Q&A: Are Cheap Bike Lights Any Good?

Words by Mark

on 30/10/2014 09:59:00

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Recently, online marketplaces like eBay have become awash with �bargain� bicycle lights with fantastic Lumen outputs. They will melt the scenery with an output to rival a solar flare without melting your bank balance - right?  We took a closer look and found all is not what it seems. The old adage, 'you get what you pay for', has never been more apt...

A Few Words About the Cycling Economy.

Cycling is no longer a cheap sport.

Actually cycling has never really been a cheap sport, the expensive bikes and lights have always been there, it's just that there is now a greater demand for products of a certain standard. As cycling has grown in popularity, so has an awareness of the value of a product. For example, a basic level of road bike that reaches a minimum standard of well manufactured frame, good standard of components, and good wheels and finishing kit is about £600 - that's it. That's the baseline for a good product in this department.

The big three manufacturers, Trek, Specialized, and Giant all make bikes that hover around this value. They all want to sell more bikes and make more money than each other and the obvious way to do this is to drop the price of a bike and undercut the competition.

They can't do this, they would lose money which, for a host of reasons, is no good to them. The bike they sell for £600, sells for £600 because this is what the value is. If a bike by one of these companies becomes available for under this value it's because of a need to move stock and not because the supplier has decided it's actually worth less. Bikes purchased under the base value for a bike maybe do the job, but it won't do it as well as the correctly priced alternative.

Winter has arrived.

The clocks have gone back. This now means that you will live in a world of darkness for the months to come and if you've ever seen the film 30 Days of Night, you'll know that this is bad news. From a cycling perspective this is also bad news, after all riding blindly into objects isn't fun for anyone. The only way to survive in this climate of fear and calamity is to splash out on a spanking set of bicycle lights.

Recently, places like eBay have become awash with bargain bicycle lights with fantastic Lumen outputs. They will melt the scenery with an output to rival a solar flare without melting your bank balance. However, look closer and they don't seem to have a manufacturer listed, they just say CREE - CREE is a company that specialises in lighting and manufacturing LED's that are now used as standard in performance bike lights.

A quick eBay search reveals that I can get a Light with four CREE LED's in it, kicking out a whopping 5200 Lumen beam and it only costs £21.99 - Wow! By comparison, a check on Exposure's Six Pack light shows an output of only 3200 Lumens, but it costs a heck of a lot more at £359.95. So, why on earth would you spend more for something that doesn't offer as much lumens as the cheaper comparison?


Alarm Bells.

Firstly, let's consider a light from a company like Exposure, who are a company that are more than happy to stamp their name all over their products. Exposure sell a 750 Lumen light (Joystick) for £135, whereas the mystery CREE light sells their said product for £21.99. If we take into consideration that the CREE seller must be making a profit, after commercial eBay fees, just how much has this mystery light been manufactured for? For this manufacturer to make them, ship them from country of origin and still make a profit, it will have cost a matter of pence to produce. The question then you need to ask, is am I happy to leave something made so cheaply plugged into my wall charging a battery that also cost pence to make? I presume the answer would be, no not really, but if you buy a cheaper light you could be doing exactly that:

�Please never over-charger [sic] or over-discharge the 18650 batteries, which means when the brightness of the flashlight is going down clearly but not totally dark, it is time to charge it, or the battery will be over-discharged and it will be broken or short -circuit when you charge it next time� Ebay Product Description for the light

So, if the battery goes flat, on this cheaper product, it's broken for good. How many electrical appliances do you own, with a chargeable battery, that when they are run out of charge are broken forever? Not many I'd guess. So, what type of battery does it actaully use? Oh, it doesn't say.

Well never mind. It's really bright.

How bright is this thing?

It says 5200Lm. Wowsers! A quick search of CREE's website and data sheets show a max Lm output of 1040Lm per LED. The light in question is using four LEDs, 4 x 1040 = 4160Lm. Hmmmmm...

But, you can make it go brighter with more power, right? Yes, sure you can, but it'll get very, very hot.

It's not all about the brightness. What's the beam pattern like? Is the beam focused it an area the size of a dinner plate, or is it spread so wide that all those made up lumens just scatter? Don't worry I'm sure these questions have been fully considered when designing the example cheap light, actually probably not.


Totally Wired.

Let's be blunt, wires are rubbish, they constantly break, so the fewer wires involved the better. This thing has wires that'll probably break at the point where they enter the body of the light/battery. Can you fix this? Unlikely. Can they? I doubt it, but they do have a �Moneyback Guaranty� [sic], so at least you'll get your money back... Remember it's your fault if you have let the battery run out, so make sure you know how long the battery lasts. Oh, there's no burn time given.

This would still leave you without a light though, so what do you do? I think you know where I'm going with this, buy a more expensive light from a reputable brand. But, I can understand the temptation to take a punt on the mystery light. I mean what's the harm? If it breaks it's only twenty quid.

Here's why I wouldn't buy one.

1. �It looks to be good to be true...� and �You get what you pay for�. Two maxims that, like it or not, usually turn out to be true.

2. Companies like, but not just, Exposure make good stuff and they spend a lot of time designing and making things that are the best they can be for the money involved. The mystery light is cheap and cheerful and seems pretty harmless. The problem is that for every mystery light sold, there's a light by a reputable manufacturer that won't be sold. If this keeps on going there is logically only one outcome. Oh come on, that's a bit dramatic...

Bear with me here, a local village butcher who makes his own quality sausages from locally source ingredients, they taste excellent.

The local supermarket is selling ten sausages for £2.50. The packaging says they taste amazing and they're a lot cheaper. They sort of taste the same.

Eventually the local butcher has closed up shop unable to compete with the migration of his customers to a cheaper seller. There was no way he could sell his sausages cheaper owing to the standard of ingredients.

One year later everyone in the village is horrified to discover they've been eating horse meat and someone in a dodgy abattoir is counting lots of money.

The more cynical among you would probably suspect that this is all just a ploy to make you buy an overpriced light from Rutland Cycling. Well, I'm not on commission (sadly) and to be frank, I personally don't care where you buy your lights. I would just rather you buy from a decent brand who do a good job, design and make a good product, and put back into the cycling community as these are the companies that deserve our support.

Exposure Night Rides at Rutland Cycling.

Exposure lights frequently run demo days and night rides at our stores throughout the winter months to allow customers to try out their latest models in the flesh. So, if you ever fancy a lap of the water with the best bike lights money can buy and some food afterwards, call Whitwell on 01780 460705 to book your place on the next Exposure night ride.