Game Over

Sometime over the past few years, almost imperceptibly and without fanfare, bicycle headlights and tail lights came down in price while improving in quality to the point where buying a lighting system for a commuter bicycle is now a no-brainer. This is a big deal to someone like myself who has been on the quest for the ultimate lighting system for decades.

Until recently, battery-powered systems that had sufficiently long run times and enough power to be safe on a nighttime commute were heavy, expensive, and unreliable. But now, lights that would have been considered high performance just a few years ago are compact, lightweight, reliable, and can be had for well under $100. We owe this revolution in lighting to the efficiency of tiny LED light emitters that are able to squeeze an incredible amount of light and good run times out of just a pair of AA or AAA batteries.

In years past, I was an advocate for dynamo-powered lighting systems; the convenience of having instant-on, always-available light on a bike used for transportation is a real plus. But now, as the “head mechanic” charged with maintaining a bevy of bikes for a family of five — most of which don’t have dynamos and probably never will — I’ve become a huge fan of tiny LED headlights and tail lights. I keep a pile of them around to hand out to whomever might need one in a pinch, and I have a bag of rechargeable AA and AAA batteries that I keep topped off with a nice 8-slot battery charger. Most of these bikes won’t be ridden after dark more than a half-dozen times a year, so having the option of swapping lights around is a real boon. And certainly, investing in a dedicated dynamo lighting system for every bike that comes through our stable is no longer necessary or reasonable.

At some point it would be fun to drill down and take a look at the subtle differences between the leading LED commuter headlights and tail lights on the market. Until then, I can safely say that any of the headlights in the $50-$100 price range from the majors will do a remarkable job. I’m particularly fond of the Planet Bike Blaze 2W, the Princeton Tec EOS Bike, and the Fenix L2D. This last one is actually a high performance flashlight that, when combined with a TwoFish Block, makes an excellent bike light. I particularly like the construction of its water-resistant, machined alloy casing. [Note: The L2D is an older model that has been replaced by the LD20]. As for tail lights, get yourself one or two Planet Bike Superflashes or Princeton-Tec Swerves and call it good.

The only downside to this golden age of bike lights is that for us light geeks, the quest is essentially over. With so many excellent, inexpensive lights to choose from, it’s not much of a challenge to come up with a headlight/tail light combo that is more than adequate for commuting. The good news is that these lights are now within financial reach of most people, so there’s no longer any excuse to ride a bike after dark without sufficient lighting.

42 Responses to “Game Over”

  • Zen says:

    I bought a Magicshine 900 this year and the light it emits compared to my PB Blaze 1 watt is not even comparable. My wife has Type 1 Diabetes and so her night vision is horrible. We never rode at night until we got the Magicshine light. It lights up the entire road using just the medium setting. We use a PB Superflash for the rear light.

    You are right that LED’s have changed the game. I love this light and I paid under $100. I have not been able to try the new PB Blaze 2W but would love to see how much light it puts out. Has the mounting system improved any?

  • Don says:

    The quality of rechargeable lights is pretty great too. I love my Light + Motion Vega from a couple years back, which I got on sale as a display model, so it was within your range. It recharges in maybe 20 minutes and lasts days for me on high-beam, weeks on flicker for dusk. It’s so good I use it as a flashlight too. And it just snaps in and out.

  • Bob says:

    Alan is right that if you are swapping bikes/lights or not riding at night frequently battery powered led lights work great, but I spend 90% of my time on one bike and ride in the dark several months of the year. I can’t be happier with my dynamo light. A complete system if using a hub is more expensive ($200 including the wheel build), but for my money it can’t be beat. I don’t have to have extra batteries around or worry about charging them. Light is instant and always available.

  • Dave St.Germain says:

    Do you worry about someone swiping your $50 flashlight from your bike, or do you remove it from the bike when it’s not in use?

  • David says:

    I agree with Bob that there’s still a very good argument for dynamos. For those of us who ride in the dark every day for six months out of the year, even an LED based system requires the presence of mind to charge batteries regularly whereas the dynamo eliminates any risk that you’ll be caught with a flat battery. By extension, with a dynamo you can just leave your lights on all the time, enhancing your visibility to others without any consideration of charging schedules or proximity to charging sources when on tour. Finally, since the drag of the dynamo is directly related to the power draw, coupling LED lighting with a dynamo translates directly to easier pedalling so the only real drawback to the dynamo is cost.

  • Alan says:

    @Zen

    The mount on the Blaze is the same one Busch & Muller has been using for years. I have a light that’s at least 5 years old with this mount and I’ve never had a problem. I’m curious what about it you feel needs improving?

    Thanks,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Bob & David

    This at least partially goes back to the discussion the other day about the “Desert Island Bike”. If I had one commuter that I rode every day, and it was the only bike that I rode after dark, then certainly a dynamo would make perfect sense. But when you’re switching up bikes on a regular basis, it gets pretty had to justify a nice dyno system on every bike. Also, I suspect quite a few people would be uncomfortable with ditching a perfectly good front wheel if their bike didn’t come outfitted with a dyno from the start. For those people, these new LED lights are a huge improvement over the old external battery halogen systems from a few years ago.

    Alan

  • RDW says:

    My Niterider Minewt Mini-USB has been doing a good job for me, I frequently go out for a spin in the early evening and it’s nice to know I’ll be able to see my way home if I stay out after sunset. I also like being able to recharge it from a USB port on my PC during the work day, comes in handy when the days are shorter. Since the Minewt doesn’t have a flashing mode I supplement it with a small Spok light when I want to really get their attention. In back I have a PB superflash on my seatpost and a B&M 4D Toplight Permanent on my rack, once again one light I can run in flashing mode and one constant. I’d love to invest the money in a good dynamo lighting system but right now it would mostly be for the fun of setting it up anyway.

  • Bob says:

    back @ Alan

    While I have many bikes (6) and I expect that most of your readers have more than one. I suspect that most spend the majority of their time especially most time commuting on only one of their bikes. I could be very wrong on this. If so it makes a dynamo more attractive.
    I just rebuilt the front wheel of my own bike when I added the dynamo, and that is what we do for most of our customers who buy dynamos at The Bicycle Business. You end up with a front hub, but save the money that you would spend on a rim.

  • Alan says:

    @Don

    The L&M Vega was a great light (had one for a couple of years). The only downside is the proprietary battery. All rechargeables will lose capacity over time, and when they do, it’s nice if they’re user-replaceable. With the Vega, it will eventually have to be sent back to L&M for an expensive battery replacement. I still have one with a burned out battery sitting on a shelf… :(

    Alan

  • Don says:

    @Alan,

    Good point. I guess I’m living on borrowed light. : >)

    As I think about this, and as I plot the building of my dream desert island bike, I may end up going with a dynamo, being from the “fix-it-and-forget-it” school, and also simply because I can, and because even though winter is by no means long in Virginia, I do have to recharge it more often in winter months. But if I had multiple bikes, I would probably continue with the portable variety, which after all, is more than adequate for most needs. I guess now that the portable lights are so good, dynamos are a tad more luxurious.

  • Joel van Allen says:

    I’ve never thought of myself as a bike light nerd until just now. I have a B&M 12v bottlecap dynamo on my commuter for front/rear lights, as well as a solar LED for some flash. I keep a 20w dual halogen w/ external battery in my bike trunk when I feel I need more respect from cars than usual, and I keep an extra Cateye LED in there as well, for sudden lightless co-riders. Is there a 12-step program I should be attending?

  • alan says:

    Ditto on Dave’s comments. I rode with a couple of different batt. powered lights for over ten years, the last a Nite Rider Classic two beam set up. Up side – bright with both beams. Down side – both beams only last an hour and my commute is 50 min one way, weight and you have to plug it in every night. Bought a Schmidt dyno hub and a B/M Cyo last fall and I can’t think of a down side. Drag is not noticeable (in stark constrast to a sidewall generator I had tried) and the thing is plenty bright enough to see well. Stand light is a real plus, without which it would be bad in town. No looking back. Expensive? Yes, but I don’t think I’ll be wearing out the hub too terribly soon.

  • Zen says:

    Alan, Here in Arizona, the streets are not the best and I had my PB fall off my bike on a rough stretch of pavement. It has worked intermittently since then. The Magicshine has an o-ring system that is much more robust. A replacement battery is $50 although I have seen no drop off in performance after 6 months. The question I wonder is how long do we want these lights to work? I don’t want to be wasteful but I can only imagine they will keep getting better.

  • sbcommute says:

    As a researcher in LED lights (my boss is the guy who invented the white LED), I am pleased to see such wonderful comments about this technology. Certainly this past few years has really seen an explosion in LED technology and the pace of improvements will likely continue for the next few years – recent research results are actually approaching the theoretical limit.

    The other plus is that users like yourself who have a positive experience with this technology will also be much more likely to adopt this technology in other applications – like indoor and outdoor lighting – which will help significantly in our overall energy consumption.

  • David says:

    Alan, I agree that the strongest case for a dynamo is in a single-bike situation or at least when the bike is used routinely at night or away from battery charging sources for long periods of time. If that’s not the case, it’s hard to justify the added expense of the dyno.

  • Lee says:

    I appreciate the LED revolution, as well. In my mind, LED lights in combination with a generator hub are the end. I like never having to deal with a battery, ever. Never have to remove them for recharging, never get caught out with a fading light, never trying to remember which batteries are about due for a recharge.

    A few other points:
    1. I swap my generator-equipped wheel among bikes.
    2. The dyno front lights have excellent beam patterns, and I’m wondering if the battery-powered ones are catching up in that regard, too.
    3. The real end for me will be when someone comes up with a dyno tail light with a convenient and elegant wiring approach.

  • Don says:

    @Joel van Allen

    On the contrary, I’d say you’re on the path to enlightenment.

  • Tim says:

    I too enjoy the flexibility of LEDs. I would encourage folks to check out 4sevens line of quark flashlights. Right now I’m running a Quark AAx2 flashlight with a TwoFish block plus a Planet Bike Blaze 2W up front. I have a Planet Bike Stealth Superflash in back and everything is running on PowerGenix NiZn rechargeable batteries. Those nickel zinc batteries push out much more voltage than NiMH or alkalines, they charge faster, and they are a greener technology than NiMH.

  • Alan says:

    Thanks for the info, Tim. How would you say 4Sevens compares to Fenix? I’ve been extremely happy with the L2D.

    Alan

  • Supp Suppinger says:

    Personally I own a B&M Big Bang which cost 600 Euros, that´s quite a lot, but worth the investment. Basically, this light is my life insurance. It has 10 Watt, looks like a Xenon car headlight, and ist the brightest light available, which does NOT blind oncoming traffic. Battery lasts for 4-5 hours.
    Another great option for around 100 USD are Dinotte lights. The tail light is the brightest on the market, maybe even to bright for the city, but great, if You commute somewhere outside on a road which is not lit. Headlight from Dinottelighting is also great, even if it blinds oncoming traffic.

  • Jonathan says:

    I have a Schmidt dyno hub on one bike and am very seriously considering it for my second most used bike — but the price tag IS a factor… I love everything about it, as mentioned in several comments above.

    However, my wife’s bike is in need of better lighting, and the LED’s sound like a good answer for her, given that she sees much less riding in the dark.

  • Alan says:

    @Zen

    “The question I wonder is how long do we want these lights to work? I don’t want to be wasteful but I can only imagine they will keep getting better.”

    LED emitter life is essentially lifetime, so the batteries end up being the weak link. To me, that makes AA powered lights very appealing.

    @Supp

    Certainly no one’s comparing these little AA lights to the big B&M or DiNotte lights. But it begs the question, “How much light is enough?” I’d argue that these new AA powered LED lights are sufficient for most commuting conditions, which makes them very appealing due to their low price and ubiquitous power source.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Bob

    “I just rebuilt the front wheel of my own bike when I added the dynamo, and that is what we do for most of our customers who buy dynamos at The Bicycle Business.”

    Can you give us a rough idea what this procedure would run including the cost for a Shimano dynamo hub and labor, on say a 32H wheel?

    Thanks,
    Alan

  • Bob says:

    @ Alan

    Our Shop The Bicycle Business thebikebiz.com sells Shimano DH-3N30 Dynamo hubs for $39.95, labor to build a wheel is $45, and spokes are $19.80 for 36. So it will cost $104.75. Add a B&M IQ Cyo for $103.95 and you are at $208.70. Its not cheap, but it won’t break the bank for most people. There are nicer hubs from Shimano, Sram, and of course Schmidt but they add to the price.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Despite the improvements in battery-operaed lights, the problem remains that you just never know when they will choose to run out. Will you have spare batteries? Or will you even notice that your tail light’s gone out while cycling in traffic? Taking that chance makes me very uncomfortable, and I feel best on bikes that have dynamo-powered lighting. I do cycle a lot in the dark and in rainy/darkly overcast conditions, so this is more of an issue for me than for those who do not.

  • john Riley says:

    Oh man, I remember how crappy lights were back in the bike boom in the 70’s. French arm band lights that always shorted out. Square “Wonder” lights with a unique square battery….

    Even a basic, small LED light is a revolutionary improvement in function and reliability.

  • Alan says:

    Love it, John. I think it takes someone born before 1970 (speaking of myself here) to truly appreciate modern LED headlights… :-)

  • Tim says:

    @ Alan

    I have not had a chance to use the Fenix. I was initially turned on to the Fenix from your reviews, but after doing some research and pouring over the candlepowerforums, I went for the 4Sevens Quark AAx2. The new line of quarks are using a more efficient emitter than even the new Fenix LD20. They’re designed in the US and they’re a very good price. I was so happy with my quark AAx2 that I also picked up a mini CR2. Now THAT is a cool flashlight. It works with the TwoFish block too.

  • Alan says:

    Thanks, Tim. I’ll be sure to check them out when I upgrade my L2Ds.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Phil says:

    Funny the timing on this – I received an email from Jenson with a sale on NiteRider lights just the other day.

    http://www.jensonusa.com/store/product/LS282A03-Niterider+Minewt+Mini+Usb+2010.aspx?sc=em060910

  • sRad says:

    @Lovely Bicycle! I usually double up with LED lights front/back (one on the bike, one on the helmet at each end) – this way if either of them is getting weak/turns itself off and I don’t notice there is always a backup. I usually the brighter lights are attached to the bike with the weaker ones on the helmet.
    Helmet mounted lights move around a bit more (so give any following drivers an idea that you’re moving your head around and looking) and can also be “aimed’ in the direction of side streets to further make yourself even more visible.
    At the moment I’m running a PB Blaze 1W & cateye EL450 on the front & a PDW radbot 1000 & knog skink on the back – this gives OK light to see on a dark residential street)

  • SB Tim says:

    Whoa Alan, I read that “Game Over” Title and got a little scared. I feared it might be a post about you giving up bike commuting or blogging or something horrible like that. I’m glad it was about lights ;)

    I commute with two tail lights, one an older Cateye and the other a PB Superflash. If one runs out mid ride home, the other will light my tail. However, I always have them on blink and the batteries seem to last forever. My biggest fear is getting hit from behind, so I like to be lit up well in the back, I also wear a reflective vest.

    Front end, I’ve had two Cateye low power LEDs that are good for being visible to motorists, but I gotta go slow on the sections where street lamps are sparse, and harvestl moons help. I’m going to upgrade this fall, and I am torn between something like the PB blaze or a bottle dynamo. I figured a bottle dynamo is better than a hub dynamo, because it flips on and off, so you only have resistance at night when you need it. The hub dynamo has constant resistance even during the day, is that right? Has anyone had good experience with bottle dynamos?

  • chris says:

    @Alan

    Which light is that mounted on your bars in the picture?

  • Brian C says:

    I have another tail light to highly recommend – the Radbot 1000 from Portland Design Works. Twice as bright as the Planet Bike Superflash. I actually have both currently mounted on my bike.

    On my winter bike I love the Dinotte tail-light. Even in our wet weather you are visible.

    I have a range of headlights; I love PlanetBike’s 2W light for a spare, while I rely on a NightRider as my main light. Looking forward to some of the new integrated headlights (definitely love the lithium ion rechargables for their quick recharge times).

    The lights just keep getting better and better…

  • Alan says:

    @SB Tim

    No worries; we’re in it for the long haul! :-)

  • Alan says:

    @Chris

    “Which light is that mounted on your bars in the picture?”

    That’s the old Busch & Muller Ixon (pre “IQ”). I like it as a “be seen” light because it has a very broad beam and a large reflector.

    Alan

  • Evan says:

    How does the B&M Ixon (pre “IQ”) compare to the PB BLaze 2W ?

  • Alan says:

    @Evan

    The B&M is not as bright and much more diffuse. I like the form factor, and the wide beam is great as a “be seen” light, but the newer PB Blaze 2W is better as a primary light.

    Alan

  • Opus the Poet says:

    I have been building my own lights for the past 5 years, and I have to say that now the light output and features of store-bought lights is coming close to what I build, and at a similar price. The only thing that the current mix-and-match lights don’t have that one of my systems does have is the ability to turn on all lights from a single switch and to dim and go back to bright without going through “off”. That’s still worth something to me, but I have seen some remote battery systems that almost have that, except for going from bright to dim and back to bright without going through “off”, not at the price I can build at either.

  • Paul says:

    I am disappointed that no one has mentioned the environmental benefits of a dynamo hub. Batteries are extremely toxic and filthy to produce and dispose of. Dynamo hubs, for me, really encapsulate how wonderful the bicycle as a tool is: using your own legs you can move with incredible efficiency, you can create your own light and, with a limited set of tools and skills, can be largely self sufficient and independent.

    Dynamo lights and LEDs complete the circle for me.

  • Evan says:

    Got a PB 2W yesterday and am happy to finally have an LED light that gives me enough night vision and visibility to retire my ancient Cateye HL500II. Still prefer Cateye brackets but …

 
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