A review of inexpensive LED microlights and glow sticks.
The light-emitting diode (LED) has revolutionized the art of building flashlights. LEDs are highly efficient at converting electricity to light, and recent research has made then available in a range of colors. An efficient diode can make light from a small battery, opening the door to flashlights that are small, long-lived, or both. In this review, I will look at a few LED microlights that provide the "small" and some LED glow sticks that provide "long lived".
I will examine three LED microlights, pictured at right:
(Clicking any of the thumbnail images in this review will give you a larger image.)
The Photon Freedom is widely regarded as the best microlight available, combining brightness, lifetime and versatility for about $12. The iNova is the light most frequently compared to the Freedom; it provides similar brightness at a similar cost, with a slightly simpler user interface. Finally, I test a cheap generic light (sometimes dubbed a "fauxton" by mad punsters). These are widely available for about $1 each. While their performance doesn't match the others, at that price you can buy them by the dozen, stash them everywhere, and not worry about losing or breaking them.
It was not my original intention to test these microlights, but rather just the light sticks reviewed below. The NiteIze wand tested below is actually powered by an iNova microlight, though. As I already had a Photon and a fauxton, it seemed natural to just go ahead and expand the test. It should be noted that my iNova has a red LED, while the other two microlights are white.
From a usability point of view, I agree with the conventional wisdom. The Photon is the most adaptable of these lights, though its controls takes a bit of getting used to. The Photon features continuously adjustable brightness, a blinking mode and a momentary-contact "morse code" mode; the iNova has two brightness settings and a blinking mode; the generic light has one intensity with continuous or morse modes. The Photon and the iNova have comparable brightness; substantially brighter than the generic light. The Photon comes with a mini-carabiner and a gimballed clip that lets you easily use it clipped to a hat as a headlamp or clipped to some object as a work light. The iNova has a flat metal clip that is servicable but not very adaptable. The fauxton came only with a split-ring.
All of the lights use two CR2016 coin-style batteries. The batteries in the Photon and iNova are easy to change by prying off a cover or splitting the clamshell. It helps to have a jeweler's screwdriver or a thin-bladed pocketknife handy. The fauxton is held together by four small screws; it's not hard to change the battery at a desk with a proper screwdriver, but it should not be considered field-servicable.
I tested the lifetime of the lights by simply turning them on and leaving then on, occassionally looking into the darkened room they were in to see how they were doing. All the lights seem to have at least some minimal regulation, so they stay near their full brightness right up to the end; once they start to dim they die quickly. The Photon and iNova were tested at both at their brightest and dimmest available settings. The lifetime results appear in the table below. In short, the usable lifetimes in continous, full-power operation are comparable, but the Photon's continuous brightness adjustability allows you to eke out quite a lot more life if you can get by with dim light.
|Light||Life, Bright||Life, Dim||Weight|
|Photon||14 hr 00 m||69 hr 00 m||10 g|
|iNova||16 hr 25 m||36 hr 00 m||09 g|
|fauxton||---||37 hr 00 m||07 g|
My recommendation is to carry a Photon Freedom for serious use, and to buy a dozen cheap fauxtons to scatter around and use as zipper pulls.
There are four LED light sticks reviewed, all in red:
These LED light sticks, or glow sticks, are available in a wide range of colors, and are often marketed more as party favors for raves than for survival use. I've chosen to use red lightsticks, as red light is optimal for preserving night vision. These LEDs are alternatives to chemical glow sticks, and their advantages are obvious: you can turn an LED on or off, or make it flash, or change its brightness or color.
The first stick on the list is an unfair competitor. The NiteIze device is actually a wand that channels the light from an iNova microlight. It is bigger, heavier and more expensive than the others. The NiteIze retails for about $15 shipped from online sources. The LifeGear and Eveready sticks are widely available in discount and hardware stores for about $5 and $4, respectively; the Happy Camper is marketed via mail order as a party favor for about $3.50 each, plus shipping, though they can be found in bulk for about $2 in some places.
The NiteIze wand is the nicest, highest-quality of these lights. The "light pipe" is actually a solid peice of clear plastic. The top of the handle screws off to reveal a three-segment interior that holds the iNova microlight, extra batteries, and the iNova's clip. The threads are substantial and the handle is made watertight with an o-ring seal. The handle also has a short lanyard attached. Since the iNova is inside the handle, it cannot be controlled from the outside; you have to unscrew the handle and pull it out to adjust it. This wand is also rather wide and heavy compared to the other light sticks, so while it would be nice to have in your glove compartment or toolbox, it might not be appropriate for stashing in your backpack.
The LifeGear light stick is the next best in terms of fit-and-finish. Like the NiteIze, it has an uncolored, translucent light pipe. One end of the pipe is fashioned into a whistle with a tightly-fitting cover. This is a nice thought, but the whistle isn't very loud as survival whistles go. The other end is the handle, colored in the same color as the LED, and sporting a rubberized pushbutton. The works fit inside the handle. This is a two-in-one light stick: there is a colored LED for the light pipe and a white LED for the flashlight that shines out of the handle end. The works are easily removed from the handle, so changing the three AG13 button batteries is simple. The works are actually symmetric, so if you wanted a colored flashlight and a white stick for some reason, you can do that.
I really liked the LifeGear stick. It's light, cheap, well-made and has good color and brightness. Sadly, it has a fatal flaw. The LifeGear turns itself off after one hour. That's right: a device intended to be a rescue beacon, location marker or ambient light source turns itself off after only about an hour. This is incredible to me. So incredible I thought it was a bug, so I bought a second one to confirm that this really is a "feature". The whole point of building LED light sticks is to replace chemical glow sticks with a more capable and flexible electronic device. The LED is inherently efficient. Why kneecap your product with a battery-saving "feature" that is unwanted, unneeded (and unadvertised). LifeGear, please fix this!
The Happy Camper has the happiest name and is the smallest and cheapest of the sticks. Despite the name, it's marketed as a party favor and not as a camping or survival tool. It has the cheapest and least satisfying construction of the group. The entire body is made of colored, translucent plastic. The works slip-fit into the light pipe, and a switch cap screws onto the end of the works. There is a tiny pocket clip, but no lanyard. The colored LED is powered by two AG13 button batteries, which are fairly easy to change. Since the works can be removed from the light pipe, you could conceivably use them separately as a flashlight in a pinch. The threads on the switch cap are not very substantial and are easily stripped, which makes the switch finicky and unreliable. The Happy Camper is the only one of the four light sticks that is not waterproof. It does have deep color, since both the LED and the pipe are colored, but it is not very bright.
Finally, we have the Eveready. Like the Happy Camper, this has a colored light pipe, but this time with a white LED. The white LED is pretty bright, but the light pipe pigmentation is not very deep. This makes for poor color saturation. I would not use this light stick for, say, an astronomy outing where you hope the red ambient light will preserve your night vision. There is just too much white-light spillage from this stick. The works are embedded in the end of the light pipe; the batteries are housed in the opaque plastic handle that screws onto the pipe. The light is switched on or off by twisting the handle. The three AG13 button batteries are covered with a plastic disk held in place by a tiny screw. You need a jeweler's screwdriver and patience to change them, and I wouldn't try it in the field if I could help it. The handle also has the longest and stoutest lanyard of the entire group.
The pictures above show the glow sticks glowing. As noted above, the NiteIze and the LifeGear have the brightest and most richly colored light. The Happy Camper is a nice deep red, but not very bright; the Eveready is bright, but not very red.
Pictured above, left-to-right, are the Eveready, Happy Camper, LifeGear and NiteIze sticks in natural light and glowing in the dark at full power. This was the arrangement used for the lifetime testing described below. Clicking either image above will get you a larger version.
The LifeGear's fatal flaw of turning itself off complicated the lifetime testing. I couldn't just turn all the sticks on and walk away; I had to come back once an hour to restart the LifeGear. That meant no overnight testing. In a sense this was a blessing. Outside of using these as a rescue beacon, you are unlikely to use these sticks a hundred hours at a time. Rather, you'll use them for maybe six hours a night as an ambient light source or as a marker (to find your campsite or avoid clotheslining yourself on a guyline). That's how I wound up testing them: on for six-to-eight hours a night over an 18-day span, and turned off during the daytime. I photographed the set of sticks at one-hour intervals in a dark room against a black backdrop. The camera was set to a 1/4 second exposure at f4.8 for all the photos, and the resulting digital photos were then enhanced to a gamma of 2 to improve contrast and detail of the images across the considerable brightness variations pictured. A Flash video compressing the 120 hours of testing into about 15 seconds is embedded above; right-click and select "Play" to watch it.
The video clearly shows how the batteries "recover" inbetween test sessions, causing the brightness of the sticks to "pulse". You can see, however, that the NiteIze fades first and relatively quickly. This is not unexpected, since this wand is powered by a full-intensity microlight and not more dedicated electronics. The Happy Camper fades away next, followed by the Eveready and finally, the LifeGear. The results appear in the table below.
I rather arbitrarily defined what constituted the "usable light" threshold where I ended each stick's time. Essentially, if I could still clearly make out light from a distance of about 50 feet, the light was still working. By this standard, the LifeGear won the longevity prize (with the caveat that it won't stay on for more than an hour at a time). If you watch closely, though, in terms of just producing some sort of light, the Eveready wound up as the longest-lived. This is a bit of a cheat, though, since the Eveready has a white diode and a not-very-saturated color in its light pipe. I could see even the feeblest glow from the diode. In fact, on a lark, I wound up leaving the Eveready on after otherwise concluding the test just to see how long it would keep going and going... It continued to give some tiny spark of light for about six weeks in total! Similarly, the Happy Camper's diode kept going for about 112 hours total, but the diode was masked by the deeply colored plastic of the light pipe and thus reduced the usable life to only about half that time. I suspect that neither the Happy Camper nor the Eveready having any real regulation of the diode current, while the iNova and the LifeGear clearly do. Thus, the two nicer lights fade quickly at their end-of-life, while the cheaper ones just dribble away.
|NiteIze||16 hr 25 m||102 g|
|Happy Camper||53 hr 00 m||18 g|
|Eveready||55 hr 00 m||34 g|
|LifeGear||75 hr 00 m||35 g|
In the final analysis, I'm not happy with the overall performance of any of these light sticks. The NiteIze wand is an excellent product, but doesn't really fit in with the others as a portable, long-life glow stick. It would have had a better lifetime with the iNova set at half-power (about 36 hours), but it's still just too big to be a chemical glow stick replacement. It is definitely in my toolbox, though.
As noted above, the LifeGear's behavior is just tragic. It would have been truly the longest-lived of these sticks if it would just stay on. This would be a stand-out product all-around and would easily have gotten my thumbs-up if it weren't for the bone-headed one-hour timeout. What were they thinking?
The Happy Camper works pretty well for its price, but it's really just a toy. It might be fun at a rave, but it won't stand up to abuse on the trail. The color is good, but it's not very bright. It is very light, compact and as easy as a pen to pack or carry.
The Eveready lacks color, is cheaply built and is not very field-servicable. It is inexpensive, could be used as a very long-lived night light, and it has a long, stout lanyard.
So, in the end, we can only hope that LifeGear comes to its senses someday. Until then, I'm carrying one LifeGear and one Happy Camper glowstick in my backpacks to go with my Photon Freedom microlight. There's still an old-fashioned chemlight in there, too.
Last updated on Monday, 22-Feb-2010