September 1, 2009

Blackburn Flea packs a punch, and packs small.

I'm always on the lookout for good bicycle lights, so when I caught wind of this little light from Blackburn I quickly snatched a set to try them out. Since the focus of this website is walking a thin line between randonneuring and commuting, I'll do my best to consider both realms of use. In the battery light world, there is a struggle for manufacturers to hit big selling points: size & weight, lumens, and run-time. It is indeed a fine balance, because you can generally only get two of these attributes at any one price point. Big lumens and long run-time requires a larger battery, for example. If you want light weight, you have to throw one of the items out - sometimes both. The field is changing, however, with little solutions like the Blackburn Flea.

It's been about nine months or so since I first picked up the Blackburn Flea headlight and taillight set, and I've managed to put it through a pretty good set of trials and paces. Retail price at the time was roughly $50, and at first I gasped because of the size of the lights and the seemingly small array of "stuff" I got in the package. At first glance on the sales rack, one might look at the price, then the lights, shrug, and walk away. Blackburn was smart, either by necessity or consequence, that the units are charged up in the package. The package is designed to allow prospective buyers to take a look at how they operate right there at the point of sale. When light shopping, I've often resorted to wondering, checking the web for beam-shots or photos of some kind, and reviews to know if my purchase was going to be worth a hoot. Sometimes, a bike retailers nightmare, I'd actually rip into a package and put the included batteries into the light and try it out - well,
carefully, so as not to render something un-sellable, of course. Blackburn did quite well with the packaging they chose in this regard, and clicking the lights on and examining the beams right there in the store, my sticker shock was suppressed. Almost blinded myself, and I was thusly sold.

At home, the two hook-n-loop straps, the charge adapter, and the lights all popped out of the package took up literally just a handful of space. This entire kit would fit easily into anyone's bag, seatpack or back pocket. All told, the front and rear lights with their associated straps weighed in at 20 grams each. Right off the bat, nothing is lighter in a rechargeable light. You have your Knog "Frog" lights, your Princeton Tec's, and other CR-2032 powered lights that are slightly smaller, far less bright, and not rechargeable. There are lots of images available via a Google search that have the Blackburn lights compared to coins - a good reference. These are TINY lights. What sets these apart are their power output and rechargeability.

Power output: Advertised at 40 lumens. That, for the size of this light, is quite remarkable. The rear light is equally bright. Yes, larger rechargeable lights have more power, but you have to remember that you can't have it all (yet) and the size is the focus here. In that arena, if I could be so bold as to pose a "lumens per gram" fantasy, these are a clear leader. The front light uses 4 Nichia white LEDs, producing an even spot beam that is actually enough to ride by if you keep your speed in check - so in a pinch, this is actually a viable backup headlight, not just a tiny, blinky marker-light or be-seen light - although in flash mode, it excels at the latter. For most commuters, the front light could be enough on mornings or evenings where you just can't get the sunshine to fit your schedule. On street-lit roads, honestly, this light on the handlebars with the included hook-n-loop strap would be enough for most anyone. The remarkable output is balanced by the r
un-time, which on steady is about three hours, slightly more. Sure, not much - but focus back on size vs. output, and it's surprising. It's enough to get you home, certainly, for what most riders would use it for. There is an over-drive mode, which is really handy - but it really eats into the run-time bank, and on one ride in early January I managed to blow through the charge in about half the advertised three hours, alternating between both modes. With tender use of the overdrive feature, however, the three hours on steady was repeatable on many occasions.

Beam quality is pretty good - my only complaint is with the emitters having a purplish tinge to them, which - spectrally - is a little bit of wasted energy. The sealed design of the enclosure doesn't really lend itself towards hacking or swapping emitters like you can do with some lights, so I didn't even try - but that's the only real operational flaw I could find with this little wonder. Head to head against other LED lights, that purplish tinge to the light seems to remove a little bit of the contrast and candlepower. Because of this, I found myself using the overdrive feature probably moreso than Blackburn intended, just to get a better beam - when there is more voltage opened to the emitters, the color improves. Still, I can't fault Blackburn for this: if they'd have come to market with an (estimated) 80 lumen light that only ran for an hour on a charge, it would not have been very useful. More run time at the expense of a little spectral quality, not a horrible t
hing - and having the overdrive function there in a pinch, you can safely navigate darker sections of road, and then return to normal. One thing I've seen in pricier lights is a simple toggle to allow easier movement between high and low power, bypassing any blinking modes until the button is held for 'x' seconds. But, to be fair, this isn't a race light, so having to "go around the horn" and toggle past blinking mode each time I want to switch power is okay, I suppose.

The charging system is brilliant. You use an adapter to siphon current from a 1.5v cell of any size, the size dictating the number of charges you get: about 3 for a AA-cell, roughly 30 for a D-cell. New for 2010, a new version of the light includes a small solar panel and a USB adapter. Unless I'm mistaken, this is a bicycle-light first for out-of-the-box charging flexibility. This is really slick, not gimmicky like one might assume. It works well. Blackburn has always been a solid company with regards to innovation: even the hook-n-loop straps weren't an afterthought: one side has a thick rubbery center stripe, which is meant to hold the light in place on handlebar or seatpost, and it makes for a very solid platform. Combined with their low mass, these light don't move around on the bike at all once in place.

For randonneuring use, the Flea lights make good backups in a pinch. Sure, the rear light is a given: it takes up almost no space in a bag, weighs very little, and will blink for up to 12 hours. For most brevets, if a primary rear light fails this might save you a DNF. For the front, its a stretch: you can see the road with it, but your speed, especially on any downhill, would have to be limited on dark roads for sure. Add in the three hour run time, depending on when your primary light failed, it may not be enough to save a ride. The tiny charge adapter and packing a AA cell in a bag will allow field recharging, but charge times (while really good) are 30 minutes, so every three hours you'd have to stop and hang out. Sure, a primary light failure would mean life on brevet is compromised - but I'm not sure its the best solution for a tired randonneur to be messing with tiny wires and waiting for a charge every 50 miles or so. In this sense the Flea front light might
be best hanging out in the bag as a third-string backup. Using the Flea in this way is indeed WAY outside the original design intent, but, for reading cues, changing a flat after dark, shining on a street sign, its perfect - Strap this to a helmet and use sparingly and you've got a light-weight, tiny beacon that kicks the snot out of anything else its size. Just keep your use in check, and get something different if you want to supplement your primary light during the ride.

All in all, these are an exceptional product, very versatile, and adaptable to just about anything. Commuting, rando backup, racing sunset on a roadie ride, marking your position on a rainy ride. Highly recommended.


Josh Mitchell said...

USB / Solar chargers may be what gets me to try these out. It's always been what I've considered the Flea's Achilles Heel... especially for office commuters as it makes it easy to top off while your at the office.

kG said...

I agree: Blackburn is following on the heels of a couple other companies in this regard, including NiteRider and their USB-chargeable MiNewt headlights. I think this is a great innovation for the worker, and terrific for almost anything in the field, too: more and more, 24-hour races are managed in the "pits" by guys with laptops, for figuring lap-times, etc. -- if you can keep things simply by charging up headlights while you're plugged in anyways, that's a plus.

Ty Hippe said...

Does anyone know, or have the ability to find out, what the voltage is at the point where the USB charger connects to the flea? Based on the minimalist design of the charger, I'm guessing that it provides 5V to the flea, and that the flea "bleeds" off the excess while charging its 1.5V battery. If that's the case, then a USB charger could easily be made from an old USB cable. However, it sure would be nice to know before risking damage to the light.

Bjørnar Volden (Norway) said...

The usv charger gives out 5V. Measured it just now.