Saturday, January 11, 2014

Philips SafeRide LED Bike Light: Excellent for Commuting and City Riding


Looking into the reflector: LEDs point down, not out, part of the engineering of a sharp top beam cutoff

A prefatory note on one of the motivations for this post: I read the review of the B&M Luxos U Dynohub-powered light in the Winter 2013 edition of "Bicycle Quarterly," and felt like writing a rebuttal to its conclusions. 

Brief rebuttal: Philips SafeRide battery-powered LED Bike Light (LBL) currently selling for $79.99 on a popular e-commerce site***. This single sentence answers the majority of anti-battery light assertions/rants in the BQ article.

Longer rebuttal: for city riding and commuting, you would be hard-pressed to find a better or more suitable light than the Philips LBL and furthermore, you don't need to spend $900+* on a dynohub lighting system around the B&M Luxos in order to achieve excellent lighting for your bicycle riding for those applications. To be clear and transparent, in contrast with the BQ article, the LBL as it comes out of the box may not be the right solution for a more demanding application like long-distance randonneuring across remote mountainous regions at night. But the distinction should be made that most city riding and commuting is a quite different application with different and in many ways less demanding requirements than long distance solo randonneuring**. If that's your sport or passion, a $900+ dynohub lighting system/wheel probably fits right into the rest of your bicycle system. Also, for both applications, beam shape does matter. Other than those two conclusions, I disagree with most of the sweeping, generalized statements made in the BQ article about bike lighting. A fair comparison between the Luxos and the LBL for city riding and commuting would reach very different conclusions, I expect. (see W.Scholten links below for superior, excellent, detailed reviews and beamshots)

My LBL being fully charged (but not running, which doesn't work) off a portable 11Ah Li-poly supply @2.4A and 5v


My Perspective on bike lights (criteria for success): A bicycle headlight should be bright enough to illuminate the road ahead and to the sides, with a beam pattern that efficiently throws light where it's needed, and not where it's useless and/or annoying, should enable drivers of oncoming as well as side-entering vehicles to see the light and to accurately gauge distance and to read "cyclist", and should have a power source and overall reliable construction which does not leave the cyclist inconveniently without a working headlight.

As if those requirements are not demanding enough, I also add on that it should be as economical as possible given current lighting (high power LED) and power source (rechargeable batteries or dynamo) technologies, and, should fit into a loosely coupled overall bike system design (more on that below). Additionally, it should either be easily mountable and removable, or alternatively, so securely mounted and/or ugly, that either way the probability of theft while parked at the bike rack in Phoenix, AZ, a city with a high level of theft of bicycles and parts, is low. The best light stolen is equivalent to the worst light mounted. Finally, the light should satisfy these requirements in the context of city riding and commuting, as those are my main applications.

Side view of the Philips LBL. It's not small, but in my opinion not overly large for its purpose

The Philips SafeRide LED Bike light nails all of these criteria for me, in a commuting application. On another hand, a $900+ dynohub+wheel+B&M Luxos leave-on-the-bike system is not for me, primarily due to cost vs. benefit for my application, and also because I do not feel secure leaving it at the bike rack in a medium to high crime big city where cable locks are cut off so frequently that using one at the bike rack makes theft within the year automatic. For a very thorough series of review and comparisons with competing lights, please go have look at W.Scholten's articles below. This reviewer is without parallel as far as I have encountered, and rates the Philips LBL very high in comparison with other current lights, specifically, a notable void in the BQ article:

W.Scholten Main lighting review page
W.Scholten: Amount of light on the road from a circular (most battery) headlights
W.Scholten: Philips LED bike light (LBL), battery powered, with cutoff
W.Scholten: Comparison with possible competitors to the LBL, including dyno lights
W.Scholten: Busch & Mueller: Luxos B & Luxos U dynamo headlamps
There's also interesting stuff on the Candlepower Forums thread about it, but the quality varies there.

Box


Here are a few salient observations about why I like this light so much for commuting and city riding, based on two months of usage. The 4AA NiMH batteries supplied with the light are easy to charge, and in typical commuting for me, running in "eco" mode and not in bright, have me recharging about once a week. The blue lights tell me when I need to recharge, and I just plug it in when they tell me too. The light itself is bright, but with the strong top cutoff, only throws where it needs to, and not into space or into the eyes of motorists or other cyclists. In this respect, I'm a convert to the necessity of a strong top cutoff beam for bicycles. Also, when the time comes, 4AA NiMH batteries are economical to purchase, and easy for the end user to replace. On the other hand, as I mentioned in the photo caption above, they recharge nicely off a portable power pack, but the light doesn't operate while plugged in, so you can't easily run it off an external pack, as far as I (and others who have tried) can tell. That's too bad, since the 2.4A @ 5v coming out of my $40 Lipoly pack above should easily be able to power it, which would serve as a backup and reassurance for running out of juice somewhere inconvenient.

When I unpacked the light initially, I charged the 4AA batteries in my LaCrosse BC-700, which charges cells separately, at 200ma for a charge-discharge-charge cycle to try to get all the cells to a roughly equal charge. Out of the box, there was indeed one cell at a much lower charge state than the other three, which is typical in my experience. I will probably repeat this equalization process once in a while, since 4-cell AA packs always seem to get out of sync eventually when charged together as a pack. Otherwise, though, I am just plugging the light into a USB charger and so far, having good results with that.

For future consideration in a blog post, and relevant to this one: mounting height as well as the aiming of a headlight, bicycle or otherwise, has  direct and significant effects on many of its important lighting characteristics, yet very little instruction is typically provided on how best to mount or aim them. For lights designed to have a sharp cutoff on the top, it seems that the top of their beam should be aligned with the horizon to provide maximum lightning benefit while also taking advantage of the cutoff characteristics. And once you get that height and aim dialed in, does the supplied mount maintain it? This is one more possible knock against removable lights compared to permanantly mounted ones, since every mount I've used so far, including this one, moves when you put the light on or take it off, requiring re-aiming every time.

Examples of badly aimed unscientific beam shots to give some idea of eco vs. high (eco)

(High). Beam should be aimed higher than this. On a dark street, bright easily illuminates 60 yards ahead.

Another characteristic I appreciate is that the light body is constructed solidly of metal, and everything fits together firmly, with little or no rattling for me. So far the switch remains consistent and reliable. The light stays put once mounted, although the mount does move when you install or remove the light.

What did I mean by "loosely coupled bike system," above? An example of a tightly coupled bicycle system would be one with an electric assist, large battery storage, and regenerative charging from all relevant moving and stopping interfaces: brakes, pedaling while going downhill, generation while rolling downhill itself, and potentially even seatpost motion, handlebar motion, and a regenerative suspension. The point about such a system relevant to this post: one faulty, difficult to find component could easily render the whole bicycle unridable, and depending on which component fails, very expensive to repair. Tight coupling in any system yields pervasive impacts from single point failures. In addition, replacing or upgrading one component requires compatibility, along with consideration of all other tightly coupled components so that the repaired or upgraded whole will still work as intended.

This is most commonly addressed by requiring that replacements or upgrades are done strictly with proprietary, compatible replacements. An example of a tightly coupled lighting system is one in which the operation of the lighting system depends on the rotation of the wheel, and the rotation of the wheel is affected by the operation of the lighting system. An increase in resistance in one, a corroded connection in the wiring for example, will cause an increase in resistance in the other (rolling resistance with light turned on, for example). A failure in one, for example a shredded tire in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, will cause immediate or in some cases slightly delayed failure of the other. So, just to be clear, the Philips LBL and other battery-powered lights with self-contained power sources are loosely coupled, since you can put them on and take them off without affecting much if anything else on the bike, except possibly other things already mounted in the handlebar area.

I could go on about this, but I also wanted to show you a much older example of an attempt to shape the beam of a bicycle headlight: the Specialized PreView XE from a couple of decades ago. It operates on 4AA also, but requires 6v to operate and overdrive the 4.7V xenon lamp, so NiMH are hit or miss, and don't work very well with their nominal 1.2v per cell. Back when I used it, I relied on "high capacity" NiCads, which still started off with a lower voltage than 4 alkalines, but which seemed to last longer before the red indicator LED triggered.



Older, shaped beam bike light
When comparing the beams and beam shape of these two, there's really no comparison. The older light is a pale comparison of the Philips LBL. It was a nice try at the time, though, and did give me two or three years of nighttime riding along the canals in Phoenix, back then.


Unscientific ceiling beam shot of the old Specialized PreView XE incandescent light (squelched and weird and not really this white)


Unscientific (not exposure equalized) ceiling beam shot of the LBL, illustrating the artifacts others have mentioned

This is a light made for bicycles which has the advantages of engineering by an experienced automobile light company. Many users have likened it to a car or motorcycle beam, and I agree. By putting light where you need it, and not where you don't, it both uses it's available lumens to greatest advantage, making it seem as bright as much more powerful symmetric round lights, and also minimizes the dazzle into the eyes of other road users (when aimed properly). With such a sharp cutoff, I wonder if those artifacts actually serve the purpose of increasing visibility of the light by drivers. Do they look like crab legs to anyone else? Though I always carry a backup light (and tube, and tools..), this has become my primary for night and early-morning commutes. I haven't been flashed once by oncoming drivers while using it, or gotten any negative feedback from other cyclists or pedestrians, which is indeed a contrast with the kind of comments I get when using one of my bright and symmetrical, round beam battery lights. After experiencing, I have to agree that's a good thing.

 
*B&M Luxos U $235 + SON 28 hub $300, new wheel of similar quality as lighting system built around hub $350 and up total cost: close to $900.

I purchased this light with my own funds and received no consideration for writing this. Please see my disclaimer if you have any other questions, and for more information.

**One may consider bicycle commuting as a version of long distance solo randonneuring, which just happens to have very regular and lengthy rest stops. Rest assured there's no penalty for recharging your bike light during these rest stops while commutanneuring.

***this amazing price may representing something like the North American closeout or End of Life pricing for the first version of the light which has a blue LED charge gauge on the top. I write that as if I actually understand or know what the differences are between the versions of the light, or whether they are in some official sense to be referred to as Generation 1 or 2, or version 1 or 2, or how the ball joint mount or high power timer electronics actually figure into the naming, but in spite of dedicated searching and reading, I could find no clear listing of what's what with what version or generation or whatever. It's clear that as time passes, Philips is making changes to this light. Also, I like the one I got.
 
 

9 comments:

  1. As you know, LED lights have made great inroads in recent years in price and quality of light. As much as BQ is fun to read I am skeptical of many of their reviews. In my opinion they are skewed towards selling their own products, plus I have a problem with lighting systems, Dynamo or not, that cost more than my bike is worth. Thanks for your honest opinions.

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    1. Even finding out how much (and how) to buy one of these very nice dynohub systems is a bit of a quest. It feels a lot more like some sort of custom consulting transaction with a side of therapy thrown in than just walking into a parts store and picking up a very nice light for riding to work at night. I don't necessarily want my bicycle light to be a lifestyle decision, statement of my personal philosophy, or significant financial investment, I just want a very good light to get back and forth to work. With the improvements in LEDs and batteries since the time of my PreView XE light, we're almost there.

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  2. It's all on me, of course, but my eyes glaze over, I feel disoriented and perhaps ill when thinking about and doing bicycle headlights. I have dealt with them since, what, 1974.

    My big insight was a few years ago: Go to Target or what and buy Scotch (tm) "Extreme Mounting Tape" (rated to twenty pounds!). It is double-sided sticky tape, cut an inch or so, trim, and put on all your bikes' bars and then apply a strip of coarse sandpaper. Heck, you can go pebbly, maybe even gravel with the sandpaper in this day and age. Next, you clamp the light's mount that the thoughtless company designed and only provided a cheapo rubber shim, being preoccupied with lumens, reach, span, and such.

    Sorry, that's all I got.

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    1. Excellent tip Don. I could have mentioned in the review that the SafeRide LBL bracket comes with a set of shims which seem engineered specifically to make it ill suited to fit well on an older standard handlebar: almost too thick if you use the supplied stack of two shims, bordering on bottoming out the adjuster if you use one. I fiddled with double-sided tape but was missing the sandpaper element. Will give that a try. And I did not include in this review my old 2D cell headlight which in comparison with this appears to put out roughly the same illumination as a candle

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  3. Awesome article! Hope you don't mind if I send folks your way.

    I especially liked the sentence "... Tight coupling in any system yields pervasive impacts from single point failures...", which was a sentence out of my own heart discussing so called high reliability systems and normal accident theory.

    Indeed, the best thing that has happened to lighting is inexpensive, high quality LED lights, and an improvement over that is proper beam design. If someone needs a 900 buck system for specialty applications, that's fine. For your average commuter, being able to buy a very well made and efficient light for under a hundred bucks is a huge leap for safe nighttime cycling.

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    1. Thanks for commenting Khal. If I had that much money to spend on a lighting system, and my passion was riding all through the night through wild places, the expensive one sounds like it would fit the ticket. The concept that all the cheap bright LEDs are dazzling drivers with poorly aimed and/or poorly shaped beams is worth some further investigation I think. There are many parameters to such an investigation, though, requiring probably a highly qualified technician to fairly control the variable in color, aiming, angles, and brightness. I have a book from the 70s on long distance cycling which basically states that riding at night at any speed is just too dangerous due to lack of sufficient lighting for bicycles. Bright LEDs have changed all that, which is terrific.

      Some of the thoughts about the single point of failure came from just finishing the book "Command and Control" which talked a lot about the history of trying to make our nuclear warhead arsenal single point safe. That aspect of the book scared the crap out of me, because I have seen countless software and hardware systems built to great specifications and with highest intentions of safety and reliability, but without practical safety testing or savvy, which then cracked to pieces when someone or something happened to push just the right way on just the right point.

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  4. Your constant claims that a dynohub light system would cost $900+ was really off-putting when this is patently not true.
    Phillips Saferide Dynamo (the same light as the one you reviewed, but dynamo powered) - $75
    Shimano Dynohub - $120
    Rebuild current wheel with new hub - $50
    Total - $250

    It's still expensive, but nowhere near the $900 you quoted. You can get the price down to $125 by using a bottle dynamo ($50), which are actually really good these days.

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    1. Jasper, thank you for commenting. I have a lot to learn when it comes to dynohub systems for sure. I could have been more precise in my wording about that, since I was referring specifically to the deluxe one talked about in the Bicycle Quarterly article, and not any other specific (yet I'm sure still quite nice) dynohub system. I have looked into the bottle hubs and some of those look quite serviceable. In case it's not clear, my reason in talking about the $900 Luxos U based system, which as far as my limited inquiries show could very well cost in that range for all new on a comparable wheel and custom build not by me, was to disagree with the overly sweeping generalizations in the BQ article about it vs. battery-powered lights. If I were to go further in the excellent directions you suggest, which would also make sense to do, it would be to compare the type of system you mention with the (currently) $79 Philips SafeRide LBL. Even with a cheaper non deluxe setup like the one in BQ, I would still remove the light at the rack, if that's even possible (is it?) because I wouldn't feel good about having a dynamo powered light stolen either. If I am taking the light off anyway, plugging one into to charge is no additional effort whatsoever, and then what's the point of a dynohub for me if the main reason is not always-available never-leave-at-home lighting?

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  5. Informative article.
    Thanks for posting this.
    BTW, I only use B&M, because I simply chose to.
    Having used flashlights instead of proper bicycle lights, as a student, I am glad the LED lights have come down in price and that they are well made; not blinding others.
    Peace :)
    Chandra

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