Light & Motion Urban 500

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Confession: I’m a flashaholic. Yes, that’s right – I am really into high-performance portable lighting devices. That’s why I am really surprised at the technology gap between enthusiast models and what’s available to the mainstream consumer. The problem may be even more pronounced in bike lighting but the one company that has always impressed me is Light & Motion (known as LM here on out). LM is a small company located in Monterey, California that prides itself on excellent lighting solutions, particularly for the diving segment. They have won many awards for being a Green company, which I admire. I first heard about the Urban bike series around Summer 2011 and was excited because I felt a light like this was long overdue. I have experience with LM’s previous bike products, having tested the Seca 700 and Stella 300 but neither were designed for the commuter in mind. For example, the Seca 700 puts out a blinding amount of light which is great for 24 hour mountain bike races, but really overkill for a short ride to the office or the store.

I attended Interbike in Vegas and was lucky enough to have some one-on-one time with the founder of the company. This man definitely knows his stuff and was very confident in the design decisions they had made. I’ve always felt LM was ahead of the curve, readily adopting “new-ish” technologies long before their competitors.  I was impressed with the form factor of the light and I left feeling really excited about finally testing a commuter-driven light. I was sent a sample of the Urban 500 a few months ago and I have been spending time getting to know it.

Specifications

The Urban 500 is the brightest model in the Urban line. As the name implies, it puts out an impressive 500 lumens at the highest setting. It also has a medium (300 lm), low (180 lm), and strobe mode. The user interface is dead simple – simply hold to turn on or off, and click to switch between modes. One thing to note is that when you hold, it actually switches to the next mode before turning off. The light is a tube shape, which clearly is dictated by the battery type. They wouldn’t tell me what sort of battery it uses but I suspect it’s a Li-Ion 18650 or similar. The battery is non-removable which may surprise some folks. The downside is you can’t easily swap in a spare in the field. To me, this is a very small concern.  There are advantages to this, such as the weatherproofing benefits with the sealed housing.  Since the battery is rechargeable and modern batteries have an incredible amount of charge cycles, this light will likely outlast you. It weights 112 grams and measures just shy of 4” long and is 1.5” wide.  On the top you’ll find the raised button which should be large enough for even gloved hands. The rear has a tiny charging indicator. Left and right sides have amber indicators and the bottom has both the mounting bracket and the charging port.

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Power Source

Charging is done entirely from the micro USB slot. I am happy that LM chose this interface because the industry has made it the standard, replacing mini-USB. If you have a modern cell phone (besides the iPhone), you may already be familiar with it. At least for me, I already owned half a dozen cables and adapters for it. In order to charge the unit, you have to remove the port cover at the bottom and rotate the mount 90 degrees to make room for the cable.  The quoted charging time is 5 hours. Since a typical computer USB port provides 500 mA of power, it might be safe to assume that the battery has a capacity of just over 2000 mAh, if you account for efficiency loss. While it’s charging, an amber light blinks in the rear. Green indicates it’s all done. The light also serves as an indicator of remaining battery life, so you know when to bring it in for a charge.  LM states that you can expect to run the light on high for 1:30 hours while it can run a staggering 18:00 hours on strobe. You’ll see why these are very acceptable, if not impressive numbers, later.

Light Engine

The business end of the light is the one that interests me most. It uses a single LED mounted under a smooth reflector that is slightly deeper than normal. I asked why they did not use an orange peel or medium orange peel reflector and they said they thought for their application, the smooth reflector was best. I am a big fan of MOP because it smooths out the beam pattern and hides artifacts in the light. However, after shining the Urban 500 against a white wall,I could not make out any issues with the beam quality. Also, when you are using the light on the road, the very heterogeneous nature of the environment means little flaws in the beam are less noticeable, or at least don’t matter.  The front lens feels like it’s plastic, as opposed to mineral glass. I don’t know enough about it to speak about light transmission properties but it seems high quality enough. I was informed that the LED is mounted in a way that makes the whole body a giant heatsink. This makes perfect sense and it’s how many modern lights are designed. Unlike flashlights, the Urban 500 has the added benefit of active air cooling since it’s cutting through the air while being driven on a bike.

As I’ve indicated, the beam quality is quite impressive. I like to shine my light a few feet in front of the wheel so I can anticipate debris or poor road conditions before I reach them. The beam angle is quite wide. I would estimate it is around 120 degrees. or greater. It’s difficult to tell in pictures or videos but it casts quite a bit of ambient light on the peripheral and to me, that’s more important than the hot spot (e.g. flood vs spot). In a pitch dark environment, you only need about 10 lumens to see. This is a very small amount of light but it will get you to the restroom or around the campsite. I am trying to illustrate just how much light 500 lumens really is. Even at the low setting, 130 lumens, the light has over three times the lumens as a light you’re probably familiar with; the 3D Cell Maglite that police officers carry has a light output of 45 lumens. For my general usage, I can’t imagine switching out of low very often. The only time I would switch to high is if I am competing with other light sources such as headlights from passing motorists. I find the strobe feature to be a nice addition but entirely useless for me. As a driver, you know how annoying it is to have strobe lights coming at you.

I feel like I should touch on the amber side markers. They are on constantly whenever the light is operational. This is a feature I haven’t seen in other lights and I think it makes a lot of sense. There are situations where drivers will overtake cyclists, even those with lights, because they claim they didn’t see them. The side lights mean that you are visible from all directions and in the driver’s peripheral.

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Concerns

I am really impressed with the Urban 500 but I do think there are some (very) minor shortcomings that can be improved. Mainly, I was disappointed with the packaging and the finish on the lights. The box just has a cheap feel to it and the printing quality is below average. I already have some small nicks on the body of the light, even though it has had very minimal usage. It’s a shame because if someone was unfamiliar with the Light & Motion name and reputation, they might pass on buying the light at the store.  Another concern I have is I am not sure if the mounting bracket is removable. I see an allen wrench slot so I think it is but there’s no documentation verifying this. My concern is if the rubber strap were to ever break, you’d be left with no way of fixing it.

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Wrap Up

I was excited when I heard about the Urban 500 and am happy to report that it met my expectations. The light is compact, lightweight, and packs a very high weight to output ratio. It uses a standard and widely available charging port and the battery would last weeks with even daily use. It packs some useful features such as a battery indicator light and side markers. At $159, I feel like it’s competitively priced, though I am coming at it from the viewpoint of someone who is very concerned about safety and is willing to pay for high-end lighting products. Light & Motion also sells an Urban 300 and Urban 180 ($99), which I feel offer more than enough light for the average commuter. Great job to Light & Motion for leading the pack, once again.

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