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Review of the Best Bicycle Tail Lights in 2012

2012-03-05 by . 131 comments

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Testing bike lights

Taking some lights out for a test ride at night

UPDATE: The 2013 Taillights Review and The 2013 Headlights Review are now published! Check them out for new lights and updated recommendations.

Whether you bike to work every day regardless of how dark it is outside, or only let dusk catch you on the occasional evening ride, every cyclist should have lights. They’re required after dark by law in almost all regions, and are a crucial piece of safety equipment even where they’re optional.

Remember that although spending $30-50 on good lights may seem like a lot of money, the medical costs from a single accident would far surpass that initial investment. If you bike at night (or even bike on busy roads during the day – several of these lights are daytime visible), a bright light is a must-have!

Choosing a light can be a difficult task though – there are countless options to choose from ranging from cheap $3 flashers to blindingly bright $200 powerhouses. The internet already has some good comparisons of bike headlights, but there’s a surprising lack of comprehensive taillight comparisons, so I decided to make one. For science.

In total, I reviewed 16 different taillights from 8 of the top light manufacturers. I chose which lights to review based on a survey I conducted on the parent site for this blog - Bicycles Stack Exchange, a Q&A site for everything about bicycles, and also asked on Reddit’s /r/bicycling. The incumbent in this race is the Planet Bike Blinky Superflash. Everyone has this light (myself included). Not only is it the light most people own, it’s also the most-loved – 20% of respondents said it was their favorite. In terms of what people wish they had or are considering buying, the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo, Portland Design Works’ Radbot 1000 and Danger Zone, and the Niterider Cherrybomb were all high on the list. Many people expressed an interest in DiNotte’s lights, but unfortunately we were unable to acquire one for this review and the company declined to loan a light for the review.

I’m sure you’re all dying to know which light is the best, but first, let’s take a look at the contenders.

Table of Contents

  • Top row (from left): Mars 4.0, Planet Bike Superflash Turbo, PB Blinky 7, PB Blinky Super Flash, Portland Design Works Red Planet, PB Blinky 5
  • Middle row (from right): Cateye Reflex, NiteRider Cherry Bomb, PDW Danger Zone, Cateye Rapid 3
  • Bottom row (from left): Knog Frog Strobe, Cateye Rapid 5, SE 6-way flasher
  • Not pictured: Cygolite Hotshot, PDW Radbot 1000

What I measured

The following statistics were recorded for each light. I will be writing a separate post with more details about the testing process.

  • Cost (MSRP and online price)
  • Brightness at 0, 45, and 90 degrees from the front of the light source
    • A note on brightness: this value was measured at a distance away from the light, using a mechanism to help capture some of the diffused light due to different lens and LED setups. The values are useful for comparing the brightness of the lights to each other, but should not be used as a comparison against any external sources, because measurement techniques and setup will be different.
  • Flash patterns
  • Battery life
  • Mounting mechanisms (default included & available separately)
  • Ease of installation
  • Ease of battery replacement
  • Special features

Data Overview

Manufacturer Model Retail price Online cost1 Max brightness2 Battery life3 Included mounting Optional mounting Weight4 # flash modes
Blackburn Mars 4.0 $25 $20 13700 24 rack rack seat clip 54 1
Cateye Rapid 3 $25 $22 12300 20 seat seat rack stay stay clip 43 2
Cateye Rapid 5 $30 $30 8150 74 seat seat rack stay stay clip 50 3
Cateye Reflex Auto $25 $27 1060 74 rack stay seat seat clip 62 4
Cygolite Hotshot $40 $27 23000 120 seat clip rack rack rack rack 43 4
Knog Frog Strobe $15 $10 550 34 18 3
Nite Rider Cherry Bomb $32 $20 1640 66 seat clip 59 1
Planet Bike Blinky 5 $20 $18 2120 43 rack stay seat clip 59 1
Planet Bike Blinky 7 $20 $12 1450 43 stay seat clip rack rack rack rack 53 1
Planet Bike Blinky Super Flash $30 $24 2380 52 stay seat clip rack rack rack rack 52 1
Planet Bike Super Flash Turbo $35 $30 12000 24 stay seat clip rack rack rack rack 54 1
Portland Design Works Danger Zone $37 $31 6500 24 stay seat clip rack rack rack rack 56 2
Portland Design Works Radbot 1000 $32 $23 10000 27 rack stay seat clip 61 2
Portland Design Works Red Planet $15 $14 2120 66 rack stay seat clip 53 2
SE 6-Way Flasher $9 $3 800 81 seat seat 83 6
Lights added in 2013 – See the 2013 Tail Lights Review for more details!
Light and Motion Vis 180 $100 $90  9000  5:20 seat clip  89 3
Light and Motion Vis 180 Micro $50 $40  5000  4:15 seat clip  61 3
Niterider Solas 2W $45 $38  7000  5:22 seat clip  54 2
Portland Design Works Aether Demon $50 $45  3000  4:15 seat clip  42 3

1: Cost on Amazon.com as of 02/03/2012, without shipping costs included. Prices subject to change. 2: Maximum brightness measured from ~20cm in lux. Value is relative to experimental setup and should not be used to compare with other reviews. 3: Battery life measured in hours, with lights on standard flashing mode. Most lights were tested with identical fresh AAA batteries from the same package. A few lights used different battery types, in which case fresh batteries were still used. For the lights added in 2013, battery life was measured in steady burn mode. 4: Weight in grams, measured with standard batteries installed.

Reviews

Cateye

For this review I compared four different Cateye lights, two of which were generously donated by Cateye. The mounting mechanisms are compatible between all of these lights, and they share a similar design. One nice feature on all of the Cateye lights which is not seen as commonly elsewhere is the switch mechanism: To turn the light on/off you push and hold the button for about 1 second; to switch modes, you press it briefly. This helps prevent the lights from turning on by accident when being carried in a pocket or backpack, and also ensures that the light returns to the same mode you left it in when you turned it off.

Cateye Rapid 3

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $25 45° 90° Max seat seat seat rack stay stay clip clip 20 hrs 43 g
Online $22 12300 480 40 12300
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The light is compatible with all of Cateye’s assorted mounting options, but only comes with the flex-lock mount, which is a narrow band of plastic which can be wrapped around a seatpost and then tightened with a plastic nut. The mount seemed reasonably sturdy, although I would have preferred a more traditional seatpost mount. The Rapid 3 is powered by a single easy-access AA battery, which is probably why it had such poor battery performance. The light only lasted about 20 hours on rapid mode before becoming too dim to be useful.

At $22 (via Amazon), it isn’t the best performance for your money, but is a bright and easy to use light. The low-power option is a nice perk for people who often ride in groups and want to be seen without blinding their followers. The Rapid 3 is one of Cateye’s newer lights. It has a center high-power LED (probably 1 watt, but unspecified), and one low-power 5mm LED on each side. This was one of the brightest lights tested. It includes a solid mode which only turns on the center LED, a “rapid” mode which flashes all three, and a low-power mode which only flashes the 5mm LEDs. This mode is not as bright, but saves power and is good when biking with a group or on a multi-use trail where you would want to avoid blinding fellow cyclists.

Cateye Rapid 5

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $30 45° 90° Max seat seat seat rack stay stay clip clip 74 hrs 50 g
Online $30 8150 600 60 8150
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Rapid 5 is also a new product, and is very similar to the Rapid 3 (above). Cateye claims that it uses the same lights as the Rapid 3, but adds an extra 2 chip LEDs, one on either side of the light. From my testing, it appears that the central high-power LED on this light actually puts out less light than the Rapid 3 does. The overall measured light output from the Rapid 5 was about 2/3 of the Rapid 3. This measurement is partially due to the light from the Rapid 5 being more diffuse, due to its wider design – the light meter does not measure wide angles quite as well. Overall though, even just from looking with the bare eye, this light is less bright than its smaller brother.

Despite being dimmer than the Rapid 3, this was still one of the brighter lights, clocking in at 8150 lux from the front, and an impressive 600 lux from 45 degrees. Battery life was also much better in the Rapid 5, which started to dim after about 74 hours on rapid mode, and didn’t die completely for another 30 hours after that. Batteries are also very easy to replace in this light: a small cover can be pulled off by hand, and the batteries slide in horizontally. The Rapid 5 had more flashing options as well: solid mode (which only uses 3 of the 5 LEDs), a steady pulsing mode which alternates between partial and full brightness, rapid mode which quickly alternates all 5 LEDs, and a flashing mode which blinks all 5 LEDs at once.

This light only comes with the flex mount (same as the Rapid 3), which is a shame since the light is shaped perfectly to mount under a seat or on a rear rack. I placed it on my cargo rack using the rack mount that comes with the Cateye Reflex Auto and it fit perfectly. Fortunately, you can order almost any kind of mounting bracket you might want from their small parts store, and for reasonable prices, but for this light in particular they should have included more mounting choices by default.

Update: after using it regularly for about a month, this light seems to have succumbed to the weather, and no longer works properly. Only two of the modes can be selected, and it randomly turns itself off during rides. I am going to attempt to revive it, but it seems this particular light is not very weather-resistant. Be warned!

Second update: after drying the light out and putting in some new batteries, it seems to work fine again.

Cateye Reflex and Reflex Auto

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $25 45° 90° Max rack stay seat seat seat clip clip 74 hrs 62 g
Online $27 930 80 40 1060
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

There are two versions of the Cateye Reflex. The normal version is like any other light, and the Auto version has a built-in darkness and motion sensor which will trigger it to turn on automatically. Aside from this, they are identical. The Reflex series is essentially a giant reflector with some LEDs inside. The intensity of the LEDs was rather disappointing – unlike the other Cateye products I tested, these did not have a high-power LED, and only put out 930 lux straight-on. The battery life is decent though, lasting 74 hours like the Rapid 5.

Although this light isn’t the brightest, and I wouldn’t recommend it as the sole light on a bike, it does come with a nice variety of mounting options, including a rear rack mount, a seat post mount, and a stay mount. The rack mount has holes for almost any setup, and has a nifty lock feature which lets you insert an extra screw to prevent the light from being easily removed by thieves. The auto feature worked surprisingly well on the version which includes it: Even when it was only slightly dark, such as around dusk or during a rainy day, it would always turn on when needed. Now, for somebody who already has several other lights which are not automatic, there is not much benefit – I actually found it rather annoying, because I like to turn on my light even during the day sometimes, and there is no way to force the light on (although you can turn it all the way off so it doesn’t come on in your pack while walking around).

There is definitely a market for the auto feature though – if somebody rarely bikes at night, or maybe is apt to forget to turn their lights on, this may be a good choice, because it’s easy to “set and forget,” especially with the anti-theft rack mount. The Cateye representative I spoke to said they particularly recommend it for children who might not remember to turn on their light. I agree that it would be a good setup for younger riders who are not frequently out at night, but who need a light just in case. This light might not be the best choice for commuters in busy traffic or people who bike at night frequently though – Cateye’s other lights are much brighter at a lower cost.

Planet Bike

I’ve owned Planet Bike lights for years, and can say with certainty that they’re high-quality products. Planet Bike is also neat because they donate 25% of their proceeds to bike advocacy. The friendly folks at PB donated a Superflash Turbo and a Blinky 7 for this review, and I already owned the other PB lights reviewed here. All of Planet Bike’s rear taillights use the same mounting hardware, which also happens to be interchangeable with (and visually identical to) Portland Design Works’ mounts. The mounting hardware is fairly sturdy, and I’ve never had one of these lights fall off while riding. All of the lights also come with a built-in clip to attach to a backpack or bag. The mounting options include a standard seatpost mount, a rack stay mount, and a less-common rear rack mount.

All of the PB lights reviewed here except the Blinky 5 have the same form factor. They all share the same switch mechanism, one I actually find slightly annoying. Although it rarely gets triggered by accident in one’s pack, there is no tactile feedback from the buttons, and they’re hard to turn on/off with gloves on. The switches seem kind of sticky, and sometimes won’t register a click. I would like to see Planet Bike implement a better switch someday, and this is a common complaint in other reviews of these lights.

Planet Bike Blinky Super Flash

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $30 45° 90° Max stay seat clip clip rack rack rack rack rack 52 hrs 52 g
Online $24 2380 400 110 2380
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

This light is by all accounts the most popular one out there. It was one of the first super-bright LED lights to hit the market, and continues to be very popular. So how does it stack up against the modern competition? (Disclaimer – mine’s several years old, so although I did give the outside a good wiping down, and LEDs shouldn’t degrade over time, a brand-new one might perform better).

As it turns out, the Super Flash isn’t the brightest light out there – it has reasonable visibility from the side, but is only about average in terms of brightness. What makes this light stand out isn’t the amount of light it puts out, but rather how it does it: the Super Flash was one of the first bike lights to implement a rapid strobing pattering to grab drivers’ eyes. Despite being dimmer than other lights, it caught my eye better than brighter but more mild-mannered blinky lights. With a 1/2 watt LED, it also runs longer on a charge than some newer, brighter lights do: In my testing, it remained very bright for 52 hours, remained visible for another 22, and was still flashing feebly after an entire week of runtime. Overall, the Super Flash is still a good choice, but at $24 you can certainly get something brighter. It may seem that the Super Flash’s reign is over, but Planet Bike is determined to hold their top spot, and the next light may do just that:

Planet Bike Super Flash Turbo

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $35 45° 90° Max stay seat clip clip rack rack rack rack rack 24 hrs 54 g
Online $30 6200 950 260 12000
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

While the original Super Flash is starting to show its age, the newer Super Flash Turbo is an impressive adaptation of its older sibling. Although it looks almost identical at first sight, it doubles the power with a 1-watt primary LED, and is blindingly bright. The first time I rode with the Super Flash Turbo on my bike, I was surprised to see it lighting up stop signs 4 blocks behind me. For all of the brightness measurements, I set the lights to solid (non-flashing) mode, because the light meter is not precise enough to capture brightness over the short period of time of a single flash. For each of the lights I attempted to get some data in flashing mode, and was surprised to see that for the Turbo, it shined brighter when flashing than when solid. In flashing mode I measured a max of 12,000 lux, making this one of the brightest lights available. The light also had very good side visibility. This added brightness comes at the price of battery life though – the light only lasted 24 hours before dimming, although it kept flashing weakly for nearly a week after it lost its initial luster.

It was always very easy to replace the batteries in my trusty ol’ Super Flash, and I expected the same of this light. As it turns out, the casing on the Turbo is much more rigid, and cannot be opened by hand – it requires a coin to twist in the opening slot to leverage the case open. This may be in response to customers’ complaints of the casing coming apart too easily, causing people to lose their lights. The downside is that makes it hard to replace the batteries quickly if you don’t have a coin handy. Not a huge issue, and arguably an improvement, but definitely a difference between this and other PB lights. Overall the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo is a very strong light. Its flash pattern is random and attention-grabbing, even more so than its predecessor’s, and it’s a drop-in replacement (or good accompaniment) to an existing Superflash.

Planet Bike Blinky 7

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $20 45° 90° Max stay seat clip clip rack rack rack rack rack 43 hrs 53 g
Online $12 1450 330 230 1450
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Blinky 7 comes in the same shape as the Super Flash and Turbo, but instead of a large high-power LED, it has 7 lower power (but still bright) LEDs arranged in a circular array. Three face directly to the back, and two on each side faces out at 45 and 90 degrees. This gives the light a claimed 220 degrees of visibility. The light is not particularly bright in any one direction, but does have better side visibility than some lights. Although I wouldn’t recommend it as a primary light, it makes for a decent secondary light if you use two lights at once, as recommended.

Planet Bike Rack Blinky 5

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $20 45° 90° Max rack stay seat clip clip 43 hrs 59 g
Online $18 2120 350 50 2120
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Rack Blinky 5 uses the same low-power 5mm LEDs as the Blinky 7, but all in a straight array facing directly back. This kit comes with a rack mount included, making it easy to attach to the back of your bike. It uses the same mounting clip as other PB lights, but has a slightly wider, shorter profile. This light was surprisingly bright for a blinky, although it’s still dim next to either of the Super Flashers. One aspect of the Blinky 5 I am impressed with is the wide spread of light. Even from off-angles, it’s easy to see.

The biggest downside to this light is its on/off button. Whereas most PB lights are too difficult to turn on, this one is far too easy. It is controlled by a large soft push button on the back, which is way too easy to bump in your pack. I always take my lights off to prevent them from being stolen, and several times went to look for something in my pack, and found this light flashing away. A simple time-delay like many other manufacturers’ lights would help this problem.

Portland Design Works

PDW is a newer player in the field, and has some high-quality lights with nice designs. They all use the same mounts as Planet Bike’s tail lights, which makes them easy to switch between bikes if you already own one of PB’s popular lights.

PDW Radbot 1000

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $32 45° 90° Max rack stay seat clip clip 27 hrs 61 g
Online $23 7600 1000 130 10000
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Radbot 1000 holds a blindingly bright 1W LED, and puts a large reflector on the bottom half of the light to provide passive visibility even when the light is off. This light is painfully bright – I know because I put it on a friend’s bike during the review, and following her with the light on was a dizzying experience.

The Radbot has a solid-on mode, and two different flash patterns – a rapidly flashing mode, and a mode that alternates between a bright pulse and several rapid flashes. These are some of the most attention-grabbing flash patterns I’ve seen.

The Radbot was the only light I reviewed which requires a screw driver to open the battery casing. Personally, I think this is a good feature – it helps prevent the case from opening if the light is dropped, and may help keep water out when riding in the rain. If you frequently need to change batteries on the road though, you may want to take this into consideration.

The switching mechanism on the Radbot is also a pleasure to use. It remembers which flashing mode you last used, and is turned on/off by pressing and holding the button for a few seconds. This helps prevent accidentally turning the light on. The Radbot also comes with an included cargo rack mount, which most lights don’t include.

Although a bit overpriced at an MSRP of $32, with a maximum brightness of 10,000 lux, and an online price tag of $23, this light is definitely a high-quality option. It’s simple to use, comes with lots of mounting options, and has bright and eye-grabbing flash patterns, making it one of my personal favorites.

PDW Danger Zone

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $37 45° 90° Max stay seat clip clip rack rack rack rack rack 24 hrs 56 g
Online $31 3200 690 140 6500
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Danger Zone in the wild: its wild blitzing flash pattern caught my eye from several blocks away, promoting me to bike like mad to catch its owner and ask them what light it was. This light implements two 0.5 watt LEDs next to each other, giving it a unique design.

The DZ has two flashing modes: a slow, steady pulse which alternates between the left, right, and both LEDs; and a rapid blitz which quickly alternates between the two lights for a few moments, then pulses each LED once. The first mode is much easier on the eyes if biking with other people, but when in crazy traffic or on a road without bike lanes, the blitz mode is wonderfully attention-grabbing.

The individual half-watt LEDs on the DZ aren’t quite as bright as the Radbot’s 1W and some other 1W lights such as the Mars 4.0 and the Planet Bike Super Flash Turbo, but the effect of having two lights helps make up for it. The individual LEDs also seem to be brighter than the 1W LED in the older PB Blinky Super Flash, which may simply be a result of LED technology improving over the years. Either way, this light is plenty bright, and likely to get you seen. What I would like to see is a dual-1W version of the Danger Zone, and a flash option to fire both LEDs at once. Despite some of the shortfalls of the DZ’s design (explained below), I would buy one of those in an instant for the sheer epic brightness.

Despite its greater price tag ($37 MSRP, although my LBS was selling it for $30), the Danger Zone lacks some of the nice features of the Radbot. It doesn’t come with a rack mount (although it is compatible with the Radbot and Planet Bike’s mounts, both of which can be purchased separately). I also don’t prefer its button, and wish PDW would implement the Radbot’s switch style here – the DZ doesn’t remember its mode, and must be cycled through each time you turn it on. There’s also no time-delay, which makes it slightly more prone to accidentally activating in your pack, although the switch is large and clicky enough that it’s still easy to use with gloves, and doesn’t activate easily like the PB Blinky 5.

Perhaps the biggest downside of the Danger Zone is replacing the batteries. The first time I did it, I was afraid I was going to break the darned thing. On the upside, there’s a pretty good seal for the battery chamber, but prying the light apart is difficult, and putting it back together is even worse. You can’t quite pop the cover right back on – you sort of have to slide it in, then press down hard and hope you don’t break any plastic. If PDW ever makes a Danger Zone 2.0, they should make replacing the battery much easier. I would vastly prefer using a screwdriver to fearing that I’ll break the light every time it runs low on batteries.

Overall, I really like the Danger Zone, and will keep using it. It’s bright, attention-grabbing, and I really like its form factor. However, given its rather steep price and the sketchy battery replacement procedure, it’s not the best deal. The Radbot gives you a brighter light in an easier to use package, with more attachments and a lower price tag.

PDW Red Planet

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $15 45° 90° Max rack stay seat clip clip 66 hrs 53 g
Online $14 2120 290 1000 2120
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Red Planet is PDW’s cheapest light, at $15. It has five 5mm LEDs, much like the PB Blinky 5, but has only 3 facing directly back, with the other two at exactly right angles. Its brightness readings matched up pretty closely with the Blinky 5 as well, placing it squarely in the “not super bright but works” category. It has two flashing modes – a standard blink, and an alternating side-to-side which only flashes one LED at once. The latter is a bit of a gimmick – having only a single LED on at once severely diminishes the brightness, and leaves you without any rear-facing LEDs illuminated when either of the side-LEDs are going. A seat post and stay mount are both included mounting options.

With the side-mounted LEDs, this light does give off a very bright side profile, emitting 1000 lux at a 90 degree angle. The light has pretty poor visibility from anywhere between straight-on and the right angle though. Getting the batteries out was also a pain – the contacts seem to be very tight, and it’s hard to get a grasp on the batteries.

Although it’s bright for such a cheap light, if you’re looking at a light in this price range, I frankly think you’d be better off with Planet Bike’s Blinky 5. It’s about as bright from the front, and slightly dimmer from the side, but also includes a built-in reflector and a rack mount. The Red Planet does however do a better job with the on/off switch, which is much firmer than the Blinky 5′s, keeping it from turning on by accident in your pack.

Other Brands

Lights which I didn’t test more than one of from the same brand follow.

Blackburn Mars 4.0

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $25 45° 90° Max rack rack seat clip clip 24 hrs 54 g
Online $20 13700 800 120 13700
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

I’ve rarely seen Blackburn lights in the wild, but according to my poll, they’re fairly popular, so I thought I’d give one a try. The Mars 4.0 is Blackburn’s latest taillight offering, powered by a central 1W LED, and an amber mini-LED on each side.

The Mars 4.0 has only two modes: solid, and blinking. The blink mode isn’t particularly exciting – just a slow on/off, but what it lacks in flashiness, it makes up for in brightness: the Mars was the 2nd brightest light (from the front position) tested. Despite having additional side-LEDs, the side visibility was not any better than similar lights – the miniature amber lights were dim and hardly visible from a distance.

The mounting mechanism for this light is versatile, if a bit overcomplicated. It requires no tools to attach, although you’ll need a screw driver if you plan to rotate the the light clip to keep it oriented vertically. Why it doesn’t come in that orientation by default beats me. The mount uses a flexible plastic strap, which can be adjusted to almost any seat post width, and is kept tight by a large tool-free plastic screw. The kit also includes a rack mount, which I did not test specifically.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Mars 4.0, mostly because it lacks an attention-grabbing strobe mode and has a slightly fidgety mount, but it’s definitely one of the brightest lights you can get for $20. If you’re looking for a very bright light for cheap, this may be a good option for you.

Cygolite Hotshot

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $40 45° 90° Max seat clip clip rack rack rack rack rack 120 hrs 43 g
Online $27 23000 600 60 23000
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

This is the only light I could find with a 2W LED, and this thing is bright. Or not – you can actually adjust the brightness and flash frequency on the go, which is one of its many compelling features. The Hotshot is powered by an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which gives it an impressive runtime between charges, and has 4 different flash modes: single-flash, triple-flash, single-pulse, and an alternating bright/dim pulse. The flash frequency can be adjusted for each mode, and in solid mode the adjustment increases/decreases the brightness of the beam. The package is offered with two versions: one comes with a USB charging cable (compatible with any computer or standard USB power adapter), and the other comes with the cable and a wall charger adapter. Almost everyone has a computer with USB ports or an existing cell phone or light charger with a USB adapter though, so I recommend saving $6 and getting the version with just the cable.

Riding around with this light, I notice a drastic difference compared to the others I tested: I can see it reflecting off of signs from as far back as the contours of the land allow. Sometimes I can see a reflection even in daylight. This light is the brightest you can find for under $50 (or under $150, for that matter). The battery also lasts a ridiculously long time – on the triple-flash setting with the default frequency, it lasted for 120 hours before dimming. If you recharge it even once a week, you’ll almost certainly be fine. Because the battery is not user-replaceable though (and thus can’t be swapped out on the road), make sure to charge it before long rides, or have a backup light, because you’ll be out of luck if it dies on the road. You can also find portable USB rechargers which could provide backup power if necessary.

This is a great light, but there are a few downsides. First of all, the mounting mechanism sucks. It’s the worst of all the lights I tested. The screw is small, making it hard to install. The notches in the clip are small and weak, meaning that it doesn’t take a big bump to push the light out of position, and every time this happens, the grip loosens until you have to pull out your screwdriver again. Some other online reviews have mentioned people dropping the nut for the mount or having the light fall off completely. It’s disappointing that such a great light could be diminished by such a terribly weak mounting system.

The control buttons are also a pain to use. Because the speed adjust button is right next to the power/mode button, it’s hard to operate properly with gloves on. Turning the light on only takes a single press (not a hold-and-press like some lights), but the button is hard enough to press that you won’t be turning it on by accident. Unfortunately, turning it off is not easy – you have to hold down for more than 2 seconds until you see a brief final flash. If you release before then, it just changes modes. This type of system is common and useful, but the timing of the Hotshot is frustrating compared to others. The mode adjust button is also annoying – for some reason, there’s only one button to adjust both up and down. I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it, but it seems that pressing and holding will lower the rate/brightness, and letting go and pressing and holding again will raise it. It’s kind of hard to tell though. When doing the brightness tests, I was initially disappointed to see a very low value for this light. Turns out, I just hadn’t cranked it up to full power, because the programming button is so finicky. This light would be much better with a separate up button and a down button for adjustment, or a rocker switch with an obvious up and down position.

Despite the issues with the mount and buttons, this light is without a doubt the best bang for your buck. At $40 MSRP, it’s more expensive than most, but I was able to find it for as low as $25 online, a very good price for so much light. The ability to reprogram the frequency and brightness is particularly appealing for those of us who ride in varied environments. When you’re on a group ride, you can set it to solid mode and turn the brightness down low to avoid blinding other riders; when you’re biking in traffic, you can crank up the frequency on a bright flash setting. In using this light, I’ve come to really enjoy this flexibility, and so have the people I ride with! I would highly recommend this light for just about anyone.

Update, November 2013: Cygolite has released an updated version of the Hotshot with redesigned buttons, a low battery indicator, and sturdier mounts. I haven’t tried the new light in person yet, but I did get the new mount from their small parts store, and it works with the old hotshot as well. The redesigned mount uses larger screws, and has separate screws for adjusting the tightness on the post and the level of the light. I’ll add an updated review once I try the new light in person.

Knog Frog Strobe

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $15 45° 90° Max 34 hrs 18 g
Online $10 550 350 150 550
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

The Knog Frog is a bit of an outlier – it’s small, attaches to almost anything by wrapping its little rubber strap around and hooking onto itself, and it’s powered by two little CR2032 batteries, instead of normal AA or AAAs. It’s tiny, cheap, and brighter than I expected – but still puts out the least light of any of lights I tested. At $10 for the light and about $3 for a CR2032, it’s almost cheaper to buy a new one each time (batteries included) instead of replacing them. This light was dimmer than even the very cheapest flasher I could find on Amazon (reviewed below), and given its expensive non-standard batteries and low output, I don’t particularly recommend it. Unless you really need to wrap it on something which you just can’t fit a normal light on, the Frog is not the best deal, and its popularity perplexes me.

Nite Rider Cherry Bomb

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $32 45° 90° Max seat clip clip 66 hrs 59 g
Online $20 1640 600 80 1640
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

This light has a 1/2W main LED, with two 5mm secondary LEDs. It has a solid mode which only activates the center LED, and a flashing mode which rapidly alternates between the secondary LEDs and a double-pulse of the center LED. This light was also very popular in the poll, and I see it around a lot.

This light gets a lot of things right. The flash pattern is attention-grabbing without being painful. The button is nice and clicky, and easy to use with gloves on. The batteries are fairly simple to remove, and last a reasonably long time – although the light dimmed after about 72 hours, it held on for 130 hours before becoming too feeble to see.

One disappointment is that there are only two ways to mount the light: using the built-in pack/belt clip, or using the included seat post mount. I was unable to find any seat stay, rack, or other mounting options for this light anywhere. The design of this light makes me want to mount it horizontally, but as it turns out, the lens focuses the light into a very wide but horizontally short beam when the light is mounted vertically. This gives it good side-viewing angles if mounted vertically, but wastes a lot of the light if mounted horizontally.

The Cherry Bomb isn’t the brightest light based on my measurements, but given the dispersed beam pattern, the light is less focused, making the light more visible at off-angles than some other choices which have higher intensities from straight-on. There is apparently also a 1W version, cleverly named the “Cherry Bomb 1W.” I was unaware of its existence until after I had already ordered all of the lights for this review though, so I was unable to include it.

SE 6-way Flasher

Price Brightness Included mounting Optional mounting Battery Life Weight
MSRP $9 45° 90° Max seat seat seat 81 hrs 83 g
Online $3 800 70 15 800
View mfc website     Buy on Amazon

This light is literally the cheapest light I could find. I went on Amazon, found the bike lights store, sorted by “lowest price,” and this is what came up. Unsurprisingly, this $3 light was not particularly bright, but it was better than I expected. It put out 800 lux, placing it ahead of the more expensive Knog Frog, and almost on par with the Cateye Reflex.

The light comes with a simple seat post mount. It’s powered by AA batteries, which are a bit of a rarity in the tail light arena. The upside of its low brightness and larger batteries is that it lasts a long time. It held on for 81 hours before starting to lose its luster, and kept going for another 40 hours after that.

The 6 in the name refers to flash modes, not LEDs as I had originally expected. The LEDs are obviously not of the highest quality – other 5-LED flashers such as the PB Blinky 5 and PDW Red Planet far outperformed this light. The flashing modes consist of a fast mode and a slow mode with all 5 LEDs, and a variety of modes which alternate the LEDs. The alternating modes seem rather useless, as having fewer than all of the LEDs turned on makes the output even dimmer than it was to begin with, but the first two modes work well enough.

For $3, this light isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not going to give you great visibility. If you’re strapped for cash and are in the position of “something’s better than nothing,” then buying three of these for the cost of a single brighter light might not be a bad idea though – it’s generally recommended to have at least two lights, each mounted at a different level, to improve visibility. I would generally advocate for buying brighter lights, because the costs of medical treatment if you ever get hit will far exceed the cost of a $20 light, but there is definitely a place for cheap lights like this one, and this performs well for such a ridiculously low price.

Comparisons

Each of these lights has its pros and cons, so how do they stack up against each other?

Brightness is one of the most important measures. The brighter the light, the more likely you are to be seen. Many LEDs give off a very focused, narrow beam, which makes it important to position the light carefully, and take into consideration brightness from other angles.

Graph of brightness of lights

The graph above shows the relative brightness of each of the lights, using the value measured for straight-on brightness in the center of the beam. The Cygolite Hotshot far outshines everything else. The Blackburn Mars 4.0, Cateye Rapid 3, Planet Bike Super Flash Turbo, and Portland Design Works Radbot 1000 are all similarly bright lights near the top of the remaining lights.

So, of these lights in the 10,000+ club, what other factors should we consider? It’s worth noting that the Rapid 3, although bright, has a very limited battery life (it runs off a single AA cell, instead of dual AAA cells like most lights). The Mars 4.0 has a slow blink pattern, which isn’t as attention-grabbing as some of the other choices. The Super Flash Turbo and Radbot 1000 are similar in many ways. The Turbo is slightly brighter when flashing, but the Radbot is actually brighter in solid-on mode. I prefer the Radbot for its more varied flash patterns, extra mounting options included, and superior on/off switch. The Radbot is also cheaper.

If you’re looking for the brightest light, the Hotshot is definitely your best bet, and if you purchase it online, can be found for less than the cost of the Super Flash Turbo. If you like being able to replace the batteries on the road, or need a more robust mount though, the Radbot 1000 is a great light as well.

Brightness vs cost graph

The brightness-per-cost graph shows the relationship between the maximum measured brightness and the online prices listed at the time of this writing. Higher means brighter; further right means more expensive. The best deals will be lights high up and towards the left.

The Cygolite Hotshot is high up on the chart, and on the slightly more expensive side (though not the most expensive). The Mars 4.0 is one of the best deals, at exactly $20 and high in the brightness scale. A few lights stand out as being a bad deal in the brightness vs. cost arena: the Reflex Auto costs as much as a hotshot, and is very dim. It appears that the venerable Blinky Super Flash (not to be confused with the Super Flash Turbo, which is expensive but also pretty bright) is also no longer a great value for its price: it’s more expensive and dimmer than several of the other choices.

Battery life chart

With the cost of batteries (not to mention the environmental impact of non-rechargeables), it’s important to consider how long your light will last. For the battery tests, I set the lights to flashing mode, and checked on them approximately every 5 hours. I made a qualitative assessment of whether the light was still bright, had started to dim, or was nearly dead (“weak”).

Surprisingly, a few of the lights lasted a week before dying out. The Cygolite Hotshot was again the champion, going 120 hours before even starting to drop in brightness. This is almost certainly thanks to its built-in lithium battery, with a much higher capacity than typical alkaline batteries.

In general though, brighter lights tended not to last as long (unsurprisingly). The Cateye Rapid 3 was the first to die, lasting only 20 hours before becoming almost useless. If it had been designed to be slightly larger and use 2 batteries instead of one, it may have fared better. The Frog Strobe was one of the worst in this category, lasting only 34 hours on its puny CR2032 batteries.

The Winners

Each of the lights reviewed has its own pros and cons, and there are a lot to choose from. Below are the best in three categories: Editor’s Picks are the ones which struck my fancy, Best Value are those with the best features for the lowest price, and the Grand Master is the best light overall.

Editor’s picks

  • PDW Danger Zone: Although it’s a bit pricey, has annoying battery replacement, and is not really the best deal, I took a real liking to the Danger Zone. It’s the only light with dual high-intensity LEDs, has eye-grabbing flash patterns, and seems pretty sturdy overall. (Full review)
  • Planet Bike Superflash Turbo: Also rather pricey, but the Turbo is a nice evolution of the original PB Super Flash we all know and love. It’s incredibly bright, seems a bit sturdier than the old Super Flash, and works with any existing PB mounts. (Full review)

Best value

  • Blackburn Mars 4.0: At only $20 online ($25 MSRP), the Mars 4.0 is in the middle of the price spectrum, but is one of the brightest lights. I wish its flash pattern were a little more exciting, and the mounts are a bit fidgety, but if you’re on a budget, this is one of the best choices at this price point. (Full review)
  • SE 6-Way Flasher: It’s actually a pretty wimpy light (it was the 2nd dimmest), but because it only costs $4, its brightness-per-dollar ratio is incredibly high. The batteries also last a long time. If you bike at night with any frequency, this probably isn’t a good choice, but hey – you could buy 3 of them and mount them in different places for the cost of a single Knog Frog, which is even dimmer. If you’re really tight for cash, or only bike at night very rarely, this may be a decent choice, but you should probably get something brighter. (Full review)

Grand master

  • Cygolite Hotshot: In all of the categories of data measured, the Hotshot prevailed. It’s the brightest, has the longest-lasting battery, has the most flash pattern options (which you can even configure yourself), and at $27 online ($40 MSRP) is even cheaper than a lot of the dimmer competition. Of course, it’s not without its flaws – the plastic mounting mechanism is terrible, and the control buttons aren’t easy to work with. Nevertheless, those minor downsides are far outranked by this light’s superb performance. I can see its reflection as far back as there are reflective surfaces in a line of sight. In case you missed it, I gave it a very detailed review above. I highly recommend this light for just about anyone.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a good light. I’ve tried to explore most of them as well as I could here, but each cyclist will have his or her own needs and preferences. There are a few important things to keep in mind regardless of which light you choose:

  • Positioning: It doesn’t matter how bright your light is if it’s aimed at the ground or the sky. Especially with LED lights, the most intense beam tends to be very focused. Make sure to mount your light carefully so that it’s facing towards the level a driver would see from, but just slightly above or below so as to not entirely blind them. As a good check, have a friend get on your bike, and then go sit in a car behind them and see how well you show up.
  • Flashing vs. solid: There’s debate over whether a flashing or solid light is better for your safety. In some jurisdictions, flashing lights aren’t permitted; in others, they’re required. According to a very detailed answer on our site, research done by engineers at RPI (PDF) has shown that flashing lights are perceived as brighter, while solid lights make it easier to determine an object’s location. It’s therefore advisable to have both a solid and a flashing light. I would advise getting a bright (1W or brighter) light to use in flashing mode, and having a second cheaper light to run in solid mode. Using solid-light mode uses batteries faster than flashing (because the light is on all of the time instead of only intermittently), so a less-bright solid light may last about as long as a very bright flashing light. Paired together, you will get good visibility (from the flasher) but also make it easier for motorists to gauge your distance (with the solid light). The same study also noted that having multiple lights positioned in different places helps drivers gauge distance and position better as well.
  • Theft: bike lights are an easy target for thieves looking for something to quickly steal and sell. It always shocks me to see just how many bike lights could be easily grabbed from bikes which are otherwise locked up well, and I know many people who’ve had theirs stolen. Make sure to either take your lights with you, or use a mount which locks them in (like the rack mount for Cateye lights).

Now there’s some bright lights!

Good luck choosing your lights! If you have any questions about the review, or think we left any important ones out, leave your comments below.

Filed under Commuting Lights Traffic

131 Comments

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  • Mac says:

    For me the most important consideration for a rear light is how waterproof it is. Every single rear light I have had has eventually failed because water has made it’s way into the mechanism and rusted or damaged the light.

    So I’ve given up on buying quality and just buy cheap lights that I throw away every couple of months.

    Did you collect any information about how waterproof and durable the lights are?

  • Slim says:

    Very thorough! I have PDW Radbot 1000, which I got for a bit cheaper as a package with one of their front lights.

    I am actually a fan of the Knog lights as well, which I use on my “bar” bike around the neighborhood. Pulling the lights off and tossing them in my pocket (they are tiny, flexible, and unbreakable) is really convenient.

    And I have never had a light fail from being waterlogged, and I bike through the Oregon winter every year.

  • Guy in MN says:

    Word on the water damage. The water get in there and the batteries start getting corroded and eat away the connectors and such. Blah blah blah Oregon…whatever… I too bike all year long – on the cold salty wet streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the snow and rain (blah blah blah) – and I have experienced this with several lighting systems for both front and rear lights. Like Mac I’d love a review on how waterproof the lights are.

  • flug says:

    I’ve been using a MagicShine rear light, and even though it is super-bright, my criticism of it in flashing mode is that the flashing frequency is too slow. If the blink rate were 2X or (even better) 4X faster it would be far better.

    Cars move fast, and if the light flashes only 2X per second or so, a car can move a long ways (around a blind corner, for example) in the half second the light is completely dark.

    Just pointing out–not only the brightness of the lights is a factor, and the directionality, but also the flash pattern.

  • Asad says:

    My friend Neil Fein posted this article on Facebook. I’m a relatively new cyclist and I found this to be a very helpful article on a particularly important subject. Thank you!

  • Diane says:

    Thanks for the detailed comparisons! The odd blink pattern on the Planet Bike SuperFlash makes it my favorite bike light. It may not be the brightest, but it’s the most attention getting. I use it in conjunction with a FibreFlare mounted on my seatpost and a L&M Vis360 on my helmet.

  • Alex Reed says:

    You forgot to mention dynamo lights! They are definitely more expensive than battery-powered lights, but they bring a car-like level of reliability and convenience to bicycle lighting. No bringing them in, replacing batteries, or worrying about a homeless person stealing them to use as a flashlight.

    • nhinkle says:

      Didn’t forget, just chose not to review them this time around ;)

      I decided that dynamos are a different enough sort of setup that it’d be best to hold off on those for now, and hopefully write a separate review of them later. Glad to hear there’s some interest in those – I hope there’ll be a chance to write about them soon.

    • Rider_X says:

      I would like to second the request for a dynamo lighting review. I am pretty happy with my setup, but I am curious how it would stack up in an all encompassing review such as you have done here.

      BTW great job on the battery power writeup!

  • delnorte says:

    I work at a shop and have not been impressed by the reliability of the Blackburn lights at all. That said, the company is VERY good about standing behind their products and send replacements without any trouble. One of the most common problems with the Blackburn lights is that they turn off all on their own, which is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. I have been happy with Bontrager’s Flare3. If you ever do this again, add that one and the Serfas TL-ONE to the list. I’d also be curious to see how high dollar lights such as the Light and Motion compare.

    Thanks for doing this. This is great.

    By the way, Knog’s popularity confuses you? Me too a little. Pretty colors? Sex appeal? (Have you seen their catalogs?) They are good for road rides that might go a little late.

  • Aushiker says:

    Thanks for the reviews. Good to see my PDW Radbot 1000s (I run two of them) come out pretty good. I have now had two motorists stop and tell me that they find me easy to spot with the lights. That is what I like to hear given the high rate of rear-end collisions with cyclists.

    On the waterproof front I have used mine through one winter without any issues at all.

  • Purple cyclist says:

    I have come to the conclusion, that departments of transportation use amber (yellow) lights for a reason. I’m sorry to see that only one of the lights you reviewed (Blackburn Mars 4.0) has amber lights. Amber is highly visible, sometimes its better than red. So amber is on my wish-list for improving visibility.

    • nhinkle says:

      In a lot of places, red lights are required by law, for various reasons. It’s hard to find amber lights for bikes because most motorists don’t equate “blinking yellow light” with “bike”. But yes, it would be nice if there were more yellow light options for cyclists.

    • Ledus W. says:

      How about Ledus Wheelus?

  • neilfein says:

    Since a lot of people are coming to this article from external links, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce people to the site that this blog is part of. (Text taken from this answer.)

    Bicycles.stackexchange.com is the no-nonsense bicycle enthusiast Q&A built by users. Instead of wading through a lot of random discussion to get to the good stuff, the best answers are always voted to the top!

    Bicycles is one of many sites on the Stack Exchange network that synthesizes the best aspects of wikis, blogs, and forums, in a way that results in almost all questions getting great answers, often stunningly quickly. You don’t have to register, but if you do, you collect reputation points for your great answers and establish yourself as a top bicycle expert!

    But don’t take our word for it; here are examples of questions that have gotten great answers.

  • Ekkie says:

    For those of you who want something waterproof, I might suggest rigging up LED bullet-style motorcycle tail lights. These are what I use currently:

    http://www.amazon.com/Rear-Stop-Turn-Motorcycle-Lights/dp/B0010B8EL0/ref=sr_1_57?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1331062308&sr=1-57

    Of course they require a little DIY gumption to put onto a bike. Still, at $60 for a pair of lights they’re a much better deal than any of the bicycle-specific lights I’ve ever seen (or seen reviewed).

    • neilfein says:

      What’s the power requirement on those, a standard 12v motorcycle battery? Definitely something to note if we ever have a DIY lighting article here!

    • Ekkie says:

      The lights need about 12v, yes, but the power draw is quite low. I have run them from AA batteries in series to make ~12v, just to give you an idea of how low the amp draw is. I measured it… I seem to recall 80 milliamps in “normal” brightness mode, and 180 millis in “brake light” mode. Right now I have them installed on a bicycle with electric assist, and I use a dc-dc converter to take the 48v pack battery and push it down to ~12v.

  • Mark Elliot says:

    Thanks so much for this. Tail lights are the single-best investment for safety, especially in Winter. We would have loved to post an in-depth review like this one, but even better to point to yours!

    • Sam Powrie says:

      Actually I must argue with your statement about ‘single best investment’ I’m afraid. While tail lights are essential, a flashing and wide angle light facing forward is statistically far more important. Very few car-bike crashes occur from the rear and those that do most often involve drunk drivers or very difficult driving conditions. Well over 60% of car-bike crashes occur from the front or front quarter. I always run a bright, wide angle light at the front on my day time commute. It has a marked effect on driver behaviour! Have a think about it. Sam

  • [...] Get more details and read the whole article here. Briana created this post on Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at 8:00 am and filed it under Cycle. [...]

  • Dave says:

    All the rear light mounts seem to only go on one side of the rear fork. Any ideas on how to mount a matching one on the other side?

    • nhinkle says:

      Not quite sure I understand your question, but I’d encourage you to ask it on the main site, and perhaps include a picture. I’m sure somebody could figure it out.

  • Gary says:

    You missed the only tail light worth owning. Dinotte 400R. (http://www.dinottelighting.com/) I’ve been riding with two of these guys for the last year, one of which that’s been with me for 3 years. Outstanding customer service. Brighter light than anything else I’ve seen on the road. I get cars coming up, pacing me, rolling down a window and telling me that my lights are amazing.

    Water has been no problem. Battery life, I get 12hrs of flash out one charge of smaller battery pack.

    They aren’t cheap but then I haven’t worn one out yet to know if the life/cost ratio is less expensive than the cheap’os.

    • neilfein says:

      No, it wasn’t missed. This review targeted inexpensive tail lights, and the Dinotte is well above that range.

    • Nathan Congdon says:

      Fully understand the Dinotte 400R is out of the price range for this review, but think a mention is warranted. I agree it is the best out there, based on 20+ years of year-round commuting experience. Very visible in daytime, can mount it anywhere on your bike, totally waterproof (I live and ride in southeast Asia and have been in mnnsoons, typhoons, etc.), output and flashing pattern totally adjustable for day or night, charge it once every few weeks on my computer USB, built like a tank. I run it very time I am on the bike, which is twice a day 6-7 days a week.

    • Craig says:

      I have the DiNotte 140R and based on its ability to burn through batteries, I’m not sure I would ever consider buying another one. I went to 4 pack of C batteries and finally a small 6v sealed lead acid battery to have enough run time. Leaving the batteries attached to the light resulted in faster reduction in battery life. Additionally the light is so bright that it isn’t fair to anyone following you on a trail. I switched to the PDW Danger Zone and will save the DiNotte for riding on foggy roads.

  • [...] at StackExchange a contributor posted this pretty comprehensive, comparative tail light review. It covers it [...]

  • Justin Winokur says:

    This is a great overview but I am a bit surprised to not see the Princeton Tec Swerve.

  • [...] at StackExchange a contributor posted this pretty comprehensive, comparative tail light review. It covers it [...]

  • emveezee says:

    Great comparison. I do have a comment regarding the Superflash Turbo. My wife had the standard Superflash, and I liked it, so I went and got the Superflash Turbo. My Turbo has a nasty habit of turning itself off if I encounter a serious bump, which is pretty much a given on my commute. A fact which I’ve discovered to my horror a couple of times after getting off my bike and noticing the light has been off for some portion of my 35 minute commute in the dark.

    I’ve test it in my hand, giving it a good whack, and sure enough, it’ll turn off. I don’t know if I have a bum unit, or if the switch is just finicky, but I’ve given up using it.

    • Phat Lip Magee says:

      I swapped a defective Flea for a Superflash Turbo and had this same problem. I suspected it was just a bad unit and swapped it out for another Flea, but soon graduated to a Serfas TL60, which is excellent. I’ve been quite happy with the entire line of Serfas usb rechargeable lights so far.

      If you haven’t had it for too long, you can probably exchange it.

    • nhinkle says:

      According to reports I’ve read elsewhere on the web, the first generation of the Turboflash had some problems with turning off unexpectedly. Supposedly newer versions have fixed this. I’d suggest contacting Planet Bike to see if they’ll send you a replacement – they tend to be pretty friendly.

    • Paul says:

      I haven’t had any problems with my Turbo, but I snapped it into the case from the older PlanetBike light it was replacing. I would try to exchange yours.

      I have three PlanetBike lights on my commute bike and I have only had a problem once. I was riding in heavy rain and the light directly in the spray of the rear wheel shut off. Having two other lights still operating was very comforting.

  • [...] Get Your Light On! Written by Boston Biker on Mar 15 ShareEven though the light is better, you still need a red back light, and a white front light. Not only is it the law, it will save your bacon. Today I ran across an amazing, comprehensive, one stop shop review for all things bike light related. Check it out here. [...]

  • Thanks a bunch! Very insightful and helpful. It’s amazing at the wide variety of good versus crap that is put out to the consumer. You have to wonder why some companies even bother?

    • Mairead says:

      You have to wonder why some companies even bother?

      They’re corporations. Their goal is to maximise their profit, not our satisfaction.

  • William Furr says:

    What a great review! Thanks!

    Now I’m tempted to go get a turbo flash to use for my blinky and set my old-style blinky to solid mode. And get some eneloops to use in them so I quit throwing away batteries.

    Re: wet weather: I ride all winter in the salt and grit in Boston and my PB blinky is still going strong. My cateye spoke lights both died horrible corroded deaths, though.

  • [...] Texas Bicycling Blog and News Roundup for March 15th By Rick Ankrum, on March 15, 2012, 11:16 pm Review of the Best Bicycle Tail Lights in 2012 bicycles.stackexchange.com, Testing bike lights Taking some lights out for a test ride at night [...]

  • [...] • PDW Danger Zone: Although it’s a bit pricey, has annoying battery replacement, and is not really the best deal, I took a real liking to the Danger Zone. It’s the only light with dual high-intensity LEDs, has eye-grabbing flash patterns, and seems pretty sturdy overall. (Full review) [...]

  • [...] PDW Danger Zone: Although it’s a bit pricey, has annoying battery replacement, and is not really the best deal, I took a real liking to the Danger Zone. It’s the only light with dual high-intensity LEDs, has eye-grabbing flash patterns, and seems pretty sturdy overall. (Full review) [...]

  • Roscoe says:

    Any chance we will be getting a front headlight battle royale as well? Or can anyone point me to one? Googling tends to bring up articles a couple years old.

    • Bryan says:

      One word……Magicshine! Geo-man.com and Amazon both carry these. Terrific bang for the buck.

  • RR says:

    Nice review! But which one is less likely to have rain seep into it and turn off? I have the superflash, and have had some other lights, and have asked around regarding this question, but it seems like I’m not alone on this water issue. I have tape it up to keep water out :-/ If I take the batteries out and let the light completely dry, it works just fine.

  • [...] Review of the Best Bicycle Taillights of 2012 has been posted on the Bicycles Community Blog of Stack Exchange. This is a great test that [...]

  • mark says:

    I have several superflash, Radbot 1000 and dangerzone lights. I just received a Cygolite Hotshot. This hands down beats the crap out of any of the other lights I have used. They must have listened to the complaints as the mount has changed, I actually swapped the clip for a superflash clip on the unit so I can swap it between several bikes I ride. The controls are actually quite easy to use and understand and the default flash rates/brightness works fine. Have yet to see how waterproof it is but it cant be worse than a superflash or radbot. If you commute regularly and want to be seen from behind this is the light you need.

  • gregory says:

    Thanks for posting this extremely complete test and a hat-tip to Urban Velo for linking it.I made the mistake of not getting a new light when I should,and now,I will be getting a better one thanks to this article.

  • Znomit says:

    Nice review! Its worth noting that some lights (cateye rapid for example) are regulated and maintain pretty much the same brightness as the battery(ies) run down. Others get considerably dimmer.

  • Von Winston says:

    Great review, very pleased with my purchase the Portland Danger Zone light. Nice to see what else is out there.

  • Von Winston says:

    There are new tail lights with projected laser perimeters. Would be interested to see these reviewed too.

  • jnyyz says:

    this is very informative, especially the brightness information. Your measured runtimes are similar to what I measured. I also measured the runtimes in steady mode, which of course are much shorter. http://jnyyz.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/taillight-runtimes-in-blink-mode/

    I prefer the regular superflash to the turbo, since it has much longer runtime, and I have also experienced the problem with the turbo turning itself off.

  • Peter says:

    No Light and Motion Vis-180 to win the “Over the top, crazy expensive, yet blindingly awesome” category?

  • Paul says:

    Thanks so much for the review. Very useful information. I have two comments.

    First, Planet Bike sells a rack mount adapter for $5. It would be better if it was cheaper or given out for free, but it is available at Amazon.

    Second, and more importantly, I use rechargable AAA batteries to avoid waste. I suspect that the lower voltage (1.3v) on rechargables versus 1.5v on alkaline reduces the brightness of some lights. If you ever feel the urge to repeat your testing, please let us know how they do with rechargables.

  • Randy Harris says:

    Thanks for this great resource. Like Paull, I also use AAA rechargeable batteries, Eneloop, to power a PDW Radbot 1,000.

  • Froze says:

    I use to own a PBSF but during a rain storm something happened to it and it failed, since it was within the warranty period I sent back, never heard from the company again even after repeated e-mails. So since it was only worth $28 I gave up and bought a Mars 4. I’ve now used the Mars 4 for the last two seasons and so far it’s been fine. I run it on the steady mode, but I also use Soma Road Flares in my bar ends and those I have on flash as does my Cateye LD600 that I fastened to my helmet.

    Kind of surprised that the Cateye LD600 wasn’t reviewed, it’s decently bright and if you mount the light vertically the side illumination is second to none.

  • [...] community blog for Bicycles Stack Exchange has this excellent review of 16 bike tail lights, and boy am I pissed [...]

  • gear says:

    Did you do a distance test?

    I have cars comming up on me at +45mph, at that speed they need to see my light from a good distance so they can 1) recognize there is something to avoid 2) manipulate the steering wheel 3) have the car respond, all before they get to me.

    If they don’t see my light from a distance of two telephone poles, they will not have time to adjust thier path.

    You said it yourself, you should balance the cost of a taillight against the medical cost of being hit by a car. With that in mind why review just low cost lights?

    I would never get on a bike in the dark (even on some daylight rides) without a Dinotte 400R taillight.

  • Awesome review. Email me and we’ll get you a Light and Motion Vis 180 to test out. We spent a lot of time researching commuter safety and bike light features that matter most to commuters. The Vis 180 offers an impressive option for commuters looking to be visible from a full 180 degrees.

    All in all – a very cool review – which will hopefully get more cyclists to recognize importance of safety lights.

  • Steve says:

    Any opinion of the Performance Bike’s Viewpoint Flashpoint clone of the PBSF? My experience is the Flashpoint is a bit sturdier than the PBSF, about the same brightness/noticability, and often on sale for $10 less than the PBSF (which is the winner for me). The PBSF comes with more mounting options, however.

    Gear @ 4/11 8:51pm – I have a similar observation, which is why I won’t used cheap blinkies on my commute and have a Dinotte 200L on my commuter (the PBSF/clones are on the road bike). It’s visibile for at least a 1/2 mile against suburban lighting (measured when chasing another Dinotte owner). Drivers need enough warning time to react – they appear to see and react to me sooner at dusk/night than full daylight and assume it’s because they notice the light show sooner than they notice me.

  • [...] Link para o com­par­a­tivo… em Por­tu­gal, algu­mas destas mar­cas estão por cá. [...]

  • gear says:

    Steve, a lot of people judge taillights by standing close to them or holding them in their hands and looking at them (look at how close they are in the photos in this review) all taillights look bright up close. In the real world it’s all about how bright a taillight looks from a good distance. A bicyclist can change their course in a split second, a driver needs much more time.

  • Peter says:

    My preferred mounting point is the jersey pocket or the back of my helmet. This avoids the problems of theft, vibration, and moisture. I don’t understand why so few lights have this as a mounting option.

  • JD says:

    Great review. I have a Hotshot on the way now.

    I have reelights as my ‘always on blinkers’ on all of my bikes, and would like to see where they match up in relation to the other lights. I know they cost a little more and not nearly as bright as the battery powered ones, but having them as an install-and-never-think-about-them-again option works out great.

  • Michael says:

    I use the Danger Zone and Trek Beacons (handlebar ends) as well as the Blackburn Flea tail light on my helmet.

    I used to swear by PB Super flash but after 3, 1 falling off and breaking, 1 water damage and the other falling off w/o notice and lost. After using YouTube to check the flash patterns I decided on the Danger Zone and love it. The unit comes apart easily to change batteries and is needed the way it burns through batteries (I charge them weekly). After a couple of battery swaps it comes apart and snaps back on easily w/o issue. This unit has never fallen off or loosened and has a great flash pattern, highly recommended.

  • James says:

    Lightman amber strobe. Period.

  • New bike enthusiast says:

    This is a great review and it helped tremendously. I’m new to the cycling world and this truly provides insight to the countless choices of lights.

  • kevin says:

    Nice collection of tail lights. Impressive one!

  • Joe B says:

    I just got a Hotshot. A couple further notes:

    The beam on the Hotshot is extremely focused and tight, with very little bleed to the sides. (When I shine it at a wall 10′ away, it makes a circle 2′ in diameter.) This sort of concentrated beam is probably more appropriate for an I-want-to-see headlight than a taillight.

    I think the mounting system has been changed. The one I got is similar to (but narrower and incompatible with) the Planet Bike mount. The plastic clip is quite strong: when properly clipped in, there’s no way a bump would make the light fall out.

    The light does have a long battery life on triple-flash mode, but on always-on mode at full power the battery life is only 4 hours.

    If I were buying again, I think I’d go for a different light; something with a more spread-out beam.

    • Karl says:

      Hi Joe.

      I was initially interested in getting the Hotshot, but after reading the review I was concerned about the weak bracket system and the light falling off (especially when mountain biking).

      Glad to hear the mounting system might have improved….will have to check it out.

  • Gill says:

    Is there any type of universal mount that is available to remove front and rear light after locking up your bike? For example I have a garmin 500 GPS and I just turn and pop it off when I leave.

    Is there anything like that for these lights? I just ordered the Danger Zone…Do you have to unscrew it or anything to unmount it?

    On my front light, it’s super frustrating. It uses the elastic bands to lock onto my handlebars and is difficult to unmount and mount in the winters with gloves. The light is fantastic (Cree XML T6) but the mounting is horrible.

  • Dave O says:

    Thanks for posting this outstanding review! I almost bought a crappy tail light before reading this. I look forward to lighting up the night for many blocks behind me with the superflash turbo.

  • Angie says:

    Hi there,

    This is awesome although a few of these lights are not available in the UK so I’ll have to settle for a Cateye. Do you have a similar review for front lights as well by any chance?

    • nhinkle says:

      Working on a front lights review, though it won’t be ready for quite a while yet. Some of these lights (PDW and Planet Bike products) are sold in the UK under the “Smart Lunar” brand.

  • Jessy says:

    awesome. I love cycling.

  • Carl says:

    NHinkle– thank’s for the excellent review. Can you say why you think the cateye Rapid 5′s problems are rain related (as opposed to just plain defective) and how much rain it was exposed to? Does it really fit under the seat better then the Planet bike or PMW? (assuming those latter two have rail mount racks)

  • Morgan says:

    Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  • Jack M says:

    I am a regular night-time commuter and am keenly aware of the visibility challenges faced by bicycles on busy nighttime streets. I was mildly disappointed that this review did not compare the brightness of these lights to the brightness of the major competition for drivers’ attention: automobile tail and brake lights.

    The Dinotte tail lights may be in a different cost category from the lights reviewed here, so I do not object to their omission here. But to my untrained eye and limited experience, they are the only ones that approach the visibility of automobile tail lights. Based on this review, I will probably buy a Hotshot just to see how it compares.

    Yet even the Dinotte appear dimmer than modern automobile brake lights.

    For those of us using bikes to limit auto fuel fill-ups from weekly to monthly events, even the Dinotte lights and 1,000 lumen headlights are a small part of our transportation expenses. I would love to see NHinkle – or anyone for that matter – do a review that helps bicyclists know how to best compete with the visibility of autos.

  • Greg B says:

    I have used many different tail lights over the years, no name, radbot 1000, planet bike super flash, and light & motion vis 180, none of them even compared to the Dinotte 400. The other lights are great back up lights. But the Dinotte light is a true tail light for a bicycle. I have run nite rider on the front of my bike for years, the reduction in near misses by riding with my headlight on flash mode during the day have been amazing. I like to think of the dinotte as tail light good enough to use in the daytime, everyone is concerned with night, I like the added visibility the dinette lends in the day time.

  • Alan says:

    what about Dinotte lights?

  • guy72277 says:

    Thanks for doing this review. For me, the mount is a hugely important factor as I’ve lost several lights during my commute (which is mostly through woods), and losing the light means also losing the rechargeable batteries.

    This is on order as my next bike light http://dx.com/p/ultrafire-501b-cree-xr-e-q5-led-150lm-red-flashlight-black-1-x-18650-152554?item=2

    Maybe you could review it next time, although it may not last long enough for some. I just need it for the road sections. Easy clicky switch for use with gloves, easy swappable battery, very bright. I also use an ultrafire torch as my front light so the batteries work in both lights. See what you think. Dx.com also sell mounts and loads of other lights.

  • David says:

    I just spent 1/2 hour reading your reviews. I started out leaning toward the PB Super Flash, but after reading about the Hotshot, I just have to give it a try. Brightest light by far, great battery life, and that’s what I need riding in Florida. I found prices at:

    http://www.qbike.com/category/lighting.html

    on QBike.com for all the lights you mentioned, and the Hotshot goes for about $35. That’s a deal for a USB chargeable light!

  • Tim says:

    Any of these come with a mount for a tear drop (aero) seat post? The mount would have to be V-shaped to stay properly centered on the back of the post.

    The aero post is 41mm (tear drop, front-to-back) or 110mm around.

    • freiheit says:

      Tim: I’ve never seen a light with a V-shaped mount.

      One of the Knog lights that use stretch silicone and mount on the side of the seatpost should work. Get one of the newer/better/bigger/brighter models than what nhinkle reviewed. There’s

      Or get one of those small under-the-seat bags with a loop on the back. I clip my Cygolite HotShot to one of those all the time. Those clips can also work on a waistband, center jersey pocket, etc…

    • Znomit says:

      The cateye rapid 3 can be mounted with zip ties instead of the threaded strap provided. Works well on my teardrop seat post and great for chainstays too.

  • [...] that rider and any others are interested in upgrading their tail lights here is a great article from Bicycle Communities Blog.This is the most extensive review I have seen on the topic of bicycle tail lights and [...]

  • Tim says:

    Knog tells me that their lights won’t work on my post :( Dinotte has one that they think will work – they are sending me just the aero mount to test, no charge :)

    My exiting backup light, a Vistalight, has a V-shape in the mount. The light has seen better days though.

    • nhinkle says:

      Do you have a picture of your bike setup you could share? I did a quick search for teardrop posts and think I get the general idea, but I haven’t seen one in person and am not sure if the pictures I’m seeing are the same as your setup.

      You might ask a question on our main site about how to mount a standard circular light mount to a… uh… funky-shaped post. A question on “which light fits my post” would probably be closed since we don’t prefer specific shopping questions, but a how-to-make-this-work question would be interesting and potentially useful to a lot of people.

  • Bob Gelman says:

    I own both the PB Super Flash and the Super Flash Turbo. Both great lights. The Cygolite Hotshot was purchased after reading your great review. I definitely prefer it to the PB’s. The Hotshot is constantly bringing me comments from other riders on how bright and effective it is . And this is all during DAYLIGHT riding !!! I find it runs for about a week {~ 20 hours) on the most intense random flash pattern, before I recharge it with my USB. In sum, the Cygolite Hotshot is fantastic !

  • David Weybikeboyski says:

    Nice job Hink, an excellent treatise on an important topic. I must emphatically agree with your wise comment about positioning… The best light flashing to the sky or mounted to a helmet and obscured by a backpack is like not light at all. Looking forward to the front light review.

  • Hilly says:

    Thanks for review. As for durability and longevity: Avoid Niterider Cherry Bomb. Switch is unreliable on mine. Wife’s and mine both have failing plastic shell due to battery changes. We have to tape them shut.

    Blackburn Mars light is my personal favorite so far.

    Favorite tiny light: Blackburn Flea USB (headlight and taillight). Simple, bright, cheap, and flexible mounting options.

  • lior says:

    hotshot vs. new niterider solas

    do you have any views about which is better?

    thanks.

    • nhinkle says:

      The NiteRider Solas is new, and I haven’t had a chance to review it yet. I’m working on getting one to review, since it sounds like it has comparable performance and pricing.

  • Bill Alford says:

    I loved your very comprehensive review of tail light! Have you conducted a similar comprehensive review of headlights?

    • nhinkle says:

      Yep! I’m working on one right now, but it’s going to be a few months until I’ve collected all the data, and a while longer to write it all up. But it is coming!

  • Bill Alford says:

    I loved your comprehensive review of tail light! Have you cob duetted a similar high quality review of headlight?

  • Izzy says:

    Very cool article. I’m just about to go back to bike commuting to work and need a rear flasher. You’ve just sold me on the Hotshot. ‘will be ordering one very soon =)

  • Alan Boon says:

    Thank you for creating this comprehensive list.

    Would you be able to add Niterider Solas & Moon Shield to the list?

    • nhinkle says:

      I’m working on an update with some newer tail lights (the Solas wasn’t available when I published this last year), and will be including the Niterider Solas as well as some Light and Motion taillights. I haven’t heard of the Moon Shield but will see what I can do to get my hands on one to try it out!

  • Gerald says:

    Regarding the Hotshot, you say “it lasted for 120 hours before dimming. If you recharge it even once a week, you’ll almost certainly be fine.” I currently ride 20 hours/month with a Planet Bike light, and I only need to change the batteries once every 2-3 months. At 120 hours, wouldn’t the Hotshot light last me six months on a single charge? If the battery loses charge while sitting, then it may need to be recharged far more frequently than most of the lights you reviewed, making the 120 hours misleading.

    I’m looking forward to your headlight review! Thanks!

    • nhinkle says:

      It’s possible that on the blinking setting (which is what I used for testing battery life for this review) the Hotshot would last you for several months, although I doubt it would last a full 6 months, since as you said the battery may lose charge while sitting. There’s really no consistent way to measure that though.

      Another consideration is how the brightness of the light varies over time. The Hotshot, and most other lights with a rechargeable Li-Ion battery, have a regulated voltage. This means that even when the battery has almost run out, they still shine with the same brightness. Most regular AA/AAA powered lights are not regulated, so after 2-3 months your Planet Bike lights are going to be much dimmer than they started.

  • Richard says:

    I enjoyed the complete review on back lights. I purchased a Hoshot on ebay, which I like because it is more for the individual or small scale seller rather than the corporate Amazon, and saved a dollar. Great review with statistical data.

  • Rizwan says:

    Great review thanks.

    Would you also consider including the NiteFlux red zone 4 or 8 in your review update?

    These are not too pricey and seem very powerful.

    • nhinkle says:

      I’ll see if I can get ahold of one. The update review is taking a while, since I’m working on a headlights review right now (which is also taking a while, because there are a lot of headlights).

  • David Kennedy says:

    First time reading your reviews and loved every bit; great information.

    Question: Would the backpack/belt clip which is included on some lights work (attach) to the lights which don’t include the clip? I use the tail light when riding my segway as well as for bicycling and need the clip. Many of the lights I’m interested in don’t include the clip option.

    • nhinkle says:

      Glad you enjoyed the review! Pretty much all of the clips are specific to that type of light – they don’t tend to be interchangeable, unless it’s the same brand. Almost all of them have clips though, either included or as an option.

  • Demetri says:

    I led the way for New York State to amend its laws to allow yellow be an option for bicycle taillights. Yellow is 260 percent more visible than red. The “most motorists don’t equate “blinking yellow light” with “bike”" caveat is old. If motorists think blinking yellow light indicates road barrier they’re not going to give it any mind? Still want to “wear the uniform”, conform to existing practises, use only red, do so; yellow is only an option. You advocate redundancy, which I agree; use one red and one yellow taillight. I recommend others get their states to emulate New York and allow yellow be a legal option for bicycle taillights, and that bicycle taillight manufacturers offer yellow bicycle blinking taillights.

  • [...] Review of the Best Bicycle Tail Lights in 2012 [...]

  • Skye Rose says:

    Thank you for your review. I just bought the Grand Master Hotshot as well as a package of four of the SE 6-Way Flashers. I plan to have the Flashers clipped to my clothes.

  • jnyyz says:

    The superflash turbo has been updated this year, and has much better runtimes than before. On the downside, the new PB Blaze micro headlight has much shorter runtimes than advertised.

    http://jnyyz.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/planet-bike-blaze-micro-and-superflash-runtime-tests/

    • nhinkle says:

      Thanks for the link. I’ve got the new SuperFlash Turbo and the new Blaze Micro, but haven’t had a chance to put them through extensive testing yet. Looking forward to doing that soon though!

  • kraldmark says:

    Simply desire to say your article is as astonishing. And I want to know can you write your review for our new bicycle light?

  • John Chrissos says:

    Looks like you missed one.. This light is amazing.>https://www.serfas.com/products/view/669/referer:products|lights|tail-lights

  • george says:

    how do the tail lights hold up to viberation.I live on a bumpy gravel road all of the lights i have used do not last very long.which of these do you think are the toughest.

  • JTB says:

    I would like to see you review Busch & Müller 4DToplight.

  • […] Here is an excellent 2013 review on red taillights for bikes by Bicycles Community Blog. […]

  • Joe says:

    I am glad to have seen many comments about helmet mounted lights, and hope you will take this into consideration on a subsequent review.

  • Tushar says:

    The brightness that you have mentioned (in lux) in your review is at how many meters from the light. Could you please explain the brightness value that you have provided.

    How bright does a tail light actually have to be, considering that the objective is to increase visibility and not light the road for the person behind you.

    • nhinkle says:

      The brightness is measured about 20cm from the light source. The measurement is relative – it’s not particularly useful for comparing to other sources. For future reviews we’re working on a better system for comparing not just overall brightness, but also how wide the beam spread is.

  • Mike the Bike says:

    After reading your reviews I bought a Nightrider Solas 2W. After my wife and I checked it from several distances and angle and even approached it at night in our car, we think that your description is accurate. However, we came to a different overall conclusion.

    We both felt that in every mode except the less-bright solid mode the light was actually too bright. In fact, we thought it was so bright that we felt that drivers approaching us from behind would look away from us, and that’s that last thing we want to happen!

    We ended up with a Cateye Rapid 3. It’s bright enough to be seen at a distance during the day, but it’s not quite blinding at night. We liked the low-power blink pattern for riding with a group, but we hated to give up the USB charging feature of the Nightrider.

    Thank you very much for the very helpful reviews!

  • alain smithee says:

    I use an LED road flare that I bought at Menards for about $10 for a rear tail light.

    It’s waterproof, and it seems to get a drivers attention much better than the smaller tail lights that I used to buy from a bike shop.

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