View Full Version : Flashlights as budget headlights

07-17-2008, 07:33 AM
This one's for wsbob, as a spinoff of this thread (http://bikeportland.org/forum/showthread.php?p=13104#post13104)

I like using flashlights as headlights for a bike. Why? Economy. Dedicated bike light systems are expensive compared to flashlights of the same power. The downside is you usually have smaller battery packs (less runtime), and some of them aren't as weatherproof. But for the casual rider, or those with short to moderate commutes, they work well. The cost also stings a little less w/ regards to LED technology, which is advancing so fast that last years top line models are blown out by this year's models. I couldn't afford to buy a brand new $150 light setup every year. ;)

To get a view of what different lights look like on the road w/o having to buy up every flashlight under sun, I took a few shots of the lights I have on-hand. I'll put some review notes on each light as well.

The test rig, showing the lights mounted on my bike using Twofish Lockblocks. Not shown is a Blackburn Quadrant that I also used for the test. I actually held the lights in-hand for the photos (too much juggling w/ a bike that doesn't have a kickstand) but I positioned/aimed them the same as when they were on my bike.

The baseline shot - a residential street with streetlights. For all the shots I fixed my camera to manual, ISO 400, f2.7, 1 second shutter, daylight white balance.

For distance reference, that patch in the pavement is about 20' in front. The stop sign on the right is about 100-120', the car is parked just in front of the sign (so about 80' or so)

For the individual light shots, I aimed them more or less towards the patch, so you can see the light pattern on the road.

Blackburn Quadrant - (4) 5mm LED's

This is pretty typical of what you'll get with most cluster-type LED lights like the Quadrant or the Planet Bike Beamer. You get a little bit of light on the road, but not a lot, and you have to aim it pretty close in front of you. Don't be fooled, these are great "be seen" lights, especially since they have blink functions. Newer 5mm LED's are about 2x as bright as older ones, which I think this particular Quadrant has, so you can expect brightness to vary a little.

to be continued...

07-17-2008, 07:38 AM
Inova Bolt 2AA - 60-70 lumens $35 @ Target

I like this light a lot. My wife uses one or two on her daily commutes and it's proven reliable over the past 2 years. Runtime I think is somewhere between 2-4 hours, depending on the battery. (that is, time to 50% intensity - be careful, many advertised runtime figures go all the way till the light is uselessly dim) Inovas carry a lifetime warranty, so I know I'll never have to worry about the light needing replacement. It is an older light, however, so it doesn't have quite the same power as newer lights.

For comparison, most off-the-shelf low/mid range bike lights (meaning lights like the Planet Bike Blaze or Cateye HL-EL500 use a 1w Luxeon type emitter (or similar) which puts out about 1/4 - 1/2 the light as the K2 on this light. Last year's high end lights (like MiNewts) put out about this much light.

Coleman MAX 2AA - 90-100 lumens $25 @ Walmart

I just got this light, so I don't know much about reliability/durability yet. One thing to be careful of is the switch is a little sensitive, so you could have accidental activation if you carry your lights in a bag or something when it's not on the bike. (the Inova, by comparison, can be locked out by twisting the tailcap)

This light uses a newer CREE XR-E emitter, which is along the lines of current high end LED bike lights (MiNewtX2's). Light pattern is nearly identical with the Inova, just brighter and a little more on the shade of yellow. Because it's using a newer more efficient emitter, runtime should be pretty similar to the Inova - about 2-4 hours depending on battery type.

Task Force Cree 2C - 120-130 lumens $30 @ Lowe's

First thing's first. This light is less than a year old, and replaces a similar looking light for the same price - some Lowe's are still carrying the older model which is significantly less bright. You want the one that says '60x brighter' on the packaging.

This light has terrific throw (ability to project a beam at a distance) - I can easily light up a spot on a tree 120'+ down the street. As you can see the hotspot is much tighter than the 2AA lights. You can see the difference w/ the Coleman even though they're both using the same emitter and run at nearly the same power. Pattern is just as important a consideration as power.

However, the light has some disadvantages that don't make it as good as a bike light.

- The light is heavy: The body itself is pretty thick, and 2C batteries don't help. My wife didn't like it for her bike because of the weight. Using lockblocks, this light is heavy enough to slip out of position, so you're pretty much stuck w/ having it point straight ahead unless you use a better mount for it. If you use a lockblock, I recommend putting it as close to center of mass as you can, and sling the light under the handlebar - in this position it didn't jostle or shift during the 45-60 minutes I rode with it.

- The batteries are a little loose in the body. You can shim it up by wrapping the batteries in paper, but you may still have issues with the light flickering on bouncy roads / off road.

- Narrow hotspot: If you could mount the light to aim it on the road, the hotspot is quite small, giving you a limited view of the road.

That said, having the light pointed ahead is fantastic for lighting up distant objects and street signs. Just not one I'd recommend for city use, as the light is blinding when pointed straight ahead.

07-17-2008, 07:56 AM
Multi-light setups

Because the lights are (relatively) cheap, I like combining them in multiples for added flexibility. Use one on a quiet road, flip on a 2nd on rainy nights, etc. It also allows you some redundancy (in case one light breaks/runs flat) and gives you some leeway in adjusting the light pattern on the road. For example:

Two lights, shallow spread (Inova Bolt 2AA left, Coleman MAX 2AA right)

I like this for moderate speeds where you have to do a lot of turning or maneuvering to light up the sides and not give you a blind spot every time you jink the handlebars.

Three lights, deep throw

In this pattern, I aimed the Inova about 15' - 20' ahead, the Coleman about 40' - 50', and the Task Force about 100'. This put their hotspots in a line in front of me, giving a deep look at the road ahead. This was great for bombing down Vancouver at the night ride, but you had to be careful about blinding spectators w/ the Task Force out in front. (sorry kid!)

Hope that helps! :)

07-17-2008, 08:50 AM
Wow! Nice! I like the in-depth analysis!

Now, you should go out with standard bikey lights (whatever ones a n00b would buy, not knowing any better and on a budget) and do a comparison at the same location.

Very interesting stuff. And I'm a proponent of back-up lights for just in case!

07-17-2008, 09:00 AM
Now, you should go out with standard bikey lights (whatever ones a n00b would buy, not knowing any better and on a budget) and do a comparison at the same location.
That's what I tried to do w/ the Blackburn Quadrant (first post). I can take my wife's Beamer5 out there and do a shot maybe tonight. What I'd like to do is try to rustle up a non-LED (like the ol' cheapie Cateye Halogens) for comparison as well. Anyone got one I can borrow? ;)

Thanks for the feedback! :)

07-17-2008, 10:36 AM
Wyeast....Thanks! :)....I second Haven's enthusiasm for your report! This is great consumer research and great R&D as well. Makes me wonder how it is that manufacturers haven't yet produced a single light that combines the lighting qualities of all three of these used in your test, into one unit.

Definitely top of the list info for people newly introduced to the idea of commuter cycling and needing to adequately equip their bikes with bikes. Going into the bike shop and trying to make a decision on lights is a bit challenging.

The Coleman looks like a pretty good way to go for just one light. The TaskForce's beam throw would be great to have. It might be good if both of those lamps/lenses, were offered together in one unit: high beam, low beam.

Actually, one of the things I really like about this little NiteRider Fazer that I have, is the ease of which it can switch between it's 3 functions. It has off, strobe, and continuous beam. There's a single, simple flip switch to alternate between the three. Super easy to use while riding, with gloves. That would work to alternate between Hi/Lo beams. Maybe an extra switch for strobe/on/off.

*Just a tip to possibly improve your fine report: I think I can guess which of the lights is which in your initial picture of the lights mounted on the handlebars, but I wonder if you wouldn't mind labeling them somehow? Maybe K'Tesh could give you a hand on that. Also: 'Twofish Lockblocks' .... I guess that's an REI thing?

I've considered flashlights as a possible bike light before, looked at them at Target and Fred's, but as you noted, didn't want to just go randomly buying something and not have it work out. Maglight, with it's focusing capability, seemed to me like an idea with potential too. I even emailed them inquiring if their company had any ideas for a bike light in the works. They responded saying they were working on some ideas, but wouldn't divulge anything more.

07-17-2008, 11:01 AM
I'll relabel the pic when I get home tonight. For now, the Inova is nearest the bell (w/ the black rubber sleeve), the Coleman is on top to the right, the Task Force is the big fatty slung underneath.

The tricky part about pattern shaping of the beam is that LED's naturally do not focus well. The emitters pretty much throw light straight ahead in a flood pattern, so finagling reflector shapes don't do much for you. You can get somewhere with optics (which is how the Task Force looks different than the other two) but then you're sorta fixed into a specific beam shape, and people's tastes/needs vary. This is made worse by the fact that different emitters require different optics for the same pattern (basically, the emitters themselves aren't necessarily the same shape, so you can't drop one into the body for another and have them look the same - they'd have to redesign every time they changed emitters year after year)

Bike lighting is a fairly low volume business, so I'd guess most companies don't want to commit to building several different models with different beam shapes. When building your own you can certainly pick an optic pattern just how you like.

Particularly with the Coleman/Task Force combo - I would not be surprised if some of the higher end multi-head bike lights already do that. It's basically two CREE XR-E emitters with two different beam patterns. That can easily be accomplished in a dual head with different optics. Difference is on one hand you get a nice compact all-in-one package with big batteries and weatherproof head, on the other you're only spending a fraction of the price. ;)

That's why I sorta advocate ppl putting together their own setup to suit their needs. Whether it's a high end compact multi-head light that works for you straight out of the box, or assembling together a couple different off-the-shelf lights, or even building from scratch.

I definitely think you'd still get use out of the Night Rider. Handheld flashlights (at this price point anyway) don't often have multiple modes like blink or hi/lo, and your existing light is an excellent "See me" light to serve that purpose.

Twofish Lockblocks are available in a variety of places, or by mail order I think. I got mine at Bike Gallery. I don't think Performance has them, but some of the other indie shops in town I think do.

Maglite has a 2AA LED light, however I don't recommend it. It's dimmer than the competition (somewhat dimmer than the Inova, if I recall. Their 3AA model is brighter and more comparable in beam strength) and I've had terrible luck with their switches. I have a 3AA that eventually became useless for me as a daily work light because it developed a tendency to flicker out when bumped. Not good for a bike light at all.

07-17-2008, 12:04 PM
Wyeast, thanks again!....I'm definitely going to check out the Coleman, and maybe the TaskForce. Like you said, the technology is changing so fast, it could be that better combination beam, adaptable lights are not far away.

That was good info about the beam characteristic of the emitters (what I'd been thinking of as 'lamps') and the role of lens design in the beam pattern they throw.

I'm curious whether this fall/winter will see an increase in people riding bikes for commuting despite the weather. Those dark months are when good lighting is essential. More people riding means the potential for more tech savvy riders that will readily appreciate effective, affordable and versatile lighting for their bike.

The bike lighting business could improve as a result. I've thought for awhile that using a flashlight for a bike light was a pretty good idea. It might catch on if manufacturers just did a little work to make a mount that was specific for the use of their flashlights on a bike.

07-17-2008, 10:08 PM
NICE WORK Wyeast! Perhaps one night we can do a side by side comparison of bike lights vs flashlights.

07-17-2008, 11:19 PM
wsbob -

Don't forget the potential negatives I put on the Task Force before you go slapping it onto your bike. Maybe you're ok with it. Just don't say I didn't warn you. ;)

NICE WORK Wyeast! Perhaps one night we can do a side by side comparison of bike lights vs flashlights.

It gets dark so late around here - I'm literally doing these right before I get ready for bed! Maybe if there were some dark warehouse near where you worked so we could do a daytime test?

You have a TriNewt and a MiNewtX2, right? (I can't remember)

The X2 is probably fairly close to the Coleman in terms of pattern and intensity. The X2 is brighter by about 30-50 lumens or so (am I remembering right? Is it 160lumens or so? Or are they in the 200's now?), but the human eye is logarithmic, so it will only seem a bit brighter. (like how the coleman is only a little brighter than the inova even though it's around 50% more lumens)

The TriNewt is a beast of a light. Tho' with the emitters arranged together in a reflector, the result is a really bright flood I think more than any particular pattern. If anything, maybe more akin to a larger pattern than the Coleman, with the approximate overall brightness of the Task Force. (in other words, as if 3 Task Force lights were duct taped together)

Both lights together, you should easily out-do my triple setup, although the TriNewt's probably got a wider pattern, so aiming it that far ahead would potentially wipe out anyone facing your direction. But even aimed low you'll probably light up a wider area - I'd guess pretty close to what you'd get from a motorcycle headlight.

To get back to Haven's question -

Planet Bike Beamer5 - (5) 5mm LED's

This is the current model (just picked up today), using the "newer" 5mm LED's that are about 2x as bright as the older ones. A little brighter than the Quadrant, tho' still considerably dimmer than the Inova. I would figure on most "1/2 watt" and "1 watt" type of lights to be pretty close to this. A 1 watt Luxeon emitter will run about 20-30 lumens. This Beamer5 I think is around 15 lumens or so, I can't recall. So most 1/2 - 1watt lights will run somewhere in between.

I consider this light (or similar ones to it) to be sort of my benchmark standard for someone looking to buy a new "be seen" light. Those with 3 or fewer LED's do alright, but they can get kinda washed out among headlights in traffic - but this depends on the light itself. Newer (2x) LED's do better even as a triple, while the older triples are harder to see. I wouldn't go with a single 5mm unless most of your riding is on quieter neighborhood streets.

You can see the road with this, but only at slower speeds or you'll easily out-run your light.

Interestingly, I couldn't find a regular ol' Cateye Halogen when I went to Freddie's today. LED's are becoming more common, even among the low end general store brand stuff. I found one light that used a regular krypton bulb, but it cost something nuts like $20 in combo with a packaged taillight. I'm sorry, I like you guys, but I'm not wasting $20 on a light I'll photograph once and never use again. Maybe I'll hit a Dollar Store and see if I get lucky. In the meantime, I give you this:

Regular ol' Xenon :D

I just dragged out one of the few incandescent lights I have. I also have a Surefire G2, but this is probably closer to what a regular ol' Cateye will be like. If I remember, the pattern on the Cateye was kinda wide and shallow, so in that regard it was kinda useful for slow pacing around the neighborhood. If I recall, a low end xenon/krypton (3v) will run around 15-30 lumens. A higher end light (6v) will generally run around 60 lumens or so.

07-18-2008, 07:33 AM
wyeast, great job on the relabeling of the light unit you're using, arrayed on your handlebars as shown in the pic.

Went to Target last night to check out their flashlight selection. It stocks 3 models worth remembering, each with a different wattage level. From my memory, the $35 model is about 3.6 watts. There's also a 4.5 and 5.8 watt model, the latter one ($54) running lithium batteries.

Inovalight has a slick website/marketing spiel too: Inovalight flashlights (http://rds.yahoo.com/_ylt=A0oGkkLRtYBIfVgBJwZXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEydWdudXZ qBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMQRjb2xvA3NrMQR2dGlkA0gxNDRfNzg-/SIG=11et8qo3p/EXP=1216481105/**http%3a//www.inovalight.com/)

No, I don't think I'll be running out just yet and getting any particular light. If I did, it most likely wouldn't be the task force, though I admire what the designers were able to do to project the emitter's light in that unit.

I've got more thoughts, but gotta go for now!

07-18-2008, 10:37 AM
Both the 4.5 and 5.8 watt lights run on (2) CR123 lithium batteries. Not something I'd generally suggest for a daily commute light. iirc, the lumen estimates for those two lights are around 80 for the Bolt 2L (the 4.5 watt) and 100 for the XO3 (the 5.8 watt).

07-18-2008, 10:54 AM
If you're going to do a side-by-side, have K'Tesh go second because his lighting setup has been known to blister and peel paint on parked cars :D

NICE WORK Wyeast! Perhaps one night we can do a side by side comparison of bike lights vs flashlights.