Buy a VPN service and you'll probably expect access to some carefully managed network of high-powered servers, smartly linked via highly secure protocols to block all unauthorized 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". You'll get to choose a destination country from a list of 33 options, but Hola routes your traffic through other user's computers, rather than its own network.
- Want to try Hola? Check out the website here
This gives all kinds of scope for performance issues, but there are some possible benefits. For example, as your traffic will always be taking different routes, depending on the available systems, it should make it more difficult for the service to be detected and blocked.
Hola's browser extensions are entirely free for non-commercial use, too, with no bandwidth or data caps, which isn't something you'll get elsewhere.
One obvious concern about the free edition is that although you get to use the bandwidth of other Hola nodes, they can also use yours. But Hola points out that its demands are low, with the average daily traffic being "less than a 20 second YouTube clip".
Additionally, Hola only uses a system as a peer if it's completely idle and not running on battery power, ensuring it shouldn't make any noticeable difference to the operation of your device.
There’s still scope for problems with Hola Free. If your system becomes the exit node for another Hola user who's hacking, sending spam or downloading something illegal, for instance, your IP address may be recorded as the offender.
Uncomfortable with that? Then you might want to upgrade to Hola VPN Plus (the product formerly known as Hola Premium.) The service supports Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices, and can be set up to run on routers, gaming consoles, smart TVs and more. It unblocks a few more sites, including Netflix. VPN Plus allows you to connect up to ten of these devices simultaneously, and as you're a paying customer, no-one else will be able to use your bandwidth.
Although this pricing scheme beats some top VPN providers (ExpressVPN, HideMyAss, IPVanish), others are significantly cheaper. CyberGhost, NordVPN, Surfshark and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited all have deals available for under $3 a month, for instance, and these get you full-strength VPNs with far more privacy-related power than Hola's system.
Privacy and logging
Point your browser at the Hola website and you'll see a headline explaining that it can 'unblock any website', giving you access to content you wouldn't be able to view normally. This automatically gives you a little extra privacy, by replacing your IP address, but you don't get very much more.
Hola's website doesn't tell you anything detailed about its encryption, but the Windows client enables configuring every aspect of how your traffic is protected (encryption method, integrity check, ESP cipher transform, DH group, AH transform, PFS group.) You probably won't want to change any of these, unless you're a security expert, but the rest of us can at least see the default setting is the industry-standard AES256-encryption.
Logging is another common privacy concern. Here's an interesting section from Hola's FAQ:
"Hola VPN regularly monitors the consumer network for traces of misuse or security breaches. In addition, architecture modifications allow Hola VPN to see the origin of each request, thus if a cybercriminal were to use the Hola VPN network, the cybercriminal’s information may be passed on to the authorities. This makes Hola VPN un-attractive to abusers. Some VPN networks don't see both ends of the connection, and are therefore much more attractive for these uses."
The company says it monitors what users are doing on the network, to some degree, and that it can track back to identify the origin of any request it considers as 'misuse' or part of a 'security breach.' This is great for catching hackers, but it also requires more monitoring and logging than you'll see with standard VPNs.
For instance, in the past Hola admitted to recording your “approximate geo-location, hardware specifications, browser type and version, the date of the Software installation, the date of your last use of the Services, your operating system type, version and language, registry entries, your URL requests, and respective time stamps.”
Put this all together and we think it's safe to assume that Hola can log much more information about you and your activities than most VPNs. The company can resolve this by having its systems publicly audited to confirm exactly what's going on, as providers such as TunnelBear and VyprVPN have done. But until then, if anonymity is your top priority and you're looking to reduce even the possibility of monitoring, Hola's privacy-related vagueness must be a concern.
Hola's Chromium-based Windows app opened with a simple location picker, allowing us to connect to the US, or browse all 42 countries. This is just a basic menu with a list of countries, and has no city-level locations, no server load or ping times, and no Favorites system to save your most commonly used servers.
The app doesn't use desktop notifications to tell you when you've connected or disconnected. The system tray icon updates to show the flag of your current connection, though, and if you open the app window, you're also able to view your new IP address.
There are only three groups of settings, but they're all valuable. An Auto Connect feature automatically connects you to a specific location when Hola starts; an App Kill Switch reduces the chance of identity leaks by killing specified apps if the VPN connection drops; and as we mentioned above, a Security panel gives experts fine-tuned control over Hola's encryption methods.
The mobile apps work a little differently. Android's Hola VPN Proxy Plus acts as a launcher for websites and your installed apps, and allows you to specify the location you'd like them to use. You could launch Chrome with a US location, for instance, optionally changing your mobile device GPS location to match.
These are easy to use for even the VPN newbie, but Hola lacks many of the options and features you'll often get with the best of the competition. You can't mark locations as Favorites, for instance. There's no system-wide kill switch, you can't change or tweak your protocol, and there's no auto-connect option to protect you on untrusted networks. Hola's target consumer audience won't care very much, but if you've used other VPNs, you might find Hola a little underpowered.
Hola's user-based traffic routing means you could run into all kinds of performance issues, but that doesn't mean it's always slow. We checked the download speeds of our nearest UK location with SpeedTest and Fast.com, and the 55-60Mbps results were better than some regular VPNs.
European results weren't exactly consistent - the same locations might give us anything from 35-68Mbps - but even the slowest speeds were good enough for most situations.
Connecting to the US saw our top speed drop to around 45Mbps, while the lowest figure we recorded was a miserable 13Mbps. Average performance was closer to the high end of the range than the bottom, though, and we were able to stream HD video without interruptions.
Performance was mixed as we headed further afield, but remained usable, with for instance Indonesia averaging 30Mbps, but Argentina giving us 12Mbps. This can't compete with the top VPNs, but there's enough speed here for most situations.
It's not the fastest VPN, or the most feature-packed, or privacy-conscious, but Hola does at least promise it allows you to 'access any website.' Is that really true, though?
We logged into the UK server, tried accessing BBC iPlayer, and, sure enough, the service failed to spot what we were doing and allowed us to stream content.
The US server was just as effective, giving us instant access to US-only Netflix and YouTube content. (Netflix isn't included.)
The website claims it can give you access to many other popular streaming, news, social media and other websites, too, even if they're blocked in your current location. These include everything from MTV and Hulu to Pandora and PirateBay. The full list is here and sites which are only unblocked by the paid Hola product are marked 'Plus'.
Hola's support site is probably the simplest we've seen from any VPN provider, effectively a very long web page with a tree-based navigator in a left-hand sidebar.
The company somehow still manages to squeeze in more topics and answers than you would expect, but they're generally very basic, lacking in depth, and sometimes presented in a very confusing way.
For example, one answer recommends launching task manager by clicking Start > Control Panel > System and Security > Administrative Tools > System Configuration > Startup > Task Manager, which it would be much easier to just press Ctrl+Left Shift+Esc or right-click the taskbar and choose Task Manager. It sometimes feels like the authors have tried to answer the questions, but no-one has tried them out to see if they make sense.
If you can't find the answers you need in the FAQ, you can ask for help via email. This can't compete with the live chat you'll get from top providers like ExpressVPN, but that's perhaps where Hola's lack of functionality wins out: with so few features, there's really very little to go wrong.
Hola Plus has worthwhile improvements on the free service, including the ability to unblock Netflix and Hulu, protect your entire system, and be set up manually on multiple devices. But it struggles to compete against the top VPNs, which give you all the same, and more, often for a lower price.
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