Goodness gracious.There we were, getting used to the idea of bicycle lights with three ultra-bright white LEDs, when a single much brighter LED came along (see A to B 43). A few weeks later, and that light has already been overtaken by events, because power has trebled once again.Yes, the future has arrived, and rather more rapidly than we would have dared predict a few months ago.
Why join this candle-power arms race at all? The problem (if you haven’t noticed) is that car lights have become more effective in recent years, while bicycle lights are stuck in the 1970s, thanks in part to archaic regulations, of which more below. Bright lights make it easier to see and be seen, particularly when you’re moving fast and have just been blinded by 200 watts of quartz-halogen.
The Solidlights range are produced and marketed as a cottage industry, so this small British company has been able to gear up to introduce new technology while the big Japanese manufacturers are still bartering over wholesale prices.Two options are currently available – the 1103, with a single three watt LED, and the 1303, with three similar ‘bulbs’ and three times the power output.
We’ve decided to test the smaller 1103, because it’s cheaper, lighter, and more than adequate for most purposes. Unlike the chunky Cateye EL500 tested in A to B 43, the 1103 is tiny, measuring just 40mm square if viewed from the front, by 62mm deep.The mounting bracket (similar to, but incompatible with, the Cateye bracket) more or less doubles the size.
…taste the forbidden fruits of full power, and there’s no going back…
Solidlights has achieved this compact package by putting the battery elsewhere, not that it’s particularly large or heavy. Like the Powabyke on page 20, power comes from Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.The capacity is nominally 16.5 watt/hours, from a pack measuring 90mm by 42mm by 26mm and weighing 130g (Solidlight’s figures are refreshingly accurate). By comparison, a typical set of four ye olde AA NiCd rechargeable batteries weigh only 100g, but deliver a less than devastating three watt/hour punch. Or a set of the very latest, sexiest NiMH AA batteries weigh a similar 100g and can achieve 6.3 watt/hours. So, as a rule of thumb, the Li-ion pack is about five times as effective weight for weight as typical rechargeables, and twice as good as the very best.
How does it work? We haven’t the faintest idea, but you clip the lamp bracket to your handlebars, velcro the battery pack to something suitable (it comes with a non-slip silicon rubber pad) and plug in. Everything is neatly and functionally designed – one long press on the big waterproof switch ignites the LED, and another long press turns it off, which should make it difficult to turn on or off by mistake with frozen fingers.
The lamp has three power settings that can be found in sequence with quick prods at the button.The lowest setting gives the sort of output you might have expected from a cutting edge lamp back in 2003, such as the Cateye EL200. It’s a soft blue light, bright enough to ride by, but not really up to illuminating pot-holes and other nasties.The mid setting is similar to one of those quaint old-fashioned halogen dynamo lamps, or the LED star of last summer, the EL500, but the beam is broader, giving a softer, more even spread of light, without the sharply focussed centre spot.
Those who don’t know any better (poor innocent darlings) could live quite happily with this mid-power setting. But, once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruits of full power, there’s no going back.The beam is completely round in shape, comparatively broad in reach, and of an intensely cold blue-white light. Illumination is good enough to read the road with confidence, and about the same brightness as a pair of halogen lamps.With this sort of light output, ignorant motorists dart for cover, presumably expecting a Kawasaki G-1300 turbo to spring at them out of the dusk.The lack of a central bright spot leaves you a little short on long- range information when riding fast on really dark roads, but for most other purposes, the light is superb. One of the strange quirks of LED lights is that you might not be able to see the road at a great distance, but the lamp will pick out reflective signs far beyond your ability to actually read the small print. Perhaps more importantly, it demands attention from oncoming traffic at a kilometre or more.
…German approval makes them legal in our own sad, forgotten little country…
Up to now, this sort of power meant great big lead-acid batteries, and/or rather limited battery life. But with its LED ‘bulb’ and tiddly, but efficient, Li-ion battery pack, the 1103 is claimed to run for 33/4 hours on full brightness (we did a little better – about four hours), or double that on the middle power setting.When the battery is almost flat, the lamp flashes three times and reverts to low power, giving a further twenty minutes on ‘reserve’.
The charger is equally compact (35mm x 42mm x 90mm), lightweight (230g) and intelligent. It will run from any mains power source worldwide, and gives a full charge in three hours 20 minutes (on Castle Cary voltage, at least), reaching 90% capacity in less than two hours, which is worth knowing.The downside of a separate battery is that everything has to be disconnected and reconnected to charge it.The tiny three-way connector is a bit fiddly, and would be difficult to fit with cold hands.
A compact and powerful front light would suit a folding bike very well, mounted either on the handlebars or bolted permanently above the front brake caliper. Fitted as such to a Brompton, there’s still plenty of room to fold as normal, although whether you’d want to leave something this special on the bike is another matter.The battery lead is only 50cm long, so you have to find somewhere close to the light, but the velcro fixing works well.
If you’re not keen on batteries, we’re told a dynamo-powered kit is on the way.Team this tiny, indestructible lamp with a good hub dynamo and – for a price – you have created one of the toughest and brightest bicycle lights around.
Ah yes, price. As tested, complete with Li-ion battery and charger, the Solidlights 1103 costs £195. If you want to use your own batteries (5 x AA cells should last nearly two hours), the light alone costs £120. It’s difficult to put these sort of figures into perspective. A Schmidt hub dynamo plus B&M halogen headlamp will cost you about £150, but give rather less light.The Cateye EL500 one watt LED costs £45, but lacks a plug-in charger and is similarly lacking in oomph against the 1103.You pays your money and takes your choice.
Incidentally, if you’re one of these annoying people who can’t live without the biggest and best of everything, the triple LED 1303 is bigger, brighter and more expensive. It’s hard to see why anyone would need this sort of power on-road, but boys will be boys.
We should also point out that LED lamps are technically illegal in the UK – well, probably. The Germans, eons ahead of us as usual, are now approving individual products, including the new Trelock LS-600 and the Cateye EL500 (look for the EL500G if you can find it).As far as anyone can tell, German approval makes them legal in our own sad, forgotten little country, provided of course, your local judiciary are Euro-friendly.At three watts, the Solidlights 1103 just scrapes in under the power limit, but it’s still an LED and it hasn’t passed those German tests.Thus, ironically, you could be riding with one of the most eye- catching lamps available, get mown down by a dumb motorist and end up losing all hope of compensation because your front light hadn’t passed some test in Germany, and our own legislators are dithering in the 1950s.Take our advice and go for powerful lights.
Solidlights 1103 LED Complete kit £195 Lamp only £120 .Weight Lamp 130g Battery 130g Total 260g Battery Lithium-ion . Battery Capacity 16.5Wh . Run time full-power 4 hours . Charge time 3 hours 20 mins . Manufacturer Martin-Jones Technology Ltd mail firstname.lastname@example.org web www.solidlights.co.uk