I'm weirdly obsessed with lighting. I automated the lights in my home way before companies like Philips made it easy to do so. Now I find myself wanting to add lighting to family picnics at the beach or camping getaways. Traditionally, I'd have opted for propane-powered lamps, or a rechargeable light like the Hue Go if I wanted to get fancy. But what I really want is something super compact and versatile that can easily be tucked into a backpack. That's when I stumbled upon a few portable lighting solutions that can be powered by any of the USB sticks I've accumulated over the past few years.
Strands of USB-powered lights are apparently a thing now, driven in part by the fact that little USB stick batteries are dirt cheap and widely available from companies like Anker. I'll bet you have at least one (maybe more since they're sometimes given away for free as promotional items). I've been testing two brands of USB-powered light strands, both with their origins on Kickstarter.
What are they?
Fairystring sent me prototype 6- and 48-foot strands, but they're also available in 12-foot and 24-foot lengths. Fairystrings are delicate: delicate on the lumens, and delicate to handle in order to avoid tangling. They’re meant primarily for mood lighting not illumination, though they can get quite bright when the LEDs are bunched together. Fairystrings are best described with words like fairies, strings, glittering, and enchanting.
Additionally, I've been testing a 10-foot Luminoodle LED light rope. It’s also available in a 5-foot length. Both ship with fasteners to hang anywhere, or a loop to quickly coil it up into the included pouch for a rather ingenious lantern. This thing is bright at 360 lumens. Luminoodles are best described with words like luminescent, noodles, engineered, and practical.
If you're looking to set the mood by using light as decoration, then Fairystring is the clear winner. The transparent three-wire strings that connect each bulb go nearly invisible at night, leaving just the glowing LEDs for a chilled atmosphere. And the three lighting modes — twinkling, breathing, and steady glow — are absolutely lovely, not annoying. (Setting the lights to twinkle mode harkens back to the sultry summers of my youth when lightning bugs would ignite the night.) Drop the spool into a fabric lantern to create magic, or a mason jar to bump up the intensity while still maintaining the ambiance. They're also waterproof according to Carrie Shuler, or “Lulu” preferably, the human behind the Fairystring campaign.
Luminoodle is the clear winner if you want to uniformly illuminate a space to wrench on a car, or a camp site well enough to read a book. Its LEDs are really bright and they never tangle thanks to a long flexible rope that looks like, well, a fat, white, translucent noodle. Better yet, it ships with universal ties and magnets to hang it anywhere. And when you’re done, you can quickly wrap it up in the included utility loop that then slips into an included white nylon bag — a combination that diffuses light for a makeshift lantern. Power Practical says the Luminoodle is IP-67 rated, making it waterproof at a depth of up to 1 meter for 30 minutes.
As usual, I always have a few complaints, none of which are deal-breakers for either product. Note that the Fairystring products I tested are prototypes, whereas the Luminoodle is well into production. I've been assured that every Fairystring issue I experienced will be sorted before the final product ships to backers, which is exactly why Lulu is raising money on Kickstarter in the first place.
- Neither of the Fairystring prototypes I received supported all three lighting modes. The medium string supported breathing and steady glow modes while the long string only supported twinkling. Lulu says this will be solved for the backers.
- The LEDs on the long string were more yellow than the warm white LEDs on the medium string I tested. Lulu says that all strings will include the warm white LEDs when shipped to backers.
- Fairystring tangles more easily than traditional Christmas lights, a perpetual problem for fairy-style lights of this design.
- You can find cheaper USB-powered LED strings at Walmart and on Amazon for a lot less, though Lulu assures me that they're vastly inferior products (more on this below).
- Only one lighting mode, they're always on at full brightness or always off. (Power Practical offers dimming and colors on more expensive models.)
- The rope isn't as pleasing to look at as the Fairystring.
Should you buy them?
If you need intense portable lighting, then I can whole-heartedly recommend the Luminoodle. It might not be the prettiest or most subtle of lighting solutions, but it's a well made, practical, and incredibly versatile product that features a lot of clever design touches.
Buying Fairystring lights is a slightly more difficult proposition. The product envisioned is great, and the delightful prototypes I tested suggest that the campaign knows what it’s doing. But convincing someone to pay more for Fairystring versus an off-brand is tough. It’s like convincing someone to pay a price premium for an iPhone when there are dozens of similarly specced Android phones available from China. Cheaper USB lighting solutions can be purchased on Amazon and Walmart this very minute. But Lulu tells me that she tested these exact products and they're inferior. (They don't include on / off switches or Fairystring’s customized twinkle mode, the Amazon product has a black USB plug instead of clear, and the two-wire Walmart string is just "shitty" — it broke right away in her testing.) She makes a good case that hers will be a superior offering, which she’ll prove to backers when she begins shipping the finished products in June.
Here, I'll let Lulu explain the value proposition to you, as she did to me in an email exchange:
"We’ve been messing around with these LED lights for over 7 months now and have begun to realize that the majority of what is available is junk. Within that time frame we have been able to identify what exactly makes for a good String Light and what doesn’t. Because this is the first of many products, we want to make sure that the price our customers are paying for Fairystring is justified with quality and constant development."
"We will be the ‘big dog’ of USB String lights."
I admit to being swayed by her enthusiasm and commitment to her craft. Besides, isn’t Lulu the type of dreamer and young entrepreneur that Kickstarter campaigns were always meant to support?