Wednesday, February 13, 2008

One Watt Planet Bike Blaze (and some other lights) Reviewed

OK, first off, here's the disclaimer. For quite a while I've said that I'm just an ordinary guy who bikes around and writes some stuff. But by riding more than a lot of folks and writing more than a lot of folks, I find myself, more and more these days, in situations that don't happen to normal folks. I call this the Jerry Pournelle Syndrome.

Back in the early days of personal computers, Byte magazine was the magazine for computer nerds. A guy named Jerry Pournelle (yeah the same Jerry Pournelle who writes science fiction novels) wrote this column that was supposed to represent the "normal" user's view of computers. But his column became popular, people sent him stuff and when he'd have a problem, he could make phone calls that "normal" people couldn't. I remember one instance where he had a problem with some Microsoft product and Jerry's solution was something like "so I called up my buddy Bill Gates and he flew a couple of techs down from Redmond to look at my system..." OK, maybe it wasn't quite that extreme, but it was close.

Anyhow, these days if you have a blog and a point of view and a reasonable set of eyeballs that show up on your web pages, folks will send you stuff. I turn down a lot of stuff that doesn't interest me and I sometimes do spend my own money on some stuff I review. And, as the folks at Accelerade will tell you, freebies don't guarantee a good review. It really helps if you actually have a product that the reviewer likes.

Another factor that adds to the moral fog of the blog review process is that some bloggers, like me, make some money off sales that come via blog links. So if I say good things about Planet Bike and the link goes to Amazon and you buy a Planet Bike light there, I do get some money. Which I then spend on still more bike stuff and the cycle repeats.

So, as I've said many times, I may be biased. Let the buyer beware.

Which brings me to Planet Bike. They make good stuff. They donate 25% of their profits to Bicycle Advocacy. For example, they donate to my employer, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and have helped us out with programs like Get Lit. And sometimes they send me stuff. For free. Sometimes being a blogger is pretty dang cool. The freebies (along with red cape and goggles and getting to hang out with Xeni and Cory in the Boing Boing hot air balloon) are definitely up there on the list of blog perks.

Monday I wind up signing for a package at the Bikestation. Inside the box was a nifty "Global Cooling Machine" t-shirt from Planet Bike and their brand new, first sample batch off the boat, not availiable is stores yet, One Watt Planet Bike Blaze Headlight.

Initial reaction among the folks at the Bikestation was "Wow!"

The Blaze One-Watt is bright. Low beam is brighter than what is put out by its half-watt sibling. I've been happily commuting with two of the half-watt lights this winter. At 6:00 PM, I set off for my 18 mile commute home in the 48 degree rain. The new light uses the same mounting bracket as both the Beamer and the half-watt Blaze but the light itself is about a centimeter longer.

I played with the light on the commute home. This is a very nice light. I have good night vision, so I mostly ran it on low. Low beam doesn't seem much lower than high, but the difference is noticeable. The flash rate is rapid. I have mixed feelings about flashing lights, they help drivers notice you, but it's hard to gauge the location of a flashing light. Because of my mixed feelings and an appreciation for the value of redundancy, I'll probably stick to a dual light set-up, but the one-watt Blaze would really be all the headlight I'd need. Still, I think a Blaze as the main light and a slightly lower powered Planet Bike light, possibly set to flash, makes for a real nice commuting set-up.

The new one-watt Blaze uses a very efficient Cree XRE Power LED and when I got home at the end of my hour and half commute, the light was still cool to the touch. The extra centimeter of length on the light is taken up by an aluminum ring which seems to do a fine job as a heat-sink.

As you can see from the pictures, the new light is iMac white. I'm not wild about the color scheme, but the light works well enough I'd use it even if the case were purple with green polka-dots. And, since the back part of the light is identical to the grey half-watt light, I can swap back portions to make a couple of unique white/grey and grey/white lights.

I haven't ridden with the one-watt Blaze enough to test the battery life claims, but in general Planet Bike seems to be in the right ballpark with their claimed battery life. The light works fine with NiMH rechargeable batteries.

Planet Bike lists the battery life (probably assuming alkaline cells) as:

High beam -- 7 hours
Low beam -- 14 hours
Flashing -- 20 hours

The suggested retail price of the one-watt Blaze is $39.99 to $44.99

And Planet Bike is also coming out with a two-watt version (Even I don't have one of those yet!) They tell me the specs on that light will be:

High beam -- 4 hours
Low beam -- 8 hours
Flashing -- 15 hours

The suggested retail price of the two-watt Blaze will be $49.99 to $54.99

From left to right: Planet Bike Beamer 3, Planet Bike Blaze Half-Watt, Planet Bike Blaze One-Watt. All three lights are powered by 2 AA batteries and can run on NiMH rechargeable batteries. Note in this picture, I used the flash on the camera. This picture probably most accurately reflects the relative brightness of the lights.

The same shot, but with the camera's flash suppressed. You can see a bit more of the side light spill from the Beamer 3 and the Blaze One-Watt.

The light added to this picture is the Princeton Tec EOS. The EOS has been on the market for several years and is still a very good light. My original review of the EOS is here. The EOS is still quite a good helmet light, but in terms of a light to have on the bike, the new Planet Bike One-Watt Blaze with it's Cree XRE LED beats the EOS. The beam is better, the flash rate is better for cycling and I much prefer having 2 AA batteries instead of three AAA cells.

Finally, here's a fuzzy picture of some tail lights. Here's the short story, if your current tail light is more than a couple of years old, you owe it to yourself to check out the recent LED tail lights. LED lights have gotten much brighter and more efficient in the past couple of years and even the cheapest lights of today may be brighter and run longer on a set of batteries than an expensive light from a few years ago.

In the above picture, the light on the left is an under-$10 Bell light that I blogged about over a year ago. That cheap light is still working fine, although the cheaper lights are often prone to problems in the wet weather.

The second light from the left, the light that makes all others pale in comparison, is the Planet Bike Superflash. This is a very bright, some might say obnoxiously bright, light. Some folks, including me, have had problems with water leaking past the seal on the Superflash, causing the light to shut off. Dan at Planet Bike tells me they did have gasket problems with some of the Superflash lights and they've now changed the durometer of the rubber on the gasket. Planet Bike has a good warranty and will replace lights that have a problem or you can do what I did, which is wrap a bit of electrical tape around the outside of the light. Since I did that, I haven't had any problem with water getting inside my Superflash.

The other two lights are also Planet Bike products. The kidney-shaped light is my favorite tail light, the Planet Bike Blinky 3. The Blinky 3 is inexpensive and plenty bright. I've never had a problem with one and I have them on various bikes and clipped to my backpack. The final light is a little Planet Bike tail light with a pivoting bracket designed to go on the back of a helmet. I uses a single AAA cell as it's power source. The pivoting bracket is nice in theory and the single cell keeps the weight low, but the light may or may not work on your helmet.

Finally, about that green shirt the Planet Bike folks sent me. It's green, it's cotton and it's something I can wear to all those planet-saving eco fairs I wind up going to as part of my job. Of course, the green clashes with my red blogger's cape, but I usually don't wear the cape out in public!

Keep 'em rolling,

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