Last week, I posted my review of Opalec’s NewBeam MiniMag LED upgrade kit. This week, a similar offering called the MiniStar2 from TerraLux, as well as two options for tailcap switches.
Like the NewBeam, the MS2 is a pop-in replacement for the standard Mag lamp, along with the associated replacement parts to allow the new module to fit properly. Also like the NewBeam, the MS2 features a step-up transformer circuit to boost the battery power and keep it constant throughout most of the battery life. Otherwise, though, the MS2 is a very different beast.
Whereas the NB uses three standard LEDs, the MS2 uses a single side-emitting LED. This is a rather odd looking device that I hadn’t ever encountered before, but it offers one major benefit over the multi-LED array (a design which, I should note, TerraLux also offers in its original 4-LED MiniStar, which I have not had the oppurtunity to review)—it allows the flashlight to retain its focusability, since the smaller single LED can be moved in and out of the supplied reflector just as the original lamp can be.
Whether this is a benefit or not is up to your personal preferences. In all honesty, I never change it, leaving it focused at the point right after the flashlight first turns on. I find this to be an optimal brightness and beamspread for my use.
This module is ever slightly easier to install than the NB was, because it doesn’t require removal of the plastic base plate that the NB does. It’s a simple matter of removing the original lamp, popping in the thin MS2 module, and swapping out the reflector (the hole in the original reflector doesn’t fit the LED, so a custom reflector is supplied).
Similar to the NB, the MS2 has a constant light output for most of its battery life, and then switches to what it calls “Moon Mode”, where it provides reduced light that tapers off as the batteries drain. While not anywhere near as bright as at full power, the light is still usable in this mode, and although I haven’t had a chance to compare it head-to-head, seems pretty close to a half-used set of batteries with a standard MiniMag lamp. Unlike the NB, however, the MS2 does not have any low battery indicator, so you’re on your own to notice the diminishing light and change batteries.
And, on the subject of battery power, we come to the other major difference between the NB and the MS2. The MS2 is noticeably brighter than the NB, by far. You may not notice it using them independently, but if you look at them side-by-side, the MS2 has much more punch to it. While I wouldn’t quite say it’s equivalent to a true tactical light, it’s pretty close, and it doesn’t need expensive and hard-to-find batteries.
The trade-off for this brighter light, however, is in battery life. While the NB gets about 10-12 hours before the low battery indicator hits, expect 5-7 with the MS2. That said, it still beats the hell out of the standard lamp and battery.
So, when it comes down to it, it’s a hard call to choose between the two. It’s a choice of low battery indicator and longer battery life, or a brighter light. In my everyday touring use, working with the light anywhere from 4-6 days a week, up to 3 shows a day, I actually use both. For load-ins, outs, and work calls, when I want a white light, I use the brighter MS2. For show calls, when I want a more subdued blue light, I use my blue NB. My white NB now sits in my toolbox—for me, as much as I absolutely love the low battery indicator and the extended battery life, the brighter light of the MS2 won out for non-performance use.
Now on to those tailcap switches. I don’t know about you, but I got tired of having to twist the head of the light to turn it on and off. I envied all my co-workers who had those fancy tactical flashlights with pushbutton tailcap switches that could be used as both momentary switches and latching on/off buttons. I once or twice mused about adding a switch to a MiniMag tailcap, but it wouldn’t be easy, and wouldn’t be pretty.
Then I did some internet hunting, and came across two different aftermarket tailcaps made for the AA MiniMag. The first one I tried was by a company called Ram Instrument.
I really, really liked the design of this switch. It features a knurled metal knob the same diameter of the MiniMag with an inset switch. This means that it fits smoothly in any holster your MiniMag fits in without a hitch, and that it’s hard to accidentally bump the switch on.
I waited anxiously for the package with my two Ram tailcaps to arrive, and was quite excited to finally open up the package (yeah, it was a slow week). Reality, however, wasn’t quite what I expected. First, one of the two was DOA. It just didn’t work. At all. Grr.
The second one worked as expected, but with one minor hitch. As I mentioned, I wanted a pushbutton switch that could be used both as a momentary and a latching switch, depending on what I needed at the moment. Any latching pushbutton switch works as a momentary if you push it in partway, stopping before it clicks. The catch, however, is that for this to be useful on a flashlight, the switch needs to be a normally off switch. In other words, it doesn’t turn on until you push it in.
The Ram switch, however, was normally on. It turned off when you pressed the button in. This meant both that the switch just in general worked counterintuitively (although as far as a latching switch goes, it’s not an entirely huge deal, it’s still click on, click off), but that it was useless as a momentary switch, since the momentary action turned it off, rather than on. Aargh. Back to the store they went (and that was a hassle in itself, because the e-store I bought it from refused to credit me for shipping on the defective switch, and even went so far as to accuse me of lying about it being defective right out of the package, but that isn’t a direct reflection on Ram, of course).
That said, if this isn’t a problem for you, the design is nice, looks durable (my DOA switch may argue otherwise, but I’m willing to let them ride on that one as a one-time fluke failing other evidence), and it’s got an o-ring to seal the light up and keep it fairly waterproof (although I have some doubts as to whether the switch itself would hold up to water).
Next, I ordered a Kroll tailcap, which was much harder to find, since I could only come across one online retailer for it (which can be found here), even though there were tons and tons of mentions of it on various LED forums (yes, there are forums online for LED enthusiasts; I didn’t believe it, either).
The reason I hadn’t originally bought this switch was that it is a rubber covered switch, which has a slight tendency to snag on holsters. That’s not to say it isn’t usable; I carry it in a Rip-Offs pouch made for a standard MiniMag, it’s just a slightly tighter fit since the rubber is so grippy. The primary advantage to the rubber covered switch is that the rubber extends into the body of the MiniMag just as the o-ring on the original tailcap does, so it provides a waterproof seal just as good as the original. The other advantage is that the soft switch is real easy to press as a momentary switch (of course, this is also it’s main disadvantage, in its own way).
Suffice to say that I own two, and keep one on each of my working MiniMags. I wouldn’t go anywhere on a job without one of my retrofitted MiniMags—between the LED upgrades and the tailcap switches, it’s a whole new light.
Now, to answer one other big question, at this point, at $30 or so for an LED module and $5 for the tailcap switch, why not just buy an LED light. The reason is twofold. First, many of the ultrabright LED lights use more expensive batteries, while these retrofitted lights just need standard AAs. Second, I already had a handful of MiniMags; most of us do. They’re common, they take a beating, and I could spend $35 to upgrade them, or spend $55 or more on a brand new light. The math worked out.
So, that’s that—if upgrading your MiniMag is of interest, that ought to keep you busy. There are other options out there, but those tend to be a bit more involved, or don’t have the step-up transformer circuitry, so I eliminated them from consideration. If you’re interested, however, do a Google search and you’ll find tons and tons of options.