Written by Nathan Cloud on Saturday, 29 Dec 2007.
|ho:||Princeton Tec Switchback 3 LED Bike Lights|
|What:||Bike Lighting System|
|How Much:||$350.00 - $400.00 USD|
|My Rating:||7 out of 10|
I am going to make it official: LED based lighting systems are here to stay. Compact, energy efficient, durable, long lasting, potentially inexpensive (in theory), and extremely bright (potentially). Now add the fact that new advances in LED technology seem to be popping up daily... Well, these darn LED things are unavoidable.
Further proof? Well, these past few years have brought us several LED based lighting systems from just about every major bike light manufacturer, not to mention a rabid LED DIY/homebrew light cult has spawned. Being a wannabe tinkerer, I first gave the latter a try, which unfortunately ended in flames. So I figured the only way to see what the big deal was to pick up a set for myself.
Then I got lucky and scored a Princeton Tec Switchback 3 for $169 on eBay.
Holy packaging! It comes in a smallish cube of graphically etched shiny glossy heavy stock fanciness. Once you get inside, it reveals multiple foam layered compartments full of cut outs that gently caress each component. And this box contains a whole lot of stuff:
- Head Unit
- Rapid Charge 10 cell Lithium Ion battery
- Rapid smart charger
- US power adapter for smart charger
- European power adapter for smart charger
- 12V car charger
- Handlebar mount
- Helmet mount
- Helmet extension cord
- A bunch of cable straps
Let's start with the head unit
The Switchback 3's head unit is a slick low profile piece of die cast aluminum. The top of the unit has a plate with a large yellow button set in the middle of it. Giving this button a good press turns on the light, while each press cycles the light through its modes:
Holding the button down for a few seconds turns off the light.
The head unit houses three 3-Watt Maxbright LED's (manufactured by Philips), each in there own little compartment with individual reflectors. The middle lens also has some sort of opaque coating - no doubt to diffuse the light a little.
The back side of it is adorned with a series of fins for dissipating heat, and a well set, apparently waterproof, wire grommet. The power cord consists of a 3 pin type connector with one tabbed side that makes sure you plug it in correctly. As far as I can tell, the 3 pins you don't plug it into are for charging the unit.
The interesting thing you will find here is the nice little collar system they implemented. Basically, once the power cord is plugged in, you slide a plastic collar down around the connection and rotate it into place, which keeps the cord from prematurely ejecting or pulling out when you want to stay plugged in (yeah, thats right: innuendo). While this is a very thoughtful and nice touch, the plastic does not really feel like it is going to stand the test of time. But, of course, only time will tell!
The Battery Pack
This thing is powered by a 10 cell lithium ion battery pack, which combined with these little energy efficient things called LED's, produce some ridiculous running times (look to the right). The battery itself is about the size of half a brick. It is safe to say it is not going to sit that comfortably in your jersey pocket, but it is still compact enough to easily drop into ones Camelbak.
The top of the battery has a slight inward curve to it fitted with an elastomer boot and two rather wide "velcro strap holder slots" so you can attached it to your frame if you go the bar mount route. You will also find 3 little lit slots along the top that indicate battery life.
Lastly, of course, it has another collared power jack sticking out of the front of it.
The Switchback comes with both helmet and bar mounts.
The helmet mount consists of a velcro strap that weaves into the head units base and attached to your helmet through your vents. Pretty standard approach, though the one odd thing was the velcro strap for this was not nearly as wide as the slots on the mount. Not sure if this was by design or not, but it did have me looking for a different strap. Once on the helmet though, it stayed in place just fine. It did seem to stand a little tall, but compared to most other lighting systems out there, it stood pretty much the same height.
The bar mount is made up of a plastic large hinged clamp that looks like it can easily accommodate any sized handlebars. The light attaches to an "arm" of sorts that serves to offset where the light is compared to where it mounts - thus allowing you to have the light perfectly centered over or under your stem.
For a lot of people out there, especially racers, weight is a big issue. For me though? I don't care that much. While lighter is nicer, a heavier wallet is better. Princeton Tec claims the Switchback 3 weighs in at a rather feathery 826 grams ( thats 1.8 pounds to you science hating swines ).
If I actually had a scale I would weigh them, and then I would either agree or disagree with their number. So I am no help here. But seriously though, when has a company ever misled you?
Wish I had a friggin scale.
The First Ride
I decided to do the helmet mount thing, which was new to me, since up until now, I had only ridden with bar mounted lights. Strapped it on, threw the battery in my Camelbak, and off we went.
I soon learned that the lowest power setting was pretty disappointing at any speed. For hiking (which I do on occasion with my bike, like on hills), it works just fine. For biking though, you want it in the medium or high setting. Needless to say, I did not take long for me to put the thing on max setting. I never looked back. Hell, I have 6 hours of max power burn time! My night rides are a couple hours at most, I worried not.
Now are these as bright as the HID setups my buddies were riding with? No, not really. Brighter than my 20W halogen setup? Yeah, I would say so.
The most noticeable thing about them was the reach (throw?) of these lights. Especially on high power. Princeton Tec claims 113 meters ( 370 feet / 61.7 fathoms / 0.56 furlongs ) at high power, and I believe it. I did begin thinking that the beam pattern could have been a little wider - though I am not sure if that is a symptom of its reach making me want more...
- Slick, well thought out and executed design.
- Ridiculously long burn time.
- 2 hour charge.
- Comes with an assortment of chotchkes that makes life easy.
- The lowest power setting seemed a little to pretty dim for me. However, the max setting was bright enough. And if you can get 6 hours out of the max setting, why use low?
- Expensive! Seriously though, if they took the shiny packaging down a notch, I bet they could knock the price down.
- I fear for the power cord plastic collars.
- Maybe the beam pattern could have been a little wider.
For $169, I like these lights. If I had paid $400, I have to admit I would be a little disappointed. $400 is a lot of money, and if I was to spend this much - I would probably pick up a HID and a lower quality LED based bar mount light. Otherwise, my only complaints were that I would have liked to see a slightly wider beam pattern (though admittedly, it was wide enough) and the plastic power cord collars did not give me the warm fuzzies - but I think they will be fine.
All in all, they get the job done and you can't beat the burn times.