Buy a VPN service and you'll probably expect access to some carefully designed network of managed servers, smartly linked via highly secure protocols to prevent unauthorised access to your traffic.
Hola isn't like that at all.
The Israeli company describes its offering as a "community powered (Peer-to-Peer) VPN" which routes your traffic through other user's computers, rather than the usual proxy servers. In theory this can improve anonymity and make it more difficult for Hola to be detected and blocked, although sites like Netflix often manage this anyway.
- Want to try Hola? Check out the website here
The service is entirely free for non-commercial use, at least, with no bandwidth or data caps.
One obvious concern is that although you get to use the bandwidth of other Hola nodes, they can also access yours. But Hola says this isn't as bad as it sounds, because resources are only used when your computer is idle, and the average daily traffic is "less than a 20 second YouTube clip".
What's more worrying is that if you're the final node for another Hola user who's hacking, sending spam or downloading something illegal, your IP address may be recorded as the offender.
You can get around this by upgrading to the $5 (£3.85, AU$6.73) per month Hola Premium, giving access to the network without having to contribute your own bandwidth, but there are still plenty of issues to consider.
Hola's model of routing data through its users has some advantages, but the EULA also reveals problems you might not have considered.
For example, the free service doesn't just route network traffic, it may also cache information you've accessed on your hard drive. We're unsure how protected this might be, but it still means Hola could leave a level of browsing history on your drive which won't be removed by normal means.
The $5 (£3.85, AU$6.73) per month Hola Premium doesn't allow others to use your resources, but it may not be as cheap as it looks. The license covers you per platform only, so if you're looking to use multiple device types – a PC, a tablet, a phone – you'll need to pay once for each.
Hola's EULA also has an unusual clause stating that the service can't be used "if you are not the owner or approved administrator of the device on which you install the Software or otherwise use the Services."
As usual with these points, we're not sure how they would know if you didn't comply, but all this is something to bear in mind.
- Check out our round-up of the best VPN services on the market
Hola doesn't offer the same system-level PC network changes as other VPNs. Instead, on our test PC we either had to use Hola's own Chromium-based browser, or its Chrome or Opera browser extensions.
The end result is less about overall privacy, and more about unblocking specific websites. You might visit the site you'd like to use, then open the Hola extension, choose the flag of some other country, and try accessing the site again. This usually worked for us, but in the meantime other web software (or your browser, if you visit other sites) will use your normal IP address.
If the service doesn't work for you, Hola's high-level approach means it's vulnerable to conflicts with a lot of other software. The Hola FAQ suggests fixing problems by disabling "other VPN (Virtual Private Server), proxy software, or other software which might conflict with Hola e.g. IE tab, Avast WebRep, Flash Blocker, NoScript". Not exactly reassuring, or convenient.
As Hola works so differently we were unable to run our usual VPN speed tests. In general terms, we found download performance was usually impressive enough, but ranged from excellent to useless, presumably because there are so many routes your traffic can take.
If you have no budget, and just want to unblock specific sites, Hola's free account may still look appealing. But it also has major disadvantages, and with Hola Premium's price barely cheaper than some 'real' VPNs, it doesn't seem like a good deal to us.
- Here are the best free VPN services and links to download them