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
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