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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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! Pro VPN

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.

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