A Backpacker Tests Zoleo’s New Satellite Communicator

The satellite-messaging market has two major players: Spot and Garmin, with the latter claiming most of the market share. For a product that’s now ubiquitous and high dollar (largely due to subscription revenue), I’d like to see more brands competing and innovating in this space.

There is a new one that’s worth consideration: the Zoleo satellite communicator ($200, 5.3 ounces), which debuted in January. It’s priced, constructed, and engineered well, and it provides a significantly improved messaging experience for both the user and their contacts. (Another option is the new Global Hotspot from Somewear Labs, though I have not had the opportunity to review this model.)

When the Garmin InReach Mini ($350, 3.5 ounces) was released two years ago, it seemed like the holy grail, providing reliable two-way messaging, location-based weather forecasting, and functional GPS navigation in a palm-size package. The Zoleo satellite communicator is 40 percent heavier and lacks any navigation features (which is fine—just use Gaia GPS), but it outperforms the InReach in its core function: messaging.

The Zoleo platform, which is comprised of the device and the app, offers seamless communication across all connection methods. From the app, texts and email can be sent over cellular service or Wi-Fi and, if combined with the communicator, over satellite. In comparison, an InReach owner must use at least two messaging apps (one for the front country, like Google Voice, and Garmin Earthmate for backcountry), often resulting in disjointed conversations and missed messages, especially for thru-hikers, avid weekend warriors, international travelers, and residents of rural areas who bounce regularly between the front and backcountry.

Like the InReach devices, Zoleo relies on the Iridium satellite 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
  • 5.3 ounces (150 grams), plus 0.3 ounce for optional carabiner
  • $200 for the device, plus required monthly service plan ($20 to $50 per month, or $4 per month to hold)

Device Activation

Before taking Zoleo into the field, register the device and select a service plan. Then download the Zoleo app, and sync the device with your smartphone.

The website is well designed in terms of both its aesthetics and intuitiveness, and I successfully sent my first message about 30 minutes after unboxing the device.

Sending and Receiving Messages

Messages can be sent directly with the communicator or using the app (which connects to the unit via Bluetooth).

From the device, two form messages can be sent: SOS and check-in/OK.

Custom texts and email can also be sent and received from the app. SMS is capped at 160 characters, email at 200; however, when both the sender and the recipient use the app (which is free, even without purchase), the caps increase to 950 characters, or the equivalent of about six text messages.

For receiving messages, each Zoleo owner is given a dedicated phone number and a Zoleo.com email address. I gave this information to my contacts, who could then send me messages via any device or platform—phone, computer, InReach, or another Zoleo device. Custom messages can only be viewed in the app. 

This configuration is much simpler than the relatively complicated directions required to send messages to an InReach unit.

Seamless Messaging

The Zoleo app can send texts and email with cellular, Wi-Fi, or satellite connections and is therefore equally functional in the front country and backcountry. This prevents having to migrate conversations to a different app when you enter or leave the backcountry and eliminates any missing messages that were sent using the wrong platform.

As an example, here is a seamless conversation I had with my friend Dave, sent over Wi-Fi and satellite:

A quick conversation with my friend Dave. The first three messages were sent using the communicator, and the fourth was over Wi-Fi. I received his last message on Wi-Fi, too.
A quick conversation with my friend Dave. The first three messages were sent using the communicator, and the fourth was over Wi-Fi. I received his last message on Wi-Fi, too. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

The Hardware

The 5.3-ounce device is about the size of a small digital camera (3.58 by 2.6 by 1.06 inches) and lacks the InReach’s awkwardly protruding antenna. It’s powered by a lithium-ion battery and will last more than 200 hours while checking for messages every 12 minutes. The operating temperature range is minus 4 degrees to 131 degrees Fahrenheit.

The exterior is made of rubberized plastic, which offers a good balance of weight, durability, and grip. It’s shock-, dust-, and water-resistant.

The unit does not have a screen. To convey activity, it instead relies on cheery beeps and four LED lights, which blink or stay solid in four colors. The meanings of 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 dominated by two other brands: Spot and Garmin. I don’t recommend the Spot X ($250, 7 ounces). Garmin’s InReach service is available in four devices, my favorite of which is the InReach Mini, because it’s the lightest and least expensive option while retaining the functionality of 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 both use the Iridium network, this is what you’d expect.

Otherwise, the Zoleo messaging experience is better in every way. Messaging is centralized in the app rather than, as in Garmin’s case, split between conventional messaging apps when using cell service or Wi-Fi and the Garmin Earthmate app when using the device. This makes conversations continuous, and no incoming messages get missed.

As an added perk, if your contacts send and receive messages from you through the free app, they can contain up to 950 characters, whereas the InReach’s max is 160.

Extra Functionality: InReach Wins (Maybe)

The InReach device offers GPS navigation through the device itself (though the Mini and SE+ are limited due to screen size and a lack of built-in mapping) and 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 frequency, like every ten 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:

Both devices have location-specific weather forecasting. Here is the screenshot from the Zoleo app.
Both devices have location-specific weather forecasting. Here is the screenshot from the Zoleo app. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

The Hardware: InReach Mini Wins

The InReach Mini has two advantages over Zoleo. First, it’s just 3.5 ounces—33 percent lighter. 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 (albeit 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 on this front is its $200 price, which is $150 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.

For size comparison: the DeLorme InReach Explorer (left), Zoleo (center), and Spot Gen3 (right)
For size comparison: the DeLorme InReach Explorer (left), Zoleo (center), and Spot Gen3 (right) (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

Service Plans: Toss-Up

Garmin currently has three Freedom Plans, all of which include a $25 annual fee and allow you to pause your subscription during the off-season.

  • Safety: $144 per year, or $15 per month
  • Recreation: $300 pear year, or $35 per month
  • Expedition: $600 per year, or $65 per month 

The Safety plan includes unlimited preset messages but only ten custom messages (and 50 cents per overage). Tracking, location requests, and weather forecasts are available but are charged à la carte. With the Expedition plan, everything is essentially unlimited. The Recreation plan falls in between, with 40 custom messages per month and unlimited tracking and location requests, but premium weather is still à la carte.

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, both standard and custom. For anything beyond just-in-case use, the In Touch plan is more realistic—it includes 250 messages, which is eight times more than Garmin’s mid-tier Recreation plan. Unlimited is the final option and fairly named.

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