Easy-to-use software. Strong speed-test scores. Free version available. P2P and Bittorrent allowed. Plays nice with Netflix. Malware detection. Free browser plugins.
Expensive. Few server locations. Restrictive free version. No specialized servers.
- Bottom Line
AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite is a fast and capable VPN that throws in antivirus protection along with other extras. But it's still expensive for what you get.
By Max Eddy
If you've ever used an unsecured Wi-Fi network, you may have unwittingly exposed your information to crooks or spies. That's why virtual private networks, or VPNs, like AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield Elite, are so important. This VPN service is exceptionally easy to use, includes a slew of features, and even offers a lifetime subscription for devotees. It is, however, high in price and low on features compared with the competition. It still receives a good score, but those in search of a robust and friendly VPN service should consider NordVPN, one of our top all-around favorite, feature-rich VPNs.
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What Is a VPN?
When you connect with a VPN, it encrypts all internet activity from your PC and routes the packets through AnchorFree's servers. Anyone on your network watching your traffic or trying to serve you bogus websites won't be able to break into that tunnel. That's great, especially if you find yourself using that shifty, unsecured Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop.
Because your internet traffic appears to be coming from AnchorFree's servers, your computer in turn appears to have the IP address of that server. That means websites, advertisers, and snoopers will have a harder time tracking your movements across the web and discerning your actual location.
While using a VPN is a wise choice for securing important activities, such as online banking transactions, VPNs are essential for accessing the internet while traveling, or any time you use a public Wi-Fi network. On a larger scale, people living in countries with highly restrictive control over internet access can circumvent that control with a VPN. This technology has long been a key tool of activists and journalists.
For some people, VPNs are also a means to access region-locked content. By connecting from the US to a VPN server in the UK, for example, you could watch BBC shows for free instead of paying for BBC America. Note that Netflix is fighting back against this kind of cheating, as are other services.
It's important to know what a VPN can and can't do, however. First and foremost, a VPN provides only limited online anonymity. To really disguise yourself online, you'll want to route your traffic through the labyrinthine Tor network. Also, if you connect to websites or services that don't encrypt traffic via HTTPS, your network traffic may be subject to interception.
Features and Pricing
Hotspot Shield Elite has several pricing tiers ranging from one month for $12.99 to a much higher one-time payment of $139.99 per lifetime. That definitely puts it on the more expensive end of the spectrum for monthly VPN subscriptions. Only one other VPN service offers a similar "forever" subscription, however, and that's Editors' Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited. The big difference is that KeepSolid charges $499 (on sale for $149) for its undying subscription. If one month is too short but you're not willing to commit to one VPN until death do you part, you can snag a six-month subscription for $29.99, or a one-year subscription for $40.
If none of those plans fit your wallet, you might consider using a free VPN, such as the one provided by AnchorFree. Note that the free version of HotSpot Shield only allows access to servers in the US. The free version also has bandwidth limits that depend on the device you use. PC and Mac users get 1GB per day, and Android users have 300MB per day. That allowance refreshes daily. Interestingly, the free iPhone version does not have a bandwidth cap. AnchorFree also uses Android resources to deliver occasional interstitial ads, although it does so without compromising the security of your data.
Elite members get just 20 server locations worldwide to choose from for, with some 2,000 servers in total. That's a lot of servers, but I like to see them more widely distributed. Hotspot Shield has servers in Asia, Central America, Europe, North America, and South America. It also maintains servers in areas with restrictive internet access policies, including China, Russia, and Turkey. Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield customers looking for servers in the Middle East or Africa will be disappointed. NordVPN has hundreds of locations available and Private Internet Access boasts well over 3,000 servers across the globe.
In addition to securing your traffic, Hotspot Shield can also warn users whenever they land on a known phishing websites or sites that host malware (as determined by developer AnchorFree's database of more than 3.5 million malicious sites). This kind of protection is rare among VPN services, but I did not evaluate Hotspot's malware defenses for this review.
The typical VPN service supports multiple VPN protocols and either uses the best it thinks for a particular situation or allows the user to choose. These usually include new, secure standards like IKEv2 or my preferred option, the open-source OpenVPN. Instead, AnchorFree created its own protocol called Catapult Hydra and uses it exclusively.
While plenty of other VPN services create their own protocols, AnchorFree Hotspot Shield is the only one I'm aware of that relies on its proprietary protocol exclusively. I'm always a little leery of security companies that decide to roll their own services when secure, open-source options like OpenVPN exist. I haven't tested the efficacy of AnchorFree's protocol—I'll leave that to the expert researchers.
In addition to its desktop apps, AnchorFree also offers VPN browser plugins for Chrome and Firefox. Several VPN companies offer browser plugins, but AnchorFree is especially notable because you need neither an account nor a subscription when you connect via these plugins. They are completely free.
Free VPN usually means a catch of some kind, and the story is a bit complicated for AnchorFree. If you use the Firefox plugin, there's no limit on your data and you can use any server you wish, as often as you like. It's totally unlimited. The catch is if you use the Chrome plugin, you can't connect to US or UK VPN servers, as you can with the Firefox plugin, but your data is still unlimited. The Chrome plugin also has links at the bottom of its windows to popular services, which feels a little bit like advertising.
Note that while VPN browser plugins are convenient, and in this case free, they don't offer as much protection as manually configuring your computer or using the company's desktop. When you use the browser plugin to connect via VPN, only your browser traffic is secured. Any other data flowing from your computer to the internet won't have that benefit. It's a neat, lightweight solution but not ideal from a security perspective.
I had no trouble setting up Hotspot Shield on my Lenovo ThinkPad T460s running Windows 10. Previous versions of the software were pushier than I like to see, affecting the appearance of the browser and such, and I'm happy to see that behavior removed in the current incarnation. Hotspot Shield also no longer installs any toolbars.
The Hotspot Shield client has been overhauled since last I saw it, with a much more Windows 10 vibe. It's a simple, grey window with a drop-down menu for selecting server locations. The client also provides a handy link to Hotspot Shield's browser plugins for Firefox and Chrome. A hidden left-hand tray opens to let you access account information and settings. Your session time is also displayed. I am disappointed that Hotspot Shield did not include specialized servers like NordVPN's double encryption servers, or TorGuard's BitTorrent-friendly servers.
One notable setting is that Hotspot Shield can be configured to connect automatically on unsafe Wi-Fi networks. That's a great option. While you should use a VPN as often as possible for maximum security, this feature means you don't need to remember to switch on the VPN.
In previous versions, Hotspot Shield also injected an ad linking back to a page on its own domain onto webpages. Considering how attackers inject code into websites to trick users into visiting malicious portals, I don't think legitimate software should ever engage in this practice. Thankfully, AnchorFree confirms that it no longer injects ads into websites—nor do any of the other services in my best-of list. The only time you see ads with AnchorFree is if you use the free service on the company's Android app.
A representative for the company also confirmed that it operates a zero-logging operation. That means the company isn't keeping tabs on your internet activities while you're logged into to the service. It also maintains its offices in Delaware, US, and Switzerland. I'm not a legal expert, but what I've read indicates that the US and Switzerland do not have data retention laws that apply to VPNs.
Using a VPN often means being unable to access Netflix, even if you're connected to a VPN server within the US. The streaming company has been very aggressive about cracking down on people spoofing their location in order to access Netflix content that isn't available in a particular geographic market. But I had no trouble watching Star Trek: Voyager on Netflix while protected by Hotspot Shield Elite.
VPNs work by adding extra distance to the path your web traffic must traverse, and that distance usually has a negative effect on your browsing experience. To get a feel for the impact of using a VPN, I perform a series of tests using the Ookla SpeedTest website (Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag's publisher Ziff Davis.) In my first round of tests, I connect to a local Ookla test server and compare the average test results with and without connecting to a VPN service in the US. This is intended to simulate the situation most users will experience. I then calculate a percent change between the two figures.
To push the service harder, and get a sense for how it performs when connecting to far-flung servers, I choose an Ookla test server in Anchorage, Alaska, and a VPN server in Australia. This is probably more strain than the average person would put on a service, but I have found it an illuminating test.
In my domestic VPN test, I found that HotSpot Shield increased latency by 232 percent. It has the rare distinction, however, of actually improving download speeds; I found that downloads were 45 percent faster with HotSpot Shield engaged. The same can't be said of its uploads, however. Using HotSpot Shield slowed domestic uploads by 10.6 percent. Despite its download boost, Hotspot Shield is far from being the fastest VPN. That honor goes to PureVPN, which improved download speeds by 346.4 percent.
My international test results were less dramatic, but still good. I found that HotSpot Shield increased latency by 155.4 percent. That sounds like a big number, but it's actually the lowest latency result I've yet recorded for this test. The service slowed downloads by 10.7 percent, which is disappointing, but actually improved upload speeds 1.4 percent. Again, PureVPN took the day in the international download test, improving speeds by 403.9 percent.
Shield Your Hotspot
HotSpot Shield Elite surprised me with its excellent speed test scores, and it has vaulted into the very select group of services that can actually improve your download speeds. It wraps its excellent protection and speeds in a snazzy client, and includes a level of malware protection. Its browser plugins offer generous VPN protection for free, too. But against that, I have to balance its high price, small number of server locations, and dearth of the special features that are increasingly part of the VPN experience. HotSpot Shield Elite takes home a solid score, but we continue to recommend Editors' Choice winners KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and PureVPN.
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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