Better site-rendering speeds and an option to ditch ads called Elite have landed in the public Wi-Fi protector Hotspot Shield today. Published by the Mountain View-based AnchorFree, Inc., Hotspot Shield (download for Windows or Mac) claims to be the world's largest Virtual Private Network (VPN) with more than 10 million users. The Elite version gives upgraders multiple ad-free payment methods and plans, and offers site-load times that are "up to 100 percent faster" than the standard flavor of Hotspot Shield.
A version of Hotspot Shield that uses servers based in the United Kingdom, called Expat Shield (download), remains ad-supported only.
David Gorodyansky, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AnchorFree, told CNET earlier this month that the two programs attract 9 to 10 million unique monthly users, who create 40 million user sessions per month, and generate more than 2 billion pageviews per month. "Essentially we're an Akamai, we're a content delivery network," David Gorodyansky, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AnchorFree, told CNET earlier this month. "It makes sense to have both a secured computer, with antivirus, and a secured connection, with Hotspot Shield," he added.
The browser-independent Hotspot Shield establishes an encrypted connection to the Hotspot Shield servers, and turns all HTTP traffic to the safer HTTPS. By re-routing Web traffic and providing you with a new IP address hosted by AnchorFree, the company is able to ensure that your data isn't plucked out of the open by man-in-the-middle attacks or wireless network spoofing.
Gorodyansky said he is keenly aware of the implications of being a globally-available anonymizing service. "People use us to bypass censorship," he said with a smile, and explained that's why the Elite version offer multiple payment systems. Elite will be sold for $0.50 per 24 hour session, with a minimum $10 deposit, or $5 per month, or $45 per year. Payment options include credit card, PayPal, prepaid cash cards or mobile phone payments via premium SMS.
The free version is monetized by an ad platform served through the VPN. When the user activates Hotspot Shield or Expat Shield, a start page comes up that serves the ads. There's also a 720 pixel by 98 pixel toolbar ad, but neither runs when the Shield hasn't been activated. So, you can browse the Web with the Shield installed, but not running. Both the ad-supported version and Elite offer unlimited bandwidth with no restrictions.
The company has created multiple ways to circumvent download blockers in countries with strict censorship, too. If you can't access a Web page with the download, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for the Windows version or email@example.com for the Mac version, and the small installer file will be sent directly to you.
During a day of hands-on testing on the notoriously pokey CNET public Wi-Fi network, I noticed that Hotspot Shield Elite was remarkably fast. There were no connection lags despite the re-routing, and the program admirably handled high-definition streaming videos from sites such as Vimeo, YouTube, and CNET TV. I'd recommend the program for improving the Wi-Fi speeds alone, nevermind the additional security benefits.
Aside from Hotspot Shield Elite's preferential bandwidth priority and lack of ads, there are no built-in additional features in Elite. However, AnchorFree has arranged a deal with Skype so that new Elite users get two hours of Skype talk time free when signing up. In addition to plans for an Elite version of Expat Shield, Gorodyansky said that the company plans to build a mobile app for Hotspot Shield.