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.
That doesn’t mean ZenMate is entirely lacking in features. A decent-sized network has locations spread around 30 countries. There are clients for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Android. And built-in DNS leak protection and kill switches are available to help shield your activities from snoopers.
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There are one or two unusual extras, including a ‘streaming guarantee’ with the top commercial plan where you’ll get service credits if ZenMate can’t unblock your nominated streaming site.
But at the moment, at least, ZenMate is targeting users who aren’t really interested in low-level technicalities or tweaks, and just want a quick and easy way to stay anonymous online.
This may change in the coming months. In mid-October 2018, ZenMate was purchased by Kape Technologies, who already own the VPN provider CyberGhost, and Kape has already stated that “We look forward to sharing our technology and extensive infrastructure to improve ZenMate’s service to its users”. Looks like more features could be on the way.
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Plans and pricing
ZenMate pricing is unusually complicated, with no less than three tiers of service and multiple plans and options.
There’s a basic free service available via the Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions. You get just four locations, speeds are limited to only 2Mbps, and they only protect your browser traffic, but the addons could be useful for basic web activities.
ZenMate Premium adds Windows, Mac, iOS and Android apps, drops the speed limit and gives you access to all locations on up to 5 devices at a time. It’s priced at £8.99 ($11.69) billed monthly, dropping to an effective £5.99 ($7.79) billed every six months, or £4.99 ($6.49) on the annual plan.
ZenMate Ultimate adds OpenVPN support, allowing you to set it up on routers, TVs, games consoles, Linux and elsewhere. A Streaming Guarantee gives you credits on your subscription if you’re unable to access your favorite streaming site (US Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Twitch are explicitly supported), and an Identity Shield service alerts you if your email address turns up in a data breach. It’s priced from £10.99 ($14.29) when billed monthly, £8.99 ($11.69) every six months or £6.99 ($9.09) billed annually.
As we write, a ‘Limited Time Offer’ enables adding support for more than the standard 5 devices. Two more costs you a one-off £4.20 ($5.46), 5 more is £8.40 ($10.92), and 10 more will cost you £14.28 ($18.56). These are single one-time payments, so that initial £14.28 will allow you up to 15 simultaneous connections to ZenMate, for as long as you stay with the service.
If your head is hurting from all the financial options, ZenMate can best be summarized as ‘expensive.’ Even premium competitors such as ExpressVPN are marginally cheaper (its annual plan costs $8.32 or £6.40 a month), and quality budget providers such as Private Internet Access can be around half the price ($3.33 or £2.56 per month, paid annually.)
Still, it’s not all bad news. 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 14-day money-back guarantee.
Privacy and logging
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 search for anything which might be useful.
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.”
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ZenMate’s limited support for custom OpenVPN configuration testing meant we weren’t able to run our automated performance testing tools, so instead we switched to manual checks using SpeedTest and Netflix’ Fast.
UK performance was solid at around 65Mbps. That’s about all we could expect from our 75Mbps fiber broadband line, and if you’ve a faster connection, you may see even better results.
European speeds were oddly inconsistent. Bulgaria isn’t normally one of the fastest performers, but it did well for us, averaging 55Mbps. Yet France and Netherlands, closer and normally very speedy, managed only 30-35Mbps.
The situation only got worse as we made longer distance connections. US speeds averaged around 35Mbps, but peaked at 55Mbps and were sometimes as low as 5Mbps, while Asian locations varied between 5 and 15Mbps.
These results were so unusual that we wondered whether they were due to some issue with our test internet connection. But when we turned ZenMate off, speeds returned to normal, and when we tried accessing ExpressVPN servers on the same system, the lowest recorded speed from the most distant server was still a very acceptable 22Mbps.
ZenMate seems capable of decent speeds in some locations, then, but there’s so much variation that it’s difficult to offer any guarantees. If performance is a priority and you’re tempted to sign up, we would recommend paying for one month, initially, and using that time to run some intensive speed tests of your own.
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.
BBC iPlayer can be more difficult, but it didn’t detect ZenMate, and we were able to view whatever we needed.
Even Netflix couldn’t stand in our way, and we were able to bypass its geoblocking restrictions with ease.
Content sites are blocking new IP addresses all the time, and this could change at any time. But if you sign up for ZenMate Ultimate, the company will give you some protection via an unusual Streaming Guarantee.
Nominate your favorite streaming service (US Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Twitch are explicitly supported), and if ZenMate verifies that viewing is blocked (the service recognizes you’re not in the virtual location), you’ll earn credits for any renewal of your subscription.
There are some potential catches with this. ZenMate says the clock starts ticking once it’s verified there’s a problem, for instance, which gives plenty of scope for delays.
Still, we have to applaud the company for making a public commitment that it will try to restore a blocked streaming service. That’s something you won’t see with other VPNs.
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ZenMate supports P2P and torrents without any download limits, and conveniently, on each of its servers. There’s no need to look out for special ‘P2P’ icons on the location lists of your favorite apps, just connect to any server you like and you’re ready to go.
The ZenMate Terms of Service does have the usual warnings about copyright, in particular stating that:
“You agree not to commit any copyright infringement when using ZenMate, for example by downloading copyright protected files or granting other people access to those. Such use is prohibited.”
That’s the same as you’ll see with any VPN, though, and no reason for any special concern.
What you don’t get with ZenMate is any significant help with setting up or troubleshooting any P2P or torrent issues you might have. ExpressVPN’s ‘How to use uTorrent…’ page is mostly about marketing, but it does have some useful details on how any why to use the program with a VPN. ZenMate’s support site has nothing on torrents at all.
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.
The mobile apps were just as straightforward. You know the deal: off to the app store, tap install, then open and log in using the user name and password you created earlier (or sign up on the spot, if you’re starting from scratch.)
Setting up anything involving OpenVPN (third-party VPN clients, routers and other hardware) is more of a hassle, not least because that’s only possible if you pay for the ZenMate Ultimate plan (it’s not included in the free trial.)
If you do sign up for Ultimate, you must generate OVPN files individually by going to the ZenMate web console, selecting your target operating system and main purpose of these connections (P2P, streaming, general browsing, more), and downloading a US or UK configuration file. Yes, just US and UK – unlike every other OpenVPN-supporting provider we’ve ever used, there’s no option to generate OpenVPN files which use servers in other countries.
This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. The ability to choose an operating system and your main internet usage allows the website to customize your configuration in a way you won’t see elsewhere, for example by applying Windows-specific performance tweaks. But if you’re looking for something simpler, like one OVPN file per server in a simple archive which you can download and use right away, ZenMate will leave you disappointed.
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ZenMate’s Windows client looks much like most other VPN apps – a list of locations and a big On/ Off button – but it does have one bizarre interface issue. The client window can’t be moved from its home in the bottom right of your screen, potentially annoying if you’ve other apps or notifications which might get in its way.
There are the bare minimum of features. You can filter the location list by entering a character or two, or select a location as a Favorite to move it to the top of the list. But you can’t choose servers within a location, and there’s no indicator of server load or ping time. The client doesn’t give you any autoconnection options and you can’t change or tweak your protocol.
The client doesn’t have any desktop notification of connects or disconnects, either. The only way to clearly see what’s happening is to look at the client window or check the color of its system tray icon (light means connected, dark is disconnected), and that can be a big problem.
Suppose you right-click the ZenMate system tray icon, for instance, and choose the UK server. Some VPNs will display an alert telling you they’re attempting to connect, then another when they succeed. ZenMate remains completely silent, not even telling you if the connection attempt fails. Unless you check, manually, you could easily think you’re protected by the VPN when you’re not.
The client does have a few settings, but even these didn’t impress. The two most important functions (Kill Switch, DNS Leak Protection) are turned off by default, and most of the others are relatively ordinary (load when Windows starts, reconnect if the VPN drops.)
Elsewhere, a ‘Locations Monitoring’ feature is apparently supposed to display the ‘extended status’ of locations, presumably some indication of server load, but it didn’t do anything at all for us.
The client is at least easy to use, as there’s not much more to do than choose a location to get connected, and click a button to Disconnect when you’re done.
Overall, the client delivers the most basic functionality you need, but there’s not a lot more, and various design and interface issues mean the client is far more awkward to use than it should be.
ZenMate’s Android app has a very similar stripped-back design to its desktop cousin: just a location list, a big On/ Off button, and a few tiny icons to check your account, view settings and notifications.
There are a few small improvements. The button is green when you’re protected, red when you’re not, so it’s easier to view your current VPN status. And unlike most VPN apps, it has a separate landscape view, where the screen expands your location on the right of the screen so it’s easier to switch servers.
The app also has a couple of extra layers (though turned off by default) which aim to block tracking services and prevent you accessing malicious websites.
There’s still nothing like the power you’ll get with the best apps, though – no ability to automatically connect when accessing non-trusted websites, for instance, or to switch or tweak your protocols – and although ZenMate’s Android app gets the basic VPN job done, it does very little more.
Meanwhile the iOS app has an identical layout to the desktop client, which is great for consistency, but also means you miss out on the benefits of the Android design (color-coded On/ Off button, separate landscape view.)
The iOS app does have one extra, with optional ad-blocking as well as anti-malware and anti-tracking. But otherwise there’s nothing here to help ZenMate stand out from the crowd.
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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 get connected 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.
Signing up for a paid plan gets you built-in blocking of malicious websites and 3rd-party tracking services.
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.
ZenMate’s support site makes a poor first impression, with nothing more on its opening page than three simple links (Getting Started, Using ZenMate and Troubleshooting.)
The picture didn’t improve as we browsed the articles. There are very few, with nothing like the detail you’ll get from a provider like ExpressVPN. Here, for instance, is the key content of an article titled ‘How does the desktop VPN work?’.
“Our Premium and Ultimate users have access to our full Desktop VPNs for both Windows and Mac OS X. The full Desktop VPNs offer increased functionality by working outside the browser, encrypting and securing all Internet traffic such as downloads and VoIP clients.”
When you do find some real content, some of it is hidden away in the wrong place, so for example the main article discussing how to fix speed issues appears in the ‘ZenMate VPN – for Browser’ section, rather than ‘Troubleshooting’.
Other pages include potentially risky or sometimes unhelpful advice. If you can’t get the Windows client to help, 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, though, and our test email took a lengthy 44 hours to get a basic response. If you run into serious difficulties with ZenMate, it might be quite some time before your problems get resolved.
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ZenMate’s free browser-based service might be useful, but inconsistent speeds and a distinct lack of features makes it hard to recommend the paid products. Maybe new owner Kape Technologies – the company behind CyberGhost – will invest the time and money in the service that ZenMate obviously needs.
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