Garmin has brought out ANOTHER product in their never ending YEAR of product releases. The Garmin Varia light is the latest in Garmin’s “The Connected Bike” concept, however having smart lights, is this an innovation too far, or just what the cyclists need to stay safe at night?
There are three products in the Garmin Varia brand – A radar system, rear light and as reviewed here, the Varia front light.
So what makes the Varia front light different to any other bike light out there? As the light connects to the Garmin Edge 1000 over ANT+, it is also able to take data from the Edge. Using the Garmin 1000, the Varia front light automatically adjusts its focus point depending on your speed. Certainly a nifty trick, but does it work, and crucially is it needed? But first, lets look at the light itself
Garmin Varia Light Design
The moment you open the Varia box, the thing that strikes you about the Varia is its weight – its feels like a solid block of aluminium. On the one side, it feels very reassuring, but is a really weighty beast when compared to my Moon 500 light.
Yes the Moon might have 100 lumens less than the Varia, but at 112g for the Moon, and 222g for the Varia, I do wonder if the weight is a reasonable trade for the extra lumens and the automatic adjustment of the beam
In spite of the weight, the Varia is a very nicely designed piece of kit. Yes it’s a solid block, but I dont think anyone is really going to be too concerned about aerodynamics and speed when you are flying along at night, more safety.
The front of the unit has a large, clear lense onto the curved mirrors inside, with the top and bottom mirrors divided into 4 segments each. Just looking at the unit, I do think that the various curvatures of the mirror do look better than the simple tube lights, such as the Moon 500, with the LED at the back around a circular mirror. When talking to light manufacturers, they always say that it more important what you do with the light, in terms of beam pattern, rather than merely having a high lumen count, looking at the mirror in the Garmin Varia gives the impression that Garmin have done their refractive home work
If you peer inside the glass on the front of the Garmin Varia, and look at the “ceiling” of the lens chamber you can see two LED’s inside, which seem to have their own lenses, like blobs of glass, which I havnt seen before
On top of the unit is a FEMALE Garmin quarter turn mount.
On the one hand it makes sense for Garmin to use their own mount, rather than say a GoPro mount (which they have already gone with the Garmin Virb XE) BUT it does mean that there is NO other way of mounting the Garmin Varia other than to the bottom of the supplied mounting arm…which is a shame.
Personally I really like by K-Edge mount, that allows me to use both a Garmin Edge, and a GoPro slung underneath it (the matter than I tend to cycle with a Garmin Virb XE underneath is immaterial). There is a company call ShapeWays which produces a Garmin Quarter Turn/GoPro adapter which looks like it would resolve me issue, but at £145 for the Varia lights, is a might annoying to have to purchase a £14.10 adapter because Garmin has made an odd decision.
On the bottom of the unit is a very well sealed micro USB port, and just round the side is the power button. AGAIN another oddity. The power button really seems to have a mind of its own in terms of pairing the unit or just switching it on. By the side of a notification LED button, indicating battery level and whether the unit is broadcasting over ANT+
The Garmin Varia, because of its mounting option, comes with its own extender mount, that the Garmin Edge 1000 attaches to the top of. As the quarter turn mount has no pitch option, the position of your Garmin Edge is dictated by the angle you need to fix the Varia at, which might be an irritation for some. Similarly, dont secure the extender mount until you have checked where the beam falls from your bike. With my setup, when I initially attached the mount, I arranged things so that the mount and Edge are horizontal, which means the beam is a little too close to the front wheel. Thus its a much better set up to screw the mount tight AFTER you have checked the beam position
Out of the road
The Garmin Varia front light is expensive, its got an annoying mount, it weights at least twice as much as it should…But the beam is BRILLIANT.
A nice crisp oblong shape, that lights up the road perfectly, with little stay light to the edges of the road. Some people might like a little more illumination at the edges of the road, personally I preferred the more focused beam
Some people use two lights on their bike, one to light close to the bike, and one further away. As a result of the great mirror design the Varia, a beam of light is cast around your front wheel, but also further out in front. It is the front beam that adjusts depending on your speed, which it receives from the Edge 1000.
There are 4 light beams that change as you cycle along
- Main/Speed beam
I think the best way to demonstrate this is to actually show the beam changing as I cycle along
The Varia light is also able to react depending on ambient light detected from the Edge 1000, meaning that when you cycle into built up areas the light dips slightly.
There is however one really odd issue about this…I found on one late night cycle, with a full moon shining away, the moon APPEARED to be able cause the Varia to dim, which is slightly annoying when you are cycling on an unlit lane. I’ve not been able to test this again, given the the full moon occurs once a month, and perfectly clear skies with it, are not always the case, so I’d file this under “interesting anomaly TO BE CONFIRMED”
In terms of light duration, from a 6 hour charge, the front Garmin Varia is going to keep the road illuminated for 2.5hrs, hence the large size of the unit
I’ve mentioned a few times using the Garmin Edge 1000 with the Garmin Varia light. This isnt by chance. You need to have a Garmin 1000 in order to get the Varia Light doing any of its tricks. Otherwise its just a light.
Though the Edge you can toggle various options of the Varia, such as the Motion Activation, Beam Angel, and configuration of the beam for day/night usage, and crucially check the battery level
The light sensor is clearly an important aspect of the Varia Light, but I’m not sure if its FUNDAMENTAL feature, which makes me wonder when and more importantly IF Garmin updates the firmware on other Edge devices to allow use with the Varia?
The Garmin Varia Light is an expensive front light. The price to entry is made even higher by currently only working with the Garmin Edge 1000.
It’s heavy, and I’m not a fan of the female Garmin Quarter turn mounting option, as I find it really limits how I can mount the light.
BUT against all of this the beam pattern and the speed dependent changes are VERY impressive.
The smart bike light is a great idea, but for the price, I think the Garmin Varia light has too many limitation, perhaps the inclusion of the Varia Light remote, would make the price more understandable. However the need for the Garmin EDGE 1000 in order to get the unit working, also increases the “price to entry”.
The Garmin Varia is good, but currently priced as it is, and excluding anyone who doesnt have a 1000 makes it quite a niche device. Which is a real shame, as the Varia is VERY good at its main job, lighting the road. Perhaps there would be a market for the same device, but without the smart features, as the beam is truly great!