Review: Monkeylectric Monkey Light

The Monkeylectric Monkey Light is the creation of Dan Goldwater, founder of Monkeylectric and, before that, one of the founders of Instructables.com, a website for do-it-yourselfers that includes forums and innumerable how-tos on any number of topics from cooking to crafting to climbing to building... and more. Monkeylectric is a product of that same DIY ethos, and it still sort of looks like something someone cooked up in their garage out of spare parts.

This is how awesome the Monkey Light can be. (photo from Monkeylectric)

Despite appearances, though, it's quite durable (the LEDs are coated in some kind of waterproof hardcoat) and has endured a lot of real-world product testing. It was designed for everyday use by regular cyclists as well as for BMX bikers and festival goers. It will perform as well in rough weather as it will on the alkaline desert at Burning Man, according to the company. I haven't ridden it in a real downpour yet, but it does seem to be doing just fine in light rain.

So what is it? It's 32 super bright color-changing LEDs--16 on each side--that you attach to your bike spokes. Because of persistence of vision, these LEDs fill your wheel with a dizzying array of colors and patterns. Well, one Monkey Light unit might fill your wheel if you habitually bike 20 miles an hour. Persistence of vision kicks in at 8 mph or so, with patterns filling a portion of the wheel. The faster you go, the more your wheel is filled.

Monkeylectric suggests that if you want to fill your whole wheel even at low speeds, you get two or even three Monkey Lights. Unfortunately, there's no way to synchronize two or more units, so you'll have two or more patterns going simultaneously. However, since you can adjust which colors and patterns each unit is displaying, you could probably get some rockin' asymmetric coordination going on anyway.

You can see what I'm talking about it in Monkeylectric's cool Monkey Light promo video on youtube here.

Monkeylectric is not the only maker of persistence-of-vision spoke lights. Other options range from sub-$10 Nite Ize Spokelits, which are single one-color LEDs that attach to your spokes near your rim and create a circle of color when you pedal, to the Spoke POV kit, which you assemble and solder yourself and which lets you customize on your computer the (single-color) image that will be displayed on your wheel. Another competitor is Hokey Spokes, which have the advantage of coordinating automatically among multiple units installed on one wheel. They also allow the user to enter text messages to be displayed on the wheel. However, Monkeylectric's color-changing LEDs are unique to their product, and they're brighter, too. Also, Hokey Spokes cycle automatically through pre-programmed patterns, while the Monkey Light lets you choose your favorites and even control how fast they change. I think Monkeylectric's patterns are cooler, too.

CONTROLS

The MonkeyLectric M133S Monkey Light is a small technical-looking contraption with 32 really, really bright multicolor LEDs, a battery pack that holds three AA batteries, and four buttons labeled POWER, SPEED, COLOR, and PATTERN. You attach it to the spokes of your bike wheel with a few zipties, press the POWER button, get the wheel spinning SPEEDily, and voila! COLOR and PATTERN.

The Monkey Light is set out-of-box to cycle through all its programmed colors and patterns, which is great if the circuit board look of the thing sort of intimidates you and you just want to get the party on your wheel started. However, if you don't like green, or you really like purple, or you want to check out a particular pattern, the directions in the included slim owner's manual make it pretty easy (if a little blinding) to custom-tailor your awesomeness. Basically, you press SPEED, COLOR, or PATTERN, and the LEDs themselves become a selection menu.

COLOR, for example: when you hit the button, all the LEDs come on, each a different color. All of them are blinking. One of them is blinking a little bit brighter than the rest. That's the one that's selected at the moment. When you press the button again, the next one is brighter... and so on. After you've gone through all the colors, all of them blink brightly--meaning all of the colors are selected. When you've got the color you want selected, you press and hold the button. Then the next color blinks brightly just as if you'd only pressed it briefly, but the color you selected is blinking at a brightness sort of halfway between the rest of the colors and the one you're selecting now.

All in all, it's figure-out-able, but I had to do some squinting and some trial-and-error to get it sorted out. SPEED and PATTERN work similarly to COLOR, but SPEED has some of the lights moving faster or slower while you click through the other lights (so to speak) so you can see which direction is relatively slower and which is faster. Oh, and it has three sub-menus so you can adjust the speed of color changing, the speed of pattern changing, and the overall, uh, mellowness versus franticness of the patterns. Something like that, anyway. The manual explains it pretty well. I fiddled for a while and ended up going back to the out-of-box settings (which you can do by pressing SPEED, PATTERN and COLOR simultaneously), which are probably awesomer than any combination I could come up with. But if you want your spoke lights to match your jacket or something--you can make it happen!

I wish that the power button were bigger or separate or in some way differentiated from the other buttons. In the dark, with brightly-flashing LEDs in my eyes, it's hard to see which button is which to turn the unit off when I get to my destination.

MOUNTING

At least on my ordinary road bike wheel, mounting the Monkey Light was pretty straighforward. In addition to the information in the manual, Monkeylectric has an online guide at Instructables.com that may be helpful to those with more unusual wheels.

The light comes with a bunch of zipties and four little rubber pads with two holes in them. The light unit itself has two sets of attachment holes along one side to line up on a spoke, and several attachment points on the other side that you can choose from to line up with whatever other spoke is handy. You line up the little rubber pads with the attachment points and run a zip tie through the holes and around a spoke. The rubber pad gives you something to tighten against and keeps the unit from rattling against your spokes when you're pedaling. It works--I've noticed no noise whatsoever while riding.

This photo from Monkeylectric illustrates the Monkey Light's weather-resistance, but you'll notice that the battery case is not submerged.

When I mounted it, I chose to mount it pretty close to the hub just to make sure it wouldn't affect the handling of my bike too much (though Monkeylectric claims that most riders can't even tell the Monkey Light is there). Unfortunately, mounting the light close to my hub meant I had to bike really really fast for the persistence of vision effect to kick in and the patterns to show up. In all my worrying about physics, I'd forgotten that physics also says that a point on the circumference of a circle moves faster than a point somewhere in the middle! A couple days later, I snipped the zip ties and moved the unit further from the hub. Ahh, so that's why they include the extra zip ties... (The extra rubber pad thingy is for people having trouble with their spokes getting in the way of the battery case. You can stack two pads at one attachment point and move the unit away from the spokes a little.)

When I remounted the light, I also made sure that the zip-ties came together on the between-the-spokes side, so that the little bumps where they close didn't stick out from the wheel. Before I fixed it, I didn't have any problems with them rubbing anything or getting in the way, but it looks nicer this way.

The unit also comes with a little rubber cover that fits over the battery case and is secured with velcro, to help protect the batteries from inclement weather. It's a little difficult to get the rubber cover neatly into place, because of some little round electronic thingamajig sticking out and getting in the way, but it'll fit in there with a little wiggling, and I feel better knowing that the batteries are not entirely exposed to the elements.

RIDING

Yeah, this thing is fun. I ride faster when it's on because I know the patterns will look cooler. I've gotten a couple yelled compliments--"that's rad!" "Cool wheel light!" Jury's still out as to whether there was some element of sarcasm in these yells. The Monkey Light is definitely flashy and maybe a little ostentatious. It's not for the self-conscious; you will attract attention with this thing.

I do feel safer and more visible. The light spreads nicely and reflects off the pavement as I ride, and from the side, the whirling lights on my wheel are unmissable.

Even after moving the light further away from my hub, I haven't noticed any handling weirdnesses or problems, even when bombing down hills.

Check out some other reviews here, here, and here.

The Monkey Light is available for purchase at BikeTiresDirect.com, here.

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Comments from our Readers

Rain?

Harry(Newport News, Virginia), submitted 9/20/2011

I have to wonder, since I ride year 'round, how this will cope with rain, some puddles from time to time, and the inevitable snow that we get occasionally.......

waterproof proof

Anonymous, submitted 1/15/2012

Check out the video and the pictures on their website. In the video, they chuck the whole hog into a cup of water then turn it on. Think it'll cope with rain just fine.

I just ordered a couple mini-monkey lights fewer LEDs so you get more of a donut shape rather than filling the whole wheel but they're chaper so I can order two per wheel and bike slower. I can't wait to get them. I want to "be safe, be seen" and I know I'll be seen with these