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Reviews > Lighting > Lanterns > Freeplay ML1 Mini Lantern > Test Report by Coy Ray Starnes

ML-1 Freeplay Energy Mini Lantern
Test Report Series by Coy Starnes
Initial Report: December 6, 2008
Field Report: March 2, 2009
Long Term Report: April 26, 2009


freeplay lantern
ML-1 Freeplay Mini Lantern (about twice actual size)

Tester Coy Starnes
Gender Male
Age 46
Weight 238 lb (108 kg)
Height 6 ft (1.8 m)
E-Mail starnescr@yahoo.com
Location Grant, Alabama, USA

Tester Biography
I live in Northeast Alabama.  I enjoy biking, hunting, fishing, canoeing, and most other outdoor activities but backpacking is my favorite pastime.  I enjoy hiking with friends and family or solo.  I hike throughout the year and actually hike less in the hot humid months of summer.  My style is slow and steady and my gear is light.  However, I will sacrifice weight for comfort and durability.  A typical 3-season load for me is around 20 lb (9 kg) not counting food or water.

Initial Report: December 6, 2008

Product: ML-1 Freeplay Energy Mini Lantern
Manufacture: Freeplay
Year of Manufacture: 2008
URL: http://www.freeplayenergy.com/
Listed Weight: 10.58 oz (300 g)
Post Office Weight: 10.6 oz (301 g)
MSRP: $55 USD

Product Description
 I will call The ML-1 Energy Freeplay Mini Lantern the ML-1 or lantern throughout this report.  The ML-1 is a small flameless lantern that uses a total of 5 LEDs.  It has a battery that can be charged with the provided charger but what really sets the ML-1 apart is the ability to charge the battery with the hand crank.  According to the website, this mechanism converts over 74% of the user's kinetic energy into stored electricity.  

The outside of the lantern appears to be made of a hard plastic except for the globe which looks like a sturdy Lexon.  The base and the control area (black areas in the photo)  also feel more rubbery then the hard plastic surfaces surrounding them.
 
The ML-1 stands about 6.5 in (16.5 cm) high and is what I would call square shaped but with rounded corners.  The lantern also tapers in gradually as it goes up. The base is about 2.25 in (5.7 cm) wide and gets slightly smaller moving up the lantern.  The glass globe is slightly smaller than that with the top cover reverting back to near the width of the base.    

The ML-1 features a cluster of 4 ultra-bright LEDs surrounded by  a  globe.  These 4 LEDs are adjustable in brightness.   Above this is the top of the lantern with a folding carry handle that can also be used to hang the lantern in a tent or wherever.  Under this top is a bright mirrored surface which helps intensify the light the 4 LEDs produce.

light off and on
main LEDs off and then at full power

On one side of the ML-1 are the controls and the single directional LED.  The bottom button turns the single LED on or off.  The wheel type control above the lower button first turns the 4 LEDs on, and as the wheel is turned they get progressively brighter.  Above this wheel is the single directional LED which actually points downward quite a bit.  Also, this LED is not adjustable in brightness.   The crank is located on the other side of the lantern (opposite from the controls).  The crank handle is about 3 in (7.6 cm) long and folds flat into the lantern when not in use.

crank handle
charging handle extended for cranking

On a third side of the ML-1 is the small rubber door which covers the place where the charger goes.  The other side is just slightly flat with no features or controls.

Listed Benefits of ML-1 Mini Lantern (as listed by manufacture).

*A sustainable outdoor solution that’s built to last.  The power mechanism is tested to 500 000 input cycles, and the LEDs are rated up to 100 000 hours (that's 11 years of continuous use, 24 hours a day).

*The ML-1 Mini Lantern offers a real alternative to grid electricity or fossil fuels, so you can feel cleaner about your nature experience.

*When your batteries run out and you need to wind for power, the Freeplay self-charge mechanism converts over 74% of your kinetic energy into stored electricity.

*You can fly with our lantern – enabling a truly global camping or trekking lighting solution.  No need to worry about spare batteries or canisters when you are traveling.

*The task light is ideal for reading at night, and an effective flashlight for walking around the campground.  The task light focuses downwards to illuminate the ground or specific area.

*It has a familiar form factor – but is more compact than other leading camping fossil-fuel based lanterns.

*The plastic molding makes it easy to carry and use in cold weather.

*The carry handle doubles as a hook for hanging in a tent or tree as a primary light source.

*A great lighting solution to teach your kids about the value of green energy – and show them how their own energy can provide them with all of their lighting needs.

*Lasts virtually forever.

Initial Impression
The website does a very good job of portraying the ML-1 and now that I have held it and used it for a little bit I can say it is solidly built and looks well designed.  I am also pleased that the weight specified by the manufacture is almost identical to what I weighed it at the local post office.

Initial Testing
This is meant to be just a brief look at the performance of the ML-1, but first, a look at the manufactures quoted run times is in order.

run time chart
manufactures literature on expected burn times.

So basically, 1 minute of hand cranking will run the single LED 45 minutes, the 4 LEDs 7 minutes on bright and 1 hour on low.  A full charge using the plug in charger will run the single LED 40 hours, and run the 4 LEDs 8 hours on bright and 100 hour on low.  I actually got a little better run time than indicated for the single LED and a little shorter run time for the 4 LEDs.  However, my numbers were close, as will bee seen in minute.

When I first held the lantern I looked it over then pulled the crank handle out and cranked it for a minute, then turned the 4 LEDs on.  I ramped the 4 LEDs up to maximum brightness but it went out in around 30 seconds.  I was expecting much better but, as I was cranking I had noticed a small green light on the side of the lantern which blinked intermittently as I was turning the crank.  I then read the instructions which mentioned an LED charge level indicator that tells you the optimal winding speed.  I surmised that to do a good job of charging, this light needs to stay lit, so with that in mind, I decided to give it another shot.

I quickly learned that casual winding will not keep the green indicator light lit at all.   In fact, even with vigorous winding, it still blinked occasionally, but stayed on most of the time.  Also, winding at this speed is more work then I was expecting but still not that hard to do.  But the good news was, the lantern's 4 LEDs did stay lit for 6 minutes and 22 seconds this time, but interestingly, I turned on the single LED immediately after the 4 LEDs went off and it (the single LED) burned another 26 minutes.  I found that strange but decided to try and repeat the test.  This time I got a 6 minute 27 second run time, almost the exact same results.  I waited a few seconds and turned the single LED on and again, it ran another 26 minutes.  During this test I also went outside to see how bright the 4 LEDs seemed but of course it went out shortly after making it out the door.  It seemed brighter than the single LED but not by much.  It also didn't seem too light up the ground as well.

I also wanted to get an idea of how long the single LED would burn so after winding a minute I turned it on.  I missed it going off between 1 hr and 1 hr 5 min check but during this time I checked it by going outside and shining it around the yard.  It is not super bright but plenty bright for walking around. It still seemed as bright near the end of the hour as at the beginning but this is hard to judge accurately.  Regardless, I was feeling much better about the lantern after this.  It actually did a little better than the chart indicated it would do for the single LED.

This concludes my Initial Report.  Stay tuned for the Field Report which should be forthcoming in about two months to see how well the ML-1 Freeplay Energy Mini Lantern is working.  I would like to thank Freeplay and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this lantern.

Field Report: March 2, 2009

lantern inside hammock
Using the ML-1 lantern inside my hammock

Field Locations and Conditions
I have used the ML-1 Energy Freeplay Mini Lantern for two nights of camping, several more times around the house after dark and once during a power outage.  The overnights were local short distance hikes, the first at around 4 miles (6 km) round trip and the last even shorter as I just basically went a short distance into the woods and set up my hammock.  It was already raining lightly and with a fairly big snow in the forecast, I didn't want to be to far from home just in case the weatherman was right.  The overnight low for the first overnighter in early February was 44 F (7 C) while the most recent overnighter was a little cooler but still not real cold at only 28 F (-2 C).  However, it was very windy and  it did snow a couple of inches.  I was in a 0 F (-18 C) bag but the ML-1 was hanging above me all night, just inches from the snow that eventually accumulated on my hammock fly.  The cold did not seem to have any effect on the lantern.

snow on hammock fly
Snow on last overnighter

Field Test Results
As an emergency light the ML-1 is great since there is no need to worry if I have fresh batteries.  As a backpacking light I liked the ML-1 but I will use an LED headlamp for hiking if given the choice.  On the first overnighter it was nice and warm early on so I tried the ML-1 for a little night time walking.  Due to thick cloud cover it was almost pitch black.  The ML-1 was fine for trail walking which is all I need but I found myself wishing for a brighter light when down near the creek. I stayed away from the water for fear I might misstep and get my feet wet.  It would not have been all that big a deal this time but it is not something I would want to risk on longer hikes in colder weather.

Another problem was needing to hold on in some places.  The trails were slick due to a lot of recent rain and in several places I needed both hands free for more security  but I was limited to using my one free hand.  No, I didn't fall but I did miss having both hands free.  I also missed a real bright light when I heard things in the woods.   I'm sure it was just an opossum or similar creature of the night but I like to look when I hear stuff.  The ML-1 just does not have the reach to check anything out more than about 20 ft (6 m) from my hammock.  This is with the single LED which while not as powerful, shines further because it is an aimed beam.    The last problem was striking camp before daylight.  I managed to set up before dark but on the first overnighter I woke up at around 5 AM and decided to pack up and head home.  I really missed my headlamp for this as I need to use two hands when undoing the knots used in hanging my hammock.

But with all these shortcomings mentioned, the ML-1 lantern still did what it is designed to do very well.  On the first overnighter I used my homemade hammock which has no continuous ridgeline overhead so I really had no place to hang the lantern.  Since I wasn't planning on any reading that night it was no big deal so I left the ML-1 sitting upright and inside one of my shoes.  I just placed the shoe off the the side of my hammock a little further out than normal but still under the fly.  This proved to be a good way to keep the ML-1 from getting knocked over.  I was also pleased at just how bright it made the area under my tarp.  It was a tad dark right inside the hammock but it seemed like enough light bounced down from the overhead tarp that it was not bad.  I know I could see my watch and things like that well enough without having to hold it over near the light.  I was using the main lantern 4 LED array instead of the single LED that points downward.  When I was ready to go to sleep I did move the shoe over closer so I could easily reach down and grab the light if I needed it.  One nice feature about the ML-1 is that if I turned the on/off switch for the main lantern LEDs (the wheel like switch) towards me I could see it several hours later.  It glows faintly but I did notice it looked like a one eyed monster about to pounce on me...  Anyways, I was up before daylight and I used the ML-1 to get dressed with it just sitting on the ground.  Then as I started taking the hammock down my body pretty much blocked off the lantern light so I did this pretty much by feel. 

On the next overnighter I wanted to do a little reading so I made it a point to use my Hennessy hammock which has a handy overhead ridgeline.  Using the single LED which angles downward seemed like a good idea but in reality, using the clip hanger for the hammock pointed the light off to the side instead of down the center of the hammock.  I tried several time to get the light pointing down the center but its orientation in regard to the wire hanger just wouldn't let it.  But even worse was the constant swinging of the beam as I gently moved in the hammock.  I managed to get into a sideways position that let me see my book but just turning a page produced enough rock to make the light beam move around.  And while a bit of an exaggeration, trying to keep the book aligned with the light beam reminded of a cat chasing a light beam on a wall.  I know the wind also contributed to the hammocks rocking but even during short lulls I found the light moved way more than I would have expected.  I then tried the 4 LEDs in the regular lantern mode and the swinging was not near as noticeable.   And while the overall light output was quite a bit brighter, the un-aimed light was a tad dim for reading, plus, it uses more power in this mode.  And since I was finding it hard to turn the pages with my gloves I didn't waste much time pursuing it any further.  I might try this later in warmer weather in a tent and see if I have better results. 

Speaking of power, after fully recharging the ML-1 with the regular AC charger it has given me several hours of light.  Since I used the single LED for the trail walking and most of the reading I probably only had the 4 LED main array on for about an hour and the single LED for maybe 3 hours.  This is more burn time than I would normally use on a 3 night trip so I am happy with the battery life so far after a full charge.  I would do some deep discharge test (running it until the battery is completely dead)  but the manufacture says deep discharges will shorten the useful life of the battery.  And by that they are talking about the number of charge cycles the batteries will be able to handle, not battery life from a single recharge.  They also don't recommend keeping it on the charger all the time either so from now on I just plan to charge mine every few weeks or so (more if needed) and use the hand crank for times when I might be away from power or out of power when using the lantern a lot.  I say ever few weeks because even when just sitting doing nothing the battery does slowly discharge.  I found this on the the websites FAQ sections for the Indigo which is just a bigger version of the ML-1.  "The battery will retain about 75% of its capacity after 1 month, 55% after 2 months, 40% after 3 months and 15% after 6 months."  I'm not sure if those numbers would apply directly to the ML-1 since it uses a smaller battery but the same principle will apply.  And since I had not recharged mine any since the initial charge almost 3 months ago, I put it on the AC charger the morning I returned from my last overnighter.  I plan to be more vigilant in doing this because as can be seen, after only a month the lantern has already lost about 25% of its capacity doing nothing.   

Summary Thus Far
I know I have sounded a little critical of the ML-1 but to be fair, the self charging aspect of the lantern would be almost impossible to add to a headlamp.  So in that regard, The Ml-1 puts a very dependable light source in about as compact of a form as practical.  

In recent years I have become spoiled by compact, high powered headlamps.   Perhaps I would have been more impressed with the ML-1 in my younger days of camping when I used cheap flashlights which always seemed to have dead batteries.  My dad and grandpa were always fond of kerosene lanterns and I remember using one a lot growing up so when I moved up to a gasoline lantern I was impressed with the light output but not mantle life.  The ML-1 is more on par with the kerosene lantern's brightness-wise but I like the ML-1 better because it doesn't have the smoke and smell involved, not to mention being much safer if tipped over.  Call me lazy but I like not having the worry of carrying/spilling fuel or disintegrating mantles.  And since it uses a rechargeable battery, even buying batteries is no longer required.  Add to that the fact that it can be manually recharged in emergency situations (or if preferred) and it's a no brainer.   

However, after using it as a camping light for two nights I can safely say the ML-1 will not be replacing my headlamps anytime soon.  I will use the ML-1 for times when a stationary light is fine but have a headlamp handy for any chores which call for  both hands and a portable light source.  As I was taking my hammock down on my last overnighter it was cold, snowing and very windy.  The ropes had become wet during the earlier rain/sleet mix and were frozen by the time I was ready to take the hammock down.  It was a pretty tough job in full daylight and I thought to myself, this is much more difficult then I expected.  The other time (just a few weeks earlier) I was able to get my knots undone by feel but had I needed to strike camp before daylight this time it would have been a lot more difficult.  Of course I plan to use the ML-1 as much as possible for the remainder of this test so I can determine more about its dependability.

This concludes my Field Report.  It has been interesting so far but check back in a couple of months and see what I have to say about he ML-1 in my Long Term Report.

Long Term Report:  April 26, 2009

lantern in kayak
Using the Freeplay Mini during a nighttime kayaking trip

Long Term Testing Conditions and Locations

Testing was all in northeast Alabama.  This included one more overnight campout in the hollow and a night time kayaking trip on Lake Guntersville.  We had 2 major power outages recently but one was in the daytime.  However, it got surprisingly dark at 3 PM and I used it that time as well.  The one overnighter was much warmer with a low of only 62 F (17 C).  The nighttime kayaking trip was a warm 65 F (18 C) when we started at 5 PM but cooled down to 55 F (13 C) by the time we finished at 9:30 PM

Long Term Test Results
The more I used this lantern the more I liked it.  I found its best use during a power outage that lasted several hours one night.  We experienced a Wake Low (high winds that sometime follow a thunderstorm) which knocked down a lot of trees and power lines and subsequently our power was off from 2 AM until 9 AM.  I always leave before daylight but left a little earlier because I had already heard the roads were a mess.  From previous power outages I had learned the best place to put the Freeplay Mini was on the corner of my computer desk where it could shine into the living room and kitchen.  On high this brightened both rooms well enough to walk around.  Of course when the light was behind me it produced a dark shadow in front of me so I had to be more careful walking away from the lantern.  Anyways, I used the light as I got dressed and was then able to see well enough to find things in the kitchen I needed for my lunch and supper.  I did move it to the kitchen counter as I packed my lunch box.

I mentioned possibly using the Freeplay Mini while doing some nighttime kayaking.  I missed a couple of the moonlight paddles our group of local kayakers do once a month but was finally able to make it for the last one.  Part of being able to participate includes bringing a good light so I told the group leader I would be using the Freeplay Mini but I still had my waterproof flashlight I carry on my life vest.  I had faith that I would not flip but was still a little nervous that I might drop the light somehow and we were in deep water, supposedly around 100 ft (30 m). 

We left a couple of hours before dark and paddled about 3 miles (5 km) up stream to a bat cave entrance.  We were all ready for a break and snack so we rested as night fell and waited for the show.  The bats did not disappoint us like they did the last trip I made last fall because they had already hibernated for the winter.  Below is a photo a friend got that I thought was pretty good seeing as it was almost pitch black and the bats were moving fast.

bats
Yes, we really did see bats!

The Freeplay Mini worked out very well on the paddle.  After it got too dark to see the bats we all got our lights out and I put mine (the Freeplay Mini) in the place that normally holds my drink.  However, the drink holder area was much bigger then the lantern so the light was basically sitting on a damp piece of slick plastic without anything holding it upright.  Thankfully, it was low enough in my kayak that I wasn't worried if it fell and fortunately, it made it all the way back to the launch site without falling over or even hinting of doing so. I guess the rubber bottom with the 3 tiny rubber like feet does a good job of griping.  As for the light's performance, I kept the light in the lantern mode with the brightness adjustment wheel ramped up to about medium brightness so that the light would not overpower my night vision.  I could see all around the cockpit of my Sit On Top kayak and even out into the water a little ways.  I'm not prepared to say the Freeplay Mini is an ideal kayaking light mainly due to the fact that it is not waterproof but I liked using it.

I kept the light charged better during the Long Term testing phase by charging it every couple of weeks but the longest single use was the 2 hours during the kayaking paddle followed closely by the morning I got ready for work using it.  However, I kept it on high that morning.  But the good news is, I never noticed the light dimming during use.  

Summary
I like the Freeplay Mini Lantern.  I feel it is best suited for emergency use but it does a good job as a camp light within the limitations of it not being portable like a headlamp.  When used in my kayak I liked that it made the area in and around my kayak very bright but I could adjust the light down enough that it didn't adversely affect my night vision.  But the best part of the light still has to be the ability to recharge with the hand crank if needed.  I found it to be a little more work than I would voluntarily do just for fun but if the need arises it is good to know I can get over half an hour worth of light with the single directional LED with only about a minute of cranking.  And while I didn't use the hand crank a lot, I used it enough to gain confidence in the system.  It sure does not seem gimmicky.  And to be honest, when I first read up on the Freeplay Mini I had reservations that the hand cranking recharge would not work or stop working after a few months.  

This concludes testing of the Freeplay Mini Lantern.  It has been interesting to learn the capabilities of this lantern.  I am very particular about what gear I will use when things turn south but the Freeplay Mini has earned a place in my bug out gear.  I want to again thank Freeplay and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this lantern and thank you for reading!
 





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Read more gear reviews by Coy Ray Starnes

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