ZenMate review

Privacy has never been so simple

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Our Verdict

Experts will hate ZenMate's lack of options, but if you're a novice the service will get you connected with less fuss than anything else out there.

For

  • Outstanding ease of use
  • Unlimited free account

Against

  • Minimal control of VPN settings
  • Just average performance levels

ZenMate is a straightforward VPN designed for non-technical users who want an easier way to protect their online privacy.

This simpler approach is obvious from the moment you look at the website. There's no jargon, no complicated feature lists, just a quick explanation of VPN technology and some example benefits.

ZenMate offers a free service via its browser add-ons. Unusually, this doesn't have any traffic limits, although speeds are restricted, there are only four servers to choose from, and – crucially – extra ads may be displayed on some pages.

There's also a Premium plan with unlimited bandwidth and servers in 23+ countries. Pricing is a little higher than average – $8.99 (around £7.50, AU$12.50) per month, $7.49 (around £6, AU$10) if billed 6-monthly, $4.99 (around £4, AU$7) if billed annually – but a 14-day ‘risk free’ refund policy should give you plenty of time to see if ZenMate is right for you.

Factor in a simple web-based wizard which had us connected to the service in a couple of minutes, and ZenMate seemed the ultimate in beginner-friendly VPNs. But it's not quite that simple (as always).

Privacy

ZenMate's main website is straightforward, but poking around in the darker corners – in particular, the privacy policy and terms of service pages – revealed some of the most brain-numbingly over-complicated legalese we've ever seen. 

Just about every element takes longer to describe than it should, and seems written for lawyers rather than regular users. We're told that descriptions on the website are a “mere 'invitation ad offerendum', i.e. a non-binding call to you to issue an offer”, for instance. Uh-huh.

The documents also make zero effort to highlight details that might interest VPN users, such as details of what logging takes place, or ZenMate's response to legal actions. You're forced to wade through every paragraph to find the information you need.

We went to work anyway, and from what we can tell, ZenMate seems to offer reasonable privacy. There's no routine logging or monitoring of traffic, and the service doesn't permanently log your connection IP address, or even the volume of data used.

There is one clause saying "we generally do NOT observe to which web service you gain access with ZenMate", which tells us there might be situations when monitoring is possible. But it seems they'll only do this if they're forced to do so by legal action, and as ZenMate are based in privacy-sensitive Germany, that's not going to happen easily.

Performance

After the complexity of ZenMate's contract pages, its Windows VPN client was a huge relief: clean, straightforward, probably the easiest to set up and use that we've ever seen.

The program has none of the text prompts, menus and dialogs you'll typically see elsewhere. We just clicked a button to connect or disconnect, selected a flag to choose a location, and clicked an icon to tweak a few settings. There was no need to look at a manual, because everything worked as expected.

This simplicity could be a problem if you need any real details or control of the VPN. You can't choose a location by city (it's country-only), set a protocol or see what you're using, or even view your current IP address.

If you're only interested in performance, ZenMate gave us broadly acceptable results in our tests*. Latency was up by around 65%, upload and download speeds were around 85% of normal over short hops, and 55% of our normal speeds over long distances. That's not great, but it's what we'd expect from a VPN, and it shouldn't make much difference to your online activities.

Final verdict

ZenMate's unlimited free version is appealing, and its Premium edition is supremely easy to set up and operate. But more experienced users will be frustrated by the lack of technical details and control, and overall there's better value to be had elsewhere.

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.