Hotspot Shield is a popular and experienced VPN provider with an unusually free VPN plan, which has recently undergone a major update: the incredibly restrictive 500MB per month data cap has been removed and users now get unlimited traffic on all platforms.
There’s a catch for mobile users: they have to sign in to watch ads, annoying videos that appear (for example) when you disconnect. But Windows and Mac users get a better deal as they can use the service without ads.
It’s not all good news. The free Hotspot Shield Basic plan only supports one connection (you can install it wherever you want, but only use one device at a time). In addition, the free apps can only connect to a single location in the US. There is no streaming mode to help you unblock streaming services and there is no live chat or email support. If something isn’t working properly, you should visit Hotspot Shield’s support site and try to fix the problem yourself.
This may not matter much if you’re looking for the basics of VPN – just a simple way to encrypt your data on public Wi-Fi. But other providers are a bit more generous.
For example, Proton VPN’s free plan also offers unlimited traffic and limits users to a single connection, and it doesn’t support streaming. But users get three locations, there are no ads on platforms, and support is available via email if you need it.
Privacy and logging
It’s reasonable to expect limits and restrictions with a free VPN, but we don’t think they should affect privacy. Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield doesn’t seem to feel the same, as the free plan doesn’t include a kill switch (a feature that protects your traffic if the VPN connection drops).
How much of a problem is that? Just ask the well-known VPN authority, umm, Hotspot Shield, the company that wrote an article (opens in new tab) titled ‘3 Reasons Why a VPN Kill Switch Isn’t Optional’ with the line ‘if your VPN doesn’t have a kill switch then it’s almost as bad as not using a VPN at all’.
That’s good to hear, but we’d like some evidence to verify Hotspot Shield’s claims. TunnelBear has undergone four independent audits (one per year) of its apps, servers, website, infrastructure and more. Regardless of four audits, we would be very happy if Hotspot Shield could manage just one.
Windows and Mac apps
(As we write this, Hotspot Shield’s unlimited bandwidth Windows app is not yet available. We’ll talk about the Mac app in this review and add our thoughts on the Windows build when it finally rolls out.)
If simplicity is at the top of your VPN app’s priority list, then you’ll love the Mac release of Hotspot Shield. The main window of the app is just a sleek black frame with a Connect button. You can ignore the location list, because the free plan only connects to the US – and there are no settings at all.
There is a sidebar with a few tabs, but even those usually direct you to pages on the Hotspot Shield site. For example, a “Manage” link will take you to an account dashboard, while a “Support” link will take you to the website’s support center.
Connection times are short, usually two or three seconds, but there is one minor annoyance. While Hotspot Shield’s desktop apps don’t show ads directly, every time you tap Connect or Disconnect, they open a page on the Hotspot Shield website, which quickly gets annoying.
Once you’re connected, the app displays several panels with helpful status information: your new IP address, server load, session duration, the data you’ve transferred, and more. When you’re done, tap Disconnect, it will disconnect and another Hotspot Shield webpage will open with the helpful (ahem) message: “You’re now disconnected.”
The app’s extreme lack of features is a problem even for less technical users. For example, if you can’t connect to another VPN, you can at least try a different location or protocol. Hotspot Shield gives you no options at all; you can’t even ask for support.
But if you can live with that (and the lack of a kill switch), there are pluses, too. The app is easy to use, speeds are decent, and while the auto-opening web pages are annoying, they’re a small price tag for unlimited data.
Android and iOS apps
Looking at a VPN provider’s desktop apps is interesting, but it may not help you much if you only use VPNs on mobile devices. That’s why we take the time to see what’s available for Android and iOS as well.
In this case, however, the apps are so similar that there is little to say. You get the same easy-to-use, stripped-down interface. The location picker can be safely ignored, as the free plan only connects to the US. There’s really nothing to do but tap Connect when you’re ready to use the app, Disconnect when you’re done.
We got equally excited when we saw a Settings option in the iOS app. Would this be full of unexpected and useful tools? No, just a choice of protocols: Hotspot Shield’s custom Hydra, the default IKEv2, or an Auto option that let the app decide. That’s better than nothing, and might help fix an occasional technical problem, but it’s hard to see why the option isn’t available on Mac.
The main difference with the mobile apps isn’t technical – it’s that to take advantage of unlimited data, video ads have to be accepted. We agreed, and when we clicked Connect, the app would usually (but not always) play ads for other apps or services. These had audio and ran for about 30 seconds, with a ‘Skip’ option sometimes appearing after 5-10 seconds.
Hotspot Shield would argue that giving unlimited data to anyone who wants it is forever expensive and needs to be funded somehow. That’s a fair point, and if you can live with the occasional ads and a short connection delay, it might not be an issue.
However, ProtonVPN’s free plan also offers unlimited data, with no ads or Hotspot Shield’s over-enthusiastic upselling. If you prefer a quieter life, we recommend giving ProtonVPN a try.
We’re running our standard VPN speed tests on a Windows 11 system, but since Hotspot Shield hasn’t released its new Windows app yet, it’s not possible.
However, when testing the previous version, Hotspot Shield reached a decent 230 Mbps. And using the new apps from a home in the UK, they achieved 60Mbps on a 70Mbps connection, which is everything we’d expect, and suggests they could deliver a lot more on a faster line.
We’ll update this review with the results of our full-speed testing once the Windows app is released. But even now, we can see that Hotspot Shield is probably fast enough for most tasks.
The free Hotspot Shield Basic plan doesn’t support unblocking streaming sites, but other providers say the same and sometimes still deliver one or two successes on this front. However, when we ran our unblocking tests, we found that Hotspot Shield didn’t belong to that group: it couldn’t unblock US Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Disney Plus.
This is the point in the review where we would normally tell you about a carrier’s support and what happened when we sent them a test question. But that is not possible here, because Hotspot Shield Basic does not offer support outside the website.
We checked the support center (opens in new tab) and found numerous articles. These were aimed at users of the paid plans, but didn’t always make this clear (an Android guide showed how to choose a VPN location, but didn’t mention that it wasn’t possible with the free service). However, they did a good job explaining the main issues – installation, connection failed, account issues – and chances are you’ll find the troubleshooting advice you need.
It’s great that Hotspot Shield is finally offering unlimited data for free, but with a single location, no kill switch, no email support, and some very annoying ads, it’s not a plan we’d recommend for privacy-critical tasks or heavy VPN users. . We can use it anyway, but only as an emergency backup for something else.