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ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Review

This nearly perfect device provides comprehensive, polished, two-way satellite communications
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
Photo: BlueCosmo
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Price:  $200 List | $199.95 at Amazon
Pros:  Excellent network, seamless communication, some on-device functionality
Cons:  No on-device message viewing or composition, no tracking, heavier than close competitors
Manufacturer:   ZOLEO
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Apr 3, 2020
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75
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#3 of 11
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging - 30% 7
  • Non-Emergency Messaging - 25% 8
  • Signal Coverage - 20% 8
  • Ease of Use - 15% 7
  • Portability - 10% 7

Our Verdict

The ZOLEO is polished and effective. The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator enters this market with a mature and excellent product. It isn't perfect, but it introduced an attribute that will raise the bar of other options. The construction feels solid, and the subscription options are clean and competitive. We especially like that conversations in the ZOLEO app are continuous across both satellite and cell/wifi signal. We wish that more satellite communication devices and services offered this functionality. Our main gripe with the ZOLEO, and this is likely minor for most of you most of the time, is that one cannot view or compose custom messages on the device itself. All customized messaging is done through the app. In routine use, this is fine. However, if something were to happen to your smartphone, rudimentary on-device custom messaging would be nice to have.

Compare to Similar Products

 
Awards  Editors' Choice Award Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award 
Price $199.95 at Amazon$326.49 at Amazon
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$349.99 at Amazon$424.47 at Amazon
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$350 List
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Pros Excellent network, seamless communication, some on-device functionalitySmall, two-way textingCompact, great network, on-device basic controlsEasy and affordable two-way messaging, great smartphone app, feature loaded, proven global networkSmall, affordable subscription options, proven satellite and dispatch networks, simple
Cons No on-device message viewing or composition, no tracking, heavier than close competitorsComplicated to compare costs, texting on device is very slowNo on-device message viewing or composition, USB-C chargingExpensive initial purchase, largest and heaviest messengerOnly supports SOS on the device itself
Bottom Line This is a smooth, comprehensive two-way communicator that relies on a proven satellite network and brings innovations that raise the barText correspondence to and from the wilderness, wrapped up in a diminutive formA compact, full service satellite messenger that has all you need, and is close to all you would wantAn excellent device with only one weakness - portabilityA small, basic device that employs established network, dispatch, and hardware systems through affordable subscription plans
Rating Categories ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Garmin inReach Mini Bivystick Blue Garmin inReach Explorer+ Somewear Global Hotspot
SOS Emergency Messaging (30%)
7
7
7
7
7
Non Emergency Messaging (25%)
8
9
8
9
6
Signal Coverage (20%)
8
8
8
8
8
Ease Of Use (15%)
7
6
7
7
7
Portability (10%)
7
9
9
4
8
Specs ZOLEO Satellite... Garmin inReach Mini Bivystick Blue Garmin inReach... Somewear Global...
2-way Messaging? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2-way Messaging Available via Cellular/Wifi? Yes No No No Yes
Custom Messaging Viewable and Composable on Device? No Yes No Yes No
Passive Tracking (turn on and forget about it - viewers at home can watch your progress on the web) No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Weight w/ Batteries (ounces) 5.3 3.5 3.6 7.5 4.1
Battery Life (hours) 200+ when checking messages every 12 minutes Up to 50 Up to 120 100 (lithium polymer battery) Up to 1000 messages
Waterproof Rating IP68 (water resistant) IPX7 (splashes & weather proof, nonsubmersible) IP67 IPX7 (splashes & weather proof, nonsubmersible) IPX7
Pairs with Smartphone? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Satellite Network Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium
Dimensions (inches) 3.5 x 2.6 x 1 3.9 x 2 x 1 1.9 x .9 x 4.5 6.5 x 2.7 x 1.5 3 x 3.6 x .8
Cubic Inches (LxWxH) 9.1 7.8 7.7 26.3 8.6

Our Analysis and Test Results

The ZOLEO is a brand new, mature contender in the category of two-way satellite messengers. As a new product from a little-known company, we are pleasantly surprised with the sophistication and polish of all aspects of this product. The ZOLEO has nearly everything we look for in a satellite messenger for wilderness travel. All it lacks is live tracking (which could conceivably be added as a firmware update?) and the ability for the user to view or compose customized messages from the device itself. All customized, two-way messaging must be conducted through the ZOLEO app. Otherwise, the ZOLEO has messaging, satellite coverage, portability, and ease of use that tops the field.

Performance Comparison


The Zoleo is a comprehensive, smooth-functioning entry to the field...
The Zoleo is a comprehensive, smooth-functioning entry to the field. We dig it.
Photo: Jediah Porter

SOS/Emergency Messaging


SOS Messages from the ZOLEO are sent from either the app or from the device itself. Provided your satellite coverage is adequate, that SOS message is transmitted via ZOLEO to GEOS Inc., a world-wide, private-sector emergency dispatch organization. GEOS notes your location, some basic identification information, and then works to secure local emergency response. That local emergency response varies greatly depending on your location and a whole host of other factors. GEOS contracts to perform dispatch services for the users of most (if not all?) private sector satellite messengers.

Thankfully, we did not have to employ the SOS messaging attributes of the ZOLEO. We like that a help message can be sent either from the app or from the device alone. If your smartphone is damaged, out of battery, or missing, you can still request help in a dire situation. We also like that ZOLEO contracts with a proven, large-scale dispatch agency. Beyond the conclusions we can make based on our understanding of how this technology and service work, we cannot comment first-hand on the emergency messaging of the ZOLEO.

On-device, protected SOS button of the BlueCosmo Zoleo. Use this...
On-device, protected SOS button of the BlueCosmo Zoleo. Use this only in truly dire emergencies.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Non-Emergency Messaging


In some ways, the ZOLEO has the best possible non-emergency messaging on the market. You can use your familiar smartphone keyboard, and conversations are organized just like in any other modern messaging app. This is fairly consistent across the handful of two-way satellite messaging products on the market.

The ZOLEO sets itself apart with non-emergency messaging that is seamless across different connectivity types. You can have one text chain that works via satellite and via cell/wifi. This is a welcome attribute for those traveling in and out of signal and isn't ubiquitous on the market currently. It seems like a relatively simple software change that may soon come to the services that don't currently do it.

You can also send a preset "I'm OK" message from the app or the ZOLEO device. This is similar to other products on the market. At the very least, with this attribute and a good understanding between you and your emergency contacts in civilization, if you damage or lose your smartphone you can still let people know that you are safe.

Our one major wish is that the ZOLEO allowed viewing and composition of customized messages on the device itself. On a small device this is going to be a cumbersome prospect. Typing in the smartphone app will always be easier. Nonetheless, in that scenario in which your smartphone is incapacitated, being able to make valuable and nuanced two-way correspondence is quite valuable.

The check mark denotes the button one can use to send a...
The check mark denotes the button one can use to send a pre-programmed "OK Message". This is nice. We only wish one could do even more directly on the device, without the app.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Signal Coverage


The ZOLEO uses the global and proven Iridium network for its satellite communications. Our test team has extensive experience with this communication network and can vouch for it. Of the choices for global, two-way communication, it is definitely the best we know of that is available to the private sector.

The Iridium network covers the entire earth but is subject to all the ubiquitous vagaries of satellite communications. All satellite communications require an unobstructed "line of sight" between the device and the satellite it is communicating with. Trees, buildings, and steep terrain can and do interfere. Iridium's "Low Earth Orbit" satellites move overhead, resulting in a signal that comes and goes with time. You might have a connection now and lose it in minutes. You might not see a signal right now, but it could appear in a little bit. In certain terrain (dense forest, inside buildings, deep and narrow canyons), you might never get any sort of satellite signal.

A sampling of the tested devices, showing relative sizes. Clockwise...
A sampling of the tested devices, showing relative sizes. Clockwise from upper right: ACR Aqualink (discontinued), ACR ResQLink, Somewear Global Hot Spot, SPOTx, Ocean Signal PLB1, SatPaq, Inreach Mini, Editors Choice BlueCosmo Zoleo.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Ease of Use


The ZOLEO is slick and simple. We had no problems setting it up and getting messages going. Starting conversations, whether from the ZOLEO sender or from any sender in civilization is simple and clean. If the correspondent in civilization equips themself with the free ZOLEO app, two people can correspond with even longer messages than if the civilization correspondent were using just an email address or phone number.

Our test team is well versed in the realities of satellite communications. Our commentary on relative ease of use and signal coverage is calibrated against all satellite communications and is based on extensive and deep testing. You will find other online reviews of all sorts of satellite communication devices and services that indicate profound issues or differences in quality. These reviewers are likely less familiar with the realities of satellite communications. All satellite communications are pretty annoying and slow, regardless of the hardware or service. The ZOLEO does as well or better than most, but will never replicate the ease of texting with cell signal or wifi.

Portability


The ZOLEO device is almost as small and light as the smallest options on the market. It feels robust, and all the buttons are secure and weatherproofed. ZOLEO secured third party endorsement of the weather resistance, and it passes to "IP68" level. This means it is certified to be "water-resistant". This is all you should need. Don't submerge it deeply for hours and you'll be good to go.

There are other, smaller options on the market, but not by much. That we are discerning between products that weigh 4 ounces and 5 ounces (the ZOLEO weighs 5.3 ounces on our calibrated scale) would have been unheard of a decade ago. Two-way, wilderness communication equipment that weighs less than your standard apple is something that we couldn't have imagined not that long ago. Sure, it could get smaller, but not by much. We are pleased with the portability of the ZOLEO.

The Zoleo device, in use on a hike in Death Valley National Park. It...
The Zoleo device, in use on a hike in Death Valley National Park. It is compact and light enough to take everywhere with you.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Value


Whether you look at just initial purchase price or full cost of ownership (including service), the ZOLEO is competitive with the average options and not that far off of the best values on the market. Direct cost comparisons are difficult because each company offers different types of service subscriptions and terms of service. We have crunched the numbers on various options with each product, noted those in a graphic in our main review, and can confidently say that the ZOLEO isn't the absolute best value, but for the performance, it is worth the cost.

Sample app screenshot from the Zoleo
Sample app screenshot from the Zoleo
Photo: Jediah Porter

Conclusion


ZOLEO enters this product and service category with an entry that is mature, well-developed, and nearly comprehensive. No one product currently on the market does all that we know is possible. The ZOLEO comes close. All it lacks is live tracking and the ability to view and compose customized messages on the device itself, without your smartphone. If it had these things, it would be alone at the top of the heap.

Jediah Porter