Monday, November 5, 2012

Lighthound AA (and Balder HD-1) Review

What is so strange about reviewing flashlights is that things that were cutting edge less than two years ago are now so passe that they are standard features on budget lights.  The Lighthound AA light is a perfect example of this.  It is a $24.99 light.  It is, by almost any definition, an affordable light.  It blows away a Maglight or any other light you'd get at Target or Wal-Mart for the same price.  And it incorporates features that, just a few years ago, were the bleeding edge like a piston drive switch.  But even with great tech, there are basics that cannot be ignored.  Unfortunately on this light, the basics were completely neglected and it the result is something I can't recommend.   

Here is the product page for the light.  Note that it is a badge swap, or, more appropriately, a branded version of the Balder HD-1.  The reviews are of the HD-1 with the U2 emitter, exactly the same model I received as a review sample from Lighthound, minus the Lighthound branding on the silver band of the light.  Here is a comprehensive written review (some of those folks over at BudgetLightForum are really doing great work).  Here is a video review of the light.  Here is my review sample of the Lighthound AA:

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Design: 2

The light itself is pretty attractive.  The overall design of the body tube, minus the hollows, is superb, among the best I have ever seen for a production AA light.  The hollowing out is not my favorite, see below for why.  I think the tail cap design is great, making tailstanding easy.   I strongly dislike friction grip clips, which are uniformly terrible.  I love the bezel as it is perfect for letting light leak through, but not so pokey as to be ridiculous. 

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The piston drive design is a very good design, though it is weirdly implemented here, see below for more.  It is still shocking to see a piston drive on a light this cheap, given that less than 8 years ago it was the sole province of high end custom lights.  My how fast things change.

I also like the overall size of the light.  The diameter is small and the light, while short, is not so short as to be difficult to handle.  It does have that magic, ineffable ratio about it.  The measureable ratios here are okay.  First, lumens to weight: here the light fairs well--78 lumens per ounce, roughly (156 lumens to 2.02 ounces).

Second, the lumens and runtime.  I am, of course, using only the high output numbers from non-rechargeable batteries.  Some of the claims for rechargeables are just silly, like here where they claim the light can run at 448 lumens on rechargeable 14400.  I am sure it can, for about five useable minutes.  Then it is a puddle of aluminum.

But there was another problem with this being a straight ratio, as many readers pointed out.  Two, really.  First, the "burst" problem: a light that fires 500 lumens for 1 minute gets a ratio of 500.  That sounds impressive, but it is really not good at all in practice.  For example, here the ratio is 2.7 (156 lumens to 60 minutes of runtime).   Second, the "moonlight runtime" problem.  A light like the 47s MMX can run for 8,000 plus minutes at .3 lumens, a useful feature, but the ratio is terrible by comparison to the burst light, scoring .00003.  There is also no real way to fix this ratio because of the two problems.   What I was trying to express was the idea of total amount of high output light--how bright for how long.  This is not, as I discovered when thinking about the problem, a ratio, but a distribution of light--something that a multiplication of two numbers gets at quite well.  From now on I am going to look at high output TIMES runtime (in minutes) on high output.  This fixes both the long runtime low output problem and the super high output for a burst of time problem.  The RRT-01, for example, gets a score of 19800 (220 lumens x 90 minutes).   Here the Lighthound AA does well  (156 lumens for 60), scoring 9360, a respectable number by comparison to one of the finest under $100 lights on the market.

Finally, here is a size comparison shot between the Lighthound AA and the Mini Mag AA.     

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The light is quite small, around the size of the EagleTac D25a

Fit and Finish: 1

The body tube is well cut, the emitter is centered, the reflector is quite nice, but there were two major problems.  First, the friction fit on the pocket clip was quite weak.  Not a big deal, but notable.  The real problem is with all of the pieces to the light.  Sometimes, when using the light as a twisty, the one part would actually start to loosen from the body.  I'd want to twist the entire head, but what would end up happening is that I would twist just the reflector section of the head.  Not only would this sometimes just fall off, it would also make it difficult to turn the light on.  A little Loc-Tite might fix the problem, but better fit between the parts would work better. 

Grip: 1

The magic ratio is here, diameter to length, but the hollows are very sharply cut.  They make for an okay hold, but any amount of force makes them dig into your hand.  It is not an ideal set up, despite the fact that it does look pretty cool.  Function trumps looks everything though because a flashlight is a tool, first and foremost. 

Carry: 0

Here is a shot of the pocket clip:

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Its shape is actually great--it allows for an over the top, deep pocket carry.  There are quite a few lanyard point attachments for lanyard folks, and it does aid in holding the light.  The light itself is not too bulky, and is short enough to not interfere with bending and movement when in the pocket, even the coin pocket of jeans.  The problem here is all with the friction grip.  The clip is just not tight enough.  I really hate friction clips to begin with because they will, over time, ALWAYS loosen.  This one was too loose to start out with.  It fell off while I was carrying the light in my pocket quite a few times.  Eventually I just relegated the light to the coin pocket only.   The clip just doesn't work, which stinks because this is a very polite pocket companion otherwise.  

Output: 2

Output here was fine, plenty of punch, especially for the inherently inferior AA battery (yes, I said that).  I would have liked to see a true low, a moonlight low, but alas there was nothing like the 47s moonlight.  Very competitive with other single cell AA lights out there. 

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Runtime: 1

Runtime is really good, more than a hour on high and tons on low.  Nothing remarkable, except, of course the lack of a true low.  This is something that I think is required now to get the 2 point excellent score.  I have found that I use these low lows more than the high highs, so without it, the best a light can score is 1.  

Beam Type: 1

I know these single cell lights are all going to be flood lights, but this one, for some reason, is REALLY floody.  There is almost zero throw with this light and when I compared it to another single cell AA light, the D25a, I was shocked at just how little reach this light had.  Taking out the garbage, for example, with both lights showed me that in real world use, the lack of throw here is a problem.  Trying to hit the street from where the garbage cans are is impossible with this light, but definitely feasible for the D25a.  Strange thing is both lights are roughly the same size.  Why is there no throw?  Probably because the thickness of the body tube.  The thicker walls means that the reflector is not as wide and deeper than it should be.  That lack of width prevents the light from spreading well and thus limits throw. 

Beam Quality: 2

If you are looking for a warm beam, keep moving.  This light produces the coolest beam I have ever seen without being a funky color.  So cool in fact that it looked positively icy next to the D25a's warm, color revealing beam.  The shape is fine and there are no artifacts.  I actually like the cool beam as it does not require any lumens loss and really punches through the dark, but if you hate cold light, this probably scores a 0 for you. 

UI: 0

If it wouldn't ruin the scoring system I would have given this light a score less than zero.  I have never used a light, or any tool for that matter, with a UI as finnicky and as badly designed as this one.  The light uses a Piston Drive switch, found here:

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I generally like piston drive switches, so that's not the problem.  Instead its what happens when you trigger that switch.

There are two ways you can operate this light--as a twisty or the recommended way where the piston serves as a clicky.  I hate both, but the twisty, the hack way of operating, is best.  Here is the crux of the problem.  If you click the piston like a normal switch on a light, nothing happens.  Instead you have to hold it down for two seconds.  That doesn't seem like a big deal but it is incredibly annoying in practice.  You hold it down for a while and let it go only to have the dark stand as evidence that you let go a little too soon.  The same thing happens when you turn it off--hold down for two seconds.  A normal press simply switches modes when the light is on or does nothing when it is off.  This is a fundamental flaw and a fundamental design error.  Why would you use the less convenient method of input to do the thing that you have to do most?  It would be like starting your car using the power window button.  Furthermore, why use the more convenient method of input to do something you do less, by definition.  In practice the light just doesn't turn on when you want it to reliably enough to count on this light.

Fortunately there is a work around, though not one mentioned in the instruction manual (which is for the Balder HD-1, definitely a badge swap here).  Here is how I used the light.  First, I would turn it on using the piston, then I would loosen the head a bit and deactivate it.  Now it works like a twisty, with one annoying exception.  The first time you turn the light on when using it in this way, you have to do a double twist--twist once, return to start position, twist again light is on.  Another twist will go to a different mode, of which there are three, and a final twist without returning to the start position and the light is off.  It is faster and more reliable than the "hold for two seconds" method, but still its clunky.

This is the worst UI I have ever seen on a light and even with the work around, there are so many competitive options in this price range and battery size, why bother with the hassle?  This is the first time that a single attribute of a light has been so bad that even with all of the other positive things going for this light, I can't recommend this light, regardless of the score.  It just doesn't work correctly. 

Hands Free: 2

This light can tailstand and has a good anti-roll device in the form of the pocket clip.  Another example of this light's good body tube design.

Overall Score: 12 out of 20

I feel badly for giving this light such a bad review, but the UI here is just broken.  It does not work in a way that matches up with the norms of the market or how you would intuitively think it would work and that is fundamentally a bad product.  Tools should help us, not force us to pay a ransom in terms of changed behavior and then, after a ransom is paid, do what we want.  There is real potential here--the emitter is plenty bright, the form factor is excellent, the piston drive is shockingly high end for a $25 light.  The pocket clip stinks, but I could live with that.  I cannot live with the UI and for that reason, I can't recommend the light, regardless of the score and the many things it does right.

I am slightly concerned that the score indicates an endorsement of the light.  Its not.  It is an indication of good features of the light, but in the end all of those features were done in by the terrible UI.  After all the Arc 6 got a score significantly lower, but here is the way I think about it: the Arc was both unusable because of the exceptionally short runtime on high and a piece of junk.  This light at least stayed together well and had useful features.  The Arc didn't even have that going for it.  Fortunately, not all is lost.  The Lighthound AAA, which is coming up next, is an excellent torch...   

5 comments:

  1. Great review. I had been looking at this light, and you did a great job of pointing out flaws (as usual). So what would you recommend in the same price range? Somewhere under $50?

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    1. Nitecore EA1 (AA) or EC1 (CR123). Weird looking but loaded with features and modes, suprisingly easy to access all of them, decent two-way clip, unusual but intuitive control panel UI (my favorite non-standard UI), good build quality. A nice small "do-everything" EDC light, if you can stand the strange shape.

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  2. Under $50 is tough. I like the Maratac AA (not the tactical one). I also like the EagleTac AA (either the clicky or the twisty). If you can expand to a CR123a battery there are a ton of options.

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    1. Well, looking at a budget-minded EDC, not sure that the pricier batteries would fit the bill. Still interested in the options though.

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    2. 1xAA EDC lights:

      Eagletac D25A is a great little light. See Tony's review. I have the neutral white XP-G Al version and love it, though I would go with XM-L next time.

      Also strongly consider the FourSevens Mini MA (formerly Quark Mini AA). Blade HQ has it for $32.50! That strikes me as an awesome buy.

      The Fenix LD15 is about $40, a handsome 2-mode twisty. It would be a major contender but for two problems: (1) no medium mode; (2) it starts on high, which is undesirable in a 117 lumen light.

      Jetbeam BA10 ($34) is a great 2-output light for non-flashlight people, simple UI, solid construction, nice beam. It is a bit too big to EDC in a pocket.

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