Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beam (Pattern) Me Up, Scotty

I got my warranty-replacement 2-watt Blaze headlight back from Planet Bike (the one mentioned in my previous quasi-aborted review), so with the days getting shorter, here's my take on all the Planet Bike LEDs in my collection. Note that while I have an embarrassing pile of stuff from Planet Bike, The Cycle has no connection to the PB folks -- I just happen to like their stuff most of the time.

First, let's address that warranty issue. The case on my original 2w Blaze didn't lock together very well, causing it to jiggle open on my bumpy commute. The replacement light? Same issue. I tried putting in a fatter rubber o-ring from the hardware store, no dice. So, in keeping with my Mennonite heritage (who separated from the Amish when they were told that duct tape was too flashy), I just ran a stripe of black electrical tape around the case:

It prevents the jiggle issue, probably seals the case against water a little better, covers the silver ring (giving the whole thing a stealthy Darth Vader-esque vibe), doesn't inhibit the button at all, and only provides a mild nuisance when swapping batteries. Problem solved.

On to the review! I know that the money shot for light fetishists (and you know who you are) is the "beam pattern in a dark room." So in the interest of science, I set up my 1/2-watt Blaze, my 1-watt Super Spot, and my 2-watt Blaze in the Lighting Test Lab (a.k.a. "a bathroom with the lights off") here at The Cycle World Headquarters and snapped the following photos using my phone-cam (since I'm not smart enough to turn off the flash on my real camera). All lights were sitting on the same spot on the counter aimed at the white plastic shower wall approx. 6' away, and all batteries were fresh Sanyo Eneloop rechargeables. I'm also not smart enough to do any Photoshoppery on these, so what you're seeing is raw from the camera.

Planet Bike 1/2-Watt Blaze

The half-watt is definitely a "be-seener." Very tight, round spot, not much spillover, and the tint is a little more bluish than the photo would indicate. It'll get you home in a pinch, but you can outrrun it without much effort.

Planet Bike 1-Watt SuperSpot

This is one of Planet Bike's older LEDs (based on one of their halogen models) and it shows in the beam -- lots of striped spill to the sides, definitely brighter spot (albeit more diffused) than the 1/2-watt Blaze, but probably still in the "be-seen" category. I've relied on one of these for years, though. I'm convinced the scatter is more likely to catch the attention of motorists coming at you from an angle. It runs on four AAs (instead of two for the Blaze series) which is sort of a nuisance. Weird quibble, I have no idea why this is called the "SuperSpot" when it has the least spot-like beam of all the PB lights I've tried. Planet Bike, I suggest you fire the copywriter (and hire me instead!)

Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, Low Setting

The 2-watt Blaze on low definitely outshines (literally!) the two lower-powered lights. We're back to the intense, round spot beam of the 1/2-watt Blaze, but it does spill over a little bit more (not to the extent of the SuperSpot, though).

 Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, High Setting

The difference between the 2-watt on low versus high is pretty subtle -- same beam (obviously), and it does kick up the lumens a notch, but if you're outrunning the low setting, the high isn't going to make much difference.

In general, I think the battery-powered "be-seen" LED lights are advancing nicely, but they're still not up to the task of fast, curvy trails in the dark -- not that many lights are. It's a tough balancing act with all of these to aim them in such a way that you get a good beam spread at the right distance in front of your wheel without shooting a lot of lumens up into space. One trick is to mount them low on a fork blade (tips on that in a later post). I'll leave it to smarter folks (Steve K?) to explain why this helps. I just know that in my experience, the low lights provide better contrast for my lousy eyes.

By the way, Planet Bike also has a light comparison tool on their site, although it doesn't include the (presumably discontinued) 1-watt SuperSpot or a high-versus-low on the 2-watt Blaze. Their shot of the 1/2-watt Blaze looks more true- and blue-to-life than my bathroom wall photo, though.

So there you have it. Feeling enlightened?


Anonymous said...

nice work! The only question that I feel is unanswered is: Is the 2 watt light suitable for all bike light use, or is it also a "be seen" light?

Would you use it in complete darkness, and would it still let you see the road surface when there is an oncoming car?

As far as the business about mounting a light low, it does help highlight the bumps and holes in the road, especially when compared to a helmet mounted light. For cases like my 'bent, it's mounted low so my feet don't hit it! Plus, if I mount it on the handlebars, it'll shine on my feet. Life on a 'bent can be complicated at times. :-)

Steve in Peoria

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Steve --

As luck would have it, I've been commuting with the 2-watt as my only headlight lately. I think it just barely falls short of being a true "see and be seen" light for me, with the caveat that everyone's eyes are different.

My commute doesn't have any "complete darkness with cars" areas like I know yours does -- when I'm in traffic, I'm under streetlights, so I'm probably relying on those for surface cues. On the trail portion of my commute, I find that the focused spot is a little too tight for my liking -- it gives me a very bright tunnel but no feedback about what's going on in the darkness to the sides.

For serious night riding, I'll probably keep the 1-watt SuperSpot down low to light the sides and right in front of the wheel, then helmet-mount the 2-watt to get an easy-to-aim laser beam. I did this last season (with the 1/2-watt up top) and liked the mix.

- Jason

PB&J said...

I had a similar problem with a Planet Bike light, but it was a battery holder that would self-eject on bumpy roads and in one case committed suicide. I used velcro tape, split on the case with a full length on the top to secure it.
You see, I had to recharge the unit about very three days.

Steve Fuller said...

They weren't cheap, but I bought a set of the Dinotte LED lights about 4 or 5 years ago. I upgraded the original to one of the new 200L light engines. Batteries have lasted well and they are definitely bright. Used them in town, as well as far out in the country.