21 December 2009

bikefix Initial Review: Exposure Lights Diablo lightset

For the shortest day of the year, we have a review of Exposure's very cool (and super light) 700 lumen Diablo lightset. From the UK, where short (though relatively mild) winter days and a strong culture of 24-hour racing make night riding extremely popular, comes what is essentially a bulked-up version of the company's extremely popular Joystick, the 102g (plus mounting hardware) Diablo is shaped like a small handheld flashlight. Like the 240 lumen Joystick (see our overview of the entire range here), the Diablo mounts to the helmet by way of a readily adjustable ball and socket mount or to the bars with the company's very solid but low-profile forged handlebar mount. In keeping with the Exposure's Cable-Free Design (CFD) philosophy, the light's primary power source is an internal lithium-ion battery- though additional batteries and accessories can be added using the light's rear SPT (Smart Port Technology) port.

We first had a look at Exposure's lights back in November, when US distributor Ibex Sports sent out the full range for us to play with. When it came time to send the lights home, I liked enough about the Diablo to buy it along with a 3-cell auxiliary battery for commuting, night riding, and 24-hour racing. Shorter than a Mini Mag Lite and barbell shaped, the Diablo uses a single Seoul Semiconductor P7 emitter to put out 700 lumens on its highest setting- astonishing for a light its size. Unfortunately, the single cell internal battery can only keep pace with that output for a little over an hour. Except for on extremely fast descents or when using external power, riders will probably spend most of their rides on the medium (260 lumen, 3 hour) setting.

When compared to less recently-developed Exposure lights, the Diablo focuses a good deal of its output in the center of the beam, creating a well-defined spot as well as a fainter (but still quite usable) halo. This provides the Diablo enough punch for all but the fastest road riding. The beam is axisymmetric- I wouldn't mind a more elliptical (wider but shorter) beam pattern, but it's no worse than the vast majority of lights on the market (and an oddly-shaped beam pattern wouldn't necessarily play well with the company's mounts).

Speaking of the company's mounts: Exposure's handlebar mount is probably the nicest I've seen, forged from aluminum with a very slick, rattle-free quick release. In the case of the Diablo, the company's (included) standard mount is fitted with a clip adapter, into which the light itself simply snaps. The helmet mount consists of a pair of plastic tophats connected by a nylon screw. Because the barbell shape touches the helmet, the beam is clipped, leaving a dark area for the first three feet in front of the bike- it's a bit disconcerting when relying on the Diablo alone, but as doing so hardly provides any depth perception at all (or backup lighting should something go wrong), I never recommend relying on a high-powered helmet light alone. The outer tophat has a socket into which a ball-mounted clip fits. It can be frustrating at first to get the hang of adjusting the light in one direction (say, up or down) without affecting another (side to side). With practice, I'm now able to move the light to where I need it without too much trouble. The nylon screw is used to keep riders from overdoing things and cracking their helmets. I was a bit timid with the screw at first but found that, when not tightened sufficiently, the entire mount tends to rotate rather than the light itself. Some sort of texture, rubber, or shaping on the mounting surfaces would probably help. As it stands, the light didn't stay put until after the mount was tightened enough to make a small indentation in the foam inside of my helmet- nothing that makes me worry about the helmet's function, but still a bit painful on a new $200 lid. I also found that the mount was entirely incompatible with my favorite helmet and was noticeable against my head in another. I know several riders who use the mount with their Joysticks and none have mentioned them being uncomfortable. Still, an alternative helmet mount would be nice for riders who don't have a bunch of helmets lying around.

The light itself is CNC machined, in England, by USE, who certainly know their way around the machine shop. While not heavy, the Diablo is certainly solid. The heat sinking fins are nicely integrated as are a pair of small holes for attaching a tether (handy for riders whose local trees have the potential to grab the light from their helmets). The multi-function switch/battery gage can be a bit hard to locate when wearing thick winter gloves (the nearby Smart Port is roughly the same size and shape) but provides positive feedback when clicked.

While negating the advantages of the company's Cable Free Design, the addition of Exposure's $100 3-cell external battery takes the light's run time over 4 hours at 700 lumen- not bad at all for a $350 helmet or handlebar mounted light- and this is how I've been using the light. One of my other justifications for buying the Diablo is its suitability for commuting. Being helmet mounted, the light doesn't have to be removed from the bike when locked or left outside. Having a very bright "flash" (really more of a pulse) mode that is mounted high and can be directed toward merging traffic helps the rider to stand out, especially around dawn and dusk. The flash mode can apparently run for days between charges- meaning that most riders will only need to recharge over the weekend.

As far as accessories go, the $50 White Eye clip-on LED can add 240 lumen to the Diablo's output, though few will find it necessary (especially as its use precludes that of an extra battery and will take high-power runtime under 1 hour). I had high hopes for the 80 lumen Red Eye Clip tail light, but until its position is better adjustable (it points skyward when the Diablo illuminates the road) and adds a flash function, I'll be holding off. I was able to mount the Red Eye (which was designed for seatpost mounting) to my helmet in a way that was very visible- until my commuting bag was full, when it blocked the light. At $20 more than a decent blinking light, the Red Eye concept could be great with a bit of work. The $50 single-cell piggyback battery can be strapped to the helmet or clipped to the light itself to provide a 2-hour runtime on high. That's great, but for another $50, the three-cell battery (and 4 hour runtime) is just too good to pass up.

My biggest beef so far is that, when equipped with the external battery, the Diablo seems to preferentially drain its internal battery. This keeps the rider from throwing the external battery on the charger while wringing a bit more riding time out of the light itself. While that's no worse than lights without internal batteries, it's something I'd love to see changed. Also, an alternative helmet mount would be nice, for the reasons I mention above. Still, for commuters the Diablo is a great solution. Being able to direct light at specific drivers (say, merging from side streets or turning across traffic) helps to ensure that the rider is seen. The medium output is a bit feeble for spirited mountain biking, and the $200 Joystick will provide that in a lighter, more compact package. Mountain bikers will find that with the 3-cell external battery, the quality construction, light weight, 700 lumen output, and 4+ hour runtime make it a better deal than just about anything on the market. I'm going to keep riding my Diablo through the winter and will be back with a final review this spring.


www.exposturelights.com (international)
www.ibexsports.com (USA)

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