In the not-so-distant past, bicycle lights typically came in one of two flavors: see-by or be-seen. In recent years, however, the line between the two has become a bit more fluid. Be-seen lights now offer greater coverage and increased brightness, while see-by models enjoy new features such as daylight modes for improved visibility when the sun is up. Like most things tech, prices have continued to drop while functionality has steadily increased.
When choosing lights, it’s important to remember that every light is, ultimately, a compromise. Battery life, weight/size, brightness, and cost are all factors to consider, so your idea of the perfect light may not exist (or fall within your budget). And when it comes manufacturers’ stated run times, remember that those numbers are based on ideal conditions. Cold weather can affect battery life, so choose accordingly if you’ll be riding when temperatures are low.
My testing took place over several months, and was split evenly between pre-dawn and evening riding. The beam photos were taken using an Apple iPhone 6s with the flash turned off. Aside from being reduced in overall size, the beam shots were not edited or retouched. Headlights were positioned at a height of 30 inches and angled downward approximately three degrees. The path in the photos measures eight feet wide, and reflective markers were positioned 32- and 64-feet away from the camera.
Blackburn Central 800 & 2’Fer-XL
New for 2018, Blackburn’s Central 800 is the second-brightest headlamp in the company’s lineup. As you might surmise, the Central 800 delivers a peak output of 800 lumens. The light is powered by a USB-rechargeable (and replaceable) lithium-ion battery, and the on/off button doubles as a charge indicator. With an IP65 rating, the Central 800 is impervious to dust as well as protected from rain and snow.
The Central 800 features a flexible mount that’s compatible with 22-35 mm diameter handlebars. You can also attach the 800 to your helmet, or use one of the many aftermarket GoPro-compatible mounts. While the rubbery mounting bracket is definitely versatile, the flexible material–combined with the light’s 173 gram weight–did produce some noticeable visual movement when riding on very rough surfaces at speeds greater than 20 mph.
With its dual beam pattern, the Central 800 does an excellent job of directing light where it’s needed needed most. Although the above beam photo shows a distinct, yellowish hotspot, the 800’s output has a far more neutral appearance in actual use. Side visibility is also very good thanks to the windows found on both sides of the light’s body. During my testing, I found that the low (200 lumens) and medium (400 lumens) settings were more than adequate for mixed-surface commuting and urban use, while I reserved the high (800 lumen) setting for higher speeds or off-road riding.
If there’s one area where the 800 is lacking, it’s the light’s relatively short run times. With a full charge you’ll get approximately five hours on the lowest (200 lumens) setting and two hours on high (800 lumens). To their credit, however, Blackburn’s quoted run times were the very accurate, and the time to recharge was usually less than the stated six hours (even when the remaining battery capacity was well below 25%).
|Modes (Lumens)||High (800), Medium (400), Low (200), Pulse (150), Strobe (150)|
Like the aforementioned 800, Blackburn’s 2’Fer-XL features a sturdy alloy body and flexible mounting strap. Unlike the front-only Central, though, the 2’Fer is equipped with both white and red LEDs, making it suitable for front or rear use. To ensure maximum versatility, the XL mounts vertically, horizontally, or it can be clipped directly to a backpack or clothing. The 81-gram 2’Fer features a lithium polymer battery which charges via the included micro USB cable. Thanks to an IP67 rating, the 2’Fer is waterproof to a depth of one metre.
Because the XL performs double duty as head and tail light, it lacks the wide range of modes typically found on dedicated front or rear lights. Each mode on the 2’Fer has two settings–solid and flashing. While that may not seem like much (Lezyne’s Strip Drive Pro boasts eleven settings), it makes switching between modes faster and easier. The compact 2’Fer may not be able to match the larger Central 800’s coverage or brightness, but the XL is head-and-shoulders above many be-seen lights of comparable size. And whether you’re using the 2’Fer as a front or rear light, the translucent bezel provides excellent side visibility.
|Modes (Lumens)||Front (200), Rear (40)|
Lezyne Power Drive 1100i & Strip Drive Pro
If you’re searching for a truly do-it-all headlight, look no further than Lezyne’s Power Drive 1100i. With no less than seven modes, the 158-gram 1100i covers both see-by and be-seen requirements with room to spare. Inside the Power Drive’s machined aluminum shell you’ll find two high-output LEDs powered by a Li-Ion battery that delivers a whopping 1100 lumens. The Lezyne’s tool-free flexible mount fits round and aero/ergo handlebars, and the 1100i is compatible with Lezyne’s optional Infinite Light Power Pack.
Cycle through the Power Drive’s modes and you can’t help but notice the brightness of the light’s output. That brightness isn’t limited to the highest (1100 lumens) setting, either. Even the thriftier modes seem noticeably brighter than their lumen rating would indicate. If you’re comparing beam photos, the 1100i–like Blackburn’s Central 800–has a far more uniform color in actual use.
In use I found the Power Drive’s 1100-lumen max setting to be overkill for all but the darkest, off-road conditions. Most of my time was spent in the Economy (150 lumens) and Enduro (450 lumens) modes. The Power Drive’s beam is relatively tall and lacks upper cut-off, so you may want position the light on the underside of your handlebars, or attach the 1100i to your bike’s fork blade with a third-party mount such as the Paul Gino.
Although the Power Drive has a reasonably good battery life, you can extend run times by as much as 300% by using Lezyne’s optional ($79.99) Infinite Light Power Pack. The 198-gram Power Pack also sports a USB port so you can charge your phone or other USB-powered devices in a pinch. Like the 1100I, the Power Pack’s on/off button also functions as a charge indicator.
|Model||Power Drive 1100I|
|Modes (Lumens)||Blast (650), Enduro (450), Economy (150), Femto (15), Flash (150), Pulse (150), Overdrive (1100)|
|Price||$99.99 ($179.99 Loaded Box)|
|Weight||158 grams (198 grams power supply)|
If Nigel Tufnel were a cyclist, he’d want Leyne’s Strip Drive Pro. Why this particular light? It’s got eleven modes. Yes, eleven. With three solid, six flash, and two daylight flash modes, there’s a setting for any conceivable use case. The Strip Drive Pro’s durable co-molded lens and body house five high-output LEDs, and the light’s USB charging stick is protected by a removable dust cover. Whether your bike has a round or aero seatpost, the Pro’s flexible mounting strap is both secure and easy to use (even when wearing heavy gloves).
With the Strip Drive’s eleven settings, finding the right mode can be a bit overwhelming. Clicking through them all can take a while, but the Pro’s mode memory feature will remember your last choice when it’s turned back on. Although the various (night) flash settings were fun to experiment with, the two brightest solid modes were usually my choice for night riding. If daylight visibility is a concern, the Strip Drive Pro’s 300-lumen day-flasher is one of best I’ve found. It’s so bright that you might be tempted to use it at night, but for your fellow riders’ safety, stick to the one of the night-flash modes instead.
|Model||Strip Drive Pro|
|Modes (Lumens)||Blast (50), Enduro (25), Economy (5), Flash-1 (35), Flash-2 (25), Flash-3 (25), Flash-4 (35), Flash-5 (10), Flash-6 (5), Day-Flash-1 (300), Day-Flash-2 (150)|
Light & Motion Vibe
With its diminutive form factor you might be tempted to pass off Light & Motion’s Vibe Pro Headlight as just another be-seen light. The smallest light in this test, the 50-gram Vibe Pro Headlight still manages to pump out 250 lumens in day (SafePulse) mode and 200 lumens in night mode. Lacking any buttons or switches, the Vibe is also one of the easiest lights to use. Simply insert the light into the mount’s USB receptor, give it a one-quarter turn, and you’re ready to go.
If there are no buttons, how do you turn on the Vibe? In a sense, you don’t–the light does it for you. Inserting the Vibe into the mount activates the light. Smart sensors inside the Vibe detect movement and turn on the light when you start riding. The sensors also detect changes in ambient light, so the Vibe Headlight automatically selects the correct mode for the current conditions. When you stop, the Vibe acts like a dynamo-powered standlight and remains on for approximately 30 seconds (the light requires only minimal movement for it to wake up).
Despite its size, the Vibe makes the most out of its 200/250-lumen output. The tiny Light & Motion unit may not project its beam as far as the heavier, costlier Blackburn and Lezyne headlights, but the Vibe Pro’s beam pattern and side visibility are more than adequate for commuting and urban conditions. While I wouldn’t rely solely on the Vibe for high-speed or technical off-road riding, it’s bright enough for the majority of my 12-mile commute. My only complaint–and it’s a minor one–is the translucent case. With no shield over the lens, the brightness can be distracting (especially if you don’t have the greatest night vision).
Like many ultra-compact lights, the Vibe Pro Headlight doesn’t have the most generous battery life. On a full charge you’ll get an honest two hours in night mode and six hours on the daylight setting. The good news is that charging only takes two hours (maximum), and the Vibe plugs directly into USB ports so there are no cables to lose.
|Model||Vibe Pro Headlight|
|Modes (Lumens)||Day/SafePulse (250), Night (200)|
Like its front counterpart, the Light & Motion Vibe Pro tail light features a buttonless case, and attaches with a simple flexible strap. The Pro tail light’s single red LED delivers 100 lumens, and the lens produces an exceptionally wide beam that’s complemented by amber side lights. Run time is three hours on a full charge, and the Vibe Pro is charged by plugging directly into a USB port. Weighing just 50 grams (including mounting bracket), the Light & Motion is one of the lightest and most compact tail lights on the market.
If you ride a small frame, or don’t have a lot of seatpost exposed, you’ll appreciate the Light & Motion’s slim mount. Although the Vibe’s mount didn’t fare too well with aero seatposts, the mount is contoured to position the light at the proper angle for maximum visibility (which is not always the case with competitors’ models). Because the Vibe extends directly out from the seatpost, I was initially concerned that it might be more prone to damage. My fears were unfounded, however, as the Pro tail light has remained damage-free despite daily use.
|Model||Vibe Pro Tail Light|