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Reviews > Lighting > Lanterns > Freeplay ML1 Mini Lantern > Test Report by Larry Kirschner

Freeplay ML-1 Eco-Charge LED Lantern

TEST SERIES BY LARRY KIRSCHNER
Freeplay Energy ML-1


INITIAL REPORT - December 13, 2008
FIELD REPORT - March 2, 2009
LONG TERM REPORT - April 28, 2009



TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Larry Kirschner
EMAIL: asklarry98 at hotmail dot com
AGE: 44
LOCATION: Columbus, OH
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 5' 9" (1.75 m)
WEIGHT: 200 lb (90.70 kg)

I've been an intermittent camper/paddler since my teens, but now that my kids are avid Boy Scouts, I've caught the backpacking bug. I typically do 8-10 weekend hikes per year, and have spent time backpacking at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico and canoeing the Atikaki wilderness in Manitoba. I like to travel "in comfort", but I've progressed down to mid-weight, and continue to work toward going lighter and longer. With all of my investment into these ventures, I expect my wife and I will continue to trek long after the kids are gone…


INITIAL REPORT

PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS
Manufacturer: Freeplay Energy
Year of Manufacture: 2008
Country of Manufacture: China
Manufacturer's Website: www.freeplayenergy.com
MSRP: USD $55
Listed Weight: 300 g (10.5 oz)
Measured Weight: : 290 g (10.2 oz)
Listed Dimensions:165 mm high x 56 mm wide x 62 mm long (6.5 x 2.2 x 2.5 in)
Measured Dimensions: As above


INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

The Freeplay Energy ML-1 Eco-Charge LED Lantern (henceforth the 'ML-1") arrived in standard plastic packaging with a cardboard insert extolling its features: environmentally friend, rechargeable, no bulb required (ever), and self-charging. On the back of the packing are some of the specs (see below) and information on the Freeplay foundation, which is a group promoting dissemination of eco-friendly technologies to third world nations. There are no instructions included, although there is a note that the operating instructions can be downloaded from the website.

The specs on the ML-1 include the following:

  • Batteries: Removable rechargeable 3.6 V Ni-MH battery pack
  • Light source: LED array: 4 Ultra Bright white Nichia LEDs array
  • LED work light: 5 mm single Ultra Bright white Nichia LED
  • Adapter charge rate: 90% capacity at 3 hours
  • 100% capacity at 8 hours
SHINE TIME
Full charge
1 min self-charge
4 LED array-max
8 hours
7 min
4 LED array-min
100 hours
1 hour
Single LED
40 hours
45 min


In general, the ML-1 looks like other LED lanterns I have seen, only quite a bit smaller, both in height and in diameter.

ML-1 size reference

It has a metal handle at the top which has a few zigs and zags, which I presume are designed to prevent the lantern from slipping off a cord or carabiner. The light producing apparatus appears fairly standard, with 4 LEDs spread around the circumference of a plastic-enclosed shield. On the front of the apparatus is a single LED which is angled slightly down. Below that is a thumb wheel which controls the LED array, and a push button which controls the single LED.

ML-1 front

On the reverse side of the lantern is the crank apparatus. This is cleverly designed such that the handle folds flat, with the end of the crank fitting into a slot at the bottom of the lantern. The handle flips back, and can be turned in either direction to generate electricity. Within the glass case, there is a small green LED that lights when the crank is being turned at the 'optimal' rate. On the side of the lantern is a small rubber tab which pulls out to reveal a hole in which to insert the AC charger. The charger is included with the lantern and is just a plug, transformer, and a long cord.

ML-1 back and side


INSTRUCTIONS

There is a gray box warning to "Please consider the environment before printing this manual".

There are cursory instructions on how to wind the lantern: "fold handle out fully, wind handle clockwise or anticlockwise, illuminating the green LED". It is recommended to switch the flashlight off after use to prolong battery life. Also, "Do not open the casing other than when replacing batteries. Do not crank without battery pack inserted."

Charging instructions: It is recommended to charge fully (8 hours in A/C outlet) prior to first use, but this can be skipped in a pinch. The lantern should be charged while it is in the 'off' position. For self charging, crank the winder handle in either direction fast enough to illuminate the charging LED indicator.

There are also instructions for replacing the battery pack, which includes a recommendation to dispose of the old battery pack "in an environmentally friendly way as prescribed by your local regulations".

There is a 2 year warranty, although what exactly that entails is not stated.


TRYING IT OUT

After opening up the package, the first thing I did was play around with the crank. It turns smoothly in both directions, and does not take a lot of effort to make the green indicator LED illuminate. It was easy to 'open' the crank, and to restore it back to its folded position.

Before I went further with the lantern, I looked for the instructions to see if it was recommended to charge the lantern before using it. As noted above, no instructions were included in the packaging, so I went to the Freeplay website. The site seemed to be organized reasonably well, although it was not obvious where to find product instructions. I spent about 10 minutes looking around until I was finally able to locate this information. As I had expected, the instructions recommended charging the lantern before using it .

After that, I plugged the ML-1 into an outlet and allowed it to charge overnight. After it had charged, I played around with the light settings. The LED array is controlled with the thumbwheel, with a click to turn it off fully. On low energy, the thumbwheel glows green, but when the array is on full, the wheel glows red, which I thought was kind of cool. Because of the color, I wondered if the wheel would glow in the dark. I took it into a dark room, and it does indeed glow. However, when I tried this the next morning (after the lantern had been in the dark overnight) I could not see the wheel. When the LED array is lit, the lantern provides light equally in all directions, which is a good feature.

I also played with the single LED. It is controlled by the push button. The focal point for the single LED is about 10 inches (25 cm) from the base of the lantern. A comparison of the light produced by this lantern as viewed from the front and from the top is shown in the two photo montages below.

ML-1 light settings front front

ML-1 light settings


EXPECTATIONS FOR THE Freeplay ML-1 Lantern

I really don't have any experience with Freeplay products, so I was alittle skeptical about the ability of the crank to generate enough energy which to drive the lights for a significant period of time. However, after looking at the ML-1 and playing around with it a little bit, I think it actually may work the way the manufacturer indicates. As I embark on this test, I'm especially interested in figuring out how long the lantern will hold a charge, both after charging from the plug and from cranking it to charge.


THE STORY SO FAR:

Impressive:
  • Compact
  • Appears to be well made
  • Bright
Concerns:
  • How useful is the angled single LED?
  • Will the ML-1 pack well?


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FIELD REPORT

March 2, 2009


FIELD CONDITIONS

Over the past two months, I have used the Freeplay lantern on 4 nights of camping, 3 of which were in primitive cabins, whereas the fourth was in a non-primitive cabin with electricity and heat. Temperatures inside the cabins ranged overnight from about 40 F (4 C) to the low-60's F (16-18 C). In addition to use on the trail, I had the opportunity to use the lantern for 2 additional nights at home when the power went out.


FIELD EXPERIENCE

The most important question that I ask about any light source for the trail is: does it provide adequate light? In my experience with the ML-1, I would say that I have been quite pleased with the amount of light it provides. Although it is not as bright as a gas lantern, it is much easier to use, since it does not require gas, does not generate heat and it is much easier to regulate the amount of light produced owing to the flywheel. The lantern generates plenty of light for playing cards or for writing in my journal, which tend to be the major light-requiring nighttime activities when I am camping. I also like the fact that I can turn the level down very low, which provides enough light for sitting around and talking without ruining the nighttime ambience.

When I have gone walking at night with the lantern, I prefer to use the 4-LED array, since I like the diffuse light produced better than the single beam generated from the work light (single LED). Of course, this requires more battery usage, but seems a safer way to go

Although I don't like the worklight for walking, I have used it a lot, because I have found it a good light source when I am reading in my sleeping bag at night. When reading, I typically lie on my back with the lantern laying flat on my chest. This arrangement causes the single LED beam to shine at about a 45 degree angle down towards my toes, which is just about the right spot for me to hold my book. Although I like the fact that the lantern provides good light for reading without shooting a lot of light elsewhere, this arrangement is not without its difficulties. Specifically, because the lantern is cylindrical, it has a tendency to roll off my chest when I am using it this way. Although I can extend the handle to prevent the rolling, this causes the light to shine off to the side, which is not conducive for reading.

As noted, I have used the lantern for about 6 nights in total, which is not an excessive amount. Despite this, the initial charge I gave the lantern by plugging it in has completely dissipated. I was hoping it would last longer, since 5-6 days is not particularly long for a backcountry trip. Other rechargeable devices I have owned take 4-5 full charges until they reach their full potential, so I will see if that is the case with this lantern.

After the battery had run out, I tested how long it would hold a charge. I cranked the handle (at a speed to light the green LED indicator) for a minute, and then turned the 4-LED array on full. Although the charge is supposed to last for 7 minutes, I found that the charge lasted just over 3 minutes. Of course, on the trail, it is unlikely that I would run it on full after hand-cranking it, because even 1 minute required a decent amount of exertion on my part.


WEAR AND TEAR

Although the lantern has some edges to it, I have not had any problems with the lantern catching on other items in my pack. It is sturdy enough that there are no scratches or chips on the plastic.


FIELD SUMMARY

So far, I like the Freeplay ML-1 lantern for the amount of light it provides, as well as for the different LED arrays, which provide different types of light for different uses. I am a little concerned that the lantern does not hold a charge for that long, but I will continue to monitor this through the Long-Term testing period and try to get a sense of how many nights usage I can get out of a single charge.




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LONG-TERM REPORT
April 28, 2009


FIELD CONDITIONS

During the long-term phase of the report, I took the Freeplay lantern with me on 2 additional trips over the course of the Long-term report. One was a single overnight trip to Newark, OH, where I stayed overnight in a heated cabin. Temperatures on that trip were cool, with temperatures between 30 F (-1 C) to a high of 45 F (8 C). The cabin where I slept was about 60 F (15 C) overnight. I went on a weekend backpacking trip on the Logan Hollow trail in Laurelville (Southern) Ohio. The first night it was quite warm, with lows around 65 F (18.3 C). The second night on the trail it was much nicer, with lows around 56 F (13.3 C).

FIELD EXPERIENCE

I have not recharged the lantern from the outlet since the end of the Field Report, and have really not needed to spend much time cranking. For most of the time, I have used the single LED light, as this takes the place of my headlamp, providing adequate light for seeing where I am walking at night and providing focused light for reading in my sleeping bag at night. I did use the 4-LED function of the lantern on my backpacking trip to play cards one night. We played for about 2 hours after dark, and kept the lantern on a moderate light output during that time. As can be shown in the picture below, it was a pretty intense game of cards! (The ML-1 is sitting in the middle of the table lighting the game)

Hot card game under the Freeplay lights

Although I cannot guarantee that my kids did not sneak in some turns on the crank, I did not run out of light during these three nights out. However, after getting home from the last trip, I put the light on to see how much juice was left. The single LED lit with no problem, but as soon as I turned up the 4-LED array to high, it went off. I was able to turn it off and put the lantern back on a lower setting, where it was able to stay on for a few minutes before shutting itself off. This is a total of 3 nights of "routine" trail use without having to recharge or crank.

Before submitting this report, I again cranked the lantern for a minute to see how long it would hold the charge. As before, it actually takes a fair amount of effort to crank, and a minute was plenty for me. It was able to light the single LED for about 30 minutes, and the full 4-LED array on high for about 4 minutes. If I put the LED on a moderate light output, it lasts much longer.

I have not had any trouble at all with durability of the lantern, and it looks no worse the wear for being stuffed in my backpack multiple times during the test. The LEDs show no sign of slowing down, and I have not had any problems with the crank. The only thing that continues to be a little bit of a pain is the fact that it remains quite difficult to put the cover fully on the AC adaptor plug.


SUMMARY

Overall, I felt that the Freeplay ML-1 Mini Lantern is a nice piece of gear for providing lantern light for backcountry camping. It is great for sitting around talking or for playing cards at night. I found the single LED feature to be the thing that I used the most, since I usually prefer to sit under the stars while chatting on the trail. Perhaps the most important question in my mind is if I would trade my headlamp for the Freeplay Mini Lantern. For long backcountry trips where size and weight are at a premium, I would say the answer is no. However, for other types of treks where there is more flexibility (e.g., canoe trips), I likely will continue to bring the ML-1 for use as a lantern to provide area lighting. The ML-1 can easily sustain light for a few nights on the trail, but would likely require cranking on trips lasting more than 3-4 days. As 1 minute of cranking can provide enough light for a few card games, or for reading or writing in my journal, I would not need to bring batteries with the lantern.

Things I liked about the ML-1:
  • Liked the availability of both focused (single LED) or wide area (4-LED array) lighting
  • Both settings provide good amount of light
  • Could go on long backcountry trips with no need to bring batteries
  • Size and shape are convenient for this type of light
Things I disliked about the ML-1:
  • Takes a fair amount of energy to crank
  • Difficult to get AC adaptor plug to stay in
  • Would have liked lantern not to roll when laying on its side

This concludes my report on the Freeplay Energy ML-1 Lantern. My thanks once again to Freeplay Energy for providing this little gem for testing, and to BackpackGearTest.org for allowing me to participate in the evaluation process.


-larry kirschner

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