Do you remember the scene in “Aquaman” where Jason Momoa spins his trident so fast it creates a sort of impermeable shield that spits Patrick Wilson out like a human wood chip?
Your VPN isn’t that shield. It actually has a harder job: to keep your online activity 100 percent safe and hidden 24/7 against real bad guys in a world with real consequences.
If you’re shopping for a VPN, chances are you’ve probably already run into Hotspot Shield. I mean, it practically bills itself as a superhero: “the world’s fastest VPN.” Does it live up to the hype? And what does this nitro-fast VPN offer besides just speed?
That’s exactly what was on my mind when I took Hotspot Shield out for a very fun, weeklong test drive. A full analysis follows (no CGI, I promise). But first, the pros and cons.
After a few minor road bumps, the Hotspot Shield dashboard was a piece of cake. The Mac client is unusually stripped down. They’ve even cut out a kill switch. But after I made a few key security tweaks under the hood (which I’ll tell you all about), I was pretty much covered. The Hotspot Shield dashboard, on the other hand, is packed with a typical amount of information, including server loads, which I thought was great.
Hotspot Shield doesn’t have as many protocol options as some of the big VPN guns. For instance, it doesn’t use OpenVPN at all. But it’s got its own Catapult Hydra protocol, which is rumored to be so fast and reliable, companies like MacAfee and Beijing-based Cheetah Mobile use it to fuel their own VPNs. In my own speed tests, Hotspot Shield was indeed wicked fast, but only when I let it choose my protocol for me. Hotspot Shield also passed any DNS leak tests I threw at it, and it hasn’t conked out yet.
At $7.99 per month on the yearly plan, Hotspot Shield’s pricing is at the low end of the high end. If you’re on the fence, you can get a generous 45-day, money-back trial, which makes a lot more sense than trialing Hotspot Shield’s free basic plan with its puny 500 MB of data per day or a 2-Mbps connection.
I didn’t run into any surprises signing up for Hotspot Shield. In fact, I really liked the clean, minimal UI because the important stuff jumped right off the page.
For me, the “important stuff” meant the button for the monthly $7.99 plan with its generous 45-day trial period. You’ll find more and more quality VPN services offering extended trials these days. ExpressVPN’s 45-day free trial is one of them. It’s a welcome trend in my book, especially since I wanted to test-drive Hotspot Shield’s legendary Hydra protocol, and you can’t on the free plan.
FYI: Some VPN trials automatically convert into subscriptions at the end of your trial period. So when you sign up for a yearly or multiyear VPN subscription with a trial period, always mark the end of your trial on your calendar. Because once that trial becomes a subscription, if you’re not happy, you’re stuck.
If the free plan is beckoning, I get it. I’ve already covered the pros and cons of going free in my honey-packed TunnelBear VPN review. Just keep in mind that with Hotspot Shield’s free plan you can only connect with one device (at a time) to one server location with a 2-Mbps-max connection speed. Which means no Hydra. But more on pricing later.
I said there weren’t any surprises signing up for Hotspot Shield. Actually, there was one surprise. There isn’t a Bitcoin payment option on the checkout screen. If you’re really into your online anonymity, that Bitcoin icon is always a welcome sight.
Is it any consolation to Bitcoiners that you can pay for Hotspot Shield with a Diners Club card? Jury’s still out.
As soon as I chose my plan, I got a few more offers from Hotspot Shield, including one for antivirus protection and VIP access to gaming servers.
I really like the fact that Hotspot Shield is bringing the malware conversation front and center. Just because you’ve got a VPN doesn’t mean you’re malware-proof. Then again, just because you’ve got “antivirus” software doesn’t mean you’re 100 percent protected either. Even more to the point, why not bundle in a useful security feature like this for a little extra (not $5.99 per month), or even include it in the premium plan?
A comparable NordVPN plan, for example, includes a native ad- and malware-blocker. Surfshark also has a comparable Clean Web feature, which I cover in detail in my comprehensive Surfshark review. I’m not saying that either of these features is Jason Momoa’s “trident water shield.” But they do go a long way to keeping you safer online. More importantly for a lot of you: they won’t drive up your VPN subscription almost twofold.
The final extra I declined is something called “Dedicated Ultra Servers” ($8.99 per month). Again, I really liked the look of these “fast, seamless connections” for streaming and gaming. But it makes you wonder: If you don’t sign up for this, what are you getting? Poor man’s ultra servers? Sure hope not.
Pro Tip: Want to impress your friends and talk like a pro? Ditch the word “antivirus” from your “malware” conversations. Antivirus programs were hot in the ‘90s because software developers knew they could scare us with the idea of “viruses,” “Trojan horses,” and “worms.” Nowadays, “malware” or even “bad software” is all you need to say to get your point across.
I realize now that I’d gotten pretty spoiled with quick, hassle-free VPN installs. One of the things I talked about when I reviewed VyprVPN, for example, was VyprVPN’s totally seamless Mac installation — from signup to connection in about a minute! It looks like I still can’t stop talking about it. Installing Hotspot Shield was a little more cumbersome and time-consuming, but no big deal in the end.
After a brief detour to my minimal white dashboard (not to be confused with the charcoal grey desktop client dashboard, which we’ll get to in just a sec), I downloaded my Mac desktop client via the Apple Store without a hitch. The “Hotspot Shield VPN” tab under “Aura apps” will get you there.
I’ve got to say kudos to the Hotspot Shield design team, because that account dashboard is seriously beautiful. It would have been even better if Hotspot Shield had linked me directly to my Mac app download first though. But, again, not the end of the world.
One thing I was beyond thrilled to find on the account dashboard is 1Password, a top-notch password manager that seemed to be bundled in with my premium Hotspot Shield account. I just wasn’t sure if it was actually free, because the sign-up screen says it’s only a trial. A perfect question for support, right? (Keith S. from Hotspot Shield directed me to 1Password’s support team. I’m still waiting for the answer on that.)
Now let’s take a look at the key features you’ll find under Hotspot Shield’s hood.
Want a little VPN advice? Before you connect to the internet with your new VPN service for the first time, always take a quick peek under the hood. The reason I suggest doing this is because your VPN might end up interfering with your day-to-day browsing or app use. It actually happened to me recently with my password vault, 1Password. (Yep, I’m a user.)
Long story short, I had to whitelist 1Password, i.e., run it on my normal connection without my VPN. If I hadn’t done a quick features run-through and discovered that whitelisting feature, can you imagine how many hours of chat support I might have burned through?
So the first thing I did once I had Hotspot Shield up and running was check out the features. For Mac users, click the “Hotspot Shield” tab on the far top left of your screen, and then open up “Preferences.”
Did You Know: Whitelisting may sound technical, but it’s actually pretty straightforward and useful. When you whitelist an app, you’re just telling your VPN to ignore it and let it run on your normal router connection. It might not sound like much, but without whitelisting you’d have to disconnect your VPN every time you wanted to use an app that blocks VPNs.
The Hotspot Shield desktop client really tries to keep things simple. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s no kill switch. If this is your first time hearing those two words, a kill switch is a basic VPN feature that cuts your connection to the internet if your VPN fails. This is extra protection for you because normally you don’t want to be connected to the internet without your VPN.
Hotspot Shield, which avoids all outright talk of kill switches, gives you two options: “start on launch” and “auto-connect” (to your last connection). If you toggle on “start on launch,” Hotspot Shield will always be on when you start your computer. But does that mean that Hotspot Shield will automatically connect?
I tested the feature twice — once when I had a connection running and once when I didn’t. Both times, Hotspot Shield opened when I rebooted, but it didn’t connect me to a VPN. (It didn’t even send me a warning message. Ouch!) That said, the Hotspot Shield app did plop itself down right in front of my browser window as a kind of warning: “Hey, forgetting something?”
Pro Tip: If your VPN service comes with a desktop auto-connect feature, toggle it on. It’s one thing for your VPN to shut off internet access if it disconnects by accident. That protects you. But manually reconnecting every time it happens is a pain. Auto-connect will take care of that for you.
To really cover myself, I also needed to enable “auto-connect.” When I did that, Hotspot Shield was up and running when I restarted. Also to Hotspot Shield’s credit, when I deliberately switched Wi-Fi networks and my connection was momentarily cut, I got a warning message. Unfortunately, that message wasn’t a push notification; it just flashed across my Hotspot Shield app.
Bottom line? For safe desktop browsing with Hotspot Shield, I recommend you enable both options and stay vigilant.
FYI: Fortunately, for Windows users, the Hotspot Shield desktop client situation is a lot better. The Windows app has a kill switch and a nice auto-connect feature so your VPN kicks in whenever you connect via public Wi-Fi.
To keep it super simple, Hotspot Shield has also ditched split tunneling (or whitelisting) for its Mac desktop client. (Windows, Android, and iOS have something called Smart VPN, which we’ll look at in just a moment.) This is a shame in my book because, as I mentioned above, I can’t think of a more useful feature to have for day-to-day VPNing.
I’m always kind of nervous popping open advanced VPN features because I never know what kind of mayhem I’ll get into. Did I just double hop to Pyongyang by accident? To stream “My Companion 40,” aka North Korean Netflix? (That really exists, by the way. It’s been around since 2017.1)
Actually, the Hotspot Shield Mac client doesn’t offer much for you to break or destroy — only an option to choose your protocol. (Don’t worry we’ll check those out soon enough.) I let Hotspot Shield pick my protocols for me. They recommend this, and I assume they know what they’re talking about. Famous last words, right?
Compared to the Mac desktop client, the Hotspot Shield Android app rocks. Security here is a lot more straightforward. Want to connect to your VPN whenever you boot your phone? Cool. Toggle on “connect at startup.” Want to only connect when you launch the Hotspot Shield app? I’m actually not sure why you’d want to do that, but if you do, just toggle on the “connect on app launch” switch. There’s more, too.
The Hotspot Shield mobile app not only gave me the option of auto-connecting to my VPN whenever it detected an untrusted Wi-Fi network. It also let me auto-connect even when I was using a trusted network. That’s something you don’t see every day.
I even got my kill switch, which is arguably even more important when you’re on the go and the risk of connecting to unsecured networks is greater.
So, overall, the Hotspot Shield mobile app is a huge improvement over the (Mac) desktop client, with the exception of two minor issues.
Smart VPN is Hotspot Shield’s take on whitelisting. When you toggle on this rather unique mobile feature, instead of whitelisting apps that you want to bypass your VPN (see above), you select apps you want to pass through your VPN. So, in essence, you’re “blacklisting” apps. I’m honestly not sure that “blacklisting” is an improvement over whitelisting.
When I scrolled down below the fold on my Hotspot Shield mobile app, I found a hidden “privacy” tab. Under the privacy tab was a newly unveiled “personalized ads” feature.
First off, I’m no Edward Snowden. I’m just like you. I use VPNs to satisfy a variety of everyday needs. One of them is: I don’t want to see personalized ads. I guess the good thing is, with the premium plan, opting in is your choice. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t curious as to why a VPN provider touting the highest security standards in the world would even offer this option to its anonymity-seeking customers.
Hotspot Shield’s deep charcoal, data-rich dashboard with its glowing blue highlights is like midnight in the cockpit of some luxurious transatlantic flight. In some ways, you get the best of both worlds: an uncluttered map view that morphs into a countries list with one click of your mouse. That view also gives you server loads, peak speeds, and your daily data consumption (in the form of a pretty fancy bar graph).
A nice “quick access” list shows you your recent connections. If you want to try a new connection, just pick a country and click.
A little too much stuff? Maybe. But I’m not complaining. Those server loads are actually useful and seeing how much data you burn through is revealing. Our digital footprint isn’t just about how much we can hide, it’s also about how much data we use, as we’re seeing in sharp focus with the rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs)3. So having those figures front and center is a welcome reminder that our virtual browsing costs real-world resources.
FYI: Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are digital artworks backed by blockchain security. The cool thing is artists get paid without middlemen and payment is automatic. The scary thing is that the carbon used for just 300 NFTs could fuel a whole household for two decades.
Server numbers shouldn’t really be a deciding factor in choosing a VPN. There are great VPNs with under 1,000 servers. (VyprVPN is one of them.) There are also great VPNs with literally thousands of servers. Hotspot Shield has 1,800 servers in 80 countries.
Those numbers don’t give me pause. In fact, Hotspot Shield’s country reach is above average, if you compare it to NordVPN (59 countries) or Surfshark (64). These are both stand-out services and two of our Top VPN Services, by the way. Even ExpressVPN, our actual top-rated VPN pick of the year, doesn’t offer much better coverage with 94 countries.
And, remember, Hotspot Shield makes it easier than most VPN services to avoid traffic jams because you can see server loads on your dashboard. If you notice an overloaded server, just switch locations.
The only thing I’d add to Hotspot Shield’s otherwise very well-equipped dashboard is a servers by specialty list. As we found out when we tested CyberGhost (7,000-plus servers!) getting connection suggestions based on what you’re doing is just such a handy feature. In some ways, it’s even more useful than a “quick access” feature.
FYI: Flawlessly secure servers in 94 countries isn’t the only feature that makes ExpressVPN a great VPN choice. If you’re on the hunt for your next VPN, we tested those servers and everything else Express has to offer in our comprehensive ExpressVPN review.
Like many VPN providers, Hotspot Shield is more than generous with data and bandwidth. You get as much as you want. But again, like practically all VPN services, you get limited simultaneous connections. Hotspot Shield gives you a pretty standard five. For two users, five linked devices should be plenty. Busy families will be swapping VPN time.
Have you ever seen a lime green Mustang whizzing through a residential neighborhood at 60 mph? Pretty dumb, right? Speed isn’t everything. Especially if you’re just speeding from one stop sign to the next.
It’s the same with VPNs. Speed is all relative to what you’re doing with it. For instance, want to send a 100 emails at the speed of light? You don’t need a 300 Mbps line. Want to download an 8 GB Blu-ray at the speed of light? You probably do.
With that caveat in mind, here’s the scoop on speeds…
Did You Know: In 2014, Alcatel-Lucent and British Telecom hit speeds of 1.4 terabits per second (writing that one out) on a 255-mile broadband connection. Anyone have 44 HD movies they want to send to a friend? With that connection, it would only take a second.
Hotspot Shield gives you three protocol options: recommended, their proprietary Hydra, and IKEv2. Protocols, by the way, are the instructions your VPN gives your tunnels to get your data through fast and safe. Here’s my experience on a 450 Mbps line in the U.S.
When I specifically selected Hydra, my speeds dropped. Connecting within the U.S., the drop was insignificant. When I connected to Europe, the drop was huge. When I let Hotspot Shield choose my protocol, on the other hand, I was golden every time.
I’ve kind of already sketched out the privacy situation with Hotspot Shield. If you’re sold on the idea of a VPN company with a core privacy mission (VyprVPN, ProtonVPN, or quirky Canadian TunnelBear, to name three I really like), Hotspot Shield may not float your boat.
It’s not their encryption you wouldn’t trust. Who can argue with AES-256 encryption with perfect forward secrecy? No one can bust through that. It’s not necessarily their logging policy4 either, which arguably leaves some room for doubt.
It’s not even that pretty weird personalized ad opt in I discovered buried inside my mobile app.
Pro Tip: Logging policies tell you how seriously VPN providers take your privacy. The gold standard of logging policies is a zero-logs policy, which means your VPN provider collects nothing about you beyond the bare minimum of data (device model and app version number) to keep its software running smoothly.
It’s more a composite picture of a company whose main focus is on the product, not the idea behind it. That picture gets stronger when you consider that Hotspot Shield hasn’t really made too much of an effort to back their security claims up with external audits of their systems.
All in all, I haven’t found any strong reason not to trust Hotspot Shield with my privacy. There were no IP leaks and even when my connection dropped, Hotspot Shield was up and running again in a second. But if you’re looking for a VPN service on a privacy mission,5 you’re not going to find that in Hotspot Shield.
Did You Know: Buying a VPN is a great step towards protecting your digital privacy, but it isn’t the only thing you can do to improve your “digital hygiene.” Using strong passwords and two-factor authentication, ditching apps you don’t use from third parties you don’t know, and switching to an encrypted message service like Signal or Telegram will keep you even safer.
If you’ve spent any time deciphering VPN pricing tables, you probably noticed a general trend. There are the $2-$3 per month plans. I’m thinking of Surfshark’s two-year plans ($2.49 per month) or CyberGhost’s 39-month plans ($2.25 per month). And there are the $7-$9 per month VPN services.
Usually, with the higher-end VPN services, you’re paying for extras like Tor support, DNS infrastructure, and native ad- and malware-blocking software. But not always. Surfshark is packed with advanced features, and that’s just one example.
Hotspot Shield falls somewhere in the middle. At $7.99 per month on its yearly plan, Hotspot Shield is a little less expensive than its close all-in-one competitors like NordVPN and ExpressVPN. But it’s nowhere near the bargain VPN price tags.
As always, deciding where to plant your flag depends on what you need from a VPN. I’ll give you my two cents on that in a minute.
FYI: Hotspot Shield is one of the few VPN services we’ve looked at that has a family plan. Hotspot Shield’s family plan gives you 25 simultaneously connected devices and five users, which means no connecting and disconnecting or swapping log-ins ever again. At $11.99 per month, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’ve got a busy household.
Hotspot Shield has 24/7 live chat support, if you’re on the premium plan. That’s great. Email responses are prompt, too.
In terms of substance, my chat experience wasn’t stellar. My only question — a simple one about whether 1Password was actually included with my Hotspot Shield subscription or not — got passed on to the 1Password team. Imagine if I was stuck halfway through connecting Hotspot Shield to my router.
For support documentation, on the other hand, Hotspot Shield has a pretty good website with some simple FAQs and a whole library of easy-to-follow setup guides — even guides for setting Hotspot Shield up on your TV (awesome), Chrome browser, and, yes, even your router.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the software when you’re shopping for a subscription software service. How powerful? How affordable? How many features? But quality support can make a huge difference in your everyday enjoyment of your VPN. So whether you prefer searching out answers via knowledgebases or live chat, our advice is to always check out the support situation before you click on that subscription.
Hotspot Shield definitely could be your next VPN for a few reasons. If you’re into gaming or are really serious about high-def streaming, Hotspot Shield has the dedicated servers and the speed to give you the best service on the planet.
Likewise, if you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting, you might need Hotspot Shield’s extra speed. I’m not just talking about binge downloading on Usenet either. You could be a graphic designer or video editor transferring heavy files to clients daily. Speed really is important there.
Finally — and maybe not a huge important consideration for most of us — if you like to see a lot of data on your VPN dashboard, Hotspot Shield is a data fest. Really, the granularity is pretty amazing, and I’m generally more partial to handier dashboards without the bells and whistles.
Plus, when you subscribe to Hotspot Shield Premium, you get a stellar password manager (1Password) for free. That in itself works out to $2.99 per month in savings. And, don’t forget, Hotspot Shield is already a little cheaper than its two closest competitors, NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
Sound good? Go for it. Just be prepared for a sketchy experience under the hood if you’re on a Mac. And don’t toggle on those personalized ads.
Otherwise, for an out-of-this-world fast, reliable VPN service with a very cool dashboard and a first-rate password manager, Hotspot Shield may definitely be the VPN for you.
Hotspot Shield costs $7.99 per month if you pay by the year. That makes it significantly more than quality bargain VPNs like VyprVPN, Surfshark and CyberGhost, but a little less than top-of-the-line, high-end VPN providers like NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
Hotspot Shield is the fastest VPN I’ve used so far, breaking the 300 Mbps-mark on a 500 Mbps line. Just use its recommended protocol.
After a few minor detours, installing HotSpot Shield was simple. The dashboard is incredible across platforms. The security customizations (for the Mac client especially) need some TLC.
Yes, you can find Hotspot Shield apps for Fire TVs, Android TVs, and some smart TVs. You can install Hotspot Shield on your router, too.
Yep, without a hitch. It gets an A for streaming and torrenting, too.
Live chat was mostly a dead end. I didn’t get answers to the (pretty simple) questions I asked, or was shrugged off. The Hotspot Shield website, on the other hand, is really beautiful with plenty of free resources for troubleshooting and installing Hotspot Shield products.
Lockie, Alex. (2017, Dec 15). North Korea reportedly just launched its own version of Netflix — but there’s a catch. Business Insider.
Litman-Navarro. (2019, June 12). We Read 150 Privacy Policies. They Were an Incomprehensible Disaster. The New York Times.
Tabuchi, Hiroko. (2021, April 13). NFTs Are Shaking Up the Art World. They May Be Warming the Planet, Too. The New York Times.
Aura. (2021). Product Privacy Notice – VPN Products.
Yokubaitis, Ron. (2021). Peace, Prosperity & the Case for the Open Internet. Golden Frog.
With a decade of experience as a journalist, Derek Prall has been covering cybersecurity for seven years. He has spent more than 1,000 hours researching digital privacy and has covered almost 100 topics related to VPN and identity theft protection. Previously, Derek has covered tech issues at American City & County magazine, where he won numerous national awards for his cybersecurity coverage. His areas of expertise included network security, big data analytics, and AI applications in public safety. Derek graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and Communications from Furman University and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and two cats.