NiteCore SENS Series
Here we stand, poised on the precipice of a new era in flashlights. Once again NiteCore aims for the lead. Is this radical departure from the norm setting the bar for the competition, or simply falling short of the goal?
NiteCore SENS Series
Meat and Potatoes
Way back in 2008, NiteCore rocked the flashlight world with the introduction of the now-renown EX10 and AA sibling the D10. A Mass market, piston drive light, rocking not only “infinite” variability, but also the relatively new to the scene 100+ lumen LED in a package smaller than most people expected possible. Compared to technology 4 years superior, this achievement is nothing spectacular at all, however at the time getting all of that for a very attainable $60 was unprecedented. Everyone wanted one.
Again, almost a year later, NiteCore introduced the EZ AA. While not quite as popular as the SmartPD series before it, there once again was a certain level of covetous appeal to this simple two level light that was pushing the boundaries of minimal flashlight size further than most had done, and less expensively as well. It was a well timed release that once again created demand.
In the years since, NiteCore has continued to do well, never resting on their laurels, but not quite achieving the same level of desire as with those two early offerings. I have a very strong suspicion this latest release may start to raise their standing once again.
The NiteCore SENS series is one of the first in a new wave of intuitive flashlights. What I mean by that, is that the new direction I have long suspected, and even seen a couple of examples of previously, is flashlights that try and anticipate your needs and adjust light output accordingly, without direct input from the user.
NiteCore SENS Series
On the surface, the NiteCore SENS series appear to be the progeny of their EZ series of yesteryear. Extremely compact design, simple knurling, and even the same signature brass threading. Available powered by your choice of AA, CR123A, or CR2 cell, each model clocks in almost a quarter inch smaller in length than those previous EZ model, to give you a better indication of size. The one drawback I see here though is the fact that they all seem to be just a bit thicker in girth. The CR2 powered SENS Mini is almost the same diameter as the old NiteCore EZ 123 for instance. The fit and finish though are classic NiteCore. The knurling isn’t overly aggressive, and the anodizing appears thick and uniform, even covering the myriad of corners. NiteCore has long been known to not have any rough edges or unfinished machinework. Here again, there are no surprises, but that’s a good thing.
The beam is accomplished by an R5 bin Cree XP-G LED sitting behind what is quite frankly, one of the nicest focusing lenses I have yet encountered. Though I have often proclaimed the magnificence of their beam shape, I have generally been forced to admit that most lenses have had a downside of rings and artifacts marring their quality. This truly doesn’t appear to be the case with any of these examples. The output is floody to be sure, much less throw than even the relatively larger XP-G is capable of. That works for me though, as I tend to despise the tunnel vision that throwy lights create. I willingly trade off some distance illumination for a better situational awareness of my immediate surroundings most of the time.
The further lights tend to advance in this exponential growth period for illumination, the less pronounced the differences between one light and the next become, especially if you are only concerned with output numbers and shapes. As a result the operational aspect of lights has become the real factor in most people’s purchasing decisions. The SENS lights do not scream WOW in any of the traditional metrics. Ranging from 120 lumens (AA) to 190 (CR) these torches do not convey any special properties in any of these areas. Even their compact size isn’t quite enough to set them apart from the crowd, since, lets face it, I’ve seen smaller. The real magic of the SENS series is in the UI. The most concise way to describe it is a 4 mode, 3 output twisty, with orientation based mode selection and no mode switching. If that’s not confusing enough for you, then I heartily commend you. Let me try to break it down. SENS lights act like a single mode twisty light. Twist on, twist off, no complications. They have 3 available outputs though, simple Low, Medium, and High. What I mean by no mode switching though, is that no amount of power cycling, or extra twisting will “advance” to the next mode in a series. All 3 outputs are selected by activating the light in a particular orientation. Hold the light horizontal while you turn it on (as if you are illuminating a long distance away) for High. Activate it at a downward 45° angle (as if you are illuminating a path walking through the woods) for Medium. And turn it on pointed straight down (like you are reading a map or digging through a tackle box) for low.
“Well that’s just weird, not intuitive” you might say, and I would have to agree...if that were the end of the story. Thankfully it’s not. Those are just the constant on modes, the real reason for the SENS series’ existence comes into play when you activate the light pointed straight up. This brings into play the Active Dimming mode that combines all 3 of those previous outputs into one continuously adjusted mode. Turn the light on in this mode, and simply use the light as if it were a single mode, and it will use those same criteria to change outputs on the fly as it anticipates your needs. Moving to a brighter mode is snappy and responsive, quickly illuminating your target with all the extra lumens at your disposal. Lowering the light (and subsequently the output) thankfully is a more gradual transition to reduced brightness. This gives your eyes a little chance to adjust, but still is quick enough to make a positive impact on battery life.
I admit I was a little skeptical when I first read about these modes, however with an open mind I have simply put them through the test of continued use. Believe it or not, these are surprisingly well thought out. Active dimming is definitely not the only mode you will use with this light, but I suspect it will be the one you use most once you have gotten used to it.
NiteCore SENS Series
I put these lights through a battery of testing during this most excellent camping season. For several weekends of not-quite roughing it now I have used them as my primary method of exterior after-dark illumination. They have generally performed up to the task. Once I learned the proper UI (I was originally given these lights for review with nothing more than the name to judge them by) I was duly impressed with their capabilities. They worked as they were intended literally all the time without a single hiccup in their operation. I was a little leary of them at first, thinking this new unproven technology would be prone to errors in its orientation sensing capabilities, but as of yet, this has not at all proven to be the case. Once you know what to expect, these lights perform quite admirably, giving you the mode you are looking for with nothing more than a simple flip of the wrist. Changing outputs does definitely become quite second nature after a short time, and generally lives up to the “intuitive” nomenclature.
Though I mentioned the exterior of the SENS flashlights when it came to fit and finish, there is one aspect of the interior that I take exception to. Inside the tail of the light there is a very small and thin tri-leaf spring to help foster battery contact. During the very first hour of testing, I managed to tighten the head of the light enough to thoroughly compact this spring to basically disable any usefulness it may have possessed. Being the handy guy I perceive myself to be, I took it upon myself to remove this spring and rebend it to near correct tension. Rather than remaining supple and conforming to my gentle coaxing, it quickly snapped off two of the three leafs (leaves?) leaving me too cowardly to attempt the third. Thankfully this has not resulted in any detriment to performance that I can detect, but has simply allowed for extra battery rattle and required further tightening in order to activate. This has been brought to NiteCore’s attention and I sincerely hope that since my lights are pre-release review samples, the problem will be addressed in the completed product. I haven’t heard for certain though.
As far as outputs go, the three modes chosen for this light are decent, I would say, but no more than that. The difference between the Medium and High modes is minimal at best, and often not that easy to spot. Low mode is fine for its chosen tasks, most of the time, but the lack of any type of super-low or Moon mode is a little frustrating at times. The longer I use a light, the less light I tend to need, and so I find myself often reducing output over time. This UI makes this a little harder to do, unless you switch out of Active Dimming mode into pure Low, which unfortunately negates the purpose. I usually didn’t find myself doing that, rather just relegating myself to keeping the light pointed downward to maintain my output.
While this new UI is definitely a step into a fresh and new direction, I do believe it to be simply that. a step. This isn’t by any stroke the be-all-end-all of intuitive flashlights. I suspect the time will come when you will be able to pick up a flashlight that so internally complex that the external light appears so simple that you swear it is mind controlled. I can only imagine what it will take to get to that point, but it will never happen unless someone is willing to take that first step. Kudos to NiteCore for kicking off the progress in a big way, and especially for doing so with such an attractive price point, but lets not stop there. We need to keep moving forward.
The SENS Series is a shining example of flashlight innovation (pun intended) with some good old fashioned basic quality thrown in to boot. This light is more useful than you might suspect it to be. I am very happy carrying mine and am far more likely to use the Active Dimming mode than any other. Is this the end of this road? Absolutely not. But for a first step, it is quite compelling.
Provided for review by the kind folks at NiteCore.