Following the addition of anti-malware protection in January, AnchorFree pulls the covers off a new look for HotSpot Shield, available exclusively today from CNET Download.com.
Both the standard, ad-supported HotSpot Shield (download) and the paid upgrade sport the refreshed interface and easier install options. However, it still has a lot of visual clutter that could make many either upgrade to Elite or uninstall it.
The new version is easier to install. HotSpot Shield 2.5 automatically detects your Internet connection in all instances, can be used on corporate networks and no longer requires administrative privileges to install. It also adds a connection status icon to the upper right corner of your browser. It's identical to your system tray HotSpot Shield icon: it's red when HotSpot Shield is not connected, and green when it is.
As mentioned, the interface has been redone to make it easier to navigate HotSpot Shield's few options. However, the ad displays in the free version still feel overwhelming, with a HotSpot Shield box next to the AnchorFree-delivered ads, and a nearly-chaotic login page which must be used by people with the Elite version. A simple login option from the interface, instead of being embedded in a Web page, could make this much less confusing.
It's possible that this will drive some to use HotSpot Shield Elite. For one thing, if you want an on-the-fly VPN that can accelerate page-load times, HotSpot Shield is probably the best choice out there. However, this is a VPN service, and so for those who aren't committed to the anonymity it offers, the free version will probably overwhelm. As in previous versions, installing the toolbar or the desktop icon for HotSpot Shield is an opt-out mechanism.
On a related note, a CNET reader pointed me to another person's critique of HotSpot Shield in the Download.com comments. The commenter claimed that HotSpot Shield re-routed his cashback referral links. AnchorFree representative Miroslav Jirku said that the commenter was likely misinterpreting HotSpot Shield's behavior:
"We apparently rewrite URLs for lot of reasons, but we are not blocking anybody's cashback crumbs," Jirku said. "For example, when users go to an HTTPS site, such as an e-commerce site or a banking site, we rewrite [the URL] because we turn off [HotSpot Shield] so that a user cannot use our software to defraud the HTTPS site."
Overall, the new design and installation improvements are solid improvements, but I can't help but think that some more effort on AnchorFree's part to serve its ads in a less annoying way would help the overall aesthetic of the program.