The satellite messaging market only has two players: SPOT and Garmin, with the latter getting most of the market share. For a product that’s now so ubiquitous and high-dollar (largely because of the subscription revenue), I’d like to see more brands competing and innovating in this space.
Here’s a new one that’s worth consideration: the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator ($200, 5.3 oz), which debuted in January. It’s well priced, constructed, and engineered; and it offers a significantly improved messaging experience for both the owner and their contacts.
Review: ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
When the Garmin inReach Mini ($300, 3.5 oz) was released two years ago, it seemed like the holy grail: reliable two-way messaging, location-based weather forecasting, and functional GPS navigation in a palm-sized package. Sweet!
The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is forty percent heavier and lacks any navigation features (which is fine — just use Gaia GPS), but outperforms the inReach in its core function: messaging.
The ZOLEO platform — comprised of the device and the app — offers seamless messaging across all connection methods. From the ZOLEO app, texts and emails can be sent using:
- Cellular service, using a normal carrier like AT&T;
- WiFi, like at home or a coffee shop; and,
- Satellite, using the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator.
In comparison, an inReach owner uses at least two messaging apps (personally, Google Voice and Garmin Earthmate), often resulting in disjointed conversations and missed messages, especially for those who bounce regularly between the frontcountry and backcountry like thru-hikers, avid weekend warriors, international travelers, and residents of very rural areas.
Like the inReach devices, ZOLEO relies on the Iridium network, which offers true global coverage. While testing the ZOLEO, messages cleared the device within minutes.
Key product specs
- Two-way satellite messaging
- Global coverage with the Iridium satellite network
- 5.2 oz (150 g), with +0.3 oz for optional carabiner
- $200 MSRP
- Monthly service required ($20-$50 per month; or $4/month hold)
Before taking ZOLEO into the field:
- Register the device,
- Select a service plan,
- Download the ZOLEO app, and
- Sync the device with your smartphone.
The ZOLEO website is well designed, in terms of both its aesthetics and intuitiveness, and I successfully sent my first message about thirty minutes after unboxing the device.
How to send messages
Messages can be sent directly with the ZOLEO unit, or using the ZOLEO smartphone app (which connects to the unit via Bluetooth).
From the device, two messages can be sent:
- SOS, and
Notably, the unit does allow for location tracking, like on a 5- or 10-minute basis.
From the ZOLEO app, three types of messages can be sent:
- Check-in/Okay, and
- Custom texts and emails.
SMS is capped at 160 characters; email, at 200. However, when the recipient also uses the ZOLEO app (which is free even without purchase), the cap is increased to 950 characters, or the equivalent of about six text messages.
How to receive messages
Each ZOLEO owner is given a dedicated phone number and email address. For example, the number for my demo unit was 804-616-35XX, and my email was [email protected]
I could give this information to my contacts, who could then send me messages through any device or platform — phone, desktop computer, inReach, or another ZOLEO.
This configuration is much simpler than the relatively complicated directions for sending messages to an inReach unit.
The ZOLEO app can be used to send texts and emails with a cellular, Wifi, or satellite connection, and is therefore equally functional in the frontcountry and backcountry. This prevents: having to “move” conversations to a different app, and missing messages that were sent to the wrong platform.
As an example, here is a seamless conversation I had with Dave, sent over both Wifi and satellite:
The 5.2-oz devices shares similar dimensions as a Canon ELPH camera (3.58 x 2.6 x 1.06 in), and lacks an awkwardly protruding antenna. It’s powered with a lithium-ion battery, and will last 200+ hours while checking for messages every 12 minutes. Operating temperature range is -4°F to 131°F.
The exterior is made of a rubberized plastic, and seems to offer a good balance of weight, durability, and grip. It’s shock-resistant, and dust- and water-resistant (IP68, MIL-STD 810G).
The unit does not have a screen. To convey activity, it instead relies on cheery beeps and four LED lights, which can blink or stay solid in green, amber, blue, and red. The beeps and lights are mostly intuitive, but until you have them memorized, pack the Quick Start Guide (or use the app).
The SOS button is well guarded by a hinged door. An accidental depressing of the SOS button is unlikely, though I’d be comforted if its snap closure required more force to open.
ZOLEO versus the competition
ZOLEO enters a market with just two other brands: SPOT and Garmin. SPOT offers the SPOT X (my review), which I wouldn’t recommend. Garmin’s inReach service is available in four devices, with my favorite being the inReach Mini (my preview) because it’s the lightest and least expensive option while still having all the functionality as the other units (assuming it’s paired to a smartphone).
How does the ZOLEO stack up against the Garmin inReach Mini?
Messaging: ZOLEO wins
The messaging reliability seems about the same between my inReach and the ZOLEO. Since they both use the Iridium network, this is what you’d expect.
Otherwise, the ZOLEO messaging experience is better in every way. For owners, the messaging is centralized (in the ZOLEO app), rather than being split between conventional messaging apps (when using cell service or Wifi) and the Garmin Earthmate app (when using the inReach). So conversations can be continuous, and no incoming messages are missed because they were sent to the app not use in use.
As an added perk, if your contacts send and recieve messages from you through the ZOLEO app (which is free), messages can contain up to 950 characters.
Extra functionality: inReach wins, maybe
The inReach devices offers GPS navigation, through the device itself (sometimes limited) and also in the Earthmate app. The ZOLEO completely omits this functionality. I think that’s fine, since I use Gaia GPS anyway.
ZOLEO also omits location tracking, whereas with Garmin it can be set to a specific frequently like every 10 minutes. As a hiker, I don’t particularly see the value in this service (as opposed to, say, a pilot or sea kayaker), but I know that some backpackers do use it.
Both devices have location-specific weather forecasting. Here is the screenshot from the ZOLEO app:
The device: inReach Mini wins
The inReach Mini has two advantages over ZOLEO. First, it’s 33 percent lighter, at just 3.5 ounces (versus 5.3 for ZOLEO).
Second, and more importantly, the Mini has a small screen that:
- More clearly displays its status and any received messages; and,
- Can be used to send messages, using its painfully slow virtual keyboard.
This latter use is probably rare, since the Mini will most often be tethered to a smartphone, but it’s a nice option to have “just in case.”
The single advantage of the ZOLEO is its $200 price, which is $100 less than the Mini. I tend not to put too much stock in the retail price of these units, however, since its lifetime cost is largely determined by the monthly service fees.
Service plans: Toss up
Garmin currently offers three plans:
- Safety: $144 per year, or $15 per month plus $25 annual fee;
- Recreation: $300 pear year, or $35 per month plus $25 annual fee;
- Expedition: $600 per year, or $65 per month plus $25 annual fee.
The Safety plan includes unlimited preset messages but only 10 custom messages ($0.50 per overage); tracking, location requests, weather forecasts are available but are charged a la carte. With the Expedition Plan, everything is essentially unlimited. Recreation is in between.
ZOLEO also has three plans:
- Basic: $240 per year, or $20 per month;
- In Touch: $420 per year, or $35 per month;
- Unlimited: $600 per year, or $50 per month;
- Month-to-month plans are charged a $4 per month hold fee, which is similar to Garmin’s $25 annual fee for its Freedom plans.
The Basic plan includes 25 messages total, including both standard check-in/Okay and custom. For anything beyond “just in case” use, the In Touch plan is more realistic — it includes 250 messages, or eight times more than Garmin’s mid-tier Recreation plan. Unlimited is the final option, and fairly named.
Leave a comment
- What are your first impressions of ZOLEO?
- What questions do you have about it?
- How do you think it compares to existing satellite communicators like the inReach devices and SPOT X?
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