Mr Bulk LionCub LED flashlightReview date: 13 November 2005.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Name a common household product, and I'll show you someone who's made it their life's work.
Kitchen knives. Chairs. Rugs, cheese graters, clocks, lampshades, desks, wristwatches, coffee tables, garlic crushers, potato mashers, doormats, brooms, vacuum cleaners. Divers Technologickal Contrivances. Non-orientable genus-1 manifolds.
These labour-of-love products are, usually, not something that sensible people buy. They can only be justified if you're doing something unquantifiable and artistic with them. Then, paying big bucks for boutique tools is just part of your wider insanity. But as the job gets more prosaic, the cover gets thinner.
Spidlen violin? Sure. $2500 mosaic Damascus chef's knife with kryptonite bolsters and Stage Tree-wood scales? Uh... well, maybe, but a Global or something is more likely to be the actual choice of champions. And not only because it'd be so awkward to hide the bodies of your family members if you bought the other knife and they put it through the dishwasher.
Occasionally, though, there's a field of human endeavour where technology's advancing fast enough that boutique manufacturers can get significantly ahead of the big brands, even for mundane things. At the moment, flashlights are one such field. Better and brighter LED lamps are coming along quite frequently these days, and they've prodded enthusiasts into development of supporting electronics that nobody needed before - particularly, "drivers" for single multi-watt LEDs (or similarly powerful arrays of smaller LEDs) which regulate (and often step up) the power from the batteries, while wasting as little energy as possible.
Drivers of various sorts are off-the-shelf items today, but fancier lights have microcontrollers in them (this was a notable early example), which enable them to do all sorts of flash-and-dim tricks. LEDs, unlike incandescent lamps, have near-zero turn-on and turn-off time (there's no filament to heat up or wait to cool), and deliver their best efficiency at one particular level of current flow, so the best way to dim them is not to turn down the supply power, but to run them at their most efficient brightness and flash them very fast.
(Actually, most LEDs also achieve spectacular efficiency at a very low current and brightness, just after they get enough voltage to turn on at all. But even super-fancy-flashlight designers so far have just let the LED run that way when the batteries are near-dead, rather than let you select "glow-worm mode" any time you like.)
What all this means is that boutique manufacturers of LED flashlights can come up with products that compete very well with stuff from the big manufacturers - and because it takes some time for big manufacturers to tool up (they often wait a while longer anyway, so that some other sucker can lose money trying to prime the mass market with a new kind of product), the little guys can actually deliver a better product. Cheap LED flashlights are easy to find these days, but in the early days the only people making them were dudes working in their garages.
I don't know where on the manufacturing-scale graph (card-table-in-the-bedroom at one extreme, Boeing Everett at the other) Monsieur Bulk fits, but he's progressed a long way from his early Maglite-modifying days.
Today, in partnership with a man called George who runs an outfit called TaskLED, he's making these.
Small, the LionCub definitely is. It's only about 79 millimetres in length, and less than 25mm wide - so it qualifies as a pocket light, if you ask me.
It's also machined from shiny aluminium, so it only weighs 61.5 grams (2.17 ounces, 1.98 troy ounces, 949.1 grains) including its battery.
But the LionCub's three watt Luxeon LED gives it more brightness than a lot of much, much larger flashlights.
(The light's actually on in the above picture, but at minimum brightness, so the LED doesn't overpower my various flashes. When it's off, the LED die looks solid yellow, not the mostly-white you see here - the yellow is the phosphor coating that turns the blue light from the die underneath into multi-frequency white.)
For a small flashlight, the LionCub has an unusually tight beam. Its central "hot spot" is only about 16 degrees across - so, a pool of light about 28 centimetres across at one metre, or 10 inches at three feet - but there's considerable spill out to more than 50 degrees, so you're not fishing around with a spotlight beam trying to find things.
If you want more throw, there's an optional "LionHead" that screws on in place of the standard reflector head, and narrows the beam to a true spot, at the price of turning the little light into a sort of shaped-charge-meets-blunderbuss contraption.
(You can see the LionHead, and every other part of the Cub in great detail, on Mr Bulk's lengthy page all about this light.)
The standard LionCub's beam is so tight because the light's LED sits at the bottom of an unusually deep reflector. Most small Luxeon-LED lights use one of Lumileds' standard "optics", plastic lenses that sit on top of the LED, but the LionCub has a conventional reflector-and-front-glass arrangement.
And the front is, of course, glass, not lower-transmissivity, more-easily-scratched plastic.
(The reflector's plastic, but you can't have everything.)
At one metre, with a fresh battery, the middle of the LionCub's hot spot scores about 1700 lux. That's a lot. The brightest of the small one-watt-Luxeon lights manages about 600 lux from a 20 degree beam.
1700 lux means you get the roughly 1 lux that's the minimum illumination needed for young-ish humans to be able to see some colour at about 40 metres. 0.1 lux, the minimum useful illumination for all but the best dark-adapted eyes, comes at about 130 metres. For a pocket light with a beam wider than a needle, this is quite astonishing.
But wait, there's more.
A 1700-lux-at-one-metre light is entirely unsuitable for ordinary night-time close-range illumination. It's bright enough to light up the whole of an average white-ceilinged room to an alarming three or four lux if you just point it straight up - you can read by that, if you have to.
If you use a flashlight this bright for direct illumination of the path ahead of you, you'll ruin your night vision.
So the LionCub has variable brightness. When it's on, briefly pressing the button turns it off again - but if you press and hold, the Cub dims. Press and hold again and it brightens again. And so on. It only takes two seconds to go from maximum to minimum brightness, or vice versa, and the light remembers what brightness it was set to when you turned it off, and turns back on at that brightness, too.
And there's a "momentary mode"; if you just hold the button down when you turn the light on it'll turn off when you release the button. And you can lock the light with three clicks, so it won't turn on until you give it three more clicks (just like the safety lock modes on microwave ovens and clothes dryers, that nobody ever knows about until some wiseacre locks their appliances for them). And there's Autosleep, where the light starts dimming itself to nothing after 15 minutes without any button activity. And you can force the light to turn on at any particular brightness, instead of the one it was at when you turned it off.
Well, this is how it works in its default configuration, anyway.
You can read all about it, and how to select the alternative configuration, and how to use the menu mode, in the PDF-format manual here.
The LionCub's one-button interface is about as good as a one-button interface (with one lamp to announce its status) can be, but if you had to negotiate it to do everything, it would of course drive you nuts. Most people will, however, be happy with the basic brightness adjustment and, perhaps, momentary mode. Those features are quick and intuitive, and you can easily use them without going near any of the others.
At minimum brightness, the LionCub manages a humble 13 lux at one metre. This is perfectly useful for night-time indoor purposes, and is also the kind of light level that people who haven't been keeping up with advances in LED technology expect to see from a cute little light like this. When showing off the light, it's therefore most entertaining if you start it at minimum brightness, then show them that it can actually output not ten, not twenty, not fifty, but 130 times as much light.
Hooking my multimeter up in place of the tailcap of the LionCub showed 830 milliamps (mA) of current at full brightness from a fully charged battery, but the meter has non-trivial resistance of its own that reduces the brightness.
The lamp gets a shade over 3.5 volts across it at full brightness when it hasn't warmed up much (higher temperature means lower forward voltage and higher current for an LED, leading to even higher temperature; this is why they need at least a series resistor to stop them melting themselves), which is below the normal typical forward voltage (PDF datasheet), and confirms that this LED's running a bit - though not a lot - below its rated power.
The state of battery technology today means there are only two power options for a tiny super-bright flashlight: Rechargeable, or non-rechargeable lithium, almost always the CR123A type (variously referred to as CR123, CR-123, just 123, and so on).
The LionCub gives you both options. You can run it from a regular CR123A if you like, but it's made to run from a rechargeable 123.
It took a while, but now rechargeable ("secondary") lithium ion cells made to replace various small lithium primary cells are easy to find. Chinese factories are pumping 'em out by the zillion, and the batteries and chargers to suit them are all over eBay.
Lithium batteries of all types are notoriously nervous little things; the primary versions have a highly excitable metallic lithium anode, and the secondary ones can create metallic lithium, from their lithium solution electrolyte, when you charge them. It's rather surprising that lithium batteries are such ordinary, safe consumer items these days, and it's not at all surprising that rechargeable lithium chemistry took so long to show up in cheap products. Lithium batteries existed before 1980, but it took until the early 90s before those niggling problems with fires and explosions were brought (more or less...) under control.
Now, though, $US20 buys you a nice two-slot world-compatible CR123 charger and a couple of batteries to go with it. At that price, who cares if they dribble away to nothing in a year or two?
It'd be possible to run the nominal-three-watt lamp at full rated power from a rechargeable 123 without beating the poor little cell to death too quickly, but there's no way you could do it sensibly from a standard non-rechargeable 123 - the LionCub can't, actually, run as brightly from a standard 123 as from its rechargeable battery. Many Luxeon III flashlights have more and/or larger batteries and drive their lamp to more than three watts, but this is about as much as you can get out of a pocket light at the moment, without ending up with miserable battery life.
With a freshly charged battery, the LionCub can run for most of an hour at full brightness, or very much longer at lower brightness. At minimum brightness, it only drew 5.3mA through my meter, so it ought to be good for at least a hundred hours if that's all you want.
What, you might be wondering, does the LionCub cost?
Well... that depends.
Buying most flashlights, you see, is about as difficult as buying aspirin.
Buying a LionCub is like buying heroin.
You need to know a guy.
Maybe he'll have some, maybe he won't.
But he's the guy you need to see if you want the good stuff.
And, continuing the drug metaphor, the LionCub is a small object that costs quite a lot of money. It'll set you back, oh, $US200 to $US300, depending on what metal and finish and spec level Charlie's making them in right now, and what extras you want - a LionHead, a bigger battery compartment for, for instance, 18650 laptop-battery-pack LiI cells, or what have you. That sort of thing.
Look, kid, you've got the money or you haven't. Don't waste the dealer's time.
Unlike many dealers, though, Mr Bulk believes in taking care of his customers. Because he knows that anybody willing to drop three or four times the usual price of a light like this in order to get the One True Tiny Flashlight is a nut like him (the technical term, which was presumably not run past a focus group, is "flashaholic"), you get an approximately unlimited labour warranty and no mark-up on replacement parts. And the rest of the junkies on the various forums will help you out, too.
Here's the whole LionCub kit, with the flashlight in pieces.
Relax - it doesn't come that way.
In the background, the simple single-slot battery charger, with neat-o fold-out American-style parallel pin plug (Mr Bulk included an Australian plug adapter with my review unit).
In the foreground, the battery, and the lamp module.
The rechargeable 123 cell's a nominal 3.6 volt device, with 700 milliamp-hour (mAh) capacity. Non-rechargeable 123s are nominal 3V, and about 1500mAh.
Brand new batteries normally deliver a bit more than their rated voltage, but this seldom lasts long when you put them under load. Lithium ion cells, though, hold up better; after charging, this 123 goes to a hair over four volts, and stays there even after some tens of seconds of full-brightness use.
The details of the battery performance aren't very important, of course, except that they explain why using a non-rechargeable 123 in the LionCub won't give you quite as much brightness - though you probably will get the thick end of twice as much run time.
The lightweight, mildly cheesy charger also seems to be well behaved. It won't try to charge a battery that's still almost full (which is good, because that's a great way to make a LiI cell try to burn your house down), but it will correctly charge a partially discharged battery, as well as a flat one. A full charge takes two to three hours; a partial charge is faster.
On the left in the bits pic is the body of the light, where you put the battery. The negative contact spring at the bottom of the battery well is gold plated. The screw threads are, of course, immaculate. There is, of course, a waterproofing O-ring. And the battery compartment is exactly as big as it needs to be to accept the cell, with walls exactly as thick as they need to be - hence the narrower segment on the back half of the light.
This segment makes it easier to hold the Cub. It feels a bit weird at first, but you get used to it, and the just-aggressive-enough knurling means that "tactical" types who're always concerned about holding onto things when their gloved hands are covered with bloody snow and they're hanging upside down from a helicopter should be satisfied. There's even a neat little hole in the back for a lanyard.
The only ergonomic problem with the LionCub is that its rubber-covered switch is a tiddly little thing, less than seven millimetres wide. This, though, is also something you get used to, and I can forgive Mr Bulk for it, because it looks right. A big chunky Maglite rubber dome would look funny on the LionCub.
For the money - however much it turns out to be - you'd want the LionCub to be a rather special piece of gear.
And it is.
It's good to hold, good to use, good to look at. It's what Yoda's lightsaber should have looked like.
And it works. Really well. Shine the thing on your lip at full brightness and you can feel the heat - which is something of a novelty, for LED lights.
The LionCub is not a stupid deluxe-for-its-own-sake product made to adorn the existences of people who'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.
Mr Bulk may not exactly be isolating radium, but he's done for flashlights what various other more or less monomaniacal individuals have done for all of those other things which, from some people's point of view, need to be better than just good enough.
Flashlight Forums, where tentative inquiries may be made regarding your worthiness to own a LionCub.
TaskLED, makers of the LionCub electronics.