April 25, 2015

Metroflash Ignita - rhymes with "Dynomit-ah" (...but is it dynamite?)

So, first - allow me the luxury of a handful of asterisks and addenda, caveats, void-where-prohibiteds, and the like:

  • I'm not paid to do any of this, though I'd REALLY like to be.  Hint.  Hint.  Hint
  • These are my opinions  (opinions, people!)
  • I'm not the brightest bulb in the box sometimes (no pun intended)
  • This isn't the Candlepower Forums.  My pics suck by comparison, and I can't measure anything scientifically.  If that sort of thing bores you, you're in the right place.  If it doesn't, I'm with you - but, I still don't have any scientific gear
  • If you think this review stinks, yay!  We agree on something.  Don't try to convince me of something I've already noted above
  • Bullet points should never contain punctuation... I know.  I'm not at work right now. relax

hmm-hhuhuuh-u-huh-huh-huh-uh.  "rules."

Let's begin!

I simply love the state of technology these days, despite a lot of this stuff - in the larger scheme of things - being in its infancy.  My only regret is that I will likely not live long enough to see the "Star Trek-y" stuff that is certainly on the distant horizon.  We are only a few major breakthroughs (like those are easy, somehow?) away from genuine magic.  Steps like solving the power vs. size-of-battery problem, the physical limits of traditional conductors of energy, transparent aluminum, just to name a few. 

One of the most tangible hunks of magic-tech involves one of my favorite pastimes:  riding at night.  I am ever-watchful for improvements and advancements with regard to LED emitters and the various ways they are packaged.  Flashlights with a couple hundred lumens of usable output were hundreds of dollars only ten years ago, and now you can walk into most gas stations and grab something really well made and efficient for less than US$20.00.  I know at least three cyclists I frequently ride or converse with who ride tons of after-dark miles per year on nothing more than a couple of $12 flashlights running on AA cells.  They're cheap, easily replaced, easily kept alive (AA cells are "everywhere"), and no heart-breaker if they fail or turn up missing.  Smart.

I won't even get started on the state of the generator lighting systems... that's a whole other post.

Within helmet light criteria, however, remain certain challenges.  I like having a light on my helmet for a ton of reasons, including being
more visible in foul weather, lighting-up nearby reflective road signs when navigating, finding my way in the dark if I happen to be walking around away from the bike, providing light for a roadside repair, or reading a cue sheet.
Problem?  Most "helmet" lights are too heavy for my liking, which can cause unwanted neck fatigue and helmet "readjusting" on long rides.  Most are sorta clunky, too, and are really meant for caving or camping.  While they do mount on a helmet, it's usually not keeping with their original design intent.

For the last five years, however, I've been happily using one of the few products representing the exception to my complaints: the Blackburn Flea.  
(yes, I've signed up as an Amazon Affiliate:  ya can't blame a guy for looking to make a couple bucks here and there, right?  It's a small part of my plan to begin making a modest living doing that about which I'm truly passionate.  If you ever feel so inclined as to order any of the myriad products I've mentioned in these pages over the last decade, especially those I've recommended, please feel free to use the embedded links in the posts or using the "Dude-Approved" Amazon store along the right-hand frame, near the bottom of the page, is greatly appreciated!  A small percentage of the sales go toward continued maintenance of this site, and maybe someday the addition of the scientific measurement gear I don't yet have.  Thank you!)

Blackburn is a company you likely know if you're as cyclist in the US.  From the early days of mtn. biking, well-made touring racks, frame pumps, and accessories, Blackburn has made a mark, and their lighting equipment is set to become just as legendary.  The Flea, upon its release, had been nothing short of a revelation.  By today's standards, perhaps it's not as bright, maybe it doesn't run as long - but, for its diminutive package it simply delivers, and considering how much time it has been on top of my helmet - usually off, usually with very long intervals between uses and charges - it has yet to fail me.  The switch, the LEDs themselves, the charging system ... everything works as it has since I unwrapped it.  

Blackburn's "any-cell" charging system is simply brilliant - and, I'm not 100% sure I'm a fan of their "2.0" release, which updates the Flea to USB charging.  While more convenient, yes, there is something definitely "forward" in the thinking behind the "1.0"'s use of magnetic contacts used for attaching ANY 1.5V dry cell (AAA, AA, C, or D) for a charge.  Considering the rapid deployment of highly-portable USB Li-ion "jump" batteries now cheaply and widely available, I can't really fault Blackburn for making this move - and the "2.0"'s built-in battery status red/green switch indicator, it's definitely a step forward and a reduction in charge time.  Perhaps the best accolade I can award to my Blackburn Flea 1.0, however, comes in the reason that I haven't sprung for a new 2.0 version:  the old one, bought in 2010, simply will not die.  In this age of throwaway gadgets, it's truly an amazing little light, and it's my favorite helmet/back-up/be-seen light, probably ever.

Because of the high praise, therefore, it's a tall order for any similar product to grab my attention.  Enter the Metroflash Ignita.  The images below will indicate far quicker than I can in words the remarkable size of this little light.  It's downright TINY.  Roughly the size of two "AA" batteries laid side-by-side, what's most remarkable is how they managed to squeeze in any electronics worth a darn or a battery that will last longer than a sneeze, much less a charge status light, a real charge port, a decent, tactile button, and two not-too-bad LED emitters.  The review continues below in the photo captions...

I had read the reviews and the dimensions, but it wasn't until it was in my palm that it sunk-in how tiny the Ignita really is.  Also included in the package were a handlebar/helmet twist-lock mount, a good Velcro strap, some zip-ties, a few rubber shims, and a well-written instruction guide.  Decent packaging without too much waste.

What I meant by a "real" charge port.  Under a well-seated rubber end-cap hides a micro-USB socket, which - if you're an Android or Kindle user, you'll already have chargers in good supply - but, Metroflash rounds out the included kit with a good quality, 4"-long USB-to-microUSB charging cable: the perfect length to stash in the seat-bag with your USB jump battery.  Right above my thumb on the underside is the molded-in clip, into which the twist-lock mount attaches.  It's oriented this way not as a belt-clip, like some taillights do, but to use either the twist-lock mount, or to use the included Velcro strap for helmet mounting.  The accessories included with the Ignita almost justify its price on their own.

Here on the worktable next to my helmet for scale, and - most importantly here - next to my trusty Blackburn Flea 1.0 - free from my helmet for the first time in years.  The Flea and Ignita shapes are different, yes, but they are both equally tiny, the Flea being just a touch smaller on two of its dimensions.  The Flea packs 4 LEDs to the Ignita's two, which may or may not be important, as you can see later on in this review / comparison.

Here, for more accurate scaling, the Flea and Ignita next to a common bottle cap.  Most reviews and photo-shoots supporting them go far better when something from our home-town heroes Boulevard Brewing is along for the journey.  This night, it was their Pop-Up IPA.  Delish!  Each light is barely 3cm wide, a bit less than 5cm long, and 1.5-2mm tall.  Small, by any definition, all things considered.  Notable on the Ignita is the round power/mode button next to its charge-level LED, which glows yellow with a drop in charge, then red when reserves are at their lowest.  Of course, atop my helmet, these don't do me much good, but, I usually take my lid off at controls - so it's not as if I won't notice while turning the light off until I'm rolling again.  The Flea, by contrast, has a larger button with straight edges and angles - which may not seem like a big deal, but - combined with its firm, tactile "click" - the button is far easier to find and engage than the Ignita's simpler round button, even with gloved fingers.

Now for the light performances themselves, and some anti-science for the masses.  Yeah, I don't have any other way to measure this stuff other than painting some lines and simply describing what I see, and what it means to me.  I understand lumens vs. candlepower vs. lux (and why lux is better), but I just don't have any way to measure them - therefore, I can't refute any manufacturer's claims on output.  The Flea, rated at 45 lumens, shown at right and represented with bluish lines, is a bit dimmer and its light a little more diffuse - however, its LEDs (by Nichia, Japan) emit a clean white light, with almost no noticeable artifacts or coloration.  The wood tones of the desktop at the top of the photo appear true-to-life in the Flea's light, and the beam pattern provided by the four emitters produces a wide beam with the typical center hot-spot and a good, useful amount of spill.  Considering my uses of walking, reading, and making repairs, too tight of a beam isn't desirable - however, where the Flea falls short is the consequence of a wide, diffuse beam:  it simply doesn't throw very far.  Reading road signs at night requires my distance be fairly close to where I'd need to make a decision or slow down to read it first before turning.  In the years I've used it, this hasn't been a real issue in practice, however.  The Ignita, at left with the yellow/orange lines, is clearly brighter near its source, but, by the time its tighter central beam reaches the end of the desktop, it weakens to be about on-par with the Flea.  There is some washout in this shot because of its additional output (80 lumens claimed) but, the "V" shaped yellow/orange lines toward the top of the photo outline a yellowish "cone" of coloration in the Ignita's beam.  While there is a small area of good, white light here, there are also strong tones of refracted purples, blues, and that yellow I just mentioned.  This could be a fault in the specifications of the LEDs themselves, or in Metroflash's use of an optical focusing lens to boost output, or a combination of both - more on this coloration below.  Also notable, but not relevant in my particular use as a helmet light, the Blackburn Flea is easily identifiable in the shot above in part to its clever "visor" which extends out above the LEDs to prevent glare if mounted on one's handlebars.  Compare that to the Ignita's design, which is evenly surrounded by the edge of its clear front lens.  While this is fine when used on the helmet, and may help the "be-seen" element if the rider's head is tilted downward, it becomes distracting if the Metroflash is mounted on the 'bars.  Easily fixed with a strip of black electrical tape, but an shortcoming just the same.

Seen head-on, mounted atop a Specialized Prevail helmet - YMMV, as there are no two helmets alike with regards to vents, and where one can mount anything.  Creativity is required, always, and with the exception of the Blackburn Flea, I've had to employ some sort of modification to any light I've tried to get on my lid.  The Metroflash proved no exception here, and the cutting and creative use of zip-ties soon resulted in a solid set-up.  While the twist-lock mounting allows easy removal of the Ignita from the helmet for charging (which can be very handy during the day if on a multi-day event), I still found myself not trusting its stability and longevity.  The light engages with a nice "thunk", but the small size of the mounting tab and the type of plastic it's molded in render it feeling cheap, and some reviewers noted this as the product's first point of failure.  Repeated on/off cycles of the mount may need to be avoided here.  Also, the combination reflector/projector arrangement for the LEDs can be seen - the yellowish tinge is created by the magnification of the LED's substrate - which is not an indication of output color.  While beam output is high, the resulting beam coloration proves distracting in real-world use.  Metroflash may certainly have had their reasons in this approach, but, when compared to competitor products using reflectors, a clear or collimator lens may have proved a better choice in application, rather than this prismatic/projector-beam lens.  Also in the foreground of the above shot, there is the heavily-hacked and modified, and empty, mount for a LRI Photon micro-light - please ignore that!  More on the LRI (not pictured or featured in this review) Photon later on.

The Flea and Ignita side-by-side, Flea at left.  The coloration differences in the two beams is more easily seen here, eyes-on.  While even the 15º capped LEDs from Nichia demonstrate a brief sliver of purple and red right at the leading edge of their beams nearest their source, it is forgivable when compared to the Ignita's pattern.  While the Flea's main beam appears pure white here, it can tend to shift into a purple tinge at the limits of reach, or when power runs low.  However, on full charge, the Ignita contains far too many spurs and rings of colors for my liking.  One can see here, from the beam's edge to its center, a spike of white - which seems to fragment into a prismatic effect, somehow, caused by the outer lens' rolled edge.  Next is a thin dark area, then some white light, then a stark band of deep blue, another dark band, then a yellowish area reminiscent of those old-school European fog lamps.  Finally, the very center contains the only "white" portion of the beam, which is very focused with minimal spill.  Also note the camera catching streaks of blue extending to the upper right corner of the shot, an indication of the glare spoken of earlier.  That whitish circle near the bottom right of the shot is the remnants of a spot of paint.  Ignore that.

The obligatory against-the-white-wall shot!  Amaze.  Note the "Beautiful Mind"-esqe collection of hand-drawn horizontal lines, used for checking the level-ness of all sorts of different things on the bike.  I don't have a problem.  Honest.
Yeah, and my garage walls really aren't this dingy, either... that's the Metroflash, on the left, and the very-apparent yellowish ring of light.  It's kinda cool, if I were giving a lecture on the life-cycle of extremely hot stellar gas clouds or very young stars.  ...but, that aside, in practice, the colors proved distracting against moving pavement, and the central hot-spot too small to effectively light the road on its own.  From that perspective, then, the potential (at 8 lux, it's nearly on-par with the original halogen generator-powered Lumotec headlight I'd used from 2002-2006, which is 10 lux) for the Ignita to rise from "be-seen" to "see-with" light quickly fades.  It's a bold step in output, yet, without a correction in optics, emitters, or both, the boasted output is merely a number.  The Flea, at right, while clearly not as powerful on its brightest setting, simply puts out a better quality of  light and doesn't focus it too tightly - in a pinch, would I ride an unlit trail with  only the Flea as my headlight?  Um, no.. but, that was never its point.  To be fair, nobody said the Metroflash Ignita was to be used as a primary headlight, either -- that was only me, making a parallel between lux measurements, and hoping.  Realistically, it probably IS sufficient - if barely - and if I recall my Lumotec; well, by today's standards riding with it was ... interesting.  As an attention-getting device, however, and for lighting up road signs, it's more than plenty - and for getting a driver's attention, who could ignore such a brilliant beam?  With better optics, however, the Ignita - hopefully in a future version - has massive potential as the lightest backup headlight one could hope for.  Except for maybe battery life... yeah, more on that in a bit.

Now, some beam shots in the open.
Here we are looking down my driveway.  Wow.
This is the Blackburn Flea - Hi, little guy!  (Ahem)
This one is the Flea's default setting... not bad.
Wish I had some reflective roads signs around... darn it.
On this moonless night, this would be enough to get you
home at a slow, safe speed.  For repairs and cue-sheet reading,
it's more than enough - and originally advertised with a
3 hour run time at this setting, well, that's plenty, too.
This type of light is only used intermittently, in my case, so
three hours is effectively "days".  In its effective flashing mode,
that run time increases to closer to 15 hours.

Here's the Flea on its "Overdrive" setting.
Now you can begin to see the surface of the
street beyond the curb, barely visible beforehand.
While this setting typically only lasts for half as
long as the standard setting (1.5 hrs), but, when needed it's
enough to see around dark corners on twisty
trails (but I never ride twisty trails after
park hours, no sir!).  While there is no denying the
Flea does have a strong hot-spot, it's spill light
remains consistent in color - the only coloration here
comes from my dirty, dirty driveway.  We so 'hood.

NOW, the Metroflash Ignita:  this is the normal
setting, called "Boost" which is about as
strong as the Flea's "Overdrive"
setting, reaching the street beyond the curb, however,
notice the strong yellow color - yes,
 it's lighting up the surface,
 but, comparing the Flea "Overdrive" shot
 to this one indicates
the quality of that light at the street's edge.
Note also the band of purplish/blue light,
and the darker band above it.
The hot spot, though stronger than the Flea
on the "white wall" test, it
 seems to blend into the yellow too much
 to call it "white" light.  At this
setting, it's estimated to last 3 hours at
 this setting.  Not shown is the Ignita's
3rd setting, which is called "constant", with a
6 hour run time - it's about as bright
as the Flea on its normal setting (top beam shot).
  Ignita also has a terrific, strobe-like
flashing mode which lasts for 12 hours, and is
 great for punching through bad
weather conditions, maybe even getting
 attention in thick fog.  Terrific setting!

Here's the Ignita on its highest setting,
called "Super Bright", noted
to last about 1.5 hours.  Here, sheer output
 begins to fill the yellowish
hot spot with whiter light, which is far
better for true visibility at
night, at least in my opinion.  Like those
European fog-lights I mentioned
earlier, the yellowish areas will certain gain the
attention of other drivers, but, when driving with only
 those old-school fog lights, one's ability to see 
detail and obstacles in one's
 path is diminished - they're meant to be 
paired with normal headlights.  So, all-told, 
maybe the Ignita is erring on 
the side of caution - literally -
 and serves best as a safety, "be-seen" light.  
At that, it excels. 
 On power, the light is now reaching 
all the way across 
the street and illuminating part of 
the neighbor's house. 
 Again, Metroflash may only be one generation 
and an emitter/optics swap away from
 having a real solid, 
ride-with headlight here.  Unreal for its size. 
 Battery life, oh yes...sure,
1.5 hours at this setting may be enough to
get one home from work, but, 
it's not going to finish your brevet for you.  
Metroflash's operating 
manual indicates one can attach an 
extended battery, like a jump 
battery, to the charging port and
actually run the light from it.  This 
sets the Ignita apart from other lights I've
 investigated, in that the other lights,
the Blackburn Flea included, bypass the
 main circuitry when charging -
logically, if one is charging a light, why 
would one also need to use it?  
Metroflash designed around this
 limitation, allowing the user to 
run it for as long as their extended 
battery will allow.
Now we're talking about serious
potential for a powerful,
long-running helmet light for not a lot of money.  
While MSRP on the Ignita is 
around $45, most sites are offering
this little wonder for around $20 instead.

All in all, I think the Ignita represents a big step forward in tiny LED lights which can be purposed as backups or as helmet lights.  I don't feel, however, that it has quite achieved the same levels of consistency as the Blackburn example.  It is my sincere hope that Metroflash receives similar feedback, and specs the LEDs differently in their next version, and/or the optics, to eliminate the heavy light coloration problems.  One could certainly get home at a higher speed with the Ignita than with the Flea, and - using the innovative option of running an external battery with the Metroflash product, how far away "home" is would also be less of a concern.  However, for me, the quality of the light output has become far more important to me for real-world usability, not sheer output.  For that reason, the Blackburn Flea will return to its spot on top of my helmet for the near term - and should it ever fail, a Blackburn Flea 2.0 would be on the top of my replacement list.

Notably, I'd mentioned earlier that I also have a small, light, (embarrassingly light and small!) LRI Photon.  For cue sheet reading and for the preservation of night vision on long brevets, I have one in "night-vision green" (which is really neat), and a second in a deep red.  Mounted on the helmet, and with a fully variable output, the LRI is perfectly aimed for cue reading and not so overwhelming as to destroy my night vision when I have to look back out at the road.  This is important to note, because as helmet lights get ever brighter, they can actually become detrimental for simple, close-at-hand tasks.  The Blackburn Flea walks a thin line, where on its normal setting it doesn't blind me when I try to read a map; yet, it's still bright enough on "Overdrive" to light up everything I'd like to point my head toward.  The Ignita, on the other hand, even on the lowest "Constant" setting, creates such a brilliant hot-spot with its focused beam, it creates too much of a blinding effect - even when reflecting off of larger road signs and the vests of nearby riders.  It's just, too intense at center - another indication that Metroflash should tailor the optics for more even light distribution, perhaps - or, I should resort to using it for forward lighting only, and not reading.  Still, by comparison, the tiny, green beam of my LRI Photon also lit up nearby road signs every bit as good as the Flea, and far better than the Ignita... so... part of me wonders why I need a larger light up there in the first place.

Time will tell - but for now, for me, it's all about the Flea.

thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the Oak Grove 300k (er, 322k) report - and details of a new garage project!



Monkeywrangler said...

A good review Dude. I wish someone would make a bright, throwy, helmet mountable light that can be used to light up those cars about to turn into your lane from a side street. Currently DH uses a Cygolight 350, generally on strobe, during his commutes, but in comparison it is rather large and comparatively heavy. But it does throw far...

Can you state an approximate distance the Ignita throws?

kG said...

I'll certain do that, and add an addendum to this post once I find out... the distance to the house across the street is pretty far, considering the Ignita's size, and it's also notable that it generates enough spill light outside the main beam, looking at that last beam shot shows the upper level of the neighbor's house slightly illuminated, enough to see features - where none of the other shots show this. That says something, indeed, for the Ignita's ability to "get noticed", for sure. I'll measure the distance today and report back.