HotSpot Shield review: It's fast, beautiful, and definitely not for anonymity

This is a great service, unless you're super concerned about privacy.

Credit: AnchorFree

HotSpot Shield in brief:

P2P allowed: Yes

Business location: United States

Number of servers: 2,000+

Number of country locations: 25

Cost: $71.88 per year

Before people got serious about VPN encryption post-Snowden, a top choice for encrypting your Wi-Fi connection was AnchorFree’s HotSpot Shield. It was free, easy to set up, and only required that you look at some ads injected into your browsing.

That service is still around, but today we’re looking at HotSpot Shield Elite. AnchorFree’s paid service that removes the ads and offers faster speeds.

What struck me the minute I turned on HotSpot Shield was how simple and attractive the design is. It eschews most design ideas we’ve seen for other VPNs so far. There are no interactive maps, mobile-style single-panel interfaces, or elaborate settings.

Note: This review is part of our best VPNs roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

hotspotshieldclick IDG

When HotSpot Shield first opens it offers a large power button in the center of the window and nothing else. Hit the power button, and HotSpot Shield connects to the United States by default, or your most recent connection choice.

The interface then changes to a timer at the top to show you how long you’ve been connected. That timer takes up the entire upper half of the window. It’s a lot of excess space, but it works.

The lower half is for the more detailed information, including data that’s gone up and down from your PC, your current VPN IP address, and a small, cleanly designed map showing which country you’re connecting from. It’s all very simple, clear to understand, and uncluttered.

To switch locations click the drop down menu in the lower right square, and select from one of HotSpot Shield’s 25 country locations.

hotspotshieldmenu IDG

HotSpot Shield’s menu

To reach HotSpot Shield’s settings, click the “hamburger” menu icon in the upper-left corner, and select Settings from the menu. There’s not a lot to see here. By default, HotSpot Shield is set to run when Windows starts, and it’s also set to prevent IP address leaks—an important thing for VPN apps.

hotspotshieldsettings IDG

HotSpot Shield’s s.ettings

Under that are various options to tell HotSpot Shield when it should automatically connect to the VPN server. By default, HotSpot Shield will connect when it detects an unsafe Wi-Fi hotspot such as a password-free open Wi-Fi network. You can also choose to connect when on supposed safe Wi-Fi networks, and an “Other” setting, which probably covers any other possible internet connection. Below that is a language setting if you’d rather the app was in French or Korean, and that’s it for the app’s settings.

AnchorFree says that behind the scenes HotSpot Shield can intercept malware you may encounter online, as well as protect against known phishing sites and spam. It also has “patented ways” to make your VPN connection look like normal browsing, so it blends in with other online traffic. This VPN also works with Netflix, though in my experience it was a little inconsistent.

HotSpot Shield is available for Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS, and there are proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox.

Performance

hotspotshieldrunning IDG

HotSpot Shield in action.

HotSpot Shield is fast. I tested it several times to make sure I wasn’t experiencing a fluke. The company says the service is fast because of its proprietary Hydra Protocol, which is based on TLS and OpenSSL. AnchorFree says this protocol doubles download speeds of large files and increases ping times.

As of January 2018, HotSpot Shield is by far the fastest VPN I’ve tested. It scored nearly 64 percent of the base speed for download speeds, which is faster than the previous speed champ Mullvad by nearly 12 percentage points.

All of the connections were fast including the typically slower connections such as Australia and Japan.

That speed got me wondering how HotSpot Shield was scoring so high, and it may have to do with what’s going on behind the scenes.

The first time I connected to HotSpot Shield’s U.S. servers, for example, I got an American IP but Google thought I was in the UK—thus it redirected my browser to Google.co.uk—and Netflix thought I was in Germany. HotSpot Shield did give me a few DNS servers in Germany that day, which likely contributed to Netflix’s confusion.

Given this odd combination I tried running some ping and traceroute tests, but most of them timed out. The day Netflix thought I was in Germany, I did manage to get one successful traceroute from a supposed connection in California to Vienna, Austria. The elapsed time was 13.612 milliseconds, which is impossible and strongly suggests that the server I was using was serving an American IP from central Europe. I asked AnchorFree about this and the company said it does use virtual server locations, where the physical machine may be in one location but looks like it’s in another.

As always, take these speed tests with a grain of salt—as you should with any VPN speed test—because your experience may vary.

Privacy, anonymity, and trust

hssprivacy AnchorFree

AnchorFree’s U.S. headquarters are located at 1800 Seaport Blvd., Redwood City, CA 94063. Its CEO is David Gorodyanksy and the CTO is Eugene Malobrodsky—they are also the company’s co-founders.

When you first sign up for the service, it asks for an email address and a password, which is pretty standard for mainstream VPN services. For payments, it only takes standard options of credit cards and PayPal. There is no ability for anonymous or semi-anonymous payment forms like Bitcoin or cash.

Even if you could pay anonymously with HotSpot Shield you probably wouldn’t want to once you looked at the service’s privacy policy—there’s a lot in there not to like if you’re privacy conscious. AnchorFree says it doesn’t store your IP address long term.

But it does “collect anonymous aggregate data about which websites you visit and which apps you use.” AnchorFree says it does this for analytics and troubleshooting, and this information is never connected to any of your identifying information such as an email address, home IP address, username, and so on. But that doesn’t negate the fact that your browsing data is still collected by AnchorFree. That might not bother some users, but those who are very privacy conscious should look elsewhere.

The company also gathers device information like your hardware model, OS version, browser type, language, wireless network, and mobile network information. Again this information is never associated with you and is used for analytics and troubleshooting.

If you use the free, ad-supported version you may also leak personally identifying information to HotSpot Shield advertisers. That has nothing to do with HotSpot Shield Elite, but it’s a good reminder of why you don’t want to use an ad-supported service when trying to get online unnoticed.

hssfamily AnchorFree

Based on HotSpot Shield’s privacy policy it’s safe to say this is not the service for high-level anonymity online. But if your concern is to encrypt your web browsing so you can surf safely from anywhere, HotSpot Shield does that. The company’s privacy policies make it clear that you’re browsing habits are tracked—albeit in aggregate form.

 

Conclusion

HotSpot Shield has impressive speeds, good pricing, and a good number of country locations—though not a particularly exhaustive list. The privacy policy is not ideal for those who want to conceal their browsing activity—anonymized or not—or which internet-capable apps they use. It’s fine if you just want to secure your connection at the local café or airports, but as a service that’s going to keep you somewhat anonymous there are stronger choices.

Join the newsletter!

Or
Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?