Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.
- Locations increased to 30+ (June 2018)
- Refund duration is now 30 days.
- Changes in pricing. 1-month $9.99, 6-months $8.99 and 1-year $5.99.
- The service now offers a 7-day free trial.
- New protocols have been added and also, OpenVPN is now supported.
ZenMate is a straightforward free 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.
One reason ZenMate doesn't spell out its features is probably that it doesn't have very many, and even the core technologies may not be what you expect. Just about every VPN provider supports the speedy and secure OpenVPN protocol, for instance, but ZenMate only uses the far less capable L2TP/IPSec.
- Want to try ZenMate? Check out the website here
Still, IPSec will do the job for many users, who are more likely to be interested in goodies like ZenMate's free Chrome and Firefox extensions. Both of these offer easy site unblocking and relatively anonymous browsing for no cost at all.
The commercial ZenMate Premium plans give you higher speeds and access to the full set of locations across 28 countries. ZenMate offers TechRadar Pro readers exclusive rates – £4.79 ($5.99) per month, £4.39 ($5.49) if billed 6-monthly and £3.33 ($4.16) if billed annually – and a 14-day ‘risk free’ refund policy should give you plenty of time to test the service's abilities.
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. 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.
ZenMate's signup procedure is quick and easy: pick a plan, enter your email address, and choose to pay by card, PayPal, UnionPay or Qiwi Wallet.
We handed over our cash and the website displayed an invoice, explained what we'd bought and immediately pointed us to download links for the many clients: Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, along with Chrome, Firefox and Opera browser extensions.
It got even easier from that point. The entire Windows installation process looked like this: we clicked a Windows icon on the website, then clicked the download. There was no setup prompt, no folder selection or options to consider, the app set up everything on its own and minimized to our system tray. The only remaining step was to log in using a password sent in ZenMate's welcome email.
The client looks good and is clearly designed for beginners. 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. Even if you've never seen a VPN, you'll be ready to go in seconds.
The interface is a little basic and lacks some of the functionality you'll often see elsewhere. You can't select locations by city, for instance (it's country-only). There's no information on server load. As we mentioned earlier, you can't change your protocol because only L2TP is supported.
Even some fundamental tasks have their own usability issues. It's important with any VPN that you know when the service connects or disconnects, but the Windows client doesn't have desktop notifications to keep you informed. The only way to see your connection status is to check the system tray icon (if it’s bright that means you’re connected, and if it’s dark, you aren’t), something that might not be convenient or even possible if, say, you're running a full-screen app.
There are some useful features – a kill switch, DNS leak protection – but these have no configuration options. It's just a click to turn them on, another to turn them off.
ZenMate's browser add-ons offer some extra functions you won't see in the native clients. The Chrome extension can automatically set a new location when you access a particular site, which could be a real timesaver. There's also built-in blocking of trackers and known malicious sites, and the extension claims to block "code snippets before they can reach your browser."
We suspect ZenMate's target audience will be more interested in performance, but our tests* found this to be disappointing. UK to UK connections managed around 16-18Mbps, which is usable but around half the speed of the top competition. Reaching out to close European locations – France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden – saw performance fall to a lethargic 5-15Mbps.
Would switching to the US help? Our 8-10Mbps download speeds say not. The only bright spot was the performance of some Asian servers, such as Singapore's regular 10-12Mbps. That's well above average, but a similarly-priced competitor, Private Internet Access, gives you similar results in Asia and far better speeds everywhere else.
Our final privacy tests were a little better, with the client successfully blocking DNS and WebRTC leaks. Even here, there's a lack of advanced features – there’s no IPv6 leak protection, for instance – but most users should have enough to keep them safe.
Beginners will love ZenMate's easy setup, free browser extensions and the low yearly prices. Experienced users will be frustrated by the lack of features, though, and the below-par performance is going to be a problem for everyone. Check the service out, by all means, but try the free version first.
*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.