Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Zello is Blackline's communications tool for both long-range and command/control messaging. You can read about why and how we're employing it at our other blog post here. While there are a growing number of Zello accessories, not all are created equal and it has been an ongoing battle to find trustworthy devices over the past few years.
This post is a living document (Last Updated December 2020) designed to be updated with new products that seem to be meeting the demands of tactical airsoft and milsim events. It also covers a few of the promising items being released that make Zello even more useful in the field.
**Full disclosure - We will be super clear about what products we're using and our experiences with them. If you make a purchase based on our experiences, Blackline may receive compensation from a vendor or site.**
Using Zello can be a zero dollar investment if you want it to be. By itself, your phone screen acts as the PTT button and the internal speakers and microphones are more than equipped to handle communications. This isn't a very tactical approach to comms, so one of the first things to do is to plug in your standard earbuds or existing Bluetooth earpieces.
You can use the inline phone controls on your earbuds but these often work in a 'toggle' mode instead of a true push to talk function. You'll have to click them once to engage Zello, say your message, then press them again to turn it off. It's not a bad solution for covert communications at blue-side events as phone earbuds are pretty common in public.
If you want to spend less than $20 on hardware, this is your best option although you may not see all the benefits Zello has to offer with this approach.
PUSH TO TALK (PTT) BUTTONS
One of the least expensive options to use is a small PTT button. These Bluetooth-enabled or wired devices are the trigger for your Zello app. They work in 'press and hold' mode which is how most PTTs operate but can be switched to 'toggle' mode if desired. The Bluetooth technology can be a bit temperamental at times, and if you lose pairing because you separate your phone from the PTT it can take a bit of effort to reconnect them. This seems to be getting better as phone and device developers advance the technology. The wired option offer a more reliable connection for about the same price, but they can be less discrete. You'll still need a pair of earbuds or a Bluetooth earpiece if you want to keep the communications covert.
Cost: ~$75 to ~$120 CAD ($56-90 USD)
Tested: YES (multiple participants with ongoing evaluations)
Quality wired accessories are starting to make an appearance and Pryme always seems to be releasing new items. The PICO is a wired PTT button that allows you to connect earpieces using the Snaplock connector. The PICO comes with three varieties of phone connection (USB-C, lightning, and 3.5mm) for whatever device you're using. The device itself is low profile so it can easily be pinned to a shirt and stay out of the way. If you're looking for a blue-side covert solution, we'd probably recommend pinning this to a shirt under a jacket or other loose fitting cover just to help it blend in.
The PICO is powered differently depending on the model you pick up. Lighting and USB-C versions are powered by your phone, but the 3.5mm jack version uses a small replaceable battery that Pryme claims will last up to two years. While we haven't reached the end of battery life yet, that estimate tracks with our use of the other Pryme PTTs. The top of the PTT has a small microphone port while the right side houses the larger PTT button and a smaller secondary PTT for apps with that function enabled. Two tangle-resistant braided cables run from the bottom of the device and sit next to the on/off switch. The rear has a small alligator clip for attaching the PICO to clothing.
So far we've found the operation simple and the sound quality acceptable. There's no word on weatherproofing for these devices so you might want to restrict them to more urban operations. The snaplock connector for the earpieces is pretty universal and you'll find a lot of product options, however it may be a new type of connector for you and you'll have to pick up the correct accessories.
Cost: ~$80 CAD ($60 USD)
A less expensive alternative to the PICO is its sibling unit - the NANO. This simple PTT has a 3.5mm jack to connect it to your phone, but also has a 3.5mm jack that accepts your existing earbuds. This is a solid method to get a bit more covert with your PTT while still keeping your existing hardware. Since we haven't tested this, there are still some questions to answer, including whether the device uses the microphone on your headset, or if listen only earpieces would work. We'll update this when we find out more.
Cost: ~$50 to $60 CAD ($37-40 USD)
Tested: YES (2 participant recommendations)
These small PTTs are good options for people just starting out with Zello. The cost is relatively low (~$60 CAD) which means if you decide Zello isn't for you, you haven't dropped $400 on a speaker microphone. We've used this PTT with Zello running on Android and iOS devices, and they're the authors 'go-to' device for low profile and covert taskings. They come in blue or black and they come with a piece of velcro that allows you to attach it to your fighting kit, or to wrap around your finger and hide in your palm. The other noteworthy point about these devices is that they seem to be made by three or four different companies. Some of our players have the Pryme version, and others have the NEXTAV one. Both of these seem to be working well for players. We can't yet verify if other companies are making them to the same quality standards. We'll reach out and update this post when we have more information.
This model with the recessed button (Pryme BT-PTT-Z Mini or NEXTAV NXPTT-Z) is particularly nice to protect from accidental activation in rural settings. The catch with this model is that the on/off switch in inside. You'll have to open it up and flick it to '1' with a small pointed object before it pairs with your device.
Josh Q Cyclist - Pryme BT-PTT-Z button to chat on the bike (YouTube)
Cost:~$50 to $60 CAD
Tested: YES (2 participant recommendations)
The other reliable Zello PTT button we've used is this slightly raised version. Like the NXPTT-Z and BT-PTT-Z, it seems to be made by Pryme and NEXTAV. We're still not sure what the difference is between the two versions. Tested on Android and iOS, these still work in the 'press and hold' and 'toggle' modes and also come in blue or black colour schemes. A small benefit of this model over the NXPTT-Z is that the power switch is external. This makes it easier to turn the device off when it's not in use. In our experience, the function is identical to the NXPTT-Z except that the button is raised which may make this a better choice for covert urban work instead of rural operations.
A small word of caution when purchasing this model. There appear to be multiple attachment options, including are lanyards, rubber finger rings, or velcro straps. We'd recommend the velcro strap for versatility as you can adjust the strap to fit around your finger or attach it to fighting gear. If Amazon is to be believed, that's the NXPTT-U2 option.
The next category up from basic PTTs is a speaker microphone. These are definitely more expensive than fob-style devices. However, you end up getting a speaker which often includes a 2.5mm or 3.5mm earpiece jack. That means you won't need to run a headset for your phone. Many of these options are IPxx rated for environmental protection. They come in both wired and Bluetooth options.
Manufacturer: Stone Mountain Ltd
Cost: ~$200 CAD
Tested: YES (multiple participants with ongoing evaluations)
Detailed Review: Phoenix Elite PoC RSM on the Articles page
It was really surprising to find a wired speaker mic for Zello that works on both iOS and Android devices, but Stone Mountain seems to have figured that out. This is a seriously rugged piece of equipment with IP68 and Mil810G certifications for water and dust resistance. That's something we tested out promptly by taking it into a downpour. The Phoenix continued to operate without any issues. The durability of plastic shell of the Phoenix Elite is something multiple testers have been commenting on as well, noting that it feels substantial. It is already holding up to the abuse we're throwing at it. For a detailed breakdown of the design and features, check out our review of the Phoenix Elite PoC RSM.
Manufacturer: Stone Mountain Ltd
Cost: ~$260 CAD ($199 USD)
Stone Mountain also produces a Bluetooth version of their durable speaker microphone. Boasting the same IP68 and MIL-810G weatherproof rating, the specs indicate up to 30 hours of battery life. There's a 1100 mAh Lithium Ion battery in there. Knowing how many weeks in standby it took for the wired Phoenix Elite to run low on power, we wouldn't doubt their claim.
Structurally it looks very much like the Phoenix Elite. There are large PTT and volume buttons on the left side, and a single button on the top and on the right. The top button is programmable and can be mapped to an emergency alert or to trigger the PTT on a separate Zello channel. On the right side of the device, there is a button that can be set to play back the last message that came through the speaker microphone. It's similar to the 'CallCheck' function we detailed in our review of the Phoenix Elite PoC but it won't let you store a past message for later if others have arrived since.
Aside from Bluetooth functionality, the other key difference between the Phoenix is the 'RampClik' volume button below the PTT. When held down, the volume increases in increments. Individual button presses will bring the volume levels back down. There are a few vehicle charging and cradle options available for the BluSkye as well which you can find on the Stone Mountain website. Currently the BluSkye is only available for Android devices. If we get our hands on one for testing, we'll definitely update you with the details!
Manufacturer: OTTO Communications
Tested: YES (multiple participants with ongoing evaluations)
OTTO is well known in the milsim and airsoft communities and produces reliable products for military and police users. The Bluetooth Revo NC2 is the wireless version of their Revo NC2 speaker mic set up to work with Zello and other PoC applications.
The device meets the MIL-STD-810G standards which means it has been tested for moisture, dust, vibration, rust, and temperature extremes. It's a small form factor fitting well into the palm of your hand. The PTT button is located on the left side of the device along with a small lanyard loop which is useful to have on a wireless device. The right side features the volume up and down buttons, while on/off button and 3.5mm jack for listen-only headsets are located on the bottom. The top has an emergency call button for those with that feature enabled in Zello. Curiously, the charging port for the internal battery is located on the rear of the device and is not covered by any rubber cap. This may make it more challenging to charge the device while in use unless you pick up a right angle micro-usb cable.
When the device powers on, it emits a startup song and an electronic voice will inform you of the battery level. You'll hear a different set of tones on shutdown and upon pairing with a device. We haven't found a way to turn that off so ensure you have an earpiece in if you're in a sensitive situation. OTTO advertises a 12 hour battery life and based on our tests, this is fairly accurate. That means if you're going to operate for a few days, you should have a portable battery for recharging. That's something we'd recommend you have anyways if you're running a phone with Zello. As of right now, the Bluetooth Revo NC2 is only pairing with Android phones, and the iOS connection is still in the works.
Cost: ~$170 to $180 CAD
Tested: YES (3 participant recommendations)
When we went looking for a recommendation for accessories from our regular participants, we found many had tried out the NEXTAV / PRYME Bluetooth PTT Wireless Speaker. As one of the first BT speaker mics to market, it's readily available on Amazon and is a bit cheapter than the mil-spec options. One of our regular participants started using Zello for work after we introduced it during our events. After trying a few different versions of speaker microphones, he settled on this one. It is "very reliable and has worked amazingly non-stop every day at work."
We found a half dozen other players using this device and they told us it's their go-to. The NEXTAV advertises 40 hours of talk time but based on the feedback we heard a more reasonable number is probably 18-24. The metal clip on the back received some praise as well for its sturdiness and secure latching. An internal battery can be charged via the micro USB port, but participants haven't tested if the mic operates while it is charging. The device also claims IP56 environmental protection, but we haven't put it through its paces in the rain so this feature is still up for confirmation. Similar to the PTT buttons, both Pryme and NEXTAV seem to manufacture this product and both seem to be ok.
Price: ~$270 CAD
The Voice Responder has a bit of a futuristic look to it, but it's made an impact with some local companies. We know that at least one security provider equips their team with these speaker mics. There may be a good reason for that. The Voice Responder has a number of buttons beyond the standard single PTT toggle. In fact, the device has seven buttons with some allowing programmable functions. If they're capable of mapping to specific channels or work to cycle through comms networks, it would be a serious benefit for those playing command/control or RTO roles.
Like many of the other devices in this category, it advertises 24-hour battery life and an IP67 rating. Actually, the list of certifications is quite extensive and is best viewed on the AINA website page for the device. It comes with the standard 3.5mm headphone jack for your earpiece and a micro USB charging port. This is another device that we haven't had a chance to test yet so we can't verify how well it matches the marketing claims.
Not everyone wants to haul their phone into rugged environments. To solve this problem, a number of companies have started to produce devices called Network Radios dedicated to PoC apps. There are mobile models that resemble CB or HAM radios, and handheld models that copy the familiar UHF radio used at events. The handheld versions differ from ruggedized cellphones in that they do away with some of the cameras and big glass screens. They're usually running an Android OS and use a sim card to connect to the cellular data network. Using a device that isn't your phone has some other added benefits. The nightmare of losing your cellphone somewhere on a square kilometre of rural terrain may be worth this moderate hardware investment.
Cost: ~$530 CAD ($400 USD) - Can be found used for $250 USD
Tested: YES (Ongoing testing with multiple participants)
The N59 is one of two Talkpods models that works well with Zello, the other being the Talkpod N50. Running the Android 9.0 operating system means you just download the Zello app from the Google Play store and set it up as you would on your own phone.
The immediate benefits of using the N59 are that you can use Kenwood two-pin (K) accessories. Speaker microphones and ear pieces plug into the right side of the device. If you're an airsofter you likely already have some of these items laying around. This is especially useful if you've got IP-rated accessories as the N59 is rated IP54 which means you've got a decent weatherproof solution.
The radio itself is just a bit larger than a standard Baofeng UV5R and will fit well into universal radio pockets. The top of the radio is where you'll find the on/off/volume dial, the antenna, a small emergency button, and a channel dial. That last feature is of particular note if you're using ZelloWork. By placing a numbered prefix in front of your channel names, the channel dial will allow you to switch between them. This is a pretty useful feature if you're attached to several networks and don't want to take the device out to switch. The left side houses a large PTT button and two others mapped to the wake/sleep and back functions on an Android device. Under the 1650/3000 mAh battery you'll find dual sim card slots and space for a MicroSD card. There are front and rear facing cameras on the device too, but stick to your phone or camera for photos.
There are a few challenges with this model that should be mentioned. Firstly, the screen is pretty small and we found it difficult to hit the keys with our fingers. We got around this with a home-made stylus, but if you have one of those you'll find this easier to set up. The second problem was that some Kenwood connectors that are very flush with the pins don't make great contact with the ports. We found the solution was to get a Kenwood extension cable, but you can have similar success by trimming down some of the plastic on the connector.
**USE UPDATES // 17DEC20 **
We've been able to use this at a few events and can provide some additional updates. We encountered a firmware error during use and it required to be updated to the newest version. This process is not difficult but it is a bit technical. We found a great video that will guide you through the process. Check that video out here. Second, battery life is good. It was able to hold out for 24 hours in near-freezing temperatures. However, Talkpod offers an extended battery with a micro USB charging port which will extend the running time in the field. Finally, availability of the devices and accessories can be a challenge but we've been able to find a reliable source in the US. Marcus Communications carries refurbished models of the N50 and the N59 as well as the micro USB batteries. Get in touch with them for details.
Cost: ~$600 CAD ($450 USD)
Tested: YES (ongoing evaluations with multiple participants)
For a bigger and more featured device, the Boxchip S900B is not a bad option. You'll find it looks and feels like a bulky and rugged Android phone but uses an external antenna and an M5 connection port for accessories. IP65 rated, the S900B is a heavy piece of kit and about 2-3 times the depth of an average Android phone. We're still in the middle of testing this piece so expect more details as we put it in the hands of users.
Cost: ~$350 CAD ($260 USD)
We haven't been able to get our hands on one of these yet, but they seem like a suitable low-cost alternative to the S900B. Utilizing the same M5 connector on the side means they've got the same functionality with accessories. This may be the best option for a dedicated Zello device on a budget, but we'll know more after testing.
Manufacturer: Telo Systems
Cost: ~$280 to $400 CAD
We haven't used one of the TE390's yet, but we're trying to get our hands on one for testing. There are a few reasons why we're excited to try one out.
First, these have a similar form factor to Baofeng and Puxing radios (11 x 6 x 3 cm) which suggests they'll fit nicely into existing radio pouches. Second, they're rated for IP67 environmental protection which is really desirable in the conditions we expose our players to. Finally, the standard M5 connection means compatibility with a larger number of military-type accessories. We can't give you a ton of details yet, but you can expect a full review once we put one of these through its paces.
Almost every device listed above requires power. While all have internal batteries, not all of them will last a 24 or 36-hour event. Battery packs to support phones and accessories must be backed to ensure communications can be sustained.
Cost: ~$30 to $40 CAD
Tested: YES (1 Recommendation)
There are many external battery packs on the market but this one has been serving the author flawlessly for over three years. The 10000 mAh is packed into a form factor that is a bit smaller than a phone and puts out enough power to charge multiple phones and accessories for the duration of an event. Charging seems to go faster than other batteries as well. Testing has shown they deal well with humidity and dampness, but the PowerCores are not waterproof and for safety, you should store them in a plastic bag.
OPEN CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS
This is a living article, so if you have a Zello accessory you're using and that is serving you well, let us know in the comments below.