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" which routes your traffic through other user's computers, rather than its own servers. In theory this can improve anonymity and make it more difficult for Hola to be detected and blocked.
- Want to try Hola? Check out the website here
The service doesn't work as a system-level VPN, either, and can't protect all your device traffic. It installs as a browser or a browser add-on, and is mostly for unblocking websites which you wouldn't normally be able to reach.
Hola does have some major plus points. In particular, it's entirely free for non-commercial use, with no bandwidth or data caps – you can just install it and go.
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.
You can get around this by upgrading to the $5 (£4) per month Hola Premium, giving access to the service without having to contribute your own bandwidth, but there are still issues to consider.
Most VPNs route your traffic through their own servers and network, providing at least the possibility that they can log what you're doing. Hola's model of routing data through its users might seem a better way to protect your privacy, but it's not quite that simple.
Here's an interesting section from Hola's security and privacy FAQ.
"Hola’s architecture allows Hola to see the origin and destination of each request, thus if our network was abused, the abuser's information may be passed on to the authorities. This makes Hola unattractive to abusers. Some VPN networks... don't see both ends of the connection, and are therefore much more attractive for these uses."
The company is pointing out that it can trace every request on the network, its source and destination, in a way that isn't always possible with regular VPNs.
Data recorded includes 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.
“We do not make any efforts to reveal your identity through this information. We may also collect information that will help us understand whether your device is used at a given moment so that we will not send it any requests.”
This information isn't linked to an account, and the company says it doesn't try to make the link, but it's still a lot of data. And there's more. Hola maintains server logs, too, and this is what they include:
"Log Data may include information about your device such as: your IP address, browser type, webpages you visit, time spent on those pages, access times and dates, and the unique identifier generated for your device (if you use the Services from your mobile device then such an identifier may be your mobile number). We use such data in its aggregated form and is not combined with any Personal Information."
Again, the company is saying that data is "aggregated" and "not combined with any personal information". But it also says that data could include something which directly relates to you, in your mobile number, which suggests connecting at least some information to people might not be very difficult.
How much does any of this really matter? If you're not doing anything online that might provoke someone to try and track you down, then it probably won't affect you at all. But if anonymity is your top priority and you're looking to reduce even the possibility of monitoring, Hola's logging policies should be a concern.
Hola doesn't offer the same system-level network support as other VPNs. Instead of installing a client which redirects all traffic through the encrypted tunnel, you must either install Hola's own Chromium-based browser, or use its Chrome or Firefox browser extensions.
We took the custom browser option, installing it in a few seconds on our test Windows system.
Hola added an icon to our system tray, and we were able to launch its browser with a click. The opening page listed some popular sites – Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, iPlayer – which it could unblock immediately.
To test this we selected Comedy Central, the browser automatically switched our location to the United States (we were testing from the UK) and the website appeared. Trying to stream video to the UK would normally get us a "not available from your location" error, but with Hola installed we had no problems at all.
You can also take full manual control of your location, much as with a regular VPN. Click a button on your taskbar, choose a new country from a very lengthy list and that becomes your new virtual location for future browsing.
While the service worked well for us, Hola's FAQ suggests it's vulnerable to conflicts with a lot of other software. The Troubleshooting guide recommends that if there are problems you should try to disable other browser extensions, clear your cache, uninstall and reinstall, or disable "other VPS (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. Our browsing performance was usually impressive, though, and we were able to stream HD video without any issues. Hola can't offer any speed guarantees as there are so many routes your traffic can take, but overall we think you're unlikely to have significant performance problems.
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If you're just looking for a quick and easy way to unblock websites, Hola's free account is hard to beat. But the service can't do much else, the logging policies are a concern, and with Hola Premium's price barely cheaper than some 'real' VPNs, it doesn't seem like a good deal to us.