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Many people are annoyed by the country-blocking that is imposed by massive multimedia companies regarding their content; especially since the rise of sites like Hulu, Pandora, and Last.FM. The lure of legitimate, free, and easy to access streaming content is a hard one to pass up! If you happen to live outside of the US, however, you tend to discover rather quickly that you’re pretty much out of luck. So what to do? If you ask around, and most people will tell you to try a proxy site, but average proxy sites are generally blocked by services like Hulu, and, if you do get through, are very, -very- slow. However, if watching Hulu is a dream of yours — or you simply want to be a little safer when you browse online, or access Twitter and Facebook from work — the current version of Hotspot Shield (1.37) is your friend.
What is it?
Hotspot Shield, provided by Anchorfree, is a VPN (virtual private network) — that is to say it is a communications network that sets up a private, secure tunnel through another network (in this, case the internet). That’s a VPN in a nutshell, anyway. Don’t ask me to explain it in any more detail. I’ve long since reached my current level of Geek on the subject.
Hotspot Shield is free.
Doesn’t cost you a dime and doesn’t bug you. From all reports, Anchorfree used to force an ad onto every page, but as far as I can tell, this is no longer the case (or built in ad blockers in modern browsers have become exceedingly seamless). The software does have its own homepage that it directs you to, which will have some ads on it, but once you close the page, the VPN still works just fine with no interruptions. The only possible drawback is that there may (or may not) be an approximately 10GB limit on monthly bandwidth (the site says unlimited, but users have reported different experiences).
It works — and it’s fast!
The current version of Hotspot Shield is once again Hulu-friendly. Who knows how long this will last, as Hulu is ever-vigilante about protecting the wishes of the license holders (and why wouldn’t they be, considering their business depends on it), but for now, it is working flawlessly. The program runs in the background, can be turned on or off with a few clicks and works with anything that needs your internet connection unless it needs very specific cookies (I had trouble logging in to Digg, for example, and in LastPass, at least for Chrome, there may be a conflict that causes the extension to disable itself.). It’s fast, too. With a decent computer and good broadband connection, you will barely notice and slowdown in general browsing, and streaming works just as it should.
It’s easy to forget, what with the wonderful shiny nugget that is block-free web-surfing, that connecting to the internet via a VPN like Hotspot Shield is also immensely more secure than regular browsing. Your IP address (and therefore your location) is masked under the IP address given to you by the VPN. Your personal data is much less likely to be nabbed by some unscrupulous hacker or public Hotspot sniffer, and you can browse any site anonymously (outside of whatever registrations you may have signed up for, of course). All in all, it’s a much safer and therefore better way to travel in the virtual world. Even if you have no need for surfing sites like Hulu (maybe you actually live in the US for example…), using this software will go a long way toward protecting you online.
Bypass all blocks.
A VPN is also a tried and true method of browsing past blocks that are imposed on you by your workplace or school. Not that I condone this… they are just trying to get every scrap of productivity out of your lazy behind they can, right? That, and keep you from watching porn (calm down, any who would take that out of context, don’t flame me — I jest). The point is, if you absolutely need to keep up with what your Tweeps and Facebook buddies are talking about, Hotspot Shield should enable you to check your Twitter, Facebook and pretty much whatever other sites are blocked while you are at work or school. Or at home. Parents with teenagers, be wary.
How do I get it?
Easy. Just head on over here and download the program directly from the source. You can also find it on cNet and other download sites, but they don’t have the handy dandy instructions that will make getting up and running a snap.
Does it work on _X_ platform?
It works on Windows and on Mac. Sorry Linux folks, but you will have to try the UltraSurf clone (an alternative to HotSpot Shield that is also free. The link takes you right to a how-to-install-on-linux post. Pretty simple overall, as it is done in WINE). Hotspot Shield also works on the iPhone and walks you through its setup. That’s wonderful, overall, but does nothing for you if you want to watch Hulu, as the iPhone does not support flash (booo!). There is apparently an app that can help you out if you Jailbreak the iPhone, but I’ll leave it to folks more knowledgeable than me about such things to post any verification in the comments. As for other mobile platforms, there seems to have been varying degrees of success. Again, if anyone has experience in this regard, please feel free to jump in in the comments.
What are your experiences with Hotspot Shield? Do you use a different service?