Hotspot Shield VPN review
When it comes to virtual private network (VPN) comparisons, there tends to be initial chatter about the numbers: server count, how many countries, and the number of simultaneous connections supported on a single account. NordVPN (review here) wins a couple of those considerations as far as our top five best VPN services go, with ExpressVPN (review here) nipping at its big competitor’s heels with more countries represented.
One number internet speedsters will care about, though, is how much a VPN slows down your internet connection. And given that’s exactly what happens as soon as you connect to a VPN server, even one close to home, this is where Hotspot Shield zips in as a high-speed contender.
Hotspot Shield prices and plans
One of the biggest out-of-the-gate cons for Hotspot Shield is how expensive it is. Unless you were fortunate enough to nab an affordable lifetime subscription (like I was years ago), Hotspot Shield is one of the priciest VPNs around. Admittedly, CyberGhost (review here), Private Internet Access (review here) and Surfshark (review here) are the three priciest picks for the VPN services we track, but next in line is Hotspot Shield with its US$12.95 pricing.
Of our top five VPNs, Hotspot Shield is second only to ExpressVPN for annual pricing, albeit it does have the unique benefit of offering a Family subscription that allows for up to five accounts. If you can split the cost with even one other person, Hotspot Shield’s monthly value increases significantly. That said, as you can see from the pricing table below, the Hotspot Shield Family plan isn’t as feature-rich as the Premium version.
|Plan||Monthly price||Annual price||Features||Detail|
|Basic||Free||Free||Up to 2Mbps|
500MB per day
|Monthly||US$12.99/mo.||US$95.88||Up to 1Gbps|
|Family||US$7.99/mo.||US$143.88||Up to 1Gbps|
And here’s how Hotspot Shield looks stacked next to our pick of the other top four VPN providers.
|Hotspot Shield||US$12.99/mth||Incredibly fast performance||View plan|
|ExpressVPN||US$12.95/mth||Blocks ads of your choice on all devices||View plan|
|NordVPN||US$12.95/mth||User-friendly, speedy connection||View plan|
|CyberGhost||AU$18.49/mth||Seven simultaneous devices||View plan|
|PureVPN||US$10.95/mth||Stacks of servers||View plan|
Data effective 23/4/2021. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
Hotspot Shield Basic
There’s a trend in VPN land to only offer trials after you’ve entered credit card details, or to offer varying lengths of money-back guarantees. Hotspot Shield bucks the trend by offering a fully free version in Hotspot Basic. But there are some big disclaimers. While it has the same level of encryption as the Hotspot Shield subscription, it’s restricted to 500MB of daily data and speeds cap out at 2Mbps. It also has ads, is limited to one device, doesn’t have any tech support, and is severely limited in its number of available servers.
Sure, it’s clearly intended to give VPN newbies a free taste of the service, but you’re honestly better off ponying up some cash and making a calendar note for the 45-day money-back guarantee if you feel Hotspot Shield is not for you. This way, you’re using a Hotspot Shield Premium service that doesn’t have those restrictions and you’re getting a proper feel for a fully featured VPN service.
Hotspot Shield connectivity and user experience
As a more advanced PC user, I was drawn to Hotspot Shield for its main selling point: speed. That’s why it’s been my go-to VPN, but it also shouldn’t deter fledgling VPN users as it mirrors the user-friendliness of popular competitors like NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
Open the Hotspot Shield app or software and hit that big power button to connect. Then hit it again to disconnect. Easy. Connecting to a server takes around five seconds, but leave a few seconds grace afterwards to be fully connected. While not essential, it’s a nice touch that Hotspot Shield offers at-a-glance information for your current connection.
You can see your data usage for the last 24 hours, the peak speed of your current connection, how you’re connected (wired or WiFi) as well as server information, which includes your current IP address, time connected, latency and server load. Ideally, you want to connect to a Hotspot Shield server that has load under 80%.
Thankfully, switching servers is almost as easy as one-tap connection/disconnection. Tap or click on the location of the Hotspot Shield server you’re currently connected to, then select from a list of quick-access alternatives, or find the country you’re after by scrolling through the alphabetised list. You can also search for a country or city at the top of this screen.
Hotspot Shield advertises “80+ counties”, which translated to 85 at the time of updating this review, but its global server count of 3,200 puts it towards the bottom of the list of VPN services, ahead only of ExpressVPN’s 3,000+ server count. For context, the next highest server count above Hotspot Shield is NordVPN, which has 5,440 servers around the globe.
It’s worth noting that server count only tends to matter when problems arise in a particular location and there aren’t as many backup options. This may be why Hotspot Shield simplifies this to allowing connection via location, rather than by the specific servers that may be in a single location. Part of this feels user-friendly in terms of automation, but there’s also a sense that this obfuscates the comparatively low server count. NordVPN, for instance, also simplifies by prioritising automated connection, then fastest servers, but you can also individually scroll through the servers in a country or location.
Hotspot Shield number of devices
Hotspot Shield follows in the footsteps of ExpressVPN and PureVPN by offering five simultaneous connections for a single account, which isn’t as impressive as the six offered by NordVPN nor the seven from Cyberghost. Where Hotspot Shield has a potential edge, though, is in the 25 simultaneous connections available on the Family plan: separated into five connections across five accounts. Just remember the Family plan doesn’t include all the features of the Premium alternative.
Below is a list of the supported devices for Hotspot Shield:
- iOS (iOS 11 and above)
- Android (OS 5.0 and above)
- Android TV (Android OS 5.0 and above)
- Mac (macOS X 10.12 and above)
- Windows (Windows 7 and above)
- Select routers
It’s not as extensive as other VPN providers, but it covers the most popular devices. If you configure one of those select routers for use with Hotspot Shield, it means that every device connected to that router will be using the VPN when it’s connected. On one hand, this means you can have a whole lot of devices technically only using one of your account’s five connections. On the other, it’s more complicated to set up and the blanket VPN approach means devices you may not want using a VPN are also forced to connect whenever it’s activated.
Hotspot Shield speeds
This is where Hotspot Shield takes out top accolades. We’ve been updating our VPN reviews with local testing, and Hotspot Shield smashes NordVPN and ExpressVPN when it comes to download speeds. The table below is the results of Hotspot Shield testing on a Superloop NBN 100/40Mbps Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) connection, with tests conducted during the middle of the day (via Speedtest).
|VPN server||Download speed||Upload speed||Latency|
|US VPN (auto, fastest)||76.72Mbps|
|US VPN (manual, closest)||90.72Mbps|
Latency is the big loser for local connection, although admittedly it’s at ends with the 7ms reported inside Hotspot shield. While NordVPN and ExpressVPN both had less impacted upload variance for a local Sydney server, the less than 1% variance on Hotspot Shield’s download speed is particularly impressive. Things fall apart when I let Hotspot Shield take the reins for US testing with an 18% difference. That said, when I manually selected Los Angeles as the location, latency was equal to NordVPN and ExpressVPN, but both upload speeds and download speeds were significantly better with Hotspot Shield.
Hotspot Shield streaming
This is where Hotspot Shield kicks into another gear in terms of automated convenience. If you dig into the list of virtual locations, the United States and United Kingdom have options for automatically selecting the best servers for streaming and the best for gaming. The latter is particularly important for those who play with friends overseas on international gaming servers, and a VPN can help with better routing that leads to lower latency.
For streaming, the fast speeds of Hotspot Shield servers tends to result in getting you into the content you want to watch in less time. Strangely, the Auto and Streaming picks for the US didn’t work for my Peacock tests, but I was able to stream when I stuck with the faster manually selected Los Angeles connection.
|Service||ExpressVPN compatible?||Buffering speed|
|Stan (including Stan Sport)||No||N/A|
Every other US streaming service in the table below was fast to buffer. Strangely, while Kayo worked with an Australian server – and it’s typically great at sniffing out VPNs in my tests – none of Hotspot Shield’s Australian servers let me watch Stan content (it came up as geoblocked).
Below is a table that uses the 3% speed difference when connecting to a US server with Hotspot Shield and applies it to the average typical evening download speeds (TEDS) for the different NBN speed tiers. Results are relative to the bandwidth requirements of popular US 4K streaming services and also take into account how many possible simultaneous streams are allowed with a single account (Hulu lets you upgrade to unlimited screens).
|NBN speed tier||Average NBN TEDS||Hotspot Shield TEDS||Netflix 4K|
|HBO Max 4K|
|NBN 12||11.42Mbps||11.07Mbps||Too slow||Too slow||Too slow|
|NBN 25||21.45Mbps||20.81Mbps||Too slow||1 stream||Too slow|
|NBN 50||45.17Mbps||43.81Mbps||1 stream||2 streams||1 stream|
|NBN 100||86.67Mbps||84.06Mbps||3 streams||5 streams||3 streams|
|NBN 250||212.10Mbps||205.74Mbps||4+ streams||12 streams||3+ streams|
|NBN 1000||337.50Mbps||327.37Mbps||4+ streams||20 streams||3+ streams|
While the average typical evening download speeds have changed across the board as more and more NBN providers compete on self-reported speeds, Hotspot Shield was still able to handle more streams, particularly on faster connections, when compared to the results from NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
Hotspot Shield extras
Some of the neat extras like streaming and gaming servers for the US and the UK are mentioned above, but Hotspot Shield Premium also includes great optional extras like antivirus, a spam-call blocker for mobile apps and a password manager (1Password). It’s worth noting that these latter three features aren’t available on the Hotspot Shield Family plan, so if they’re important to you, weigh that up before picking your plan. There’s also 24/7 live tech support if you need help.
Hotspot Shield vs other VPNs
There are already a lot of comparisons between Hotspot Shield features and other competing VPN competitors above, so I won’t labour the point here. The long and short of it is Hotspot Shield is pricier than our top five VPN providers for monthly plans, but you can save dollars by opting for an annual or Family subscription (though you lose some features on the Family plan). It’s not so flash on the server-count front and it doesn’t support as many countries as ExpressVPN, PureVPN and Cyberghost.
Should I buy Hotspot Shield?
If you want the fastest VPN around, Hotspot Shield should be right at the top of your list. While it’s lacking in certain features and a proper zero-logging policy would provide better peace of mind, Hotspot Shield is a pricey but speedy VPN service that’s equally beneficial for newbies and tech-minded folk alike.