ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Review
Cell phone service in the United States is taken for granted. However, 90% of the world's surface still lacks reliable cell phone coverage. It's in these types of areas that backcountry users commonly find themselves. Whether you are on a routine afternoon hunting trip or a month long expedition through the Yukon, having a satellite messenger device in your pack can pay huge dividends. Satellite communication devices provide peace of mind, weather reports, and instant communication with first responders in the event of an emergency.
The satellite messenger device world has largely been dominated by two companies - Garmin and SPOT. Garmin purchased the inReach series from Delorme in 2016. Garmin's popular inReach Mini ($350, 3.5oz) and inReach Explorer+ ($450, 7.5oz) are the prevailing standard for backcountry communication devices. SPOT also has a large presence in the market, largely due to their SPOT Gen3 ($150, 4.0oz) and SPOT X ($250, 6.7oz) models. Other companies with communicator devices include Bivystick ($300, 7.3oz) - a satellite communicator which can also be used as a USB power backup.
In January of 2020, ZOLEO entered the fray with their contender, known simply as the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator. Where does the ZOLEO rank in comparison to others like the InReach series? Let's take a look!
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator - Check Price on Amazon
The ZOLEO 2-way satellite communicator is a serious contender in the GPS communication world. It's extremely simple to operate, has lots of inexpensive plan options, and has a dedicated phone number. What is a dedicated phone number? It's a number that you can give to all of your friends and family so that they can initiate a text or email your device if needed. This is a notable improvement over InReach devices, which can only receive messages if you initiate the conversation from the InReach device first. In other words, if there was a family emergency back home while you were in the backcountry, your family would only be able to get ahold of you if they had a conversation thread already started with your InReach device. The ZOLEO also differs from InReach in that it seamlessly transitions between cellular, WiFi, and satellite networks (Iridium), using the lowest cost network available. We used the ZOLEO to text via Iridium and cellular networks, and experienced reliable and quick message transmissions with no delays or issues.
- Price: $199 - Check price on Amazon
- Weight: 5.3oz
- Dimensions: 3.58 x 2.6 x 1.06 inches
- Battery Life: 200+ hours or 8+ days checking messages every 12 minutes (Lithium-ion battery)
- Communication Methods: Satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi (device uses cheapest option available)
- Weather Proofing: MIL-STD 810G shock-resistance, and superior dust and water resistance (IP68). IP68 certification means it is water resistant but not water proof.
- SOS: Alerting with 24/7 monitoring
- Free Check-In preset messaging
- App: Free ZOLEO app required for texting and most other features. App gives you weather reports and texting/email capability.
- Monthly Price: Monthly plan required: $20, $35, or $50 (25, 250, or unlimited satellite messages) with cell, Wi-Fi, and SOS messaging included. $20 activation and after the initial 3-month commitment, suspend for just $4/mo. Plans currently available in USA, Canada, and Australia, but works globally.
The ZOLEO App (free) is very simple and intuitive to use. It has four main tabs: Chats, Weather, SOS, and Settings. The app interface is well designed and very intuitive. We didn't have any problem understanding or navigating the app. The app can be used to send text messages, emails, preset messages (called Check-In messages), as well as send an SOS.
Location can be toggled on or off for Check in Messages (middle). These are similar to preset messages with InReach devices. Text messages work exactly like you would expect (right).
App screens for Weather, SOS, and Settings
The only issues we had with the app were when we were reopening our phone to use the app again. Some times when the app didn't sync back up with the ZOLEO immediately so we had to close out the app and reopen it. It synced immediately upon reopening. This was a minor inconvenience but something worth noting. It's also worth mentioning that if the person you are messaging also has the ZOLEO app, you can send out long messages of up to 950 characters! This is nearly a 600% increase from the standard SMS limit of 160 characters!
ZOLEO vs. Garmin InReach Plan Pricing
Plan prices are a huge part of the equation when selecting a messaging device. Determining the long term cost of your device is essential. For example, most of the SPOT devices require you to sign up for an annual plan. This isn't the case with ZOLEO and InReach. Between Garmin and InReach, ZOLEO has the lowest cost plan. Even if you purchase an annual plan with the InReach, you are still ahead (per message cost) to go with a ZOLEO plan. Note that ZOLEO and Garmin both charge a $20 fee to activate a plan. ZOLEO also requires a 3 month commitment when you initially sign up.
ZOLEO Plan Pricing
Garmin InReach Plan Pricing
ZOLEO vs. Garmin inReach Mini
As the Garmin inReach Mini is currently the gold standard for communication devices, we wanted to do a side by side comparison of the inReach Mini and the ZOLEO devices. Both devices are solid, reliable choices for serious backcountry users. Let's see how they stack up:
|Weight (with batteries)||3.5oz||5.3oz|
|Size (inches)||3.9 x 2 x 1||3.5 x 2.6 x 1|
|Key Advantages||Lightest in class, extremely reliable, mapping and tracking capability.||Substantially lower cost device and plan options, great network options and dedicated phone number.|
|Key Disadvantages||No dedicated phone number, more expensive device and data plans, texting on device w/o app is tedious.||No on-device viewing, tracking, or mapping. Only one custom preset message.|
|Battery Life||Max 50 hours||200+ hours when checking messages every 12 minutes|
|Passive Tracking||Yes||No (ZOLEO indicated this is coming in early 2021!)|
|Network||Iridium||Iridium, WiFi, and Cellular|
|Dedicated Phone Number||No||Yes|
|2 Way Messaging||Yes||Yes|
|Number of Check-In Preset Messages||3||1|
|Group Text / Email||Yes||No|
|Waterproof Rating||IPX7 (resists splashes, nonsubmersible)||IP68 (water resistant)|
|Free App||Yes (Earthmate)||Yes (ZOLEO Mobile App)|
Can Text From Device Only
|Yes (very tedious)||No|
Mapping on App
|Operating Temperature||-4° to 140°F||-4°F to 131°F|
|Battery Charging Temperature||32° to 113°F||32°F to 113°F|
ZOLEO Cradle Kit - Check Price on Amazon
The cradle kit is an additional accessory which sells for $35. It contains a gray cradle which locks securely to the device, and detaches quickly if needed. The cradle is compatible with three green mounts: 1) clip shown above, 2) one you can thread a strap through, and 3) one with a ¼"-20 UNC threaded insert for use with Ram mounts, etc. Our preference while hiking is to put the ZOLEO in a hip pocket or top pocket of a pack rather than have it hanging off of the pack. But if you want it more accessible with the cradle kit - it appears the cradle would hold the device quite securely and safely. If you are kayaking or canoeing and need the device mounted to the hull, the cradle kit would also be a great option!
ZOLEO Universal Mount Kit - Check Price on Amazon
ZOLEO also provided us with a Universal Mount Kit. The kit contains a durable RAM Twist-Lock Suction Cup Base, Socket Arm, and the cradle kit mentioned above. Our dash didn't have a smooth enough finish to lock the suction cup down, so we put it on the window instead. The locking mechanism holds it dead steady, even over rough terrain. One thing to note (not ZOLEO's fault) is that suction cups don't work well in wide temperature fluctuations. We tested it from 15-35 degrees F, and sometimes at night when the temperature dropped, the suction cup would lose its holding power and detach. For people who use the device extensively while traveling, we recommend the Universal Mount Kit to keep the device secure while charging and within reach if needed. If you are more of a recreational user, the mount may not provide enough value to justify it's $75 cost. Since the device is meant to be operated through your phone, it might just be easier to keep the ZOLEO your pack or in your cup holder while you are driving to the trailhead.
The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is a serious contender in the satellite messenger arena. It's reliable, durable, and extremely easy to use. It does not have as many features as the Garmin InReach, which likely contributed to its lower cost. Which device is right for you?
If you value lower weight and need GPS tracking, downloadable waypoints, and group texting, take a long hard look at the Garmin inReach Mini. It has a solid app with mapping capabilities and is proven and reliable. Another notable advantage of the InReach is that it sends a linked location with text messages so that people back home can quickly open a map link and see where you are.
If you don't mind a slightly larger device and want to save a fair chunk of change, then we highly recommend the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator. The dedicated phone number and ability to use multiple networks are amazing features that shouldn't be overlooked. The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is a simple device that will allow you to keep in touch back home and send an SOS if needed. If ZOLEO had been around when we bought our InReach, we probably would have gone with the ZOLEO! Just think about what you could do with the $150 you saved by purchasing a ZOLEO!
ZOLEO devices are expected to have a tracking feature starting in early 2021. Current ZOLEO owners will be pleased to find that this new feature will be a software update and is compatible with all ZOLEO devices (old and new). We hope that ZOLEO devices can send coordinates with a map link in the future. ZOLEO Check-In messages can send location, but the coordinates are not very useful without a linked map.
Whichever device you choose, adding a communicator device to your gear will help keep you safe and give you tremendous peace of mind. Just remember to only use the SOS function in an absolute emergency. Just this summer we had a helicopter come into our basin in the Beartooths to rescue somebody who punched the SOS button too early (thought they were lost but then made it to camp). The helicopter wasn't rerouted until they had already flown into the basin late at night, fighting 50mph winds at over 11,000 feet. Helicopters have a very hard time flying at high altitudes because the air is too thin! Make sure that your emergency is truly an emergency before you risk the life of the Search and Rescue teams who are coming to bail you out.
Upon our request, ZOLEO provided Alpen Fuel with a device to test. They did not in any way try to influence our view of the product.