If you’ve ever used an unsecured Wi-Fi network (and you know you have), you unwittingly exposed your information to crooks and spies. That’s why virtual private networks, or VPNs, like AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield Elite, are so important. This VPN service is exceptionally easy to use, and even offers a lifetime subscription for devotees. It is, however, high in price and low on features compared with the competition. It still receives a good score, but those in search of a robust and friendly iPhone VPN service should consider NordVPN or KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, our top all-around favorite, feature-rich VPNs.
What Is a VPN?
When you connect to the internet through with a VPN, it encrypts all internet activity from your PC and routes the packets through the company’s servers. Anyone on your network watching your traffic or trying to serve you bogus websites won’t be able to break into that encrypted tunnel. That’s great, especially if you find yourself using the shifty, unsecured Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop.
Because your internet traffic appears to be coming from the VPN company’s servers, your computer in turn appears to have the IP address of that server. That means websites, advertisers, and snoopers will have a harder time tracking your movements across the web and discerning your actual location.
While using a VPN is a wise choice for securing important activities, such as online banking transactions, VPNs are essential for accessing the internet while traveling, or any time you use a public Wi-Fi network. On a larger scale, people living in countries with highly restrictive control over internet access can circumvent that control with a VPN. This technology has long been a key tool of activists and journalists.
For some people, VPNs are also a means to access region-locked content. By connecting from the US to a VPN server in the UK, for example, you could watch BBC shows for free instead of paying for BBC America. Note that Netflix is fighting back against this kind of cheating, as are other services. Note that using a VPN these ways might break terms of service—or even local laws.
It’s important to know what a VPN can and can’t do, however. Once your traffic leaves the VPN’s server, it’s only protected if the site you’re visiting uses a secure HTTPS connection. If you connect to websites or services that don’t encrypt traffic via HTTPS, your network traffic could be subject to interception.
Features and Pricing
Hotspot Shield Elite has several pricing tiers ranging from one month for $12.99 to a much higher one-time payment of $119.99 per lifetime. That puts it on the more expensive end of the spectrum for monthly VPN subscriptions. Only one other VPN service offers a similar “forever” subscription, however, and that’s Editors’ Choice winner KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone), which charges $149.99 for its undying subscription. If one month is too short but you’re not willing to commit to one VPN until death do you part, you can snag a six-month Hotspot Shield subscription for $29.99, or a one-year subscription for $40.
A Hotspot Shield subscription lets you install protection on five devices, with the option to add more at a pro-rated price. CyberGhost VPN (for iPhone) costs a dollar less per month and offers seven devices, by default.
If none of those plans fit your wallet, you might consider using a free VPN, such as the one provided by AnchorFree. Note that the free version of HotSpot Shield only allows access to servers in the US. On the iPhone, there’s no limit to the bandwidth you can use, but other platforms have limits. PC and Mac users get 1GB per day, and Android users have 300MB per day. AnchorFree also uses Android resources to deliver occasional interstitial ads, although it does so without compromising the security of your data.
Elite members get just 25 countries worldwide to choose from for, with some 2,500 servers in total. That’s a lot of servers, but we like to see them more widely distributed. Hotspot Shield has servers in Asia, Central America, Europe, North America, and South America. It also maintains servers in areas with restrictive internet access policies, including China, Russia, and Turkey. Unfortunately, Hotspot Shield customers looking for servers in the Middle East or Africa will be disappointed. NordVPN (for iPhone) has hundreds of locations available and Private Internet Access boasts well over 3,000 servers across the globe.
In addition to securing your traffic, Hotspot Shield can also warn users whenever they land on a known phishing websites or sites that host malware (as determined by developer AnchorFree’s database of more than 3.5 million malicious sites). This kind of protection is rare among VPN services. We did not evaluate Hotspot’s malware defenses for this review. Previously, we found that it correctly blocked the AMTSO phishing protection test page. This time around, it let that page through.
VPN apps for iPhone tend to stick with one protocol, or offer a choice of two, typically IPSec and the newer IKEv2. We prefer the open-source OpenVPN, but Apple makes apps that use OpenVPN jump through extra hoops for approval. Of the iPhone VPNs we’ve evaluated, only VPN Unlimited uses OpenVPN. On other platforms, Hotspot Shield exclusively uses its own proprietary protocol, brashly named Catapult Hydra. Under iOS, Hotspot Shield relies on the dependable IPSec protocol.
Hotspot Shield does offer VPN plugins for Chrome and Firefox, at no charge. Note, though, that these protect only the browser, not any other internet-aware applications. And they’re decidedly more useful on the desktop than on a mobile device.
Hotspot Shield and Privacy
As VPNs become an increasingly popular tool to help secure your privacy online, more attention is turning to what VPN companies are doing to protect your privacy. After all, these companies could monitor your activity as much as ISPs already do.
In previous versions, Hotspot Shield injected an ad into webpages, an ad linking back to its own domain. Considering how attackers inject code into websites to trick users into visiting malicious portals, we don’t think legitimate software should ever engage in this practice. Thankfully, AnchorFree confirms that it no longer injects ads into websites—nor do any of the other services in our recent experience. The only time you see ads with AnchorFree is if you use the free service on the company’s Android app.
While the company no longer injects ads in the paid edition, it still embraces some troubling monetization practices, among them selling anonymized aggregate user data and tracking user activity more closely than most. On the plus side, it maintains its offices in the US and Switzerland, countries that do not have data retention laws applying to VPN services. For a full explanation of our thoughts on AnchorFree’s privacy policies, please see our review of the full AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite.
Hands On With Hotspot Shield
The Hotspot Shield app installed quickly on the Apple iPhone 7 we used for testing. We had a bit of trouble at first, as it seemed the only options were to use the free edition or buy a subscription. Eventually we found the right spot to enter our existing credentials for the service.
A simple pull-down menu displays the 25 countries in which AnchorFree maintains servers. Selecting a country highlights it in the map that occupies the bottom of the app’s main window. However, this map is just a static display, nothing like the interactive map displayed by NordVPN and TunnelBear VPN (for iPhone).
Settings for this app are absolutely minimal. It doesn’t include the Windows edition’s ability to automatically use the VPN when connected to an unsafe network. In fact, the few settings that exist are unrelated to VPN functionality. You can control whether the app sends you security notifications, re-enable the VPN profile if it’s somehow damaged, and view your account details. That’s about it.
A few iOS VPNs can strip out ads from the webpages coming to your browser, which also limits the amount of data going to your device and effectively speeds up your connection. KeepSolid VPN Ultimate and TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) are among those that do so; not Hotspot Shield
Those using an iPhone might consider adding the free 1Blocker (for iPhone). It’s our Editors’ Choice for iOS ad blocking.
Using a VPN often means being unable to access Netflix, even if you’re connected to a VPN server within the US. The streaming company has been very aggressive about cracking down on people spoofing their location to access Netflix content that isn’t available in a particular geographic market. In earlier testing Hotspot Shield worked with Netflix; this time around Netflix blocked our streaming attempts. This is a typical experience when we test which VPNs work with Netflix.
VPN Speed Impact
VPNs necessarily add extra distance to the path your web traffic must traverse, and that distance usually has a negative effect on your browsing experience. To get a feel for the impact of using a VPN, we perform a series of tests using the Ookla SpeedTest website (Note that PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis, owns Ookla as well.) To limit the random effects of cellular network availability, we turn on airplane mode and then enable Wi-Fi. We average multiple test runs with the VPN disconnected, then connect it to a nearby server and average a new round of tests. The percentage difference between the two averages gives us an idea of the VPN’s impact on network speed.
Do note that even without adding a VPN, network connectivity speed can vary. Our tests reveal the VPN’s effect at a moment in time. You may have a different experience.
Hotspot Shield turned in some amazing scores in our speed tests. Rather than slowing downloads, it sped them up by 76.1 percent. Uploads went 4.3 percent faster. No other current product has increased upload and download speeds. CyberGhost is in second place for downloads, slowing them by just 9.5 percent. PureVPN (for iPhone) slowed uploads by just 2.4 percent.
Some have significantly slowed the process. Under TorGuard, for example, downloads went 59.7 percent slower. With Private Internet Access on the job, uploads went 8.5 percent slower, the lowest score in the upload speed test.
Latency refers to the time it takes for your device to ping another compute across the internet and get back a response. Unless you’re engaged in fast-paced gaming, a little drag on latency is no problem. With a 17.1 percent increase in latency, Hotspot Shield didn’t take the top score. That honor goes to CyberGhost, which only raised latency by 3.7 percent. Hide My Ass VPN (for iPhone) is next, increasing latency by 16.9 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, TorGuard increased latency by 193.8 percent.
Asked how these results are even possible, our contact at the company explained, “What we’ve developed with millions in R&D the last few years is a best in class data transport protocol that has massively flexible anti-censorship as its first goal and a fantastic secondary advantage of large performance increases.” He mentioned factors such as opening multiple channels to servers and ignoring “certain rules the internet sets for itself” regarding successful transfer of data packets.
A So-So Shield
Hotspot Shield Elite on the iPhone wowed us with excellent speed test scores, though it lacks the advanced features enjoyed by Windows users. Its appearance matches the modern aesthetic of the Windows version, formatted for the mobile platform. Hotspot Shield does have the ability to keep your iPhone from visiting malicious or fraudulent websites, an uncommon feature. Still, it costs more than most and offers servers in fewer countries than many. We continue to recommend iOS VPN Editors’ Choice winners NordVPN and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.