Review: Consider VPN services for hotspot protection

We review 7 low-cost VPN services for when you’re out of the office or out of the country.

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Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield is powered by AnchorFree. They offer a free service with limited features and functionality, and then a paid service, called the Elite version. After downloading the free version, you’re given a two-day free trial, but can be extended by inviting others. The shortest subscription length for the Elite version is $12.99 per month; you can also subscribe for six months for $8.99 per month or one year for $5.99 per month, supporting up to five devices. There is also a $109.99 "lifetime" subscription.The business pricing starts at $19.95 per month for up to 20 devices. In addition to the usual credit cards, they accept PayPal payments.

Although the free version of Hotspot Shield can be useful, it has some limitations. The Elite edition removes the ADs you see and enables access to all virtual locations, provides increased speeds, supports unlimited bandwidth usage, gives you additional malware protection, and offers better support.

We evaluated version 5.0.2 of the Hotspot Shield Windows application. It includes a notification icon in the system tray of Windows, which is red when not connected to the VPN service and green when connected. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect, or to access the Properties. A normal left click on the icon shows the application.

The application consists of a small window that pops up in the lower-right of the screen. The top circle button serves as a connect/discount button, and when connected, shows the elapsed connection time. Below that you can click the location to see a list of the available VPN locations and easily switch between them. Below that you’ll also see the SSID (network name) of the Wi-Fi you’re currently connected to. Then you’ll see a gallery of icons, also serving as shortcuts, for common sites and services.

In the upper-left of the Windows application is the menu button, which includes shortcuts to your account, settings, and help. The settings include the ability to toggle the unsafe network notifications and auto-connect functionality on or off. The help shortcut takes you to their web-based documentation, which we found quite thorough.

We evaluated version 4.0.5 of the Hotspot Shield Android app. The connection status is always displayed via an icon in the status bar of Android and you can tap the status from the notification list to access the app. The look and feel of the app is very similar to the PC application. However, the listing of apps in the bottom portion of the screen has a different meaning than that from the Windows application. In Android, it serves as a list of the apps that will automatically connect you to the Hotspot Shield service when you open them. You can edit that app list by tapping the Add apps button.

In the upper-left of the Android app is the menu button, which brings up shortcuts to your account, settings, and help, similar to those in the Windows application. Notable settings include the ability to select the network types it should auto connect to the VPN for and the ability for it to turn off the VPN while the device is in sleep mode.

There’s two unique features of the Hotspot Shield service that you actually may never see, but work in the background. The data compression feature helps reduce the amount of real data consumption, which may allow you to download as much as double the content for the same bandwidth cost. The malware protection alerts you of any web pages you visit that are detected as unsafe, along with a screen shot of that particular webpage. However, you can ignore the warning and continue onto the webpage if desired.

NordVPN

NordVPN provides a three-day free trial upon emailing them. Pricing starts at $11.95 per month, $42 every six months, or $69 per year with a 30-day money back guarantee. There’s no specific business plans or pricing. In addition to standard credit cards, they accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and Paymentwall.

We evaluated version 5.53 of the NordVPN Windows application. Like the other services, there’s a notification icon in the system tray of Windows, which is red when not connected to the VPN service and green when connected. However, you can’t right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect. To connect you must open the application, select the desired connection protocol (TCP or UDP) and server location, and click Connect.

On the application, the servers are first listed based upon their intended usage: double VPN, Tor over VPN, Ultra Fast TV, Anti DDoS, and Dedicated IP servers. Then below those, you’ll find the standard servers listed. Hovering over the servers shows a small pop-up with the logos of the most popular services supported by that particular server. To help identify the performance you’d see across the different servers, you can refer to the bar graph with percentages showing the server load and the ping times in milliseconds (ms) from your computer or device.

You can configure program and connection properties by clicking the Settings button in the upper-right corner of the application. This includes the ability to set the DNS servers, default connection protocol, proxy server, and auto-connect settings. You can also add programs and processes to the Process Kill List, if you’d like any to automatically close if the VPN connection is lost.

In the upper-right corner of the application, you’ll also find a Help button, which takes you to some shortcuts for help and troubleshooting. We didn’t find any formal manual discussing each of the settings and features of the Windows application, but their FAQ covers some items.

When you’re connected to a VPN, the application will display your username, number of devices currently logged on, expiration date of your subscription, and VPN server info along with your current IP.

Keep in mind, although NordVPN offers a specific client app for iOS devices and Mac OS X computers, there’s currently none offered for Android or Windows Phone devices and Linux machines. You can still utilize the native VPN client of each OS by manually configuring the connection by referring to their tutorials and server map and list. Alternatively, you can utilize the third-party OpenVPN client app on Android, Linux, and other operating systems, and then download the configuration files for NordVPN servers to make the configuration process easier.

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