In a Nutshell
Hotspot Shield VPN is one of the most popular free VPN services. That alone is a big selling point for many users. The company also offers a low-priced paid service called Hotspot Shield Elite. Both versions of Hotspot Shield VPN — free and paid — lack many of the features available from other providers. Still, they provide basic VPN access and are worth what you pay — though not necessarily more than that.
Hotspot Shield VPN Features
The free version of Hotspot Shield VPN comes with the following features and limitations:
- Official support for Windows, Mac OS X, Android and iOS. (Some users report success installing Hotspot on Linux, too, using OpenVPN clients, but Linux support seems to be spotty. We had no luck with it.)
- Unlimited VPN time.
- Per-day bandwidth caps of 256 megabytes on Android or 750 megabytes on desktop computers.
- Limit of one connected device at a time.
- Ads are injected into webpages.
- VPN servers are all based in the United States.
With the Elite version of Hotspot Shield VPN, you get the following:
- The same operating system support as the free version.
- No limits on VPN bandwidth or usage time.
- Up to five connected devices.
- No ads.
- VPN servers are available in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Canada and Germany.
Privacy and Registration
Overall, privacy on Hotspot Shield VPN is weaker than that from most other VPN services.
If you choose the Elite paid version, the only payment method that is currently supported is a credit card. That makes it hard to sign up for Hotspot Shield VPN Elite in a private way, since a credit card requires identifying yourself (unless you use a masked credit card).
The company also does not have a no-logs policy, for either its free or paid services. As a result, it is not possible to have a lot of confidence that it keeps information about your online activity secure.
Speed and Performance
We were surprised to find that the free version of Hotspot Shield VPN performed relatively well in speed tests. We did not expect especially high upload or download speeds, given that this is a free service. However, we saw performance drops of around only 15 percent for download bandwidth, and 50 percent for uploads, while using the free VPN.
Of course, the big catch is that Hotspot Shield VPN caps the amount of data you can upload and download each day. Fast data transfers therefore translate into a shorter period of usage. If you want to upload or download large files all day, Hotspot Shield VPN will not work well, despite its overall good speeds. But if you just want to do basic browsing, the performance is solid.
Cost and Price
Price is where Hotspot Shield VPN stands out most from other VPN options. As we’ve noted, the basic version of the service is completely free. Hotspot Shield VPN is one of the only companies to offer a free proxy service on a non-trial basis. (The Elite paid option can also be canceled within thirty days of signing up, giving users a much longer trial period than most other paid VPN services.)
Of course, while the service is free of financial cost, there are other trade offs. In particular, you have to view ads. These can generally be blocked using ad blocking extensions like Adblock Plus, but that will not work perfectly.
There is also the data cap. 250 megabytes per day, which is the limit on Android devices, is enough to stream only about one hour of video at reduced quality. (High-resolution video could use up 250 megabytes of data in only ten or twenty minutes.) 750 megabytes, the limit on desktops, will give you more time online, but still only enough to download one high-resolution movie.
As for Hotspot Shield Elite, the price is competitive compared to other VPNs. The company currently offers a special rate of $29.95 per year, which makes it one of the lowest-priced VPNs available. Given that the paid version of Hotspot Shield VPN does not include any major restrictions on bandwidth, it may be an attractive option if you want a low-cost VPN.
Of course, as noted above, the Elite version lacks the privacy assurances of other providers.
The bottom line
Hotspot Shield VPN is one of your best options if complete privacy is not a concern and you only need to use a VPN for a limited time each day. If you need total anonymity online, you should look for a more sophisticated (but more expensive) VPN service.