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Reviews > Lighting > Lanterns > Freeplay ML1 Mini Lantern > Test Report by Richard Lyon
FREEPLAY ENERGY ML-1 MINI-LANTERN
Initial Report December 10, 2008
I've been backpacking for 45 years, on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1985. I do a weeklong trip every summer and frequently take three-day trips. I'm usually camping in alpine terrain at elevations of 5000 - 13000 feet (1500-5000 meters). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too. While always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight camper, and I usually chose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences that I've come to expect.
The Freeplay Energy ML-1 Mini-Lantern (Mini-Lantern or Mini, for short) is a self-contained portable lantern - battery and bulbs are lodged inside the lantern's hard plastic housing and clear lens, respectively. The Mini-Lantern has two independent lighting options: a directional light emitting diode (LED) bulb just below the lens that Freeplay calls the "task light;" and four white LEDs clustered around a post inside the lens. An on-off switch on one side of the Mini-Lantern controls the task light; a thumb-operated rheostat allows adjustment of the main LEDs from low to "ultrabright." The opaque sides of the rheostat glow green at low energy usage or red at brighter settings, and the center strip glows in the dark to aid finding the Mini-Lantern.
The Mini-Lantern's unusual feature is a fold-out crank. While the battery is normally charged and re-charged by plugging the Mini-Lantern into an electrical outlet using the charger, Freeplay says that a minute's turning of the handle will generate sufficient power for another hour of illumination from the task light. The crank has a screw-fixed ratchet tab for easy turning, and this tab locks securely into a notch when not in use.
Other features are a small metal handle at the top of the Mini-Lantern for carrying or to use to hang it from the dome of a tent , and a small green LED on the handle side of the housing that comes on after a ninety per cent charge is reached. The metal handle folds down flush to the top of the Mini-Lantern when not needed.
While Freeplay indicates at one point on its website that the battery need never be replaced, elsewhere it is described as "replaceable." It can be removed by unscrewing the bottom of the base.
Freeplay gives the following specifications for the Mini-Lantern:
Charging times: 3 hours for 90% charge; 8 hours for a
"Sturdy" is the first word that came to my mind when I removed the Mini-Lantern from its box. Except for the three parts that are supposed to move (two switches and the crank handle), this product appears to be rigid and sound. The base and control panel are hard rubber, the rest of the housing is hard plastic. The base is affixed by two screws in very slightly recessed holes, and the hard plastic top is affixed to the top lip of the clear plastic lens with four small screws. This lantern doesn't appear to have much that can work loose or break. It even looks and feels strong enough to withstand an accidental drop or even a misplaced step-upon. From this sloppy packer's point of view, I think this could go just about anywhere in a pack without great risk of damage from some sharp-pointed object. Nor does the Mini-Lantern have any sharp edges or corners to wreak injury on something else in my pack.
The Mini-Lantern weighs a bit more than the other backpacking battery lanterns in my gear closet, but is no larger than one of those with a comparable listed illuminating power. By my less-than-ultralight standards the Mini-Lantern is neither too heavy nor too bulky for my solo backpacking kit.
Trying It Out
Freeplay recommends a full eight-hour charge before first use, but curiosity required that I try out the crank right after opening. After a measured sixty seconds' turning, I had light, first from the LED array, then the task light, and then both at once. I left the LED array on, and got another five-plus minutes on the brightest setting, just as Freeplay specifies.
After turning the switch off I plugged the Mini-Lantern into the charger and left it to charge while I was at work during the day. The following evening I detached the charger and ran the Mini-Lantern through its paces.
The task light points diagonally down from its perch just below the LED lens, above the rheostat, so that with careful placement of the lantern it can be used as a reading light when the lantern's hanging in my tent. It's definitely bright enough for this purpose, sending out a stream of bright white light without streaks or fingers.
At its brightest the Mini-Lantern fully illuminates my master bathroom sufficiently to identify everything on the shelves and racks - overall an impressive performance. At the lowest setting on the rheostat, what Freeplay calls the "night light" setting, the light level allows identification of larger objects, and of course allows me instantly to locate the light source to turn up the juice if necessary. The LEDs give out a blaze of light that is slightly streaky for a few inches/centimeters from the base but generally a soft, solid white glow.
A lantern is one of the camp conveniences referred to in my profile - I like having a small one in camp and will almost always tolerate its extra weight in my pack for the utility of an illuminated breakfast area at 5 am and the comforting glow of a lamp in my tent.
My first field use of the Mini-Lantern took place over four days in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in late December. The first night was in a tent along the Blacktail Trail, elevation about 8000 feet (2400 m) with low temperatures of about 10 F (-12 C). After this overnight I moved to a cabin at the old Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley for three nights while attending a first aid course. While outdoor temperatures were much colder the cabin had a heater that kept nighttime ambient temperature at about 55-60 F (15 C).
I used the Mini in my tent on two overnight camping trips in Texas, with the colder night at 38 F (3 C) and the other at about 50 F (10 C). These were typical Texas altitudes, not much above 500 feet (150 m).
My somewhat limited usage has illustrated some very good things from the Mini-Lantern. First, it is reliable. Winter darkness comes early in Yellowstone. It was completely dark by 5 pm and difficult to see for an hour before that, thanks to overcast skies and swirling snow. Upon arriving in camp I used the Mini for some light to pitch my tent, then moved it on to kitchen duty. The Mini there illuminated first some snow melting for water supply and then dinner preparation, sitting on flattened snow between my Jetboil Helios and the meal's makings. It simultaneously served as something of a beacon for others who were performing camp chores away from our tent area. During more than two hours or more of virtually continuous use, almost all at the maximum LED setting, there was not a flicker or dimming. I had charged the Mini overnight before starting this trip, and this time period is well below the Mini's stated maximum, so duration wasn't unexpected. With many other battery lanterns, however, I have encountered inexplicable failures, either intermittent or semi-permanent, after moving the lantern or from flimsy inside battery connections. None of that with the Mini, despite my moving it about quite a bit. The cold in Yellowstone had no apparent effect on performance.
Total usage on this trip, before recharging at the Lamar cabin, was about three hours of LED use at top setting, use of the task light for reading in my tent and as a flashlight, and keeping the LEDs at the "night light" (minimum) setting overnight in my tent. The Mini wasn't the only small object stored in my sleeping bag, and I wanted to be able to see it easily if I needed it during the night. Keeping the night light on will likely be my standard practice even in warmer weather, to allow easy locating in whatever tent corner I've stowed it.
Performance in Yellowstone confirmed my first impression, stated in my Initial Report, that this is a sturdy product. I placed it in a small divot in the snow for kitchen duty, and there it stayed, despite the wind. The Mini's two switches sit midway up the base and the bulbs are at the top, so it can be dug in a bit for added stability.
It's easy to use. The rheostat and both on-off switches are easy to operate when wearing mittens.
The Mini does, as Freeplay advertises, work well as a flashlight. That's one use for the task light, that single bulb than shoots a focused light down from just below the LED array. When held at waist level I had no difficulty watching my steps in the snow when scouting the campsite for firewood or digging out a hole for my snow stakes, or in Texas on midnight bathroom breaks.
The task light's suitability as a reading light is somewhat limited. The light is powerful enough and sufficiently focused for ordinary reading. (Better than that, actually. It's bright enough so that I don't need my reading glasses, which I can't say for all of my headlamps.) When I can place the lamp on a solid surface and can direct the light and keep the Mini still I can easily read a map or cooking directions on a package. That's all well and good when there's a picnic table or similar surface on which to place the map and Mini, but nearly impossible when the Mini is suspended in my tent. I was able to use it for reading a paperback book in my tent only with the Mini on the floor next to the book, and me on my side or belly in my sleeping bag. In the cabin in Yellowstone the corner above my bed had a small built-in night stand for small items, and I could use the Mini for reading after my cabin mate retired to bed. I know of no tent than can provide such stability. With the LEDs at top setting the Mini does make a pleasant dome light in my tent, though, certainly adequate for a Scrabble game. The light was soft and white, not streaky at all on the tent floor.
I've re-charged the Mini immediately after each night in the field. The battery or charger doesn't appear to have a "memory" that might require running the charge down before re-charging. Before its longest stint between charges, in Yellowstone, I had used it for reading on the plane flight to Montana, for only about thirty minutes' total use. I recharged it that night, then again at the Lamar ranch after the overnight. Its next trip included a couple of hours' continuous use, without mishap.
All in all, I consider the Mini a very functional piece of gear, certainly better than adequate for the duties I expect from a lantern. I especially like:
· Rheostat and its minimum setting. I don't expect to rummage in the dark for this lantern anytime soon.
· Even though I haven't had to use it, I like the wind-up feature as insurance should I forget to charge the battery.
· Easy to operate and very little that can go wrong.
· Small and compact.
My only reservation is the Mini's weight, which exceeds that of another lantern I own that gives a similar amount of light.
The Mini was in my pack on three backpacking trips in north Texas and the Texas Hill Country in late winter and early spring. Temperatures ranged from 38-70 F (3-21 C), in dry weather at an altitude that never exceeded 500 feet (140 m). On an overnight car camping retreat in Montana the weather was much more interesting, an overnight low of 5 F (-15 C) following a driving snowstorm the preceding afternoon and evening.
The Mini served as a light for cooking breakfast each morning, and to illuminate my tent each night after dark. On the car camping trip I used the task light as a flashlight in a manner similar to that described in my Field Report. All other use was the LEDs only. In Montana I kept the LEDs on their minimum setting inside my sleeping bag all night, but on all other occasions I turned the lantern off completely after turning in for the night.
The principal change from use during my Field Report condition was some staged testing of the wind-up feature. Before the first Texas trip I let the Mini's battery run down fully. This proved more difficult to do than I expected. Just before going to bed at home I left the Mini on, at its maximum LED setting, in a spare room. Seven hours later it was still going strong – backing up Freeplay's stated capacity and then some, as the Mini had been used for at least two hours before my attempt at draining the battery. Not for another hour did the beam go out. I did not recharge before heading into the field on the Texas trip, relying solely on the crank for light from the Mini.
Hand-cranking the Mini definitely recharges the battery. My first use in the Hill Country was to prepare dinner at dusk. One minute's cranking gave me just under eight minutes' light at full illumination, slightly more than Freeplay's stated minimum. This was more than enough time to light the stove, get water boiling, and locate the packet of food in my pack. After dinner I re-cranked the Mini for a minute and switched the LED on at the midpoint, and this time got just over thirteen minutes of light. Just for fun I cranked for exactly two minutes and switched the LEDs back to high. Voilà, fourteen minutes of light. The crank's final test was at bedtime, when one minute on the crank gave just short of Freeplay's stated forty-five minutes of light – far longer than my normal reading time before bed.
Unlike some other lanterns I have used the Mini doesn't warn of impending battery exhaustion. I noticed no gradual dimming; the lantern went from high to off in an instant.
Freeplay recommends against running the battery down (intentionally or otherwise), stating that it may shorten battery life, so once I returned home I resumed my earlier practice of re-charging after every trip. On none of the other trips did I approach the seven hours on high that has proven to be an accurate, even conservative, stated capacity. The crank may come in handy later this summer on my eight-day backcountry service trip, but I plan only to use it as I believe it was intended to be used, as an emergency measure, rather than as a regular means of charging the Mini.
Cold and snow didn't affect the Mini in Montana, and didn't during my Field Report testing in Yellowstone. As noted in my Field Report I had no trouble operating the Mini when wearing heavy mittens.
The Mini's sturdy plastic body doesn't have a scratch after four months' use, and its few moving pieces still operate as new.
Even with its task light the Mini won't ever replace my headlamp. Unlike a headlamp the Mini requires a hand to hold it when hiking, and to some extent even in my tent when I want to use it for reading. I don't deem this a shortcoming in the Mini, as I've yet to find a hands-free lantern, and it doesn't mean that I won't continue to pack the Mini. The Mini is very useful for map reading, when the Mini can hold the map in place on the ground or a camp table. I often pack a lantern in addition to a headlamp. The ambiance a lantern gives to a tent on a dismal evening is worth an extra 10.5 ounces/301 g in my pack.
Several of my special likes from my Field Report remain the same:
· Rheostat and its minimum setting.
· The illuminated dial makes it easy to find the Mini in the dark.
· Easy to operate and very little that can go wrong
· Small and sturdy
After two more months' use I can add to the list:
· I can upgrade my opinion on the wind-up feature to observed fact. It works as advertised, making for a very welcome emergency light should Murphy's Law kick in.
· No spent batteries to feel guilty about throwing away.
· Capacity. Even Freeplay's stated seven hours at the maximum setting, which has proven to be conservative, will likely exceed my needs on anything but a week-long trip.
I still consider the Mini a bit on the heavy side, and its output (though not capacity) doesn't exceed a lighter, similarly-sized lantern in my kit. This fact may give the Mini some back-up duty as the light in the tool-emergency box in my sport utility vehicle. I know that I'll have a functioning light even if it sits there unused for months, and the task light will be useful to pinpoint small items when fixing a flat or looking among luggage. That service, though, complements rather than replaces the Mini's use as a backpacking lantern, and I'm sure it will be in my pack many times in the future when I'm not counting every ounce.
My Test Series ends here, with thanks to Freeplay and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this reliable little lantern.
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Reviews > Lighting > Lanterns > Freeplay ML1 Mini Lantern > Test Report by Richard Lyon