Hotspot Shield Elite review

AnchorFree HotSpot Shield makes the process of setting up a VPN on a computer as easy as just downloading a file and installing it. With the service designed to automatically assign an IP address and handle DNS queries, there's nothing left to do but surf the Web, securely.
Photo of Hotspot Shield Elite

AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield (from $4.99 per month) brings VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology to the general user. While there are plenty of VPN options available for small and mid-sized businesses to protect their employees on-the-go, Hotspot Shield is geared towards providing similar security for non-work purposes. Like Private WiFi from Private Communications, VyprVPN from Golden Frog, and TorVPN, AnchorFree offers VPN-as-a-service to users who are interested in protecting some of their activities online. Hotspot Shield Elite  is easy to use, and like several other VPN services on the market, may actually speed up customer connections based on which servers you are connecting it to. Whether you are using the free Hotspot Shield software or the paid Hotspot Shield Elite, you can count on getting secure connectivity from a very user-friendly interface.

That’s not to say that Hotspot Shield and Hotspot Shield Elite are only for privacy-conscious individuals. Businesses with employees who travel may want to equip their road warriors’ laptops with either version of Hotspot Shield for connecting their work computers on open hotspot in a coffeeshops, airports, and so on, where convenient connectivity does not equal safe connectivity.

The Hotspot Shield software encrypts all Internet activity from the PC and routes the packets through AnchorFree’s servers. When Hotspot Shield is turned on, AnchorFree assigns the computer an IP address belonging to its network. When a website tries to look up the user’s IP address or geographic location, it receives information about AnchorFree’s servers, instead. All network data sent and received is encrypted, making it difficult for anyone trying to ferret out information about your online activity. Turning on Hotspot Shield allows users to surf vanilla-HTTP Websites as if they are actually HTTPS-secured sites.

Features
For both paid and unpaid versions, Hotspot Shield has two states—on and off. When it’s on, all traffic goes through AnchorFree servers and everything is encrypted. When off, it’s online browsing as usual. It’s pretty easy to tell by looking at the connection icon in the system tray or on the top of the browser whether the VPN protection is active or not.

Hotspot Shield can also warn users whenever they land on a known or suspected malicious website (as determined by AnchorFree’s database of more than 3.5 million malicious sites). Users are also prompted whenever they connect to an unknown wireless network to turn on Hotspot Shield. I was able to configure the tool to skip the notifications altogether and automatically activate Hotspot Shield on unknown networks.

Hotspot Shield is available in two flavors, free and Elite. The free version displays ads to the user while it is turned on, while Elite is ad-free. AnchorFree has several plans available for Elite, including $4.99 a month, $29.95 a year, or “pay-as-you-go” packs of 20 days for $10. Users can pay by one of the many options, including credit card, PayPal, prepaid cards, and mobile phone payments using premium SMS. This review looks at both versions, but the rating is based on Hotspot Shield Elite.

I didn’t notice any differences between the free and Elite versions except for the advertisements. On the free version, every single time I activated Hotspot Shield to begin my VPN session, the tool would open a new browser window to open a start page with ads and a video automatically playing. While it makes sense to support the free version of the tool with ads, the method used felt overly intrusive and irritating. I was annoyed enough that paying $29.95 a year for Elite sounded appealing. The software also comes with an optional browser toolbar to display a 720 pixel x 98 pixel ad. The ads were shown only when Hotspot Shield was active.

Getting Started
The first thing I saw after launching the installation executable was the option to install the Hotspot Shield toolbar. I was very pleased to see that AnchorFree has turned the toolbar option off by default. I don’t like having my browsing space reduced with toolbars (which is especially important when working on smaller screens), so the fact that AnchorFree didn’t try to push it on me was a big plus, especially since it meant the company was giving up ad real estate.

During installation, Hotspot Shield installs a plugin for Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, Hotspot Shield Class and Hotspot Shield Helper 1.0, to handle the VPN activity for those two browsers. I didn’t find any extensions installed for Google’s Chrome Web browser. The installation process installed three services, the Hotspot Shield Monitoring Service, Routing Service, and Tray Service. Hotspot Shield created three icons during installation: one in the system tray, one on the desktop, and one on the top bar of each browser installed on the machine.

I was a little surprised to see Hotspot Shield modify the browsers this way. It seemed intrusive that a browser plugin could stick an icon anywhere it wanted. It’s a great idea and the perfect placement, but the idea of one app modifying another without asking left me…a little squeamish.

I was also irritated when I uninstalled Hotspot Shield and found that my browser settings, such as my Home page, reverted to default. My Home on IE and Mozilla changed to msn.com and Mozilla’s version of Google search, respectively, instead of the pages I had set. It’s a minor quibble, but it was yet another example of Hotspot Shield mucking around my Web browser that left a sour taste in my mouth.

Ready, Set, VPN!
Once installed, Hotspot Shield appeared as a green shield icon in my system tray and on the top of the browser, next to the minimize buttons, to show that it was active. When Hotspot Shield is not active, the shield is red. The shield looks oddly out of place when the top of the browser is transparent, as happens when the Windows 7 desktop is set to an Aero theme.

Clicking on the Hotspot Shield icon toggles opens up a 533×400 pixel window showing status of the connection, “Protected” or “Unprotected,” along with information about the number of packets received and sent. Even though Hotspot Shield doesn’t impose any bandwidth restrictions onto users, if you have a data cap, the information on this panel would be useful.

Clicking on the Properties option on the bottom of the Hotspot Shield window opened up options controlling whether or not to display shield icon on the browser’s top bar, to start automatically when the machine is booting up, the default language, and what to do when connected to an unknown wireless network.

Once Hotspot Shield is active, there’s no change in browsing. The websites see an AnchorFree IP address, and all Domain Name System (DNS) queries are handled by AnchorFree servers.

Advertisements appear only on the free version of the software. For example, an ad for the Elite version is shown on the bottom half of the Hotspot Shield window that appears on the free tool.

Aggressive Advertising?
As I said earlier, every single time the free version of Hotspot Shield was turned on, it opened a new page to AnchorFree.com and auto-played a video. AnchorFree also injected a “Connect” ad linking back to http://hotspotshield.com/connected/ onto Webpages I browsed to. While this behavior is listed as part of the Terms and Conditions, I was unhappy to see HTML on third-party sites modified to include these ads. 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.

I turned on network monitoring tool Wireshark to confirm the packets being sent and received were encrypted. When testing the free version, I found that Hotspot Shield was receiving a tracking pixel and the address of the site the ad was being displayed on was being sent back to rpt.anchorfree.com. According to AnchorFree, the tracking pixel is used to minimize the number of ads displayed to the user during a session. The URL addresses sent back to the servers do not identify a user. “AnchorFree only uses the automatically collected information in the aggregate for various purposes,” the company told me.

Neither the ads nor the tracking pixel appear on the Elite version.

Impact on Connection Speed
I often disconnect from my work VPN whenever I want to view streaming video or listen to music because the speeds are a bit slower. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice any bad lag with Hotspot Shield and was able to watch videos on YouTube, catch a live Webcast on UStream, and listen to music on Pandora. In some rare instances, Hotspot Shield seemed to speed up the connection, but overall there was a noticeable delay in how fast pages loaded.

To measure speed, I used the speed tests available on SpeedTest.net and DSLReports.com. The tests are designed to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to servers in different cities. I ran the test on a total of eight different cities with the VPN connection turned off, and again when turned on. I repeated the test twice and picked the best measurements.

Looking at the ping speeds, it’s pretty clear that no one should be using Hotspot Shield for online gaming or for VoIP applications. While I noticed some pages take a longer time to load, it was not always the case. For some scenarios, the speeds actually improved. If your network is particularly poky, it may be worth trying out AnchorFree to get that speed boost.

This is how the service stacks up compared to other paid VPN services.

Shield Your Hotspot
AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield does the job it is designed to, which is encrypting all traffic and keeping users on public wireless hotspots secure. I saw claims on various user forums that people living in countries with strict censorship rules use AnchorFree to bypass the filters and access blocked sites.

Having Hotspot Shield active doesn’t automatically mean your connection speed will improve. In some cases, it will degrade. If you are on an intolerably slow wireless network, connecting to AnchorFree’s servers may just speed things up.

The free version of Hotspot Shield’s ad-delivery mechanism and how it affects Web browsers tempered my enthusiasm for the service a bit. To be fair, the advertisements on the free version accomplish what they are supposed to do: provide the service while making the paid version look more appealing. The ads make the experience just annoying enough that users are willing to upgrade to Elite. If the idea of random ads being injected into a Website bothers you, I suggest shelling out for the paid version. If you are going to pay, though, it may be worth just shelling out for our Editor’s Choice, Norton Hotspot Privacy. If you are willing to deal with the ads, the free version may be a tolerable option, or you can check out our two Editor’s Choices for free VPN services, the free version of CyberGhost VPN or VPNBook, the VPN service that doesn’t require a separate software download.

Specifications
Tech Support FAQ and 24/7 customer support line.
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7

Verdict
AnchorFree HotSpot Shield makes it easy for users to take advantage of VPN technology to surf online privately and securely, especially when they are connected to an open wireless hotspot. It's a useful tool to have if you spend a lot of time on public Wi-Fi networks.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc