Review: Zoleo Satellite Communicator

The Zoleo Satellite Communicator is designed to provide safe communications in the backcountry in an affordable rugged and reliable package. We used the Zoleo Satellite Communicator on both the Sunshine Coast Trail and the Great Divide Trail for a total of over 50 days of backcountry slogging not to mention a bunch of days closer to home mountain biking. Needless to say, we’ve got a great feel of how the device works. 

Zoleo on a stretch of Lillooet Lake with nothing but water and satellite signals

Specs & Features:

  • Color: Grey/Green
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.6 x 2.7 cm
  • Weight: 150 grams
  • Button Layout:
    •  Left side, flip cover SOS
    •  Top Face Center: Check In
    •  Top Right Edge: Power
  • Charging: Micro USB,
  • Battery: 1430 mAh Li Rechargeable
  • Time to Recharge: 2 hours
  • Battery Life: 200+ hours
  • Layout: Four LEDs for Message Rec’d, Power, SOS & Check-In
  • Phone Connection: Bluetooth LE
  • Satellite Service: Iridium
  • Max Transmit Power: 1.5W
  • SMS Cell connectivity
  • WiFi connectivity
  • Shock, water and dust resistant
  • Operating Temperatures: -20°C to 55°C

Who is Zoleo?

Zoleo is a joint venture between Beam Communications of Australia and Roadpost of Canada, two major international players in Satellite Communications dating back to 1991. They recognized a need for affordable global messaging connectivity plus a safety system and so together designed the Zoleo Satellite Communicator. 

The Device

The Zoleo device itself is quite sturdy with a rubberized housing. It’s built to last with Military specs of MIL-STD 810G for vibration. It’s also IP68 certified to be dust and water resistant to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) for 30 min. More than enough for a long walk in the pouring rain or a dunk in a puddle.

The Zoleo Satellite Communicater

The Zoleo is very simple to use with 4 LED’s and 3 buttons:

The four obvious LEDs on the face of the Zoleo indicate which function is active. The upper left LED is blue and lines up with an image of an envelope. This LED flashes when you’ve received a message. The upper right LED is yellow and will flash once you have successfully sent a check-in message hence the checkmark. The lower left LED is red and will flash to confirm that an SOS message has been sent out. Finally, the lower right LED is green and flashes to confirm that the device is on. The brightness of the LEDs can be adjusted in the Zoleo app along with the confirmation sound.

There is an SOS button on the left, just above the Carabiner Clip. Flip open a cover, hold the button for three weeks (or at least if feels like a long time) and SOS has been activated.

On the upper middle section of the communicator is the check-In button. A firm push will activate the Check-in function that will send a pre-set message and your location. 

The Zoleo SOS button. The door shuts auto so I had to tape it open for the photo

On the top right edge of the device is a small power button. Hold it for three seconds and the device turns on. The opposite will turn it off. The button is small and somewhat tricky to push but I suspect this is to keep the communicator from accidentally turning off and on without your knowledge.

On the bottom right of the device is another door to flip open that reveals the micro-USB port used for charging.

Set-Up

This was an absolute snap. If only all Apps and Devices were this easy to get going we’d all have a happier digital life. The Zoleo connects to your phone via Bluetooth LE. After connecting your phone to the Zoleo via the system settings on your phone, there was never a need to do so again. Simply turning on the Zoleo app would cause the bluetooth between the two devices to connect automatically.

The first time you open the app you will be greeted by the set-up system. There were 8  pages to go through and I was up and running. That’s it. No giant Terms of Service to be read. Below is a small image gallery of these set-up screens.

How does it connect?

This is where the Zoleo is quite different from other products, it can use Wi-Fi and Cellular in addition to the regular satellite systems used by competing products. The Zoleo automatically switches between the cheapest network available in order to save you from unnecessary messaging costs. If you’re on a Wi-Fi network, it will use that. Out of the house but still in cell coverage? That’s how the Zoleo device will send messages. In the outback of Australia, Alaska or the Canadian Rockies? Then, the Zoleo device will use the Iridium Satellite Network. 

In the event that the bluetooth connection was lost, the app sends an immediate notification indicating the device and phone are disconnected. This only happened to me once when I walked away from my pack at camp with my phone in my pocket. I could normally get thirty feet away before the connection was lost. 

Iridium and Satellite Communications

The Zoleo Satellite Communicator uses the Iridium Satellite network. It’s the largest satellite network in the world and covers, in their words, every inch of the world. They have 66 low-earth orbiting, cross-linked satellites (with 9 spares also in orbit just in case one stops working!). That overlap helps to create a fairly seamless connection with the outside world. The device’s geolocation accuracy is rated to about 2m in ideal conditions which is more than good enough for a rescue party. Of course this distance grows rapidly in areas with poor signal strength.

Zoleo Satellite Communicator in use in the Castle Wildland Provincial Park 

When turning on the Zoleo device it’s best to have as clear a view of the open sky as possible. In northern latitudes that sky should be to the south, vice-versa in the south. Being in densely forested areas or low down in steep valleys will affect the way the device connects. This is not specifically a Zoleo issue, but one that every satellite communicator will face. The more sky the device can see, the better it will perform. Once it connects, it will automatically check for messages and alert you if you have received messages. 

The only time we had issues getting a connection was in an exceptionally dense coastal rain forest or deep in a valley bottom as you would expect. On a comparative note the Zoleo has a max transmit power of 1.5 Watts. Very similar to the InReach with it’s powerful 1.6 Watt transmission power and much more than the SPOT with a paltry 0.4 Watts.

After connecting, if I needed to communicate semi-frequently with someone, I could place the Zoleo in the brain of my pack after gaining a connection. Communications was never affected. The advantage of this is while bush whacking there was never a threat of having the device ripped off the outside of my bag. I’ve seen lots of folks with their SOS communicator strapped to their backpack straps which makes sense if you are using the device for navigation. If you need to have access to the SOS button in under a second, perhaps you should be questioning your objectives. 

Communications: SMS and EMail

Once you have registered your Zoleo Satellite Communicator you are given a dedicated SMS phone number and an email address. You can then send and receive short messages to any email address or phone number. The device will use whichever medium is the cheapest. If you’re in cell range then it will use cell towers and so on. A great feature in areas or activities with intermittent connectivity as you don’t have to remember to switch it on an off all the time. Think international vacations, road trips, mountain biking and so on. No matter where you are the device will work and you don’t need a new cell plan for texting in foreign countries.

Communications: The Zoleo App

This, in my opinion, is the main selling point of the Zoleo. Most devices have an SOS button, some use the Iridium network, but not all of them have the ability to type 1047 character messages. Normal SMS have a 160 character limit and emails have a 232 character limit.

You will want to have your emergency contacts, or anyone from whom who’re expecting frequent messages, on the Zoleo App before you leave home. Once they’re set-up you can give a full rundown of the day, or send notifications in far more detail. The other advantage of this is when you need to send a longer and more detailed message. You don’t have to send several SMS or emails, just one simple Zoleo message and all is covered. Another nice thing is that the App puts all the messages in the same location regardless of how they’re or received – via cell towers, satellites, etc.

On the Great Divide Trail I blew out my new shoes. On day 8! We had just left Coleman Alberta and were headed to Peter Lougheed Park where a friend was dropping off a resupply box. I had 6 more days of hiking to get to the Park and the resupply. I knew I could make there, but that was it. My shoes would be cooked by that time so if I didn’t get something organized the trip was in jeopardy. With the immediacy of the app and the amount of characters I could use it was a snap to place an order online through a friend.

SOS Functionality

In App SOS function

The Zoleo Satellite Communicator uses the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) which is, according to their website, the only global Search and Rescue Coordination Center and of course they deal with a majority of the satellite comms outfits such as SPOT, InReach, and so on.

There are two ways to trigger an SOS response. The App and the physical button. Flip open the cover on the left side of the device, it has SOS in bold red letters written on it, to reveal the SOS button. Hold the button for three seconds and SOS has been activated. The alternative is to trigger an SOS response via the App. On the bottom bar of the Zoleo app are four options. From left to right are chat, weather, SOS and Settings. Push the SOS and the screen changes to one with a very large and obvious red SOS button in the middle of the screen. Hold the button for five seconds and the SOS function has been activated.

Weather

Dark Sky Radar weather report. Unfortunately, very accurate this time

This was a feature I was very much looking forward to as I had heard and read many good things about the DarkSky weather forecasts. Unfortunately this hype didn’t pay off on the GDT. The forecasts were not very accurate from physical location and this may have had something to do with the interaction between the Zoleo Satellite Communicator and my iPhone 8+.

The forecast seemed to be accurate about 50 percent of the time. The problem I had was sometimes the forecast range was huge, the entire province! I have spoken extensively with Zoleo reps and they believe this is due to my phone caching my location incorrectly, giving that info to the communicator, and then me receiving the forecast. However, iPhones are not that uncommon and so this could be an issue for a wide range of users unless they start using the device for a location instead of the phone.

Summary:

Pros: Rugged, Amazing Battery Life, Simple & Easy to Use, Inexpensive, Versatile

Cons: No tracking or way to text without a phone (if you care), DarkSky Weather Forecast not as good as expected, not that small.

Overall: The Zoleo is a budget conscious and rugged device that’s entirely focused on communications. It allows for long messages across a variety of mediums seamlessly as it switches between satellite, cell towers & Wifi modes as opportunity dictates. Ideal for road trips, international travel and the backcountry. I don’t personally need to mix my emergency comms with my GPS but if you’re looking for a device with tracking/mapping functions then this isn’t it. 

For more info head on over to Zoleo: https://www.zoleo.com/en-ca/

 

Black Sheep Adventure Sports was supplied with a sample Zoleo Satellite Communicator for this review but this didn’t influence our review in any way.