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Hotspot Shield Basic review

Unlimited data. No charge. But there's still a price to pay…

Hotspot Shield on a Laptop and Phones
(Image: © Hotspot Shield)

TechRadar Verdict

Unlimited data is a huge plus for Hotspot Shield's free plan, but the missing kill switch, ads, and apps lacking features are big disadvantages. For casual or emergency use only.

Pros

  • +

    Unlimited bandwidth

  • +

    Easy to use

  • +

    Decent speeds for a free plan

Cons

  • -

    Can only connect to one US location

  • -

    No kill switch

  • -

    Barely any features

  • -

    No live chat or email support

  • -

    Video ads on the mobile apps

Hotspot Shield is a popular and experienced VPN provider with an unusual free VPN plan, which has recently seen a very major update: the incredibly restrictive 500MB a month data limit has been dropped, and users now get unlimited traffic on all platforms.

There's a catch for mobile users: they must opt in to watch ads, annoying videos that (for instance) pop up when you close the connection. But Windows and Mac users get a better deal, as they can use the service ad-free.

It's not all good news. The free Hotspot Shield Basic plan only supports one connection (you can install it wherever you like, but only use one device at a time). Furthermore, the free apps can only connect to a single US location. There's no streaming mode to help you unblock streaming services, and there's no live chat or email support. If something doesn't work as it should, you'll have to browse Hotspot Shield's support site, and try to solve the issue yourself.

Hotspot Shield Basic Installation

Hotspot Shield Basic covers the, well, VPN basics, as the name suggests (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

This may not matter too much if you're looking for the VPN basics – just a simple way to encrypt your data on public Wi-Fi. But other providers are a little more generous.

Proton VPN's free plan also offers unlimited traffic, for instance, and limits users to a single connection, plus it doesn't support streaming. But users get three locations, there are no ads on any platforms, and support is on hand via email if you need it.

Hotspot Shield Privacy

Hotspot Shield's stance on privacy is generally laudable, but there are some caveats here (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

Privacy and logging

It's fair 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 way, as its free plan doesn't include a kill switch (a feature which 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 firm which wrote an article (opens in new tab) entitled '3 reasons why a VPN kill switch is not optional' that includes the line 'if your VPN doesn’t have a kill switch, then it’s almost as bad as not using a VPN at all.'

There's better news elsewhere. The company's Hydra protocol uses strong AES-256 encryption to shield your data from snoopers, for instance. And the privacy policy explains that the service doesn't log anything at all that you do online.

That's good to hear, but we'd like some evidence to verify Hotspot Shield's claims. TunnelBear has put itself through four independent audits (one a year) of its apps, servers, website, infrastructure and more. Never mind four audits, we'd be very happy if Hotspot Shield could manage just one.

Hotspot Shield Basic Mac App

The Mac app is highly streamlined – but overly so (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

Windows and Mac apps

(As we write this, Hotspot Shield's unlimited bandwidth Windows app hasn't yet been made available. We'll talk about the Mac app in this review, and add our thoughts on the Windows build when it's finally rolled out.)

If simplicity comes top of your VPN app priority list, then you're going to love Hotspot Shield's Mac release. The main app window is little more than 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's a sidebar with a few tabs, but even those mostly point you to pages on the Hotspot Shield site. A 'Manage' link takes you to an account dashboard, for instance, while a 'Support' link points to the website support center.

Connection times are short, typically two or three seconds, but there's one small irritation. Although Hotspot Shield's desktop apps don't display ads directly, they open a page on the Hotspot Shield website every time you hit Connect or Disconnect, which quickly becomes annoying.

Once you're connected, the app displays various panels with useful status information: your new IP address, server load, session length, the data you've transferred, and more. When you're done, tap Disconnect, the connection closes, and another Hotspot Shield web page opens with the helpful (ahem) message: 'you are now disconnected.'

The app's extreme lack of features is a problem, even for less technical users. If you can't connect successfully when using another VPN, for instance, you can at least try another location, or another protocol. Hotspot Shield gives you no options at all; you can't even ask support.

Still, if you can live with that (and the lack of a kill switch), there are plus points, too. The app is easy to use, speeds are reasonable, and although the auto-opening web pages are annoying, they're a small price to pay for unlimited data.

Hotspot Shield Basic iPad App

The iOS app may have a Settings section, but it disappoints, sadly (Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

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, too.

In this case, though, the apps are so very similar that there's very little to say. You get the same user-friendly, stripped-back interface. The location picker can safely be ignored, because the free plan only connects to the US. There's really nothing to do beyond tapping Connect when you're ready to use the app, Disconnect when you're done.

We got briefly excited when we saw a Settings option on the iOS app. Would this be crammed with unexpected and useful tools? No, just a choice of protocols: Hotspot Shield's custom Hydra, the standard IKEv2, or an Auto option which left the app to decide. That's better than nothing, and might help solve the occasional technical issue, but it's difficult to see why the option isn't available on Mac.

The main difference with the mobile apps isn't a technical one – it's that benefiting from unlimited data requires accepting video ads. We agreed, and when we hit Connect, the app would typically (though not always) play ads for other apps or services. These had audio and ran for around 30 seconds, with a 'Skip' option sometimes appearing after 5-10 seconds.

Hotspot Shield would argue that giving unlimited data, to everyone who wants it, forever, is expensive, and must be funded somehow. That's a fair point, and if you can live with occasional ads and a brief connection delay, this might not be an issue.

ProtonVPN's free plan also provides unlimited data, though, without ads or Hotspot Shield's overenthusiastic upselling. If you'd prefer a quieter life then we'd recommend giving ProtonVPN a try, too.

Speedtest.net performance benchmark

We put every VPN through its paces performance-wise (Image credit: Speedtest.net)

Performance

We run our standard VPN speed tests on a Windows 11 system, but as Hotspot Shield hasn't yet released its new Windows app, that's not possible.

Testing the previous version saw Hotspot Shield reach a decent 230Mbps, though. And running the new apps from a UK home saw them reach 60Mbps on a 70Mbps connection, which is all we would expect, and suggests they might deliver a lot more on a faster line.

We'll update this review with the results of our full speed tests once the Windows app is released. But, even now, we can see Hotspot Shield is likely to be fast enough for most tasks.

The free Hotspot Shield Basic plan doesn't include support for unblocking streaming sites, but other providers say the same, and sometimes still deliver one or two successes on this front. When we ran our unblocking tests, though, we found Hotspot Shield wasn't one of that group: it failed to unblock US Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Disney Plus.

This is the point in the review where we'd normally tell you about a provider's support, and what happened when we sent it a test question. But that isn't possible here, because Hotspot Shield Basic doesn't include any support beyond the website.

We checked the Support Center (opens in new tab) and found plenty of articles. These targeted users of the paid plans, but didn't always make this clear (one Android guide showed how to choose a VPN location, but failed to mention that this wasn't possible with the free service). They did a fair job of explaining the most important issues, though – how to install, failures to connect, account problems – and there's a good chance that you'll find the troubleshooting advice you need.

Final verdict

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 might use it anyway, but only as an emergency backup for something else.

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Mike Williams
Lead security reviewer

Mike is a lead security reviewer at Future, where he stress-tests VPNs, antivirus and more to find out which services are sure to keep you safe, and which are best avoided. Mike began his career as a lead software developer in the engineering world, where his creations were used by big-name companies from Rolls Royce to British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace. The early PC viruses caught Mike's attention, and he developed an interest in analyzing malware, and learning the low-level technical details of how Windows and network security work under the hood.