Too many people take for granted that using a smartphone means their information is secure. But any information sent over the Internet can potentially be intercepted, and your movements across the Web can be tracked—especially via Wi-Fi. That's why you need a virtual private network, or VPN, for your Android. With a delightfully brash name and a charming visual design, Hide My Ass makes VPN technology approachable, but its performance is a bit underwhelming. Editors' Choice winners Private Internet Access and NordVPN are better Android VPN options.
What Is a VPN?
While your home Wi-Fi network might be secure, public Wi-Fi like the one at your local coffee shop probably is not. Unless it's configured properly, it's possible that another person on the network could be quietly observing your activities. Worse, the network itself might be bogus. Attackers can create phony networks that look legit, but connecting to them lets the bad guy sift through all the information you send and receive.
With a VPN, all your data is sent through an encrypted tunnel to a server controlled by the VPN provider. This means that anyone trying to snoop on your traffic, such as scammers and certain three-letter organizations, will see only gibberish.
Because your traffic appears to be coming from the VPN's server, your true location and IP address are obscured. When you surf across websites, advertising trackers see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your actual IP address. That makes it much harder for advertisers and data miners to track your movement from website to website.
These Wi-Fi dangers apply to any kind of device, whether it's a laptop or a mobile phone. Of course, with a phone, you also have the cellular option. Generally speaking, it's safer to connect to cellular networks than Wi-Fi networks. However, there are some exotic attacks that target mobile phone data, too. Modern wireless standards like LTE are reasonably safe, but the encryption for data sent over 2G has long been broken.
Clever criminals can set up a phony cellphone tower, such as a Femtocell, and jam the LTE and 3G bands. Doing so forces nearby phones to connect via the less secure 2G connection. Just as when an attacker controls a Wi-Fi access point, a bad guy (or a spy) can then harvest your Web traffic without your realizing it. Of course, this is a very rare and exotic kind of attack. Even so, it's good to know that VPN services work over cellular connections, too. And most are smart enough to handle the hand-off between cell towers and when you move from cellular to Wi-Fi.
Spoofing location and secure connections are techniques often used by journalists and political activists operating in countries with repressive controls on Internet access. Using a VPN allows them to connect with the outside world and keep their information secure. Here in the US, you can use the same capabilities to spoof your location and watched region-locked content, like Game of Thrones on Netflix or BBC programming outside of the UK. Some streaming services, and Netflix in particular, have begun blocking VPN users for this very reason, so your mileage may vary.
Pricing and Features
I cover the full scope of the service's features in my review of the desktop version of Hide My Ass, which I'll summarize here. The service has three tiers whose designations stick with the service's cheeky nomenclature: kick-ass, half-ass, and smart-ass. Kick-ass provides one month of service for $9.99, and half-ass provides six months of coverage for $39.96. Smart-ass is an annual plan, which costs $59.98. That's on the higher end of prices for a VPN.
Editors' Choice Winners NordVPN and Private Internet Access cost $8 and $6.95 a month, respectively. That's far less than Hide My Ass. If you can only bring yourself to use a VPN while traveling, consider KeepSolid VPN Unlimited. This service offers plans that cost as little as a couple dollars a week. It's an excellent, flexible pricing structure that goes all the way up to century-long plans.
Note that while there are several free VPN services available for desktop devices, all the mobile VPN apps I have tested require a paid account.
You can purchase a Hide My Ass plan using a credit card, PayPal, wire transfer, e-check, Union Pay, or Cash at 7-Eleven. While the company does not accept anonymous payments through Bitcoin, you can use gift cards for other merchants, such as GameStop or Starbucks, instead of a credit card. That's effectively anonymous, if you pay for the card using cash.
According to its website, Hide My Ass has more than 940 servers spread out across 350-plus location. From within the Android app, I counted 208 available locations. That's far more than are available with most other VPN services in terms of both desktop and mobile VPNs. Private Internet Access, however, has several thousand servers available for your use. On the other end of the spectrum, Spotflux offers just four servers on Android.
Despite all those servers, Hide My Ass only allows you to connect two devices simultaneously. Most other services, such as NordVPN, allow up to five or six devices at once. The limit of two is disappointing, since it's entirely possible you might want to run Hide My Ass on your phone, tablet, and laptop at the same time.
Hands On With Hide My Ass
With a name like Hide My Ass it's not surprising that the Android app is bold and colorful. It also features a cartoon donkey. Overall, it's a cohesive and well-designed visual experience, one that's funny and approachable. It's easy to tell, at a glance, what everything does and how to use it.
I like that the app requires no setup, and it took only seconds to get started with my Google Nexus 5x. All you need to do is tap the toggle in the center of the screen and you're connected to the fastest server, which is usually geographically close to your current location. The name of the server is displayed, along with your apparent IP address at the bottom of the screen.
Tapping the IP Address section shows both your real and apparent IP addresses. A large button lets you change the IP address on the fly, a feature normally reserved for desktop VPN apps. I really like this feature, and so far Hide My Ass is the only Android VPN app I've found that offers it. Changing VPN servers with any service will also change your IP address, but Hide My Ass's solution is much simpler.
You can tap the Location section to manually select a country from the list, search for a country, or choose from among your favorite servers. If that's too tedious, you can tap the Help Me Choose option from the main page. This presents three scenarios, and automatically picks the best server based on your selection. Tapping Secure My Connection simply connects to the fastest available server. Paranoid Mode and Anti Censorship both connect to servers outside your current country.
I like this selection method, since it takes most of the guesswork out of using a VPN for the first time. I would like it even more if Hide My Ass also provided specialized servers for tasks such as streaming video, as NordVPN does. Normally I also like to see VPN services show some stats about each server, but I don't mind so much that Hide My Ass doesn't, because its server-choosing tool covers many different scenarios.
The desktop version of Hide My Ass includes a Kill Switch feature that shuts off all Internet access whenever the VPN is disconnected. Unfortunately, it's not available in the mobile version. You can, however, configure the app to open or automatically connect on startup.
I appreciate the way KeepSolid VPN Unlimited puts a connect/disconnect toggle in the notification tray. Hide My Ass doesn't have that, but it does insert a panel that shows the server you're connected to and the current network throughput.
Given that it's a mobile app, the number and scope of features provided by Hide My Ass is surprisingly robust. Private Internet Access packs even more advanced functionality into its Android offering, such as designating which apps should use the VPN connection and which should not. But Hide My Ass's features are likely to meet the needs of most users.
When you use a VPN, you'll usually have to contend with slower upload and download speeds along with increased latency time. That is, unfortunately, the name of the game. Sometimes, a VPN service can actually improve your Web performance, as is the case with Pure VPN on the desktop. But these instances are few and far between.
To evaluate how much impact a VPN service has on a mobile device's Internet performance, I run several speed tests with the Ookla Speedtest.net app. Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag. All of my Android VPN tests are performed with mobile data switched off and while connected to our super-fast FiOS Wi-Fi connection, since cellular networks can be too fickle in their performance for repeatable testing. This also reflects the most likely scenario for using a VPN on an Android device. I compare the average of tests with the VPN active to tests when the VPN is inactive, and calculate with a percent change. For this test, I choose either the closest server or whatever the app recommends.
My results for Hide My Ass were mixed. It has low impact on latency, increasing ping time from 17.3ms to 31.3ms, or 80.9 percent. That's not the lowest latency service I tested, however. That honor goes to NordVPN, which increased latency by only 32 percent. Still, 80.9 percent is a good result in this test. For comparison's sake, the worst result was Private Internet Access, which increased latency by 2,717 percent.
Hide My Ass's impact on download speeds is exactly middle of the road for the apps I've tested so far. It slowed downloads by 76.1 percent, going from 34.3Mbps to 8.2Mbps. Most VPN apps I've tested got a score very close to this. Private Internet Access is the only exception. It may not have done well in the latency test, but Private Internet Access had the least impact on download speeds in my tests, at only a 10.3 percent reduction.
When it comes to upload speed, however, Hide My Ass does not impress. It had the largest impact I've yet seen in my tests, at a 56.8 percent reduction, going from 8.8Mbps to 3.8Mbps. Spotflux, on the other hand, actually improved upload speeds by 6.5 percent.
Worth the Price
Hide My Ass isn't the most affordable or fastest VPN service for Android, nor does it offer specialized servers or much in the way of advanced features. It balances those shortcomings with an excellent design that can actually be called fun, and smart automation that makes server selection a snap. It's a good choice, but you should first consider Editors' Choice winners for Android VPN apps NordVPN and Private Internet Access, for their advanced features and excellent selection of VPN servers.