Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One Watt Tail Lights Compared: Planet Bike Super Flash Turbo vs. PDW RADBOT 1000



My wife will tell you that I have something of an obsession with bicycle lights. I don't stop riding when it gets dark and I'm a big fan of things that light up and reflect. LED technology keeps evolving and the lights of today get far more light from a pair of batteries than the lights of just a few years ago. Since there is still no free lunch in the physical world, lighting designers have to make trade-offs between battery life and brightness. I personally use several different tail lights on my bikes, some simple ones where the batteries seem to last forever and some lights in the "blindingly bright" category that are quite visible even in daylight but whose battery life never matches the optimistic claims that decorate their packaging.

Several years ago Planet Bike introduced the Superflash, a dazzling tail light that used a half-Watt LED and a couple of smaller LEDs. The Superflash quickly became quite popular with randonneurs, commuters and anyone looking for a very bright tail light.

When Dan and Erik left Planet Bike to start their own company, Portland Design Works, one of their products, the RADBOT 1000, pushed tail light brightness even further. The RADBOT 1000 uses a one-Watt LED, has a built-in reflector and was noticeably brighter than the Superflash. PDW also makes a half-Watt version of the RADBOT, the RADBOT 500. While the RADBOT 500 was basically directly competing with the Superflash in terms of runtime and brightness and was the light that Dan and Erik both use on their own commuting bikes, the RADBOT 1000 far outshone the RADBOT 500 both in brightness and sales. The market seemed to say, in terms of brightness, more is better.

The folks at Planet Bike don't stay on the top of the bike lighting game by sitting on their hands, so this spring they are releasing a one-Watt version of the Superflash, the Superflash Turbo. It's not in stores yet, so I don't have a link where you can buy one, but the good folks at Planet Bike did send me one of their lights so I could review it. And by the way, the people I've dealt with at both Planet Bike and Portland Design Works are good folks. Both companies are staffed by genuine bike geeks and both contribute a portion of their profits to bicycle advocacy.

The Planet Bike Superflash Turbo is the same size as the original Superflash and it has the same switch mechanism and mounting hardware. The switch toggles the light between off, flashing and steady modes. As you can see in the above photos, the RADBOT 1000 is a bit bigger than the Superflash Turbo, but both lights use basically identical mounting hardware and can interchange in their brackets. BTW, the RADBOT lights come with one more bracket that the Planet Bike lights, a handy bracket for mounting the light on a rear rack.

I didn't take photos of both lights with fresh batteries but the lights are basically identically eye-searingly bright with fresh batteries. Think painful. Think about not staring directly at these lights. Think about Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. That's about how bright these lights are. They overwhelmed my camera's settings, so I gave up taking pictures of the lights with fresh batteries.

I do know that marketing claims of "up to 100 hours on 2 AAA batteries" are basically fiction. Maybe in flashing mode with lithium batteries or something (and even then I'm very doubtful), but I figured I'd test these in something close to a fair "apples to apples" comparison. I loaded each light with freshly charged Rayovac rechargeable AAA cells. Now to be fair to the lights tested, these are pretty low capacity rechargeable batteries. Read the battery review here.

Jun Nogami ran an interesting test on battery life comparing the Radbot 1000 to the original Superflash. Now that I had both lights in hand, I set out with my lights and my batteries to recreate his test. I don't have a test bench or even a very good camera but I did record some results the old fashioned way. I turned the lights on to their solid mode and checked them every half hour or so. Here's what I found.



At 4.5 hours, the PDW Radbot 1000 was noticeably dimming. The Planet Bike Superflash Turbo still was going strong.



At 5.0 hours, both lights were visibly dimming. The Planet Bike Superflash Turbo was about twice as bright as the Radbot 1000 at this point in the test.



At about 6.0 hours, the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo shut itself off. The Radbot 1000 was still glowing dimly. Less than half an hour later, the Radbot 1000 also shut down.

These results are consistent with Jun's findings. Letting the lights "rest" for a bit and turning them back on, they'd light for a bit (ten minutes or so) and then shut down. This doesn't mean these are bad lights, but it does show that bright lights draw a lot of power. And that you shouldn't believe the packaging.

My own approach to lighting is redundancy. I'll use a very bright light like the Superflash Turbo or a RADBOT 1000 but after every ride I check the brightness of the lights and change batteries as needed. I carry spare batteries with me. I also use lights that use lower power LEDs to get more useful light out of a set of batteries. And, as someone is sure to comment, a generator hub is one of the best, most reliable ways to ensure you have lights that will run all night.

Keep 'em rolling. And, if you ride at night, keep 'em lit.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

30 comments:

Keith Moore said...

This time of year, almost all of my riding (commuting from downtown Seattle to Woodinville) is at night. I'm a believer in the "department of redundancy department" approach, so I use an original PB Super Flash and a PDB Radbot 1000.

My only complaint about the Radbot is the short battery life. In flash mode, I get *maybe* a week of commuting (8-10 hours) before it dies. The 0.5W Super Flash, on the other hand, lasts for a month or more on identical batteries.

I'd consider a "downgrade" to the Radbot 500 if would mean more time between battery changes.

Has anyone done a battery life comparison between the Radbot 500 and the 0.5W Super Flash?

Bob said...

It would be interesting to re-charge the battery sets and then switch them between the lights and re-run the test to make sure that it was the lights and not the particular battery pair.

bsk said...

Any idea if planet bike redesigned the waterproof seal for the Super Flash "turbo"? The originals tend to accumulate moisture in the bottom of the light around the switch, causing the switch to become unreliable (and causing the light to randomly turn on and off).

adventure! said...

I've had (had, since I lost/misplaced the Radbot last month) both lights. Overall, I like the Radbot better for a few reasons: 1)The extra light setting, the in-between "pulse". Superflash just has solid or seizure-inducing strobe, 2) Built in reflector (which comes in useful when the batteries die.) But the Radbot has its faults too. Besides its shorter battery life, I don't really like the on/off switch. It indeed is easier to turn off, esp. with gloves on. But it's too easy. If I put it in my bag, it will bump into something and turn itself on, leading to shorter lifespan on batteries. If only they would design a "safety" switch or something!

Kent Peterson said...

Interesting bike light nerd talk on "contrast normalization" at:

http://bit.ly/dRxCot

jnyyz said...

Kent:

thanks for running this test. I'm glad we got about the same numbers for the Radbot, which were much shorter than the claimed life. I'd bet that both lights cut off at a certain voltage, and so they might run longer on alkaline AAA's that start at 1.5 V, but I don't use disposable batteries anymore.

GeekGuyAndy said...

I might consider buying a Superflash turbo, though I'm guessing I'll still be running the regular SF for a long time. I change the batteries about 3-4 times a year, and I'm a daily commuter (~20-25 mins each way). I'm currently running two SF (one blinking, one solid) and am very happy with that setup. I looked into the 1W radbot, but was unimpressed with the flashing pattern. I like the seizure-inducing strobe of the SF because it's the texting drivers that I need to grab the attention of.

Doug said...

The Blackburn Mars 4.0 was (I think) the first affordable 1W LED taillight. I think it is the best of the bright taillights for clipping to something (flatter than the Superflash and the Radbot is too big IMHO), but the bracketry it comes with is a bit clunky. Any idea how it stacks up?

bikelovejones said...

"Think about not staring directly at these lights. Think about Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. That's about how bright these lights are."

Which begs the question: On city and suburban streets with their ambient light, how bright does a bicycle light need to be? Should my bike lights be bright enough to hurt?

Since transitioning to a hub-generator system on my city bike, I find that my single LED taillight and headlight are plenty bright enough for urban use; the stand-light feature allows motorists coming up from behind to see me in the dark for at least three to four full minutes after I've stopped at a light or stop sign. That seems bright enough for me.

As for power usage on these uber-bright beauties, rechargeable batteries are a great idea. Ray-O-Vac offers batteries and a plug-in recharger that are quite affordable. If you local bike shop doesn't carry them, call Pacific Lamp & Supply in Seattle.

mary Westmacott said...

Thanks for this post, its great when people actually get the products and give s a real testing situation. more please, love this site.

Pete Witucki said...

Is the PB light regulated? That would explain the maintained light output AND the shorter burn time.

I love my SuperFlash, but I see a lot of value in the build-in reflector on the PDW.. as back-up visibility AND to meet many municipal requirements.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

I switched to the Radbot after having water seal problems with the PB. Each time I turn it on or especially off, my love for the Radbot grows. I wish all lights were as easy. I don't ever remove it from its fender mount , so haven't run in to the problem of it turning itself on.
Donna

Apis said...

Admittedly I live pretty rurally, and as a result I need to ride in a more stealthy mode at night. We have far too many Samsquantches and sightings of Slenderman to ride with searingly bright lights. Those will get one abducted and least, killed and eaten at worst.

You folks must all be either very fast, or very brave.

Bob Hall said...

I picked up 2 PDW lights on amazon.com when they were briefly on sale for $17 a piece. I love these lights. Who cares about battery life? Just go pick up some NiMH rechargeable batteries at Fred Meyer or something for $10. Done. Swap your batteries every other day, and you'll always be very close to optimally bright.

I also like that the PDW lights come apart via screw, instead of the ghetto prying method of the SF.

I agree with bsk that the SF tends to not do well in the rain, and the switch is way too flimsy for my taste.

Mark S.R. Williams said...

Re how bright a tail light should be.....

I think the main advantage of super bright tail lights is to use the things during the day.

With drivers texting and dealing with other distractions, having something on the bike that catches their attention, like a daylight visible blinking tail light, is in this era, a key safety expedient--vastly more important now than it might have been ten years ago.

For use after dark, tail lights can easily be overly bright, and it's probably better to use a tail light that is somewhat less bright--or use the super bright lights on steady rather than flash mode.

One other point.....

With these lights being now so bright, a couple of AAA batteries is inadequate. The Dinotte tail light uses four AA's and can go for around 12 hours before the batteries need to be re-charged. I would argue that 12 hours of capacity would be a good target for most super bright tail lights, since that would probably allow most commuters to be able to change/recharge their batteries once a week. For that, with the two lights you've reviewed, an external battery pack would probably be necessary.

Scott said...

I would have hope for a better running time than that to be honest.

chatty cathy said...

kent witch rechargable batteries do u use? i want to get off disposables but the last recharge bats i owned really sucked. witch is the best of the recharge bats+charger? my local staples has durracell that i thot bout getting. there are lots of choices on amazon (dont know where to start. thankx. im tired of throwing out bats!!!!!!!! to much waste!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kent Peterson said...

Chatty Cathy (and others),

Folks who know more about batteries than I do say very nice things about the Sanyo Eneloops. See:

http://amzn.to/gdXsdQ

In general the "pre-charged" cells (Duracells or others) are the low-discharge ones you want & compare the mAh ratings. Higher mAh means they have more capacity.

Mark S.R. Williams said...

Re rechargeable batteries, in my experience, Sanyo are by far the most consistently reliable. Eveready are by far the worst.

Re chargers, it pays to get a so-called smart charger, which can charge NIMH batteries slowly (which helps the batteries last longer) and that can "condition" batteries, which also leads to longer battery life.


Probably the best place to buy batteries is Thomas Distributing. They have Sanyos and a bunch of microprocessor controlled chargers.

http://www.thomasdistributing.com/

For bicycle light use, the Enlop batteries may actually not be ideal, because they have lower capacity, and high output bicycle lights tend to draw some current even when they're not being used--so the batteries will run down regardless of whether or not they are Enlop type (hold a charge longer) or normal NIMH batteries.

David Hill said...

I have foresaken my Superflashes in favor of the Radbot for the following reasons:

PDW provides a rack mount that allows secure mounting/easy removal of the 'Bot from my bike. The PBSF required cutting a ziptie each time I remove it. Given this, the time required for battery changes is about equal.

The PBSF's have consistently allowed water into the casing causing switch problems, including randomly turning on the light, which resulted in early battery exhaustion. Attempts to remedy this with tape around the shell joint were largely unsuccessful.

The tape mentioned above was also necessary to keep the shell from separating and being lost when riding rough pavement.

I like the added reflectivity of the 'Bot.

Thanks for the comparison, Kent.

KMXTornado said...

What's the difference btw the Radbot 500 an Radbot 1000 other than $7 and the 1000 is brighter? Or is that it?

Kent Peterson said...

KMXTornado,

Yep the 1000 uses a 1 Watt LED while the 500 uses a 1/2 Watt. So while the 500 is not as bright, the batteries last longer. And, as you noted, it's a bit cheaper. When I was visiting PDW, I noted that the PDW guys use 500s on their own commuter bikes.

OutsideTheLaw said...

I want to mount one of these on the back of my helmet, or get another super-bright rear light that will helmet-mount. Any suggestions?

Kent Peterson said...

OutsideTheLaw,

I've had pretty good luck using straps made from strips cut from old bike innertubes to mount lights to helmets. Lace the rubber strap through the helmet vents and the clothing strap on the light.

Projector Headlights said...

My friend bought a car tail light and attached it unto his bike. It looks cool though.

Paul said...

Has anyone tried the MEC brand Cosmic tail light? It is almost as bright as the PBSF turbo with the advantage that it doesn't shut itself off without warning (like the PBSF turbo does). The MEC light is also a fraction of the cost of the PBSF turbo.

Glenn said...

I'm a bit of a light junkie too, but I'm more interested now in front lights since I got the superflash. I see the SF from 4 blocks away, they're visible in anything short of direct sunlight. Brighter strobes might be good for daytime use, but I could see it having the opposite effect at night. I've experienced difficulty determining speed/distance of oncoming bikes with super bright white strobes. A solid light allows better judgement of speed/distance. I prefer my fellow 3000lb make an informed decision. Bright blinking in the back seems somewhat less of an issue as you're both travelling the same direction, but it seems it reaches the point where it would mar the judgement of surrounding traffic as well. I tend to keep my front light on solid in low light situations and cloudy days. I'm tempted to do the same with my superflash on dark roads. A good compromise would be a bright solid light and a less bright blinking light. It attracts attention but allows better distance/speed judgement.

Glenn said...

Should read "fellow 3000lb commuter"

Also, I suppose the 1W would be handy if you encounter a lot of fog where you live.

jnyyz said...

Hi Kent,

I repeated the runtime tests for the updated superflash turbo (the one with the red on/off switch), and the runtime is much better, although the intensity tails off gradually with time, rather than being abruptly cutoff. It was still flashing weakly at 100+ hours. On steady mode, it will run 24 hours, although the brightness also tails off with time.

http://jnyyz.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/planet-bike-blaze-micro-and-superflash-runtime-tests/

Charles Flaum said...

A good compromise would be a bright solid light and a less bright blinking light.