comfortable with this; others might not.
To be fair to Anchorfree, the company is upfront about the compromises necessary to keep its product free. Obviously, users of the paid-for version of Hotspot Shield don’t have to worry about this.
While it’s possible to achieve incredibly fast connection using Hotspot Shield, it’s by no means a sure thing. Some domestic connections in the US have been shown to slash upload speeds by around half.
If you’re running a Linux-based machine, you’re out of luck. Hotspot Shield users are also unable to pair Catapult Hydra with TOR, nor any other third-party proxies.
This service is just slightly more expensive than many of its competitors. That said, if you’re willing to invest in three years upfront, you can cut the cost by more than two-thirds.
Hotspot Shield isn’t going to please everyone, and it doesn’t try to. It’s geared firmly toward those who value a painless GUI and those who often find themselves connecting to unfamiliar WiFi networks. AnchorFree is refreshingly honest about its privacy policies and the limits of what VPN technology can do; for this it deserves kudos.
For users who don’t mind being locked into the Catapult Hydra protocol and aren’t concerned about having to pay a little extra, Hotspot Shield is worth investigating. The rest of us will probably want to stick with NordVPN and ExpressVPN.