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ZenMate VPN review

A simple and straightforward VPN with a free plan

New Hero
(Image: © ZenMate)

Our Verdict

A barebones VPN which offers little more than the core basics. It's hard to complain at this price, though - maybe worth a look for bargain hunters.

For

  • 7-day free trial
  • Very low 2-year price
  • P2P support
  • Apps for everything

Against

  • Short on features
  • Below-par support site
  • Doesn't unblock Netflix

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. The service is mostly about the core basics. 

A just-about-big-enough network has locations spread around 30 countries (most, though not all, are torrent-friendly.)

There are clients for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Android. (ZenMate supports up to five simultaneous connections.)

ZenMate's apps makes it easy to find a torrent-friendly server. No need to browse the location list for special 'P2P' icons or anything similar, just tap the 'For Torrenting' tab for a list of your options (that's 27 servers during our review.)

And built-in DNS leak protection and kill switches are available to help shield your activities from snoopers.

ZenMate pricing used to be very complicated, with multiple plans and options. Now, there's just one: ZenMate Ultimate gives you all the features we've described for $9.99 billed monthly, dropping to an excellent $3.99 on the annual plan, and an amazing $2.05 a month over two years (many competitors charge twice that, or more.)

And there's more. The company gives you a seven-day free trial to test the service before you get billed, and even after you've handed over your cash, you're further protected by a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Privacy and logging

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 little effort to highlight details that might interest VPN users, such as clarifying what sort of logging takes place, or ZenMate's response to legal actions. The privacy policy is approaching 5,000 words long, but the closest it gets to anything useful is a throwaway comment: '...activity done by the user inside the ZenMate VPN tunnel, which is NOT recorded, logged or stored at all.'

Dig into the support pages and you'll find a few very general descriptions of ZenMate's no-logging promises. Here's an example:

"We do not store or log your personal data which can be used to identify you or what you're doing online. We do not monitor your online sessions. In fact - we can’t! Strict German privacy laws regulate our company’s use of your information. As we don’t store the data in the first place, this also means that we can’t be forced into giving away personal data to any government or sell it to any 3rd parties."

Well, that's good to hear, but we would much prefer ZenMate to formally spell this out in a privacy policy which the average customer might actually be able to read. Or better still, follow providers such as TunnelBear and have their systems publicly audited to confirm they're doing what they promise.

SpeedTest.net

Ookla's SpeedTest was one of the benchmarking sites we used to test ZenMate's performance (Image credit: Ookla)

Performance

We checked out ZenMate's performance by using the benchmarking sites SpeedTest and TestMy.net from two locations.

UK performance was reasonable at around 60-65Mbps on our test 75Mbps line. Top VPNs might squeeze an average 5Mbps more, but you're unlikely to notice any difference.

Next up, we measured download speeds from a US location with a super-speedy 475Mbps connection. This time, ZenMate was a little disappointing, only achieving 80-100Mbps (Speedify managed 200-300Mbps, Private Internet Access reached an exceptional 300-450Mbps.) Still, ZenMate was fast enough for most tasks, and unless your internet connection is significantly faster than 100Mbps, you won't even realize there's an issue.

Connection times can be an important part of the experience of any VPN, and ZenMate was slower than we would like. 

OpenVPN connections took a tedious 15-20 seconds (twice some competitors, though not the longest we've seen). 

Switching to Windows' native L2TP protocol normally makes a huge difference - we've seen some VPNs connect in 3-5 seconds - but ZenMate still lagged behind at 10-12 seconds, even for our nearest UK server.

If you typically connect just once, then use that connection for a very long time, losing a few seconds won't be important. But if you're regularly switching servers, connecting and disconnecting, this could become annoying.

Netflix

ZenMate was unable to unblock Netflix in the US in our tests (Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix

Connecting to a VPN can not only get you a virtual identity in another country, but may also give you access to content you wouldn't be able to access otherwise, such as YouTube clips which are only available in specific locations.

Some sites attempt to detect and block access via VPNs, so to check this, we test whether a service allows access to BBC iPlayer, US YouTube and US Netflix.

YouTube does little or no blocking, and we expected a quick success. Sure enough, ZenMate allowed us to stream content without difficulty.

ZenMate's Windows client offers a virtual location for streaming BBC iPlayer, a thoughtful touch (many VPNs leave you to connect to multiple cities, looking for one that works.) It was effective, too, bypassing iPlayer's VPN detection and allowing us to view whatever we needed.

We didn't have the same success with the Netflix US location, unfortunately. Netflix spotted the VPN and displayed it's standard 'you seem to be using an unblocker or proxy' Streaming Error message. That's a pity, especially as the service got us into Netflix for the last review.

Were we just unlucky? As a check, we tried ZenMate US servers apparently optimized for Hulu and Amazon Prime, as well as servers which ZenMate suggests should get you in to UK and French Netflix. No luck, though: Netflix blocked us every time.

New Windows client

ZenMate's Windows client has a design similar to many other VPN apps (Image credit: ZenMate)

Windows client

Signing up with ZenMate is quick and easy. We downloaded the Windows client, the setup program asked us for our email address and a password, and one click on a "please confirm your email" link later, we were ready to go. There was no need to do anything on the website, or hand over any payment details - that can all wait until the 7-day trial is up.

ZenMate's Windows client looks much like most other VPN apps - a default location, a list with more options, and a big Connect button.

The location list is smarter than most. You can filter it by location type (all, torrenting, streaming), sort it by distance or server load, and save commonly used locations as favorites for speedy recall later.

The connection process takes a while, as we mentioned above, but there's a big improvement since the last review. The client now displays a desktop notification when it connects or disconnects, ensuring you always know when you're protected, and when you're not.

There are more settings, too. You can now choose your protocol (OpenVPN TCP or UDP, IKEv2 or L2TP), connect via a random port to bypass some VPN blocking schemes, and block DNS and IPv6 leaks. There's an option to automatically connect when your system starts, and you're able to choose your preferred server.

The client also has a kill switch, which aims to protect you by blocking internet traffic if the VPN connection is lost. We forcibly closed the VPN when using each protocol, and the client automatically reconnected each time, without ever revealing our true IP address. The only minor issue is that it didn't display a desktop notification to warn users of the problem, and so in a real-world situation, all you would know is that your internet was down. That's not a major deal, though, and overall ZenMate performed very well.

Put it all together, and although the client isn't outstanding, it's improved significantly since our last review, handles the VPN basics well and is generally easy to use.

ZenMate offers clients for both Android and iOS

ZenMate offers clients for both Android and iOS (Image credit: ZenMate)

Mobile apps

ZenMate's Android app has a very similar stripped-back design to its desktop cousin: the current location ('Auto select' by default), a big On/ Off button, and a tiny menu icon.

This keeps it very easy to use. If you just need to encrypt your current connection, there's no need to do anything beyond hit Connect when your start, and Disconnect when you've finished.

The location list is also a close match to the desktop, with an option to view ZenMate's streaming servers and a Favorites system to save your most commonly used servers.

The app appears to be OpenVPN-only, and has just two connection settings: one option to connect using a random port, and another to use TCP instead of UDP.

Previously the app had options to enable blocking of trackers and malicious websites. The app store page still claims ZenMate offers malware and tracking protection, but the settings have disappeared.

Overall, ZenMate's Android app gets the basic VPN job done, but it does very little more. It scores for ease of use, but if you're looking for power or configurability, prepare to be disappointed.

ZenMate has updated the iOS app since our last review, and it now looks and works almost identically to the Android edition. That's great for consistency - use one app in the range, and you can use them all - but it also means there's not a lot to explore here. The app covers the basics, but nothing more.

Browser extensions

ZenMate has browser extensions available for Chrome, Firefox and Opera (Image credit: ZenMate)

Browser extensions

ZenMate's free Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions provide a simple way to enable or disable the service, and choose new locations, from within the browser interface. 

As with all browser proxies, these have their limits - in particular, they only protect your browser traffic, everything else uses your regular connection - but that may be enough for simple website unblocking tasks.

The Chrome extension (and its identical Firefox cousin) opens with a simple console where you can choose a location and connect in a couple of clicks. The location picker looks much the same as the desktop version - list of locations, simple Favorites system, text filter, no server load or ping time details - and if you've ever used another VPN, you'll figure it all out within seconds.

A bonus Smart Locations feature enables specifying the location to use with any website (United States for Netflix.com, for instance.) Whenever you visit that site, ZenMate will then automatically switch to your chosen location, first.

Sounds great, right? Well, maybe not. Underneath the explanation of the feature in the extension, you're told "the way Smart Locations works, your IP address may be leaked. We recommend that this feature not be used." (it's a DNS prefetch issue, with a technical discussion here.)

This may not matter very much if you're just unblocking a YouTube clip, but if you're looking for perfect privacy, it's probably best left alone.

Overall, then, there's nothing particularly outstanding here. ZenMate's browser extensions cover the proxy basics and they're worth trying as a free product, but they're no match for the best of the commercial competition.

Support

ZenMate has made several updates to its knowledgebase since our last review (Image credit: ZenMate)

Support

ZenMate's support site opens with a conventional web knowledgebase. Articles are sorted into three categories (Getting Started, Using ZenMate, Troubleshooting), there are links to some of the most common options, and a Recent Activity list covers recently added documents.

The company has added and updated many articles since our last review, but they're still very limited and poorly organized.

You might assume that a 'Getting Started' section would have some installation guides, for instance. There is a section called 'Product setup', but it includes only three articles: 'Getting started with ZenMate VPN for browsers', 'On which platforms can I used the VPN?' and 'Getting started with OpenVPN.'

The 'platforms' article sounded promising, and sure enough there were links to articles for Android, iOS and desktops. But clicking these opened a new browser tab at the support site, redirected to a login page (although we were already logged in) and then displayed an 'error 0' warning (whatever that means.)

You could try using the Search box to find the article you need, but that won't always work. There's a brief 'How to use' guide for Windows, for instance, but it doesn't come up if you enter 'Windows' in the Search box.

When we did find substantial content, it could include potentially risky or sometimes unhelpful advice. If you can't get the Windows client to work, for instance, the relevant article suggests you might play around in Device Manager, recreate your network adapters, turn off your firewall or antivirus, or create a new user account and install ZenMate there. 

If you're as unsure about this advice as we are, you're able to contact the support team directly. There's no live chat, and the company warns emails could take 48 hours to get a reply, although we had a helpful response in under two hours. That's good news, but we're unsure how typical it might be, and we'd still like a decent web support site to check out first.

Final verdict

ZenMate is a long way from being a great VPN, but if your needs are simple, it just might be good enough, especially with a two-year price of just $2.05. If you're on a budget and easily pleased, take the 7-day trial for a spin.

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