Monday, 21 December 2009

Solstice Commute

Great weather for a white Christmas. Very scenic, but not good timing for commuting today, on the shortest day of the year. Especially by bike, none of which spotted whilst walking this morning.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Smart Polaris II Light Set Review

5 LED front and 317 Rear

At the beginning of last year to improve my chances of being seen on roads at night, I added a set of flashing lights to my bike. My existing static lights, although visible, didn't seem to alert road users to my presence. F
rom experience as a motorist, I believed adding flashing lights would enable me to be seen better and sooner. Experience soon bore that out as I sensed cars and pedestrians taking extra caution around me. What I hadn't anticipated was how bright the lights were and so how successful they would be at improving my visibility to others.

The Polaris II's 3 LED front + 5 LED rear lights I got are still going strong and, despite initial feedback to the contrary from others, have proved faultless in their reliability. In the third winter of using them, I've already benefiting from the extra safety they provide as dark nights arrived.

Further details of the Smart Polaris II 3 LED front and 7 LED rear are in my original Smart Polaris review and follow-up.

I have taken the opportunity to check out the light-set next up the Smart Polaris range. The 5 LED front and 317 rear distributed by Fisher Outdoor and available from numerous retailers, mine coming from Wiggle and their latest offer (currently out of stock). The set comes in the same format packaging and with the same mounts as the previous set. Batteries are supplied, 2 x AA for the front and 2 x AAA for the rear. I'll not repeat the details of the mounting, the descriptions of the light housings and general operation as they are the same as before, so I refer you to my original review. One thing I noticed from the packaging I didn't mention previously, is the diameter supported for the front mount. It's stated to support handlebar diameters of 25.4mm through to 31.8mm. I have used it on bars at both ends of that range quite successfully and transferring the light is easy and requires no tools.

To make this review shorter, I'm
concentrating on the differences this new set brings. All the experiences of the original set are had with this uprated version. The quality is there and the same neat clean design provides a performant bike light set that should last many years. The difference is in the amount of light emitted from those powerful Nichia Japanese LEDs.

Front light

The front light has 5 LEDs and, logically, you might assume 2/3rds more light than the 3-LED version, but the rating is 298 candle power compared with 144 candle power of the 3 LED version, so twice as much incident light. How this is measured is not stated on the packaging. It does suggest this unit is using more efficient LEDs. Both sets are bright but the 5 LED version is like looking at a car with headlights on full beam so the claim to be visible from a mile away is believable. The reach appears similar but the extra brightness is noticeable and, on the road, the alert to road users obvious. Battery life, stated at 100 hours, is excellent (120 hours on 3 LED set) and understandably less because of the current that two extra LEDs draw.

Rear light

The rear light is probably the biggest design difference. Whereas the 7-LED rear of the other Polaris set had two LEDs to the side and two at 45 degrees and three to the rear, this set has three to the rear with the main brightness coming from the powerful 0.5 watt top LED. This has a dedicated clear lens arrangement, but also projects a good deal of light sideways, making up for the loss of the other side LEDs. Rearward, the brightness is significantly more than the 7-LED set and is more akin to a car with fog lights on. This makes it difficult for motorists not to see you at night and presents the option of not using in flashing mode since the extra brightness makes it a perfectly acceptable static rear light. Talking of flashing modes, the 3-LED set has three modes: all flashing, alternating and steady. This set has just flashing and steady. Having never used alternating, it's not a mode I shall miss. Battery life, like the front light, is less than the 7-LED version but still very good at the stated 60 hours. The mounting has a useful clip to hook the light on clothing, saddlebag or rucksack.


Experience for each individual light is noted above but some general comments might be useful. The packaging recommends only using alkaline batteries but I use NiMh 2500mAh rechargeables in mine and they last a couple of months of commuting using them in flashing mode, though my commute is quite short. I've always used rechargeable batteries and had no problem. The only downside to not using alkalines is the lights are slightly less bright than fresh alkalines since, with NiMh, the lights only get about 2.5 volts instead of 3 volts and at that level are lower down their specified operating voltage range. Lower voltage, means less current and therefore less light emitted. Typically, for each type of battery, this might be around 70mA/1.8 lumens compared with 150mA / 2.8 lumens per LED for LEDs of similar characteristics. The lower current using NiMh batteries may result in longer operating time depending on battery capacity. Perceptually there is a small difference visible in the light intensity and the choice will be yours, weighing convenience against brightness required. Certainly with both types of battery the units are very bright. Using good alkalines, producing a healthy current at 3V, is the way to achieve the rated luminous intensity but at some point during use, alkalines will produce less light than their rechargeable counterparts due to the way they discharge. Tail-off with partially depleted batteries of either type is gradual, giving a reasonable time to continue cycling before changing batteries although with this set it is quicker than the previous set. For me, this means not carrying spares on the commute but you have to be careful to notice when the lights are losing brightness so you can replace the batteries in good time.

Comparing 7 LED and 3 LED front lights

This is difficult to do as it is quite subjective. Based on perceptual differences with no scientific basis, the 7 LED is brighter both to be seen by and seeing with. How much brighter is difficult to tell really as they are both too bright to look at

The following two images were taken on an unlit country road with the same exposure for both lights taken from the same position. The brightness has been increased the same on each photo. You still may not be able to see much as a camera isn't as sensitive as the human eye. Consequently you may conclude they aren't for country lanes at night but, combined with a head torch, they are OK as long as you don't go too fast.

7 LED Front Light

3 LED Front Light

If when buying them there is no difference in price, it would seem sensible to get the 7 LED.


Overall, this is a great light set for the money (especially when you find it on offer). Ideal for winter commuting even in extreme cold (rated to -40C). For use on unlit roads or for off-road, this front unit is probably OK for occasional use, but not sufficient for regular full darkness runs or fast riding where a higher specification (and expensive) dedicated off-road light would be better.

RRP £34.99 (Wiggle offer 60% off £14)

Likes: Blindingly bright to look at (don't do it), functionality, easy mounting, battery life, price (on offer)
Dislikes: None

Quality: 9/10
Performance: 9.5/10 (for its target market)
Value for money: 9.5/10 (depending on discount)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Signs of the recessional times?

Compare and contrast

Top picture: September 2008 08:15

Bottom picture: December 2009 08:45

Where did all the cars go? I might have caught a quiet moment but there is certainly less traffic in recent weeks and actually, despite winter, one or two more cyclists. I even encountered a guy commuting on a fixed the other day - common in the cities but unusual round here.