Home / Networking / Hide.me VPN, hands on: Privacy-first, with good free-tier features

Hide.me VPN, hands on: Privacy-first, with good free-tier features


For many people working from home, VPN connections are a source of frustration because unless they’ve been set up with split tunnelling to separate traffic that needs to be on the corporate network from general web browsing, there’s seldom enough bandwidth to go around. But individual users are using VPNs to keep their IP address private or get an IP address that makes them look like they’re connecting from a different country to access region-locked content. Hide.me majors on the privacy aspect — including protecting your privacy from the VPN service itself, which can see a lot of information about what VPN users do online.

The company is based in Malaysia, a country that’s not part of the various intergovernmental internet information-sharing networks. Malaysia has no data retention regulations to undermine Hide.me’s policy of not keeping logs of your VPN activity (connection logs, sessions, browsing behaviour, which websites you visit or the timestamps of which IP address was assigned to you and when), although neither does the US. Hide.me boasts an audit from a VPN security analyst to back up the promise not to keep logs. You can pay for the premium service using cryptocurrency, if you think it gives you extra anonymity.

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Hide.me has a nice clear interface for its range of options.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

There are Hide.me clients for Windows, Mac, Linux and an unusually wide range of smartphones including BlackBerry (the Windows Phone version is still listed but isn’t available on the Store), plus Amazon Fire OS devices. You can also set it up directly on your router if you need all your connections protected, but that’s probably going to be too slow to be practical for most users. There are also extensions for Chrome and Firefox that change your IP address but don’t encrypt traffic.

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Hide.me supports the key protocols, but not legacy protocols that could leave you less secure, plus the unusual SoftEtherVPN.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet  

The Hide.me client supports OpenVPN, the newer IKEv2 and (added this year) WireGuard protocols, the older SSTP protocol and SoftEtherVPN — a newer protocol that’s not very common and so may be less likely to be detected and blocked. Support for the older L2TP/IPSEC and PPTP protocols was in previous clients for connecting to legacy systems, but they’re less secure and have now been dropped from the Hide.me client. The default setting will automatically pick the best supported protocol for a connection, but you can relegate protocols you’d prefer not to use to the fallback list; expert users can also tweak some advanced settings for IKEv2, OpenVPN and SoftEtherVPN.

Hide.me has servers in a wide range of locations, but doesn’t have as many as some VPN services (1,700 currently, compared to larger services with 3,000+ servers). However, that’s less important if it has servers in the right location for you, and they’re dedicated rather than virtual servers so you can be confident they’re in the country they claim to be in.

As with any VPN, the speed and latency you get are likely to be worse than your normal internet connection, and also more variable. Tested on a business VDSL connection that usually gets 60+Mbps download and 12Mbps upload with latency between 15 and 30 milliseconds, the suggested best connection gave us an IP address in Amsterdam. Over several different connections at different times of day (because congestion will have an impact), the latency to Amsterdam stayed between 20 and 40ms but the download bandwidth varied between 10Mbps and 60Mbps (that is, from noticeably slower to pretty much the same), while the upload speed rarely rose above 2Mbps. US VPN connections were much slower: transatlantic latency of 150-160ms is to be expected, but bandwidth was usually 3Mbps or lower, with upload speeds from 0.5 to 2.4Mbps, depending on the city we picked.

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As VPN speeds go, this is slightly above average, but Hide.me isn’t the fastest option: the free Windscribe VPN managed US download and upload speeds of 4Mbps (and sometimes higher) and the fastest VPN services like ExpressVPN, Surfshark or NordVPN handily beat that.

Until now, Hide.me hasn’t been able to bypass Netflix’s geoblocking (Netflix blocks VPNs very aggressively), but the service is just launching US streaming support that it says will cover Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and similar services. This means that when you can travel again, you’ll have a better chance of being able to enjoy your subscriptions.

SEE: VPN: Picking a provider and troubleshooting tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

If you’re using P2P services to share or download large files, using a SOCKS proxy will often give you better throughput; if you pay for the service, Hide.me has SOCKS integration in the VPN client, which is more convenient than loading up a separate tool.

Like many VPN tools, Hide.me has a setting to work as a firewall, disabling your connectivity unless the VPN is running — that’s handy so you don’t briefly connect without the VPN if your connection drops and comes back up, disclosing your real IP address. But you get more control over that than with many other VPN tools: if you turn on autoconnect, you can pick what happens on different network connections and whether they automatically use the VPN when they connect. You can also set custom scripts to run (as the current user or as admin) when the connection drops or when the VPN reconnects.

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A helpful interface for setting up split tunnelling lets you either choose the apps you do want to use the VPN connection with or exclude the ones that don’t work on a VPN.


Image: Mary Branscombe / ZDNet

Split tunnelling is common for well-configured corporate VPNs, but rarer for consumer VPNs. Here it lets you pick which applications use the VPN, either by blocking applications where you don’t need a different IP address, or apps that won’t work on a VPN, or by picking specific apps that you do want to use over a VPN connection. This allows you to exclude services like Windows Update that could quickly chew through your monthly bandwidth allowance. If there are apps that you don’t want to use at all if you’re not connected by VPN, Stealth Guard is a slightly silly name for a useful option: assign an app to this mode and it won’t use any connection except the VPN, so if you haven’t turned Hide.me on, the app won’t connect.

Handily, the system tray icon for the Windows client has more options than usual: you can choose the server to connect to, including ones you’ve marked as favourites, or turn Stealth Guard on and off from here. We also like the convenient way you can create a support ticket, including diagnostic logs, from inside the client.

SEE: Linux’s WireGuard VPN is here and ready to protect you

Hide.me does a pretty good job of protecting your IP address, including from your own carelessness. It’s easy to forget to turn on your VPN every time, and law enforcement agencies have tracked down a variety of suspects because they forgot to do that before connecting to a sensitive service. The more advanced options are clearly explained even for novice users, so you don’t have to be an expert to set up split tunnelling.

But those unusual options get rather lost in the enthusiastic marketing of fairly common VPN features like changing your IP address and using AES-265. And while the price has dropped recently, €12,99/$12.95 a month (or €4,99/$4.99 to €8,33/$8.32 if you commit to one- or two-year plans) is on the steep side compared to other VPNs with similar features, which can be half the price if you pay yearly. You do get unlimited bandwidth, but you’re still limited to ten simultaneous connections with the premium tier, when VPNs like Surfshark and Windscribe allow unlimited devices on their paid plans. Other VPN services like Windscribe also allow you to pay with cryptocurrency and promise not to monitor usage or keep permanent logs.

The free tier lets you access five Hide.me-specific server locations in the US, Canada, Netherlands and Singapore, on one device at a time with 10GB of data a month (and no SOCKS or OpenVPN support) as long as you sign up with an email address. If not, you get the same 500MB a month that TunnelBear offers. If you’re trying out the Premium plan, be aware that it’s a recurring subscription rather than a one-off trial, so you will keep getting billed unless you cancel it (although the service promises a 30-day money back guarantee).

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