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Contributing Writer

Review: Consider VPN services for hotspot protection

Mar 14, 201624 mins

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

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Credit: Illus_man/Shutterstock

Virtual private networks have many uses. Typically, businesses deploy VPNs so employees can securely access the corporate network from outside the office. However, we've seen a rise in third-party VPN services that use the same underlying technology, the encrypted tunnel, to simply provide a secure Internet connection.

Why would you ever need to do this?

When connected to a VPN service, the websites you access think you're at the location where the VPN server is located. This can help anonymize your Internet traffic so it's much harder for websites to track your personal browsing history.

This also allows you to access websites, services, and content that's restricted where you are currently located, such as Netflix or Hulu when traveling overseas.

Additionally, your Internet traffic would be encrypted when you're on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, such as public hotspots. This prevents local eavesdroppers from capturing your browsing history and logins.

We evaluated seven third-party VPN services you could utilize for anonymizing your Internet activity, accessing geographic-restricted services, or securing your Wi-Fi hotspot connections.

Net results

 Avast SecureLineF-Secure Freedome VPNHMA! Pro VPNHotspot ShieldNordVPNStrongVPNSurfEasy
Free EditionNoNoNoYesNoNoYes
Monthly Price$7.99N/A$11.52N/A$8.00$7.95$2.99
Biannual Price  $49.99$19.99$30$40.00 
Yearly Price$59.99$49.99$78.66$29.95$48$75.00$29.88
ProsFlexible auto connect settings on AndroidAnti-tracking features. App security for AndroidFeature-rich. Flexible VPN optionsData compression. Malware protectionSupports up to 6 simultaneous devicesFlexible VPN configurationAuto connect on unsecured Wi-Fi
ConsComplex licensing and pricingAuto connect setting lackingAndroid app could be improvedUnable to pick exact server locationLacks Android and Linux appComplex licensing and pricingUnable to pick exact server location
  • If you're looking for a free service/low cost option, consider SurfEasy or Hotspot Shield. Both offer a free edition of some sorts, but each is quite limited in functionality. Even their premium services are less expensive than others in this test. Both services provide an auto connect feature on their clients to auto-connect the VPN when on unsecure Wi-Fi hotspots, but both also limit you to choosing only the country of the desired server location instead of the city.
  • If you're an IT pro or security enthusiast, take a look at HMA! Pro VPN, NordVPN, or StrongVPN. These provide some custom client apps, but also allow you to connect from third-party clients as well, even routers to secure an entire network with a VPN. However, these are also the three most expensive of the services we reviewed.
  • If you're an Avast antivirus fan, check out their SecureLine VPN service. Though its licensing and pricing get complicated when you want access on more than one device, their service is simple and easy to use once you're signed up. The Android client also has highly customizable auto-connect functionality.
  • Finally, if you're looking for VPN service for a business, take a look at the business services offered by Hotspot Shield or Freedome.

Here are the individual reviews:

Avast SecureLine

SecureLine is one of the many security solutions provided by Avast, known mostly for its free antivirus. SecureLine VPN isn't free, but they do provide a seven-day free trial. Unlike most of the other services in this review, SecureLine licensing and pricing varies between platforms. Pricing starts at $7.99 per month for one PC or Mac, $2.59 per month for one Android device, and $2.99 per month for one iOS device. For businesses, it's $5 per device per month via their managed services solution.

We installed the SecureLine Windows application, version 1.0.244. A notification icon in the system tray of Windows lets you know if it's connected or not. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect, or left-click to bring up the application.

The app is small and very simple. Under the connection status is the connect/disconnect button. You can either quickly hit the Connect button to utilize the nearest VPN location or click the down arrow to select one of 18 countries. Unlike most other services we reviewed, you can't change locations while connected. You must disconnect and choose another location.

The only other button is the settings shortcut in the lower-right corner. There you can choose what SecureLine should do when connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, which could be to offer to connect or to auto-connect.

On our Android device, we installed the Avast SecureLine app, version 1.0.7704. By default, you only see a status icon for the app on the status bar of Android and on the notification drawer when you're connected to the service. However, you can optionally enable the icon and notification to be present when disconnected as well.

The Android app is also very simple. Under the connection status, you can optionally select a particular VPN location, and on the bottom of the app is the connect/disconnect button. However, unlike the Windows application, you can change the VPN location while connected.

You can open the app menu via the shortcut in the upper-right, where you can access the settings and connection rules. You can customize the notification settings. Conveniently, by default the app will alert you to connect to the service before you connect to any unsecured Wi-Fi network. Furthermore, you can utilize their connection rules functionality if you want the app to connect or ask to connect to a specified VPN location.

There's no shortcut to any help or documentation within the Android app or Windows application, but it really isn't needed given how simple the apps and service are.

F-Secure Freedome VPN

Freedome VPN is from F-Secure, which provides antivirus and other security solutions for computers and mobile devices. There's a 14-day free trial. After that pricing starts at $49.99 per year, supporting up to three simultaneous devices. There are additional pricing options that include support for up to five and seven simultaneous devices. Additionally, they offer Freedome in their business solutions, which is manageable via their Protection Service Portal.

We evaluated version 1.0.2246.0 of the Freedome Windows application. It includes a notification icon in the system tray of Windows, which is gray when not connected to the VPN service and blue when connected. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect or change the VPN location. A normal left click on the icon shows the application.

The main window of the Freedome Windows application shows a big circle which tells you the connection status and serves as a connect/disconnect button. On the sides of that, you see the amount of traffic you have sent/received and the number of harmful sites and tracking attempts blocked while connected to the service. Below you see the VPN location, which you can click on to change to one of 21 countries. You can't choose the exact city, but can select available regions, such as West or East Coast of the U.S.

On the left side of the application, you find shortcuts to the application's other tabs. On the Browsing protection and Tracking protection tabs you can enable/disable those components. The Private Search tab explains how to search without websites being able to track you. On the other hand, Tracker Mapper lets you track yourself and build a visualization of what sites or services are trying to track you.

On the Settings tab, you find the basic connection settings. That includes the ability to have Freedome start and connect automatically, but you can't choose specific network types, such as auto-connect only on unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

On the Help tab, there's a link to the Knowledge Base, which includes many useful FAQs. You won't find any full traditional documentation, but the FAQs and the help shortcuts within the application seem to provide adequate assistance.

We evaluated version 2.0.28 of the Freedome Android app. The connection status is always displayed via an icon in the status bar of Android and from the notification drawer you can tap the status to access the app. The look and feel of the app is similar to the PC application, but there are some differences.

Above the main connection status circle, also serving as a connect/disconnect button, is a list of the statuses of each protection component. You can click the list to bring up another screen showing details for each component. You find one component not seen on the Windows application: App Security. It is a simple antivirus for Android that alerts you of any dangerous apps you try to install.

Under the connection status circle you see the stats on the amount of traffic protected, amount of apps scanned, and number of sites and tracking attempts blocked. You can click on the list to bring up another screen with further details on the stats. Like the Windows application, the VPN location is displayed on the bottom of the screen, which you click to optionally switch between the 21 countries provided. Again, you can only select the country or region within a county and not a specific city.

On the app menu, accessible via the shortcut in the upper-left of the app, you find the Settings. You can choose to have the Freedome app automatically start when you turn on your Android device, but you can't have it auto-connect to the VPN. However, one useful feature is the ability to specify trusted Wi-Fi networks so you can still connect to local devices and servers (like a media player) while connected to the VPN via those particular networks.

When you have Browsing Protection enabled in either application and come across a web page that it detects as unsafe, the block page is displayed and prevents you from visiting the site. There's no bypass option in case you'd like to continue.


HMA is short for Hide My Ass. The service is hosted by Privax, which AVG had bought. They don't offer a free service or trial, but do provide a 30-day money back guarantee. Pricing starts at $11.52 per month, supporting up to two simultaneous devices. In addition to the usual credit cards, they accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and for those really concerned about anonymity: gift cards from many various retailers. Their Refer a Friend program also provides one week of free VPN time for every month of service purchased by your friends. For businesses, they also provide custom pricing discounts and master accounts if ordering at least five accounts or 10 connections.

We evaluated version 2.8.24 of their Windows application. Its system tray icon in the lower-right of Windows is easily identifiable by the letter h and is gray when disconnected from a VPN server and yellow when connected. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect/disconnect and to initiate an IP address change. Double-clicking brings up the application.

Upon opening the Windows application, you'll find a more extensive GUI than the other services we reviewed in order to support all the advanced features and settings. The main tabs are listed on the left of the window, and some of the pages have sub-tabs as well. In the upper-right corner of the window, there are always shortcuts to their online help options. Just below that you'll also always see the VPN connection status.

The first tab is the Dashboard, containing the basic connection settings, shortcuts, and stats. You can choose between the OpenVPN and PPTP protocols for the connection in addition to choosing the server location. The Country Selection tab lets you further browse and search through the available VPN locations throughout the world, and even navigate a map of them.

The IP Address Settings tab allows you to view your current and past IP addresses and schedule automated IP changes. Then the Secure IP Bind tab allows you to define applications on your computer that you want to prevent from using your regular Internet connection if the VPN is disconnected.

The Speed Guide tab provides a utility for speed testing the VPN servers via pinging and/or downloading/uploading, so you can better choose which gives you the best performance based upon your particular location. The Proxy Settings tab allows you to optionally connect to an HTTP or SOCKS proxy when connected to the VPN. The Billing and Packages tab is where you can view and manage your subscription and billing details.

wifi hotspot features comparison

We evaluated version 1.18.12 of the HMA! Pro VPN Android app. The connection status isn't shown in the Android status bar and notification drawer unless you're connected. Some may like the disconnect status/notification that other services offer so they're reminded of the unsecure connection and so they can use it as a shortcut to open the app.

After logging into the app with your HMA username and password, you can choose a VPN location and tap the Connect button. When connected, you see the IP address and location and can optionally change and/or verify your IP. Scrolling down to the bottom of the app, you see your HMA subscription details.

From the app menu, you find the Settings that includes just a few simple settings: Keep signed in, Connect to VPN on launch, and Launch app on startup. Given how advanced the Windows application was, we were surprised the HMA Android app didn't offer more functionality, such as auto-connect when using unsecured or particular networks like some of the other services offer.

You can access the Help from the app menu as well, which takes you to their online documentation. You can also directly message their support from within the app using their contact form.

While connected to the VPN, the connection status with the location is shown in the Android status bar. Clicking the shortcut in the notification drawer shows a pop-up of your connection location, duration, and sent/received traffic, along with a Disconnect button.

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 six-months for $19.99, equivalent to $3.33 per month, supporting up to five devices. The business pricing starts at $19.95 per month or $99.95 per year for up to 20 devices. In addition to the usual credit cards, they accept PayPal and Bitcoin 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 provides a three-day free trial upon emailing them. Pricing starts at $8 per month, $30 every six months, or $48 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.


StrongVPN is offered via a unique licensing and pricing scheme, which may be OK with those who know exactly what they want, but could certainly be confusing to the more average users. There are three levels of service with varying amounts of countries supported and each of those are offered in a few different flavors and license lengths. For two of the three levels, you must choose between the supported VPN protocols (PPTP or OpenVPN) and in one level you can choose between them individually as well or select both.

However, to select both protocols you must sign-up for a monthly subscription, whereas the individual protocols are offered in one-month, three-month, six-month, and one-year license lengths. In addition to standard credit cards, they accept PayPal, Bitcoin, Google Checkout, and Western Union. They offer a seven-day money back guarantee.

We evaluated version 1.5.1 of the StrongVPN Windows client. The notification icon in the system tray of Windows 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 or advanced settings.

After opening the application and signing in, you'll find a relatively small window where you can choose the server location and connection method: UDP, TCP, or proxy. You can click the Change Location button to access a wizard to help find the fastest servers, and if you've chosen a subscription that supports both OpenVPN or PPTP, you can find a server that supports the protocol you prefer.

From the main window, you can click the Advanced button to access advanced stats, settings, and properties. The first tab, Information, gives you details on your StrongVPN account and client version, main system specs, and connection stats. On the Options tab, you can fine-tune some performance-related settings. On the Log and Service tab you can view connection logs and OpenVPN details for troubleshooting purposes. On the Port List tab you can view and change the ports used by the client.

On the main windows of the StrongVPN Windows client, you'll also find a Help button, which takes you to their website. The help and documentation is presented in FAQ format with step-by-step tutorials for setting up client programs as well as the native clients on many other operating systems and devices. However, we weren't able to find full documentation on their client programs, listing and describing all the features and settings.

We also evaluated the Android-based StrongVPN client, version 1.3.4. Unlike many of the other services, the connection status isn't shown in the Android status bar and notification drawer unless you're connected.

Once you open the app and sign-in, you can access the main screen. On the top you see your account name with a shortcut to the Settings on the right. Below that, you see the currently selected VPN server and location. Then there's a big connect/disconnect button. On the bottom-right of the screen is a Get Support button that takes you to the same help page on their website as from the Windows client.

On the Settings screen, you can view and change the server location, protocol, and other connection details. You can also specify if the client should automatically reconnect after reboots.

StrongVPN provides a web portal that's more functional than most other VPN providers. In addition to accessing help tickets and billing information, you can view and change your server details. This includes your desired server location, ports, and credentials.


SurfEasy offers a limited free edition or a full-featured seven-day free trial. You can sign-up for the limited free edition, which they call Starter VPN, via the mobile app. It enables you to use up to 500MBs of data on your computers and mobile devices, but more data can be earned. Pricing starts at $2.99 per month for one mobile device or $4.99 per month for up to five computers or mobile devices. They accept standard credit cards and PayPal. They don't publicize business plans or volume discounts, but you can contact them directly for more information.

We evaluated version 3.4.470 of the SurfEasy Windows client. The notification icon in the system tray of Windows is red when not connected to the VPN service and green when connected. You can right-click the icon to quickly connect or disconnect, change the server location, enable/disable the AD tracker blocking that stops websites from keeping tabs on your browsing, and enable/disable the Wi-Fi security feature that can automatically connect you to the VPN after connecting to a unsecure Wi-Fi hotspot. A regular left click on the system tray icon will pop-up the main window of the Windows client.

After opening the application and signing in, you find the client is a fairly small and simple pop-up windows in the lower-right corner of Windows. In the upper-right corner of the window are two drop-down menus. The glob icon drops down a menu for you to select the server location country and then it will automatically choose the exact server location in that country. The gear icon drops down the same tool menu as when right-clicking the system tray icon.

Below the pop-up down menu icons in the upper-right of the Windows client is a toggle button to connect/disconnect from the SurfEasy VPN service. Then below that are two tabs, the first of which shows your current VPN server location when connected along with your public IP and status of the AD tracker blocking. The AD Tracker Blocking tab shows a graph of how many times the service has blocked AD trackers over the past 30 days.

From both the menus given when right-clicking the system tray and clicking the gear icon on the main client window, there's help shortcuts you can utilize when troubleshooting. One shortcut leads to the support section of their website, which has a FAQ look and feel. Though there's step-by-step guides on using their clients, we didn't find full documentation listing and describing all the client features and settings.

We also evaluated Android client for SurfEasy, version 3.10.2. After signing-in, you see a map similar to that shown on the Windows client, showing the current VPN server location when connected along with your public IP and status of the AD tracker blocking. Instead of a tab showing the AD tracker blocking stats, the number blocked today is shown on the bottom and you can tap in that area to bring up a graph showing number blocked in the past 30 days.

Tapping the gear icon in the upper-left of the Android client, slides out the menu where you can connect/disconnect, change the server region, enable/disable the AD tracker blocking and Wi-Fi security features, and access the support website, again displaying the help in a FAQ format.