The Best Commuter Bike Lights
After beating out 63 competitors in the first round of research and testing and 15 new ones during a second round, the best bike headlight remains the $50 Cygolite Metro 360. While we still love the Planet Bike Superflash, our previous pick for best taillight, the rechargeable Cygolite Hotshot is an equally good option, and brighter, for just a few dollars more. We didn’t go into this expecting to recommend a set, but it just so happens that the Metro and the Hotshot come together in a combo pack for $80. Simply put, Cygolites are more affordable than anything that outperforms them and outperform anything that’s more affordable.
The Knog Blinder 4 can’t compete technically with our top choices. Its battery life is a little shorter, and it’s always been a little more expensive and just a little less bright. But despite these shortcomings, over time I found myself reaching for this light constantly because it’s so utterly simple to get on and off my different bikes. If you have multiple bikes like me, you can swap this between them very quickly and easily. Now that the price has come down to $35, on par with our top choices, the Knog just might be for you if you are fed up with those hard plastic mounts for any reason. The technical specs on the Knog are good enough, and specs aside, a piece of safety equipment that forces you to use it through good design is a valuable product.
Table of contents
Should I upgrade? | How we picked and tested | Our pick | Flaws but not dealbreakers | The step up | If you need more firepower | Our favorite battery-powered taillight | Simplest Mount | The Thunderbolt | The competition | What to look forward to | Wrapping it up
Should I upgrade?
If all you have on your bike is small, cheap blinkers: Yes. Do it now. Lights are vitally important to keeping you safe, and depending on where you live, it could be illegal to ride in the dark without one. And should you get into an accident at night without a light on your bike, it’s still possible to be held liable—even if it’s not your fault.1 Jim Burakoff, general manager of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART bike station system and 10-year car-free commuter, succinctly told us: “Compared to the consequences of not being seen, bike lights are incredibly cheap.”
How we picked what to test
You also need a light that is bright. Brightness is measured in lumens, and you’ll want a headlight with at least 100. But there’s also such a thing as too bright. I spoke to Scott Karoly, a veteran sales associate from Alameda Bikes, who told me that a 700+-lumen light is overkill and can even be a hazard on normal roads: “Those are for mountain biking at night and are really only useful for the trail when it’s pitch black. I mean, if you had an 1,800 lumen light on the street you would get a ticket.” He personally uses a 650-lumen light, set to its lowest setting (about 200 lumens). As we continued our research, lights in the 200-350 lumen range revealed themselves to be exactly what we were after—plenty of illumination, even for darker paths, but not so bright that the cost started ballooning out of control.
It’s also important for a good light to install quickly and stay on tight while biking, yet remove easily when you arrive at your destination. Otherwise it makes a tempting target for thieves. For ease of use, a handlebar mount is a no-brainer. (As is an all-in-one, tool-less mounting unit.) You’ll want to make sure that your lights are weather-resistant should you find yourself stuck in a downpour. They should also be able to handle some abuse from accidents and drops.
Side cutouts, a design feature that allows a bit of light to spill to either side of the headlight, aren’t all that useful. The idea is that this makes you more visible to traffic on your left and right, but Burakoff explained: “Once someone is looking at you straight from the side, there’s a good chance that things have already progressed pretty far towards an accident. A light without these side windows can still have a pretty great viewable angle and may be just as effective the majority of the time.”
Surprisingly, I found that extremely long battery life wasn’t as important either. Karoly told me, “If you commute, even five days a week… just recharge it on your day off. I don’t have to charge mine except maybe once a week. And a lot of these have a little light on top and the button will turn from green to red when you’ve got 20 percent left, 10 percent left, so you know when.” Battery life still weighed into our decision making, but three to four hours of burn time no longer seemed like a pitiful amount.
Up for consideration were the entire product lines of 29 different brands. We narrowed the field according to our criteria laid out above. Anything that required mounting an additional battery pack was also axed. There are too many great one-piece solutions to consider those.
We eliminated front blinkers (not bright enough), performance headlights like the ones covered in this MTBR roundup (too bright and expensive), exclusively helmet-mounted lights (not everyone wears a helmet), and then we turned to previously existing reviews to get whatever information we could. Wirecutter contributor Brent Rose did a comparison to find the best bike light under $100 for Gizmodo. Bike Radar also has a roundup of the best road bike lights. This Blog Overflow review was also quite good. We also looked at the Best Bike Lights To Buy at T3 and RideOn’s Lights test 2014.
In addition to looking for a product that delivered on all of the above, we required that testing candidates have buttons that were easy to operate even with gloves on but not so easy to push that they’d turn on inside of a bag. We gave bonus points to lights that charged via USB, because they don’t create waste. The rechargeable lights needed to have a battery indicator to let you know when it was time to recharge. And finally, it had to have a warranty from a reputable company. This meant excluding sketchy offerings such as this one that’s only on Amazon.
Just like headlights, the bare-bones essentials for a suitable taillight are brightness and durability. But their sole purpose is to make you visible to the traffic around you and so an erratic, annoying, crazy blinking pattern is key. (In some states, blinking lights are illegal. The logic behind this is that the blinking impersonates an emergency vehicle. We only tested lights with both steady and blink modes.)
And just like headlights, brighter doesn’t necessarily mean better. Bright is certainly good, but it’s the flashing pattern that gets the attention of drivers. Color is important, too. Using a red taillight in addition to a white headlight will make sure that drivers can see you from behind and know that you’re going away from them, not towards them. A white light in front and a red light in back indicate that you are a vehicle, as opposed to who knows what else. Other colors are available, but you should avoid them as they can add unnecessary and possibly dangerous confusion into the equation. (“What’s that green light? I’ll drive closer to investigate…”) Stick with red.
Some of the products we looked at advertised something called “group ride mode,” a low-light setting designed to make your rear blinker less annoying to riders behind you. I thought this was neat, but it wasn’t a deciding factor. “Group ride” can mean different things for different lights. For example, on the NiteRider Stinger group ride is a low, steady mode, while on the Portland Design Works Aether Demon it’s a flash pattern. And in the end, there are plenty of lights that offer flashing or steady patterns on lower settings—there were five in our lineup alone.
Speaking of blinking patterns, a lot of taillights have several of them, so the trick would be to get a light where the multiple options are actually useful. Multiple bright-light blinking patterns are cool, but often don’t have a function outside of fun factor. Steady and flashing are absolute requirements, but a low-light or “breathing” option, like the group mode discussed above, could be nice, especially if you ride in a city where commuters cluster together at red lights. Another purpose-driven setting would be a random flashing pattern, as those are extremely attention-grabbing.
Parabolic reflectors are also important for taillights. Ehow has a concise explanation of how they’re beneficial, but in a nutshell, they focus the light—right into the eyeballs of the people behind you. There’s no special testing required; the difference is very noticeable. A quick demonstration in the aisle of my local REI had me quickly convinced that a sharper, brighter, more piercing light is created when it’s focused this way.
Another factor that comes into play is how long, vertically, the mount is. There were a surprising number of lights I had to set aside because they didn’t fit on my seatpost—way more than I ever imagined. Obviously you’re good to go if you’re tall, but a great light for most people should fit most people’s bikes. In our quest for more information and other recommendations, the Bike Light Database has proven to be an exceptional resource, especially when it comes to taillights.
We did months of information gathering to see how these lights performed. First, I photographed the beam spreads of all of them, because where the light is directed and how it illuminates are as important as how bright it is. We looked at them from two angles, one directly ahead and one from above, to piece together a clear picture.
Of course we double-checked the claimed battery life. I ran down every single light at the closest output settings possible and monitored them with a security camera. Not only did we learn how long they lasted, but how they turned off and if they lost power somewhere in the process. Many did.
And finally, we tested the mounts: how easy they were to use and install and whether they stayed put on rough roads. Turns out Oakland, CA, is an extremely fertile testing ground. Gaping potholes and cracked asphalt are par for the course. I did a mile loop around an astoundingly poorly paved stretch of city street for every one of our lights, trying to shake them loose.
The taillights got another special round of testing. One thing that makes them extremely difficult to compare by numbers alone is that some are rated in watts and some are rated in lumens. These are different ways to measure output, and comparing numbers side by side requires some electrical engineering know-how. So I decided to just look at them instead. I photographed all of them turned on in broad daylight from 45 yards away. This is roughly how much distance a car traveling behind you at 35 mph needs in order to stop without hitting you. In these extreme conditions, lots of lights disappeared from view, leading me to the conclusion that .5W is simply not going to be bright enough. The next brightest lights were the 2W lights, which were definitely visible in both blinking and steady modes. And the brightest lights were 60+ lumens. (If you’re confused about the watt-to-lumen comparison, we don’t blame you. There is no easy or direct way to compare wattage—a measure of electrical current—to lumens—a measure of light output over a certain area. The part that you really need to know is that the higher the wattage and the higher the lumens, the brighter the light will appear.)
If you want loads of light, the 60-lumen lights look good, but for our purposes it seemed like overkill. 2W was our sweet spot for cost and effectiveness.
This is what a .5W taillight looks like in daylight from 45 yards away:
And here’s a 60-lumen light:
When we looked at the beam spreads on a dark trail, nothing else covered the foreground and middleground as broadly while still reaching into trees down the path and to the right.
Our pick had longer battery life than everything but the NiteRider, which ran an hour longer. If battery life is your main concern, you may want to consider whether spending an extra $30 is worth an additional hour of light. But I felt the Cygolite was a better option because it was cranking out 40 more lumens at the setting I had it on, still provided a solid three hours of run time, and as an unexpected bonus I noticed that the light never fully turned off during the entire 9.5-hour test. It faded at hour three, but still provided a touch of illumination. NiteRider snapped off at precisely the four-hour mark. While I wouldn’t claim that the Cygolite was usable for the last 6.5 hours it remained flickering, I’d still rather have that bit of light to guide me home instead of navigating in pitch blackness.
During the mount test, the Cygolite didn’t budge, and the mount itself was incredibly simple to install, requiring just a few turns of a screw. The light itself can be detached from the mount with a quick release button for quick pocketing on your way inside.
It has a one-year warranty. It’s sturdy and weatherproof. The button is easy to operate while riding, even with gloves, but it’s also hard enough that it won’t turn on when jostled in your bag. It has a battery indicator light. And with one exception, it’s less expensive than everything on this list. That right there includes every one of our ideal requirements, and the Cygolite still had more to offer.
First, it has a setting called Dayflash mode, which is a piercing blink meant to be run during daylight hours. Throw it on if you feel like you need it, or use it so cars can see you better in snow or rain. It also has Steadypulse mode, which runs a steady beam at full brightness with flashes interspersed every few seconds for better visibility. This is perfect if you’re alongside traffic at night. There is only one other light that does this, the Cateye Nano Shot, which was too expensive and kind of heavy.
Its reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Scott recommended the Metro by name at the store.
The Bicycles sub-blog of StackExchange was one of the few editorial sources that also had a chance to take a look at the Metro. They rated it Best Value, writing, “The Metro series is one of my favorites. It’s just the right size, has Cygolite’s special steady-flash pattern which is great for riding at night on city streets, and is a great value… you’re unlikely to find a better light for this price.” The Cygolite is a slam dunk. If you can’t get the 360 for whatever reason, we like the 500 too. It’s not our top pick because you probably don’t need a light that bright, but you’re sure to be happy with it.
It has four flashing patterns, including a random one for maximum attention-grabbage and also a slow “breathing” pattern which you could use for your group rides to avoid zapping anyone behind you directly in the eyeball. It has that all-important parabolic reflector that focuses the light into the right place—behind you—instead of letting it disperse in useless directions, like up. And it didn’t come loose in our mount test. It’s not quite as magical as a silicone mount, but those are proprietary technology and expensive, and the Hotshot is light enough that it never tilted downward or twisted—it’s not going to go anywhere, and this also frees you up to clip your light to a bag if you choose.
In addition to the distance test, our beam test also helped us judge the best ratio of light to cost.
Who else loves it? Everyone. Our peeps at Gizmodo dubbed it “the grandmaster.” All-around five-star reviews from customers at Performance Bike. Wired is onboard. And it’s a top pick over at the Bicycle Light Guide.
There is also the slightly cheaper Hotshot SL which stands for “slimline.” I was under the impression that the light would be physically smaller, but it’s the same size as the non-SL model. The only thing that’s slimmed down is its feature list. I found four small differences: It doesn’t come with a seat stay mount, it has two fewer flashing modes, it does not have a low battery indicator, and it has lower advertised runtime.
If this is the model you end up with, you’ll be happy—it’s practically identical. But the flashing modes they eliminated were the ones that struck me as the most useful—the random flashing pattern and the breathing mode. While the “up to 500 hour” runtime on our top choice is kind of a crapshoot, the promised extra battery life, plus the two very useful modes made the standard version our model of choice and well worth paying a couple bucks extra for.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Both Cygolite models have a lot of different modes. Several have useful applications, but let’s be real: On and off is as far as anyone really cares. People that want blazingly bright lights will buy bright lights and always run them on high. People that want tons of battery life will always run theirs on low. And ultimately the nuanced difference between low and high, between dayflash, nightflash, walk, and whatever is so negligible. The good part is that they’re not doing any harm, they’re just there.
The Hotshot is like this, too. You can change the speed of the flashing patterns on the Hotshot, from very slow to very rapid. That’s fine, but I simply can’t picture myself leaving the gym/hospital/jail and taking the time to mess around with the blink pace of my light. But it’s there and if you don’t want to use it, it will automatically turn on to the last-used setting so it’s unobtrusive.
The claimed “500 hours” of runtime on the Hotshot also sounds too good to be true, and it might be. It might be possible on the most infrequent flash setting, but in our tests, which were run on steady mode, we got about 10. That’s still a ton of runtime, but the numbers as advertised should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
The step up
It has one feature that might be considered a minor flaw (but not a dealbreaker): The flash pattern of the Urban series is extremely subtle. It looks more like a breathing battery indicator light on a Macbook than a flashing bike light. The reasoning is that this prevents the flash from mimicking an emergency vehicle, which could potentially be confusing on the road. It’s not as attention-grabbing, but I’ve ridden with it for a few months and it’s alright.
If you need more firepower
To get to this pick, I put together a rudimentary features comparison of lights in the 500-800 range from brands that we’ve become familiar with through testing.
Right there, clear as day, you can see it’s the best value. What’s more, when you consider the positive accolades from Gizmodo, the ever-comprehensive Bike Light Datebase, a solid five-star Amazon user rating, and our own experience testing and using Cygolite products for this guide, we’re confident it’s the right choice. It also happens to be the only model on this list with a swappable battery and the only one that allows you to run a blink/steady pattern simultaneously.
Our favorite battery-powered taillight
And that brings up another thing: the random blinking pattern. There are hardly any taillights out there with random patterns (the Hotshot has one), and it’s hard to explain how arresting a random flash is until you’re looking at it. I caught myself spacing out and staring at it often while testing! It has received high praise from Bike Radar, Bicycling, and Gear Junkie. It also has a lifetime warranty, an unexpected bonus for a $29 piece of gear.
And I know this sounds nitpicky, but a big reason I love this light above all others is that it has just three settings: blink, steady, and off. If you wear your light on the back of your bag, every time you walk into a building you turn it off by reaching behind you and counting clicks (since you can’t see it). If the button is hard to find or the light has six modes, it’s almost impossible to turn off. Sure, taking off your bag isn’t incredibly difficult, but when you start doing it two, three, or four times a day, every day, a streamlined, hassle-free methodology of getting on and off your bike is priceless.
If you own multiple bikes and want the option of easily swapping a single light between them without having to buy extra mounts, the Knog Blinder 4 with its super-simple silicone strap mount is the way to go (we are talking about the rear light only, the front light is still not your best bet). It’s not an incredible value (~$35) and it has some quality issues, but the mount just works well for owners of multiple bikes like me.
I currently have in my apartment almost 50 different tail lights, and if I’ve misplaced my Superflash, this is the one I reach for. I mostly use it to swap between bikes. This way I only have to buy one light, and the mount makes swapping painless. I have a friend that mentioned she only buys lights that fit in the same mount so she and her husband can trade lights between bikes if someone loses one or batteries die. Though I have no way of measuring it, swapability is turning out to be highly valuable.
However, there are a lot of caveats to recommending this taillight, the biggest of which is a durability problem. After digging through lots of Amazon reviews, it seems that people really love their Knogs — until the band wears down or snaps off. If you have a tall enough seat tube and want a silicone mount, your better bet is the Serfas Thunderbolt. The Knog also has only 3 hours total battery life on high, 7 hours less than our top pick.
That being said, the Knog motivates me to take the extra second to get my gear in order in a way that no other light I have in my apartment does. So what is that worth? When talking about safety equipment, it seems invaluable.
It also has a very wide beam pattern. If you are concerned with how far your light reaches to the side, adding this to your top tube or down tube could be an excellent addition to any rear-facing blinker that you may have.
The Cygolite Streak 280 is strongest new competitor to come out since we last tested. Compared to the Metro series, the Streak is smaller, has fewer modes, has larger side illumination ports, and retails for $50. Those are good improvements for a commuter model, and yet the 360 currently costs $46 on Amazon. 80 more lumens for less money is a good deal. And the Streak’s smaller size means a smaller battery. We got twice the runtime from the Metro at similar output levels.
NiteRider Lumina 350 was almost our pick. NiteRider was the number one brand recommended to me by all my experts, and it lived up to the hype. What it comes down to is that the Cygolite does the same thing and is $30 cheaper while giving you extra features like the Steadypulse mode.
The Knog Blinder Road 2 was Knog’s first commuter headlight, and it kind of feels like a first attempt. It features Knog’s simple and attractive silicone mount that shoppers adore, but so far, it hasn’t been strong enough to keep the headlights from shifting a bit in our mount tests. This is also the only model I felt had some unnecessary tech. It had eight settings that operate via two different tiny buttons, which is a lot to tinker with. Even worse, it only gives you an hour of battery life at 200 lumens. That’s just not enough, considering less expensive models on our list are running for two to four.
The Knog Blinder Arc 5.5 is new for 2014 and is a great improvement over the Blinder Road because it’s less top-heavy in the front (which means it won’t droop as easily over time). It has just one beam (as opposed to separate wide and narrow beams). There are only four modes instead of a mind-boggling eight. The button is much easier to access and press. It squeezed in 30 more minutes of runtime on the battery than advertised on the package. But the Arc series still couldn’t unseat our top choice, and at $120, it couldn’t compete in price.
Knog Blinder 1.7 Arc is $15 more expensive than our pick, 190 lumens dimmer, and has an hour and a half less burn time on similar settings.
With all the design improvements Knog made with their Arc series, it was easy to set aside the Knog Blinder Road 3, which is bulky and expensive.
Upon contacting Serfas about their True 350/500 lights, I was informed they were about to release a redesign, so we decided to wait on testing until they were available.
The Planet Bike Blaze 2W Micro only costs $40, which makes it cheaper than the Cygolite. It’ll get the job done, but you get so much more value from the Cygolite in terms of light quality, brightness, and ease of use that spending an extra $20 seems like a no-brainer. Plus, it uses AA batteries, which need replacing.
These options were considered, but never made it to the test round:
Blackburn is generally highly regarded in the bike community. But upon speaking with them, I found out their USB lights charge using proprietary technology, meaning that if you lose the little piece that plugs into the light, you have to buy a new, Blackburn-specific cable to charge it. It’s so easy to lose parts like that and so annoying to replace them that we didn’t look at Blackburn models.
Moon is the in-house brand by the company that manufactures Serfas lights, so the Moon Shield is the Serfas Shield, and there are a few others.
The Cateye Volt300 takes eight hours to fully charge the battery, which makes this slightly less hassle-free than other options that typically only take five hours, tops. You can buy an optional “quick-charge” cradle that charges it faster, but having to buy an additional piece of equipment to get performance on par with other models is a dealbreaker. It also has sixty fewer lumens than our pick and is the same price.
Cateye’s NanoShot has a setting similar to the Cygolite Steadypulse. But it’s heavy. And factoring in a whopping eight hours of charge time, more lumens than most people need, and a price that’s twice as much as our pick made it easy to pass on.
The Exposure Flash is hard to find outside of a set, which will set you back $120. For that, you get 260 fewer lumens than our pick at twice the cost.
Light & Motion Vis 360 is designed specifically for a helmet mount (and not everyone wears a helmet).
Magicshine Eagle – An unreputable brand that costs about $150 and has 600 lumens. You can do better with the Cygolite Expilion Series.
NiteRider Lumina Micro 220 – The Cygolite has 130 more lumens for $10 less.
NiteRider Mako 200 – Our pick is $5 cheaper, has 160 more lumens, and uses Li-ion batteries as opposed to the NiMH found here.
NiteRider MiNewt Mini Series – Separate battery pack.
Owleye – Unreliable mounts according to one of our experts.
Princeton Tec Push – Enough minor complaints in Amazon reviews and ratings didn’t make this one stand out.
Princeton Tec Eos-R – Only 70 lumens at $45.
It’s interesting that both headlight and taillight categories came down to a Cygolite and a NiteRider. The NiteRider Solas is the strongest competition for the Hotshot. They are both 2W lights that have a very similar beam pattern. But it retails for $10 more and had six fewer hours of battery life, so the Hotshot edged it out.
New for 2014 from PB, the Planet Bike Superflash Micro, while awesomely compact, ditches everything that makes the Turbo great. It’s half as bright. It takes N batteries (which I had never heard of in my life until now), which are a specialty purchase. It doesn’t have a parabolic lens or a random flash pattern, and the on/off switch is a major problem. It presses so easily that it turned on in my bag; my light was dead before I even got to use it.
Planet Bike Superflash Turbo Mini – Takes AAAA batteries, yet another battery I didn’t know existed, and has the same hangups as the Micro, including the easy-to-push switch. This light also turned on in my bag.
Also new this year, the Planet Bike Superflash USB couldn’t compete with its battery-powered twin. This light is only .5W. Costs the same as the Hotshot, is significantly less bright, and had three fewer hours of battery life.
Serfas Shield 60 – The 60 lumens this thing pumps out are crazy bright, and if I had $60 to spend on a taillight, I’d buy this. But it only lasts two hours on high (compared to the Hotshot’s 10) and costs a lot more. It’s awesome, but unnecessary for most.
The Light & Motion Vis 180 didn’t fit under my seatpost. And it ran for only 2:30, a full hour and a half less than advertised. I considered retesting since the difference was so big, but I think they have us on a technicality: The main light went out at 2:30, but the auxiliary light kept blinking. If you count the time the blinking light kept going, run time was exactly as claimed, but a light that’s $100 should be able to run for four hours.
I couldn’t get the Light & Motion Vis 180 Micro to fit behind my seatpost either. It looks like it should from the package, but it couldn’t sit properly. This light also doesn’t have a blinking pattern, just a slow steady breathing pattern. According to their site, this is to prevent the light from imitating the flash of an emergency vehicle. Which is a great idea, except I feel like I can’t see it blinking at all. Spend your money on something really blinky.
Portland Design Works’ Aether Demon, a quality light from a company that everyone in the bike community seems to love, had a nice fat extra 30 minutes of battery life. But at $50 for .5W it wasn’t the best choice.
The Demon also tilted a bit in our rear light mount test. However, having tested dozens of these at this point, I’ve noticed that sometimes with these hard plastic mounts the lights slip because the first time you take them for a ride the screw on the mount tightens in the direction of the ground. I repositioned the light and retested and the second time it didn’t move.
This mount is standard on a lot of lights. It’s not perfect, but it’s the one mount that fits on all seat posts, and as long as your light isn’t really heavy it works well enough. An added benefit of this type of mount is that it’s interchangeable with a lot of models, such as the Superflash, and there is real value to this. I have a friend who buys lights based solely on whether or not they can all fit in the same mount, because the hassle of finding the right light for the right bike is just that—a hassle.
Without the battery life of our main pick and $15 more expensive, we set the Lezyne Micro Rear Light aside. It’s really similar to the Serfas Shield—the specs are almost identical and it’s a really nice-looking light. But for whatever reason, the Shield packs a wallop that the Micro just doesn’t quite have.
Of all the Knogs I looked at, the Knog Blinder 4 is the one that had enough real-world application to give me pause. It fits on your seatpost (as it should). It has a high quality, bright wash of light. But this mount… this mount is where it’s at. If you’re one of those always-moving-lights-around people and have a few bucks to spare, this is a decent option. For us, it still has seven hours fewer battery life than our pick and is $10 more expensive, and it can’t touch the durability and battery life of the Superflash.
The Serfas Shield 80 is a little on the bulky side and overkill for your average commuter.
The USB version of the NiteRider Stinger was new so we included it in testing, but its 25 lumens scattered everywhere and it wasn’t very bright.
I got decent visibility and battery life out of the Serfas UTL-200, but it’s clunky. The mount has an extra adaptor piece that allows the clip on the light to fit onto the seatpost mount—just one more thing to lose, and there’s not a whole lot preventing it from popping out of the clip.
The NiteRider Cherry Bomb has the same specs as the Superflash Turbo and I liked the heft of it. But the weight of it was also part of its downfall, as it was too heavy to pass the mount test. It just wouldn’t stay still, no matter which way I turned it or how much I tightened the screw. The blink pattern isn’t random which isn’t a requirement, but it’s still just one step behind. The 2012 Bicycle Community Blog comparison also found that the light pointed in the wrong direction if mounted in the horizontal position.
Battery-powered, and therefore free of that proprietary cable, the Blackburn Mars 4.0 was worth checking out. A nice light with good run time and a steal at $16, but doesn’t have the oomph of the Turbo—no random blink pattern, one less watt. The amber flashers on the side I thought were neat, but they faded quickly with distance and hindered the spread of the center LED. I don’t trust the housing on this as much as I do on the Superflash, which I feel like I could slam in a door a few times just for fun with no adverse effect.
The Knog Blinder 4V and Knog Road Rear don’t fit on shorter posts. I never realized how big of a problem this really was until even a sales rep at a store said he couldn’t use them. The rep at REI said the same thing.
These never made it to testing:
Portland Design Works Danger Zone – Half the runtime of our pick, half as bright, and retails for $4 more.
Blackburn Super Flea – Poor Amazon ratings citing quality issues and battery life.
Exposure Flare – A $70 light with 90 fewer hours of runtime.
Cateye Rapid 5 – Less-powerful LEDs.
Tioga Dual Eyes – I don’t have confirmation from Serfas, but I think this is the UTL-200.
Topeak Mega Red – They give the brightness rating of this light in candlepower, which, come on, is a meaningless measurement for a consumer. It had a lot of the same specs as our pick, but it had none of the reputation, so it sat out.
What to look forward to
Lights that project things in front or behind your bike for safety aren’t entirely new, but this is a feature that is suddenly more available and widespread. We got a tip from a commenter regarding the Blaze Laserlight that projects a blinking bike lane projection. The CycleAware Laser Shark was enthusiastically recommended to me by a sales woman a few weeks back, and it wasn’t there five months ago. There’s also this model and this one, both of which pop up easily with quick searches. There’s a design testing the integration of symbols. Niterider has started advertising their 2015 offerings, which include a new taillight called the Sentinel that projects lanes behind you.
But there’s not a lot written about the effectiveness of this feature and it’s hard to tell if it’s useful at all. This review from the Guardian concludes after testing the Xfire that the projected lanes are more of a novelty than an effective safety measure. Reporter Trevor Ward writes that although he could see the lines clearly from his vantage point as a cyclist, “[his] neighbour, who volunteered to follow [him] in her car for the purposes of the trial, reported that she ‘didn’t really notice’ the lines, so felt no incentive to give [him] a wider berth than normal.” With that in mind, these have been left out of consideration for now, but we will reconsider them if the technology matures.
There are other innovations on the table as well. Blackburn has released the Central Front Smart Light which auto adjusts to the ambient brightness around you. This is a neat trick, but with a price tag of $120 for 500 lumens, it’s probably not worth it for most commuters. The Grid bolt-on light is designed to be theft deterrent, but again it comes down to value: 100 lumens for $50 isn’t a great deal considering our pick is only $10 more and has over 3 times the brightness—besides, if you’re worried about theft, you can just pop it off your bike with a quick release and take it with you.
Bontrager, a California company widely known for components and apparel, released the Ion 700 at the end of last year. It caught our eye because it’s their first commuter light and their products have a reputation for quality. But for now, it’s brightness rating falls into that weird spot where 700 is too bright and expensive for most commuters, and if you want a really bright light the Cygolite Expilion is a more proven high-end option, with 100 more lumens for the same price (currently the Expilion is running about $115).
Serfas has integrated a swappable lens and redesigned housing in the TSL series. Changing your light beam from wide to narrow lets you customize how far ahead you want to see — a narrowly focused beam is going to be able to peer down the path ahead of you much farther whereas a wider flood beam is better for close distance illumination. This is a clever tool for mountain bikers, who have a great need for anticipating roots and rocks on the trail. But I can’t imagine most commuters wanting to customize their beam width, so at $140 for 500 lumens, it’s a lot of money for features you don’t need.
Magicshine completely redesigned its Eagle 600, with lots of new colors and an OLED display, currently the only one of its kind. However, of the three types of info you can glean from the display (light setting, flash setting, and battery runtime) the battery life is the only one that is useful. You can see your light setting by looking at it. So that’s $150 (an extra $65 over the Light & Motion 700) for a battery meter and less light. Both our top headlight picks have a battery indicator light that signals when you’re running low on juice.
There is also growing availability of lights intended for helmet-mounting that combine headlights and tail lights into one package. But while helmet-mounted lights are great for illuminating what you personally are looking at (a tried-and-true lighting setup for mountain biking involves putting one light on your handlebars and one on your helmet), commuters are dealing with cars. When you turn your head helmet lights become less visible to cars and don’t seem to offer any safety benefits over a traditional frame-mounted setup.
Wrapping it up
If you’re a bike commuter, get some lights. The Cygolite Metro 360 is the best headlight we’ve found because it gives you a lot of lumens at a reasonable price, is durable enough to stand some rough roads, and is incredibly simple to use. The Planet Bike Superflash Turbo is the best taillight we’ve found, with a proven track record for quality and performance, and if you want a USB-rechargable model, the Cygolite Hotshot is worth it, providing loads of battery run time and a bright, random flash pattern that’s hard to come by.
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