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Light review: Portland Design Works’ Aether Demon and Spaceship/RADBOT combo

Posted by on February 19th, 2014 at 10:03 am

Just part of PDW’s large family of lights.

— Note from the Publisher: Please join me in welcoming Nicholas Von Pless and Alana Harris to the BikePortland team. Regular readers know that this site does not review products very often. That’s something I’ve been wanting to change for a long time, and Nicholas and Alana are going to help finally make it happen. Stay tuned as we post more reviews and fine-tune the format to make these as readable and useful as possible. Email feedback to jonathan@bikeportland.org. Thanks for reading. — Jonathan

Portland Design Works (known as PDW around here) launched in 2008 and they’ve grown up a lot since then. The ownership duo of Erik Olson and Dan Powell have carved a comfortable niche in a very crowded accessory market by focusing on quality design, attention to detail, and creative twists on seemingly mundane products. Today we’ll take a closer look at three of their popular light models: the Spaceship 3 head light and the Aether Demon and RADBOT 500 tail lights.

Aether Demon tail light – reviewed by Alana Harris

Details:

  • Product website
  • USB rechargeable
  • Price: $49
  • 0.5 watt LED
  • Available at local bike shops

Need proof that good things come in small packages? PDW’s Aether Demon tail light will cast behind you an intense halo of protective light with its four powerful settings, so you can have a safe journey on the road. While it looks similar on the surface to other lights on the market, the Aether Demon has some nice touches that make it easy-to-use and easy on the environment.

When I first received the Aether Demon, I noticed its relative lightness compared with other lights I’ve used. This is due in part because the Aether Demon doesn’t require your typical set of triple or double “A” batteries, and instead can be plugged into your computer with a USB cord, included, to recharge its compact, lithium-ion battery. This feature got rid of two worries of mine that usually apply to bike lights: having to carry around spare, disposable batteries, and having to then worry about recycling the countless used batteries that typically pile up in my junk drawer. (Eliminating this weight also makes this light a more viable option for use on your helmet, if that’s what you’re looking for.)

(Photo: PDW)

The feature I find most rewarding, however, is the fact that the Aether Demon will remember which mode you were last using when you turn it on so that you’ll no longer have to cycle through all the light settings to get to the one you were just using. Similarly, you won’t have to repeat this process in turning it off; the Aether Demon shuts down just like your phone, by holding its power button for a couple seconds. You can choose from a standard, solid red light stance, to an erratic flashing that demands the attention of other travelers on your road. Pick the less intense blinking setting to save battery life, or go with the “Group Ride” option that won’t blind or distract your fellow cyclists, while still alerting others around you to your position.

This LED light charges in under 3 hours, and in its most powerful setting lasted me around 7-8 hours before signaling the need for a recharge; a blinking, blue light turns solid when the battery has again reached full capacity after being plugged in. Using this 0.5 watt light as I pedaled home on some busy streets that make up part of my daily commute truly eased my mind as cars whizzed by on a typical rainy and dark winter evening. The Aether Demon definitely works to ward off on-coming traffic, which is a priceless virtue that a great, local company has made available for the very reasonable price of $49.

Spaceship 3/RADBOT 500 Combo – reviewed by Nicholas Von Pless

Details:

  • Product website
  • Price: $49 for the combo
  • Batteries included
  • Available at local bike shops

After I picked up these lights I was excited to get to work on a review; but after installing them I went on a ride and thought, now what? What do I write about a tail light that I can’t even see? Are the lights automatically good if I avoid collisions?

Fortunately, our winter weather has been a great testing ground. I have ridden this light in thick fog, snow, and of course it’s been dark and grey most of the time.

Upon first unleashing the RADBOT 500 (tail light) from its minimal packaging (definitely a plus), I was pleased to find that it easily slid onto my existing generic mount. However, I struggled with the flexible mount for the Spaceship 3 front light. I should have taken a cue from the lack of packaging to check PDW’s website, which has PDF instructions to go with every light. Nonetheless, the flexible mount resulted in being one notch too short or too long. Despite the fit not being perfect, I’ve found that I like how the mount retains flexibility for different needs – downward for low visibility, and outward to alert drivers.

(Photo: PDW)

The Spaceship 3 has provided an experience that has been nearly out of this world (ha ha). I’ve historically gone with a cheapo light that costs $8 with an $8 battery, but even compared to high-powered lights used by friends, Spaceship 3 outshined anything else I’ve seen so far. In steady mode, the ‘ship’s beam lit up every street sign, and I could read every street name without slowing down and squinting. Pointing at the ground, the trio of powerful LEDs clearly marked my course. This was extremely helpful when finding a smooth path in the snow, biking at night along the Springwater or near PIR, or making my space known when joining a Midnight Mystery Ride.

The RADBOT 500 comes with 2 lighting patterns that are brilliant and unique, so I felt confident and safe while riding. The RADBOT also comes with a “Euro reflector” for added safety. The power button, which you hold for a second, remembers your last setting.

As a combo, these lights both offer sleek and sturdy design, especially with RADBOT 500 boasting see-through packaging. And maybe this is silly, but a huge perk of both lights are the buttons! I mean, they feel like real buttons on real electronics. It’s not rubbery feeling, it doesn’t feel like a toy, and I’m not afraid of accidentally turning them on and running out the battery. At $49 for the both, this combo makes a lot of sense.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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Nathan Hinkle (from The Bike Light Database)Nick SkaggswsbobGlowBoyPete Recent comment authors
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Nathan Hinkle (from The Bike Light Database)
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Pleased to see that Bike Portland will be adding reviews! I’m a Portland resident and have been blogging bike light reviews for a couple years now. I just launched a dedicated bike light resources website last week: The Bike Light Database. Feel free to check out my reviews and let me know if there’s any resources I can provide or questions you might have.

Lazlo
Guest
Lazlo

Love PDW. I got the Spaceship/Radbot 1000 combo at The Clymb for something like $49.

colton
Guest
colton

What’s a “Euro reflector” and why did you feel it made you safer?

Bill Walters
Guest
Bill Walters

In general shape and size, these look a lot like certain well-established Planet Bike offerings. Is that coincidence, or do they maybe originate from the same contracted manufacturer(s)?

Also, some metrics would be a bonus: light output and maybe strobe rate at the various settings, both perceived in side-by-side comparison (video?) with Planet Bike, Cat Eye and others at or near the price point, and in lumens/candlepower claimed by the companies.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

They really need to upgrade their leds. 2 watt tail lights are basically the de facto standard now.

joel
Guest
joel

so…
pdw is kind of behind the times as far as lights. they are like ten years back in their light output. ive tested their products and they are all sub par.

so- disreguard my persopnal feelings pdw and tell me why you are making lights? do you really feel yours are better????

none of my friends will buy your products because your quality is low. i buy probably six sets of fornt/rear lights a year.

– joel courier coffee portland

joel
Guest
joel

this is business. this is biking. this is nothing personal. everyone should have bike lights and i support product differentiation (if thats a word)- however i just dont understand the motive behind pdw.

johnny
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johnny

thank you for having these really useful reviews now as they are very useful. I would be curious how the Spaceship 3 holds out when riding over rumble patches, gravel roads, or any shaky terrain as in does the whole light ensemble turn upside down or move about?

joel
Guest
joel

just talked on the phone w pdw- itseems like they are woriking on the best

Jon
Guest
Jon

I dislike bike lights with integral batteries. I have found rechargeable AA batteries to last longer than the integrated batteries in lights. I have never had to throw away a light that uses rechargeable, replaceable AA or AAA batteries but I have thrown out a handful of lights with integrated batteries when the battery failed.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Only 8 hours on a charge? That means I’d have to plug the Aether Demon in once or even twice a week to recharge it. That’s completely unacceptable; I have multiple lights on my bike, and I’m not willing to juggle recharging them all on a rotating schedule. Poor battery life is one of the main reasons I’ve never bought a light from PDW. Some of PDW’s lights are brighter than the standard-bearing Planet Bike SuperFlash, but I’m not convinced that’s necessary or even appropriate, and it’s certainly not worth it for the tradeoff in battery life. The SuperFlash’s 0.5W LED is still pretty dang bright, and I can ride for a month without recharging.

Notice I said “recharging” my SuperFlash, and by that I mean the batteries in it. There’s no need to use – and throw away – disposable batteries! Most AA and AAA battery powered lights work just fine on NiMH rechargeables. These batteries are just a dollar or two each, and (unlike built-in Li-Ions) can be easily replaced if they eventually do lose capacity after a few years of heavy use. They also weigh about half as much as alkalines, if you’re going to be a weight weenie about your taillights, and they’re a lot more environmentally benign than Lithium-ions if you’re trying to be eco-friendly about them.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I should add that I do like designs with built-in reflectors. When a motorist’s headlights are shining directly on you, reflectors kick back a ton of light – often more than the light itself – and increase the apparent size of the light.

Also, reflectors still work even when your batteries have worn down.

And finally, rear reflectors are required by law (contrary to popular belief, rear lights are not required, nor are they a legal substitute for reflectors). One less reason for a bike-unfriendly cop to pick on you.

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

So, what is the “Group Ride” feature and how does it differ from the other modes?

mike
Guest
mike

The only thing that would make this world better is an even more saturated blinkie light market. Come on…they are red and they blink on the back of your bike. I still use the cheapo I’ve had for years and you can see the thing from 5 blocks away on the flat. I think it cost me a Jackson.

Nathan Hinkle (from The Bike Light Database)
Guest

A valid concern for sure – I’ve definitely had lights just die without warning, and that is one downside of the regulated circuits.

On the other hand, I often see people riding around with their AAA-powered SuperFlash feebly blinking, long overdue for a battery change. A regulated circuit forces you to charge up when the light needs it. People complain that a rechargeable light only lasts a few days between charges, but lithium batteries have a higher energy density than alkaline and NiMH batteries. If you were waiting 2 months before changing your batteries, then your light was probably getting pretty dim by then.

Fortunately, many lights now have a low battery indicator, and some even have a battery level meter that warns you well in advance when the power level starts to drop. Here’s a list of bike taillights with low battery warnings, for example.

Some lights will also automatically switch to the least power-using mode when the battery drops too low. I know from experience that the Cygolite Hotshot and the PDW Aether Demon both do this, and I’m sure some other lights do too.

Dan Liu
Guest
Dan Liu

I have an older Radbot 1000 that has a *pulsing* mode that I way, way prefer over the irritating blinking/strobing mode. I’ve found that the blinking doesn’t do much to help other bikers and drivers notice *where* you are, and this is made even worse in foggy conditions. The downside to having it just on full blast is, of course, battery life. The pulsing mode was great, but the newer PDW lights don’t always have it.

Ron G.
Guest
Ron G.

Reviews will dramatically change the flavor of BikePortland, and not in a good way. Without them, BikePortland is like the National Public Radio of bikes; with them, you risk becoming more like rest of the commercial noise out there (and I know, BP is a business, not a non-profit media group–but it doesn’t feel that way).

You’ll also change the dynamic you have within the local bike community and industry. BP’s hyper-local coverage has helped create a context for Oregon cyclists, one that’s wonderfully inclusive. The focus on advocacy and culture brings us together. And businesses and products have long been represented on the site, but in terms of how they fit into that context, not from a purely materialistic perspective. Adding reviews will also add some tension, everything from “Why didn’t we get a review?” to “Why are you trying to kill my business?” That is, unless you toss out nothing but softballs, which won’t earn you many points with readers.

On that point, if you are going to go down this path, you’ll want a little more depth. Pretty much any bike shop employee can tell you this isn’t an accurate portrayal of the range of light options: “Even compared to high-powered lights used by friends, Spaceship 3 outshined anything else I’ve seen so far.” Then he hasn’t seen much, because there are bike lights out there which will outshine an Audi. Even in the stand-alone, no external battery category, the Spaceship 3 is known for its value, not its output.

If you’re going to do reviews, you’ll have to face the fact that, even if they come from Portland, some things suck. When you’re writing about the Columbia River Crossing or potholes in bike lanes, that’s just fine. When you’re writing about products your friends and neighbors are introducing to try and build an even more vibrant local bike community, things could get ugly.

Anyway, keep up the excellent work otherwise. I wouldn’t take the time to comment if I didn’t think BikePortland is such a valuable resource.

drew
Guest
drew

PBW makes nice accessories. I have one of their cup holders.
Most folks consider bicycle lights as accessories. Most people also consider bikes as toys or recreation equipment.

Imagine if I had to clamp on the lights to my car when I went for a drive. Perhaps I wouldn’t need them if I got home before dark? Will they have enough power for the length of the trip? Will the charge hold in freezing weather?

When you buy a car you don’t have to decide if you want reliable lights. That decision is made for you. They are not an accessory.

I have used generator lights for decades. I have shepherded many other riders home with them, when their batteries died.

Today you can buy LED generator light setup that allow you to see very well, and be seen. All the time, period. Set the bike up and ride, the lights are always on when you ride, and 4 minutes after you stop. Go in a tunnel; enter a fogbank, ride under the stars, whatever, you will always be able to see and be seen.

Bike manufacturers know you think bikes are toys, so they don’t integrate generator lights in most of their bikes. Since you know better, you need to proactively have them installed on your bike.

I really hope this clamp-on battery light thing goes away soon. Emergency blinker modes confuse and irritate. A steady red taillight is easier for oncoming traffic to know you position. Battery headlights blazing into oncoming traffic is unhelpful on so many levels. Quality low beam LED headlights are available from Germany (Edelux, Supernova). Germany has bicycle lighting regulations. They do not consider bicycles to be toys. I hope that someday our country will learn from them.

John Lascurettes
Guest

Go dyno or go home.