Twenty-nine people died in traffic-related accidents on the streets of San Francisco in 2014. Seventeen of them were pedestrians and cyclists. So when I commute through the city on a bike, there's no such thing as being too visible. Well, maybe except for when I turn on the Balight wheel LEDs. This $170 hub-mounted safety light device goes far beyond alerting drivers to your presence: It practically screams, "Hey, everybody, look at me, I'm on a bike!" I'm not sure that's a good thing.
The system works like many other bike-light sets do: The battery and micro-controller are mounted on the wheel's hub and, in this case, propel the four spines along which the LEDs run. Each individual LED light is capable of displaying 16 million colors, and as the wheel spins, it generates the optical illusion that you see.
You've equipped WHEEL LIGHTS.
— Andrew Tarantola (@Terrortola) Jan. 14th, 2016
On paper, there's a lot to like about the Balight. Initially marketed as an Indiegogo campaign, where it exceeded its $30,000 funding goal, it offers a litany of features. That includes a 10-hour battery, water/shockproof operation and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing it to be used with a companion mobile app. What's more, the light can display both still images and animated GIFs from either Balight's curated online gallery or your own camera roll.
The Balight app also provides a number of features and a surprising degree of personalization. Users can program the light to cycle through specific photo sets at varying lengths of time by sorting images into albums. Additionally, the app incorporates a helpful battery meter for the light, includes GPS and even tracks your ride performance (distance, time and both the maximum and current speeds).
Unfortunately, many of these perks are negated by how awkward the system is to set up and use. First off, just getting the light onto my wheel was a master class in frustration. The printed instructions that come with the unit make no sense. At all. They read like LEGO assembly instructions that have been fed through Google Translate four or five times. I actually had to reach out to the company and have it send a video walk-through just to get the damn thing on; that's how little sense the written instructions make. I mean, the light is easy to install once you know what the assortment of included screws and clips are for, but getting to that point is a challenge.
It was the same with pairing the light with my mobile device. I spent the better part of an hour alternately swearing at my phone and bike until the two randomly decided to start speaking to each other. I still don't know what I did to get it to work, but now it does.
The app itself (available for both iOS and Android) feels equally unpolished, even on version 2.2.0. Signing in to my Balight account is hit or miss at best, and some of the functions are still said to be "under testing" but have active buttons nonetheless.
Then there are the more fundamental design flaws. Like the fact that I can't park my bike on any street in San Francisco with this thing attached if I want it to be there when I get back. Yes, the Balight comes equipped with an anti-theft alarm. No, it isn't going to do a damn lick of good. Even if I used a secondary cable lock to secure the rim itself, there's nothing to stop a thief from snipping the spokes and pulling the light out. It's enough of an issue that I figure it'd be easier if I bought a second rim, installed the light on it and swapped the wheels wholesale.
At 3.3 pounds, the light also adds noticeable weight to your ride. It's not terrible when mounted on the rear, but install the light up front and it feels like you're pushing a wheelbarrow. This is exactly what I don't need when riding a single-speed around hilly San Francisco. What's more, you need to be traveling at a pretty good clip in order for the displayed animations to not jitter interminably. I could see the benefit of the light during long social rides (i.e., during a Critical Mass-like event), but when I'm racing from light to light during my commute, there isn't much chance to show off the Balight's capabilities.
Overall, I like the idea behind the Balight but, as with most crowdfunded products, don't think it's ready for consumers yet. I mean, it's a decent bike light. But for all the hassles that you'll go through to install and use it, there are plenty of wheel-light systems that do the same thing for much less.