Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Laser Pointers: the Research

Best Laser Pointers Part 3

Because laser pointers are not high-profile products with their own review categories, it is not easy to find authoritative resources that have discussed at length over different brands and reputations, or compared products a la Consumer Reports. This is, of course, where the net shines: it is possible to aggregate the opinions of thousands of knowledgeable users who, by being actual owners of the products, are actually more expert at judging these products and their competitors than outside rating agencies...

All of this to explain why conducting research on laser pointers was a long and difficult process:-) The forums, as usual, were key to identifying brands and models with high and low reputation. There are literally hundreds of sites that sell laser pointers, many of which are distributing no-name devices. Going through several hundreds of sales sites was necessary to filter through the chaff - which, in the case of laser pointers, is 99.9% of the offering. We then had to go through thousands of user reviews and threads covering different models and suppliers.

The issues is compounded by the fact that most users who write about lasers are enthusiasts. They are interested in much higher power than 5mW, which is the maximum legal power in the US for laser pointers. As a consequence, most of the product information  on lasers focuses on higher power than what we are interested in, leaving only a small percentage of information useful to us:(

Very quickly, it became clear that random ordering from an unqualified supplier made it very likely to buy a failing product. Not only is there very little QA (Quality Assurance) for most of the products sold, meaning that many of them are DOA or fail very quickly, but there is also the issue of nominal vs actual broadcast power, which, even with somewhat reputable suppliers, could be very different from each other. If you get a lower power laser pointer, you simply don't have the visibility you need. If you get a higher power one you can easily get into safety issues. Worse - specifically due to the technologies in question, it often turns out that broadcast power varies up and down with time, somewhat randomly, unless the supplier has actually used control circuits to regulate that power precisely.

One other issue cropped up - that of safety. Very few retailers list details such as IR filter or APC. User reviews were critical in that respect. Even then, it was sometimes necessary to contact manufacturers to validate pointer engineering. Of course, most, if not all, cheap pointers simply don't have an IR filter.

As we progressively filtered through the data, it also became clear that even well-known manufacturers had some quality or reliability problems. Dragon Lasers, Z-Bolt, Techlasers, Skylasers, even Wicked Lasers had, at least for some batches or products, significant QA issues. Users often forgive that when customer service is good, but poor customer service on top of some quality problems has a way to kill reputation very quickly... Most of the suppliers are located in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, as are their shopping sites, making for long language problems and long turnaround times.

In the end, there are really two markets for laser pointers. One is the cheap laser pointer, which may be obtained for a few dollars, often with interesting wrinkles such as multiple heads, or pen-flashlight-laser combos etc. These are cheap items, both in terms of costs, and in terms of quality. They will fail quickly - or - one out of two or three might be good. The other market is made of  the higher quality lasers, which are not cheap, and which might also run into quality issues, although less frequently - but unfortunately with more money at stake.

For the first cheap part of the market, the best way to approach it was to identify suppliers with a wide range of products and a good customer support reputation - check the Online Stores section of the review. DealExtreme and LEDShoppe carried the best customer support reputation, and had better items on average. We give our preference to DealExtreme because of the existence of user reviews, extraordinarily useful to be able to get better information about the product and its reliability.

For the higher-end market, we started with a long list that we pared down progressively. In the end, there were several manufacturers that we liked but that did not quite make the cut. In the higher end, Dragon Laser had good models and some supporters, but also some significant negative reviews on reliability. NovaLasers, with a great reputation, did not carry any more pointers at 5mW or under. Wicked Lasers also had some QA challenges but we felt that, on the whole, they were still above the cut. Enlight Technologies had some good reviews, but their site was not clear enough to allow for easy purchasing. LaserGlow and Optotronics definitely made the grade. Atlas Nova was the most interesting mid-range provider, a small company with honest products and excellent customer support.

Selection of the products themselves also gave us trouble. We rate usability and reliability highest in terms of attributes. For usability reasons we felt strongly about the power source needing to be AAs and AAAs, especially for laser pointers that can be taken on the road. It turned out that almost all the higher end lasers we found, all with AAAs, had a duty cycle below 100%, meaning that they had to be turned off for a few second every minute or two. As, for safety reasons, we only selected models with a temporary on/off switch (meaning you have to leave your finger on the push button as long as we want to laser to shine) we did not feel that it was a significant drawback.

Tomorrow we will list our final choices for the best high end laser pointers... So come back soon!

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