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The official Ride With Chris lighting test

In preparation for this weekend's 300km attempt, I've been getting reacquainted with the pleasures and challenges of night cycling. A key part of this involves choosing the best headlight. I had a few headlights sitting around from past random attempts, and I ended up buying two in the past two weeks. My results were surprising!

My requirements are simple: I need a light that will give me at least six hours of runtime; this rules out most lithium battery-pack models. I don't want to spend a lot of money; I don't plan to do enough nighttime riding to justify the expense. And I need not just to "be seen" by other road users; I need "to see" as well, especially since part of the route is on lonely farm roads that probably will be very, very dark indeed.

The candidates

From left to right, and the approximate street price I paid, before any club discounts:
  • Viewpoint Gen3, one of the house brands of Performance Bicycle, purchased in 2005 or 2006 ($50?).
  • Planet Bike Blaze 0.5-watt LED, purchased in 2008 ($30?).
  • Cateye HL-EL320, purchased last week ($40).
  • Cateye HL-EL530, purchased this week ($60).
  • Cateye ML-373 halogen, an ancient relic from my previous bicycle life, purchased circa 1995 ($50?).

The results

This isn't a scientific test, but I used each light on an object about 20 feet away -- namely, the front door to my apartment, in an otherwise darkened room. I took a photo of each test, and I didn't do any color correction or adjustment on the images. Pay attention to two things: the intensity of the main beam, and the total area of the beam. Click on the photos to see larger versions.

Viewpoint Gen3

Planet Bike Blaze

Cateye HL-EL320

Cateye HL-EL530

Cateye ML-373

No, that's not a mistake. The 15-year-old halogen clearly outperforms even the latest state-of-the-art LEDs. Yes, I was shocked, too, because I wasn't even going to include this old light, since I haven't used it in so long. It does have one minor flaw: It eats batteries like nobody's business. I seem to remember getting a maximum of two hours of run time out of four AAs. Of course, carrying extra batteries isn't a big deal.

As an aside, it's worth noting that the Planet Bike light interfered with my wireless cycle computer, rendering it useless any time the light was on while riding. None of the other lights had that strange property.

Going into this test, I was prepared to say that the HL-EL530 made me very happy when I used it on an extended nighttime ride into Portola Valley. Its main beam is clearly much brighter than the HL-EL320, and it disperses enough that I was able to scan to my left and right while riding for any possible hazards. But now I'm thinking that perhaps I should test my ancient halogen as well.

And in any event, I now have all sorts of emergency lighting for the next power failure.