It’s not perfect for privacy, but Hotspot Shield is easy to use and impressively speedy
- Amazing performance
- Slick interface
- Pricey if you pay monthly
- US base may raise privacy concerns
Most VPNs use standard connection protocols, such as IKEv2 or WireGuard, but Hotspot Shield has its own system, Hydra. The publisher claims that this makes it the fastest VPN around, while still providing unbreakable security courtesy of 2048-bit RSA encryption. As we’ll see in our tests below, Hotspot Shield really does race ahead of most competing VPNs.
That’s not all the software has going for it. The interface has been revamped several times in the past few years, and the latest release of the Windows client has a smart white-on-black design, providing a wealth of connection information in a clean and accessible layout.
It’s quite easy to use. You can connect or disconnect by clicking or tapping the big button in the middle of the window, while the location browser lets you choose from servers in more than 80 countries, including a few specially optimised for streaming, gaming and social networks. It’s just a shame that you can’t bookmark your favourite servers – the “Quick access” section only shows recent options for gaming and streaming – and there’s also no indication of a server’s load or ping time until after you connect.
Aside from this, a built-in speed tester lets you check the performance of your internet line, and in the Settings panel you can configure the VPN to run automatically whenever you’re connected to the internet, or when you connect to an unsecured wireless network. A kill switch suspends your internet connection if the VPN cuts out, and you can also enable split tunnelling, to specify which applications should be routed through the VPN and which can safely go via your ISP.
Apart from a slight reorganisation of the elements, the Android edition looks very similar. You can also install Hotspot Shield on macOS, iOS and Linux, along with Android and Amazon Fire TV systems. If you have a compatible router, you can configure Hotspot Shield to protect all the devices on your network at once.
Hotspot Shield VPN review: Pricing
You can use Hotspot Shield for free, but this comes with several limitations. Only servers in the US are available to free users, you can only connect one device at a time, you’re limited to 500MB of data transfer per day, and you’ll also see adverts while browsing.
Paying customers get a much better experience. Pricing starts at £11 for a rolling monthly subscription which removes all restrictions and adverts, allowing you to choose from the full range of servers and letting you connect from up to 10 devices at once.
If you’re willing to sign up for an annual subscription you can save a fair amount of money: that costs £96, equivalent to £8 monthly. It’s not the cheapest VPN we’ve seen – CyberGhost costs £50 for 26 months, while Atlas VPN is just £40 for 27 months – but it’s still fairly reasonable for what you get.
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Hotspot Shield VPN review: Performance
Using a VPN always has an impact on the speed of your internet connection, but Hotspot Shield claims to be the fastest VPN around. We tested this using a Virgin Media fibre broadband connection that, without a VPN, gave us an average download speed of 380Mbits/sec, according to the Google Speed Test tool.
We then installed Hotspot Shield on a Windows 11 laptop and connected to a server in the UK. Repeating the Google speed test now showed an average download rate of 297Mbits/sec. While that’s a 23% drop in performance, it’s still one of the fastest connections we’ve seen – only HMA did better, with a ridiculous download speed of 349Mbits/sec via a UK server.
We then connected to Hotspot Shield’s New York server and repeated the test. Predictably, this was slower, but not by much – we measured transatlantic speeds of 236Mbits/sec. This is one of the fastest connections we’ve seen, and it’s certainly enough bandwidth for anything you’re likely to want to do via a US server.
Next, we tested the VPN on the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 tablet, and found performance here was even better. Using a London-based server we got an average download speed of 345Mbits/sec, while the New York server gave us 274Mbits/sec. There’s no doubt about it: Hotspot Shield really is one of the fastest VPNs around – and the unusually clever split tunnelling option lets you nominate particular sites to bypass the VPN rather than whole applications, so you can securely access to specific services while everything else gets your full ISP bandwidth.
Hotspot Shield VPN review: BitTorrent and streaming
One popular use of a VPN is to get around legal or technical restrictions on file-sharing. Hotspot Shield fully supports this: you can upload and download whatever you like, using servers in countries such as Switzerland or Mexico, where there are no legal sanctions against sharing copyright material. That said, Hotspot Shield doesn’t officially condone copyright infringement and warns users against it.
A VPN can also help you access region-restricted video content. Hotspot Shield is certainly fast enough to watch 4K HDR video and, as we’ve mentioned, it offers dedicated streaming servers in the US and UK to help unblock the most popular services.
We were impressed by how well these worked. After connecting our Windows laptop to the US server with a few clicks, we were instantly able to browse and watch US content from Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu. And when connected to the UK server, we had no problem viewing shows on BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4 or Now TV – great news for British travellers.
Things went almost as well on Android. The US services all worked seamlessly, but the UK streaming server isn’t accessible from the mobile client for some reason. The regular UK servers were able to get us into BBC iPlayer, ITVX and Now TV, but Channel 4 refused to cooperate until we disconnected the VPN.
The one service where we absolutely couldn’t get access to foreign video libraries was Amazon Prime Video. However, that’s true with all VPNs, since Amazon restricts content according to the registered address of your Prime account, rather than relying on your virtual location.
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Hotspot Shield VPN review: Privacy and security
Hotspot Shield didn’t exhibit any DNS or IP leaks in our testing. However, its parent company, Anchorfree, is based in the USA, which means it could be subject to surveillance or legal requests from the authorities, at least in theory.
That will concern anyone who needs a VPN to conceal their identity, such as whistleblowers or political dissidents. But for video streaming and torrenting via servers outside of the US, it may not be such a big issue. The company states that it doesn’t collect any personally identifiable information, and publishes regular transparency reports that detail any requests received from law-enforcement authorities for user data.
It’s also reassuringly easy to make sure you don’t accidentally transmit anything sensitive outside of the VPN as, unusually, Hotspot Shield offers easy keyboard shortcuts to connect and disconnect, and the Windows client can be set to automatically enable a VPN connection whenever you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. The mobile app is even more versatile, letting you indicate certain networks as trusted and send all other connections via the VPN.
Hotspot Shield VPN review: Verdict
If connection speed matters to you then Hotspot Shield is a superb choice. It’s also a strong VPN for streaming – although we couldn’t get Channel 4 on our Android tablet, we were able to enjoy every other video service we tried.
There are just two things that might hold you back. One is the price: it’s fine if you’re willing to pay a fat lump sum upfront for the service, but for shorter commitments, you can do better elsewhere. The other potential issue is that it’s located in the USA, whereas there are numerous competing VPNs based in more privacy-friendly jurisdictions, such as ExpressVPN in the British Virgin Islands, Hide.me in Malaysia, or NordVPN in Panama. If Hotspot Shield suits your needs, however, you won’t regret signing up for this impressively fast VPN.