For years Garmin has dominated the satellite messaging category with its family of inReach devices. But competitors have emerged, thankfully, and it’s helping to keep prices down, drive product innovation, and perhaps improve customer service.
For nearly three weeks this spring I used the Somewear Global Hotspot ($280, 4 oz/113 grams), one of these newer devices, while guiding trips in southern Utah, giving me an opportunity to test its reliability and features, and to better understand how it compares to other units like the inReach Mini, Zoleo, Spot X, Spot Gen4.
Review: Somewear Global Hotspot
At its core, the Somewear Global Hotspot is a two-way satellite messenger, capable of both sending and receiving texts in areas without cell service.
The device uses the Iridium network, which has truly global coverage. A subscription is required. I found the messaging experience to be remarkably zippy — when I had good signal strength (conveniently displayed by the app in the upper-right corner), messages were sent and received with a short delay, usually seconds, sometimes a few minutes. It felt significantly faster than my inReach Mini, which I was using simultaneously for inReach-to-inReach conversations with other guides who were in the field.
Three types of messages can be sent with the Hotspot:
- SOS, using a dedicated physical button on the device;
- Location tracking, using the power button on the device;
- Custom, by pairing your smartphone to the device with the Somewear Mobile App.
The Somewear Mobile App also transmits texts over cell service or WiFi, making for a seamless messaging experience (and also saving money, because this data is run through your phone provider, not against your Somewhere service plan). When bouncing back and forth between civilization and the wilderness, as you might do on a thru-hike and as I do while guiding, text conversations do not get disjointed when the connection changes.
As a standalone unit, the Somewhere is physically appealing, being palm-sized and only 4.0 oz (113 grams). The original unit (and my review unit) was dark blue/light blue; it was updated to black/blue in spring 2021, but otherwise is the same as the original.
An emergency message can be sent using the dedicated button, which is protected well by a cap. Tracking can be initiated by rapidly pressing the on/off button three times.
To type, send, receive, and read text messages, the device must be paired with a smartphone.
The device gives little indication about its operations. It doesn’t beep or vibrate, and it has just one external white-only LED light with three blinking patterns (for on, pairing, and tracking modes).
The Mobile App has some weather and mapping features. But, honestly, I recommend that you get this data from elsewhere. The weather forecasts are pulled from Dark Sky, which is an Apple product that poorly predicts mountain weather. And for your mapping, I highly recommend instead the Gaia GPS or CalTopo apps. Somewear partnered with onX Backcountry, which I’m less familiar with and which I don’t see compelling reasons to use over Gaia or CalTopo.
The Hotspot against the competition
How does the Somewear Global Hotspot compare to other satellite messengers?
Somewear Hotspot versus Spot Gen4 and Spot X
The SPOT Gen4 is a one-way device, capable of only sending messages. Its technology was groundbreaking in 2008 when it was released but is now obsolete.
The SPOT X is a two-way messenger with a physical keyboard. But it’s heavier and clunkier than the Somewear Hotspot, and does not offer seamless messaging.
Conclusion: The Somewear Hotspot is a clear winner over both SPOT devices.
Somewear Hotspot versus Garmin inReach, specifically the Mini
The Mini is marginally smaller and lighter (by a half-ounce, or 15 grams), and as a standalone device it has more functionality — like the Somewear, it can send an SOS message; but messages can also be read and typed out (albeit painfully slowly) using its small screen and virtual keyboard.
The Somewear device has one physical advantage. When it’s laid flat on the ground, as it’s designed to, its antenna points at the sky. It doesn’t need to be propped up with a rock or piece of gear, as with the Mini.
Somewear offers seamless messaging; the inReach does not. This is a major omission by inReach, which is vulnerable to disjointed text conversations when you come back into cell/wifi range (or get back out of it).
The Hotspot is less expensive — $280 retail versus $350 for the Mini. Though the real cost of these devices are in the subscription plans (for Somewear, go here; for inReach, go here). The plans are not directly comparable, but overall the Somewear is less expensive to operate, in addition to being less expensive to buy. For example:
- For $15 per month, the Somewear includes 20 messages, whereas the inReach includes only 10;
- And the unlimited plan costs $50 per month for Somewear and $65 for the inReach.
Conclusion: If you expect to regularly carry the device but not a smartphone, which is the case with very few people, the inReach is the better option. Otherwise, the Somewear is more attractive: its seamless messaging and cost-savings more than offset the 0.5-ounce weight penalty and its slightly larger size.
Somewear Hotspot versus Zoleo
The Somewear has a single advantage over the Zoleo: it’s 1.3 ounces lighter, and also smaller.
Both offer seamless messaging, over satellite, wifi, and cell.
Otherwise, Zoleo has more going for it:
- $200 retail price, versus $280
- 900-character limit when the recipient also has the Zoleo app (versus the more standard 160-ish);
- Dedicated phone number and email address, making it extremely easy for a Zoleo owner to be contacted;
- The device has an “Okay” message button, plus multiple lights with different colors and blinking patterns; and,
- More economical service plans, like $35 per month for 250 messages, versus 75 messages for $30 with the Somewear.
Conclusion: If size and weight is a big priority, go with the Hotspot (or maybe the Mini). But if you’re willing to carry a heftier device for more functionality and to save some money, the Zoleo is the better pick.
Update: August 17, 2022
This summer the Hotspot has been unavailable for purchase. I inquired with Somewear about this, and received the following information from the CEO:
- Large orders from SAR/first responder-type organizations have consumed available units, leaving no inventory available for the public.
- “In the next six months” they expect to make units available for general sales.