Light Review: Surefire Sidekick (Compact Fob Light)

Though not the first to make a USB rechargeable keychain light, Surefire have applied their philosophy of ‘excellence in illumination’ to this EDC essential.

 photo 09 Sidekick on P1170827.jpg

Taking a more detailed look:

The Sidekick comes in a cardboard blister pack.
 photo 01 Sidekick Boxed P1170798.jpg

Inside is the Sidekick itself, a short USB charging cable, a metal clip and the instructions.
 photo 02 Sidekick Box contents P1170803.jpg

The underside of the Sidekick has a metal heat sink panel with the model engraved onto it.
 photo 03 Sidekick angle P1170808.jpg

At the top is the power button and a moulded Surefire logo. The main body is a tough plastic and has a split ring at the rear.
 photo 04 Sidekick rear angle P1170812.jpg

On the angled corner at the front you can see the micro-USB port for charging.
 photo 05 Sidekick port angle P1170815.jpg

I only noticed the small piece of plastic case under the micro-USB port was cracked when I was preparing these photos. This has not affect the function at all.
 photo 06 Sidekick port close P1170816.jpg

Set into the front is Surefire’s MaxVision Beam reflector assembly. This has a multi-faceted reflector surface to smooth out the beam without the losses of a textured reflector.
 photo 07 Sidekick reflector angle P1170822.jpg

Looking straight into the faceted reflector at the Cree XP-G2 LED. (For some reason Surefire don’t specify the actual LED anywhere in the documentation.)
 photo 08 Sidekick LED P1170824.jpg

Plugging in the micro-USB cable to charge the Sidekick.
 photo 10 Sidekick charging P1170830.jpg

Even the compact metal clip has ‘SF’ on it.
 photo 11 Sidekick clip P1170831.jpg

The split ring is very stiff, so getting the clip on isn’t easy, but its not going to come off by mistake.
 photo 12 Sidekick with clip P1170834.jpg

The beam

Please be careful not to judge tint based on images you see on a computer screen. Unless properly calibrated, the screen itself will change the perceived tint.

The indoor beamshot is intended to give an idea of the beam shape/quality rather than tint. All beamshots are taken using daylight white balance. The woodwork (stairs and skirting) are painted Farrow & Ball “Off-White”, and the walls are a light sandy colour called ‘String’ again by Farrow & Ball. I don’t actually have a ‘white wall’ in the house to use for this, and the wife won’t have one!

Since the days of the Solitaire keychain light, I’ve always had a compact EDC light on my keys. This shrunk to the photon size button cell type, but those really only served as a last ditch light, so the size I used grew again to include a USB rechargeable or AAA powered light. The beam of the Sidekick is a revelation in keychain lights, with its wide floody beam (with no glare) and plenty of power.

Just look at this beamshot and you probably think we were looking at something you wouldn’t attach to your keys. A really excellent EDC beam.

 photo 14 Sidekick indoor beam P1230310.jpg

Modes and User Interface:

The Sidekick has three output levels Low, Medium, and High.
From OFF, press the power switch to select Low, press again within 2s to change to Medium, press again within 2s of the last press to get High, and once more cycles to OFF.
If you are using either Low or Medium, if you wait over 2s before pressing again, the Sidekick will turn OFF (instead of going to the next mode and then OFF).

There are no indicator lights on the Sidekick, so no charge or low battery indicators. Instead the Sidekick uses its main LED. For low battery, the output simply reduces sharply to a lower level and starts to fade out. There is no sudden turn off, so while there is no actual ‘warning’ it is clear you are low on power.

For charging, the main LED is used as the indicator. With the USB power connected, the LED blinks to indicate the Sidekick is charging. During the charging process the LED sometimes comes on steadily for a few seconds then has a series of blinks. I’ve not so far managed to determine if there is an actual pattern to this. Ultimately, once fully charged the main LED comes on steadily at the low level and stays on as long as power is connected.

The default order of the modes is L-M-H, but this can be reversed to H-M-L by carrying out the following steps:

1. Plug in the charger.
2. Press the switch three times until the High level is activated.
3. Leave the Sidekick On for 5 seconds or more, then press the switch once to turn Off.
4. Unplug from the charger and test the sequence.

To return to L-M-H, repeat the previous steps except in step 2 you press three times to activate Low.
(Stopping on Medium at step 2 does not do anything.)

Batteries and output:

The Sidekick runs on a built-in 640mAh Li-ion battery.

Surefire have commented that the charge rate is fixed around 450mA, but it always seems to charge faster than the instruction manual, or this information, would suggest. In my experience (with a good charger) even fully depleted, it takes less than an hour to charge.

To measure actual output, I built an integrating sphere. See here for more detail. The sensor registers visible light only (so Infra-Red and Ultra-Violet will not be measured).

Please note, all quoted lumen figures are from a DIY integrating sphere, and according to ANSI standards. Although every effort is made to give as accurate a result as possible, they should be taken as an estimate only. The results can be used to compare outputs in this review and others I have published.

___________________________________________ ________________________________ ________________________________
Surefire Sidekick using built-in cell I.S. measured ANSI output Lumens PWM frequency or Strobe frequency (Hz)
___________________________________________ ________________________________ ________________________________
High 320 0
Medium 60 0
Low 3 100

* Beacon and Strobe output measurements are only estimates as the brief flashes make it difficult to capture the actual output value.

There is parasitic drain but as the light is sealed this could not be measured. During normal use over a period of over 6 months, the Sidekick has never noticeably self drained.

For such a compact lightweight light, the Sidekick has a fantastic performance on High. Not fully regulated, the output does however remain above 250lm for a full 45 minutes – very impressive for a keychain light.
 photo surefire sidekick runtime.jpg


This section is included to mention any minor niggles I come across during testing, in case the information helps anyone else.

No issues were encountered during testing.

As per the description of this section, this information is provided in case anyone else finds a similar ‘issue’ that might be fixed in the same way.

The Sidekick in use

Though it is compact, the Sidekick is relatively large for a keychain light. It gets away with this thanks to not being heavy and the plastic housing seems to help reduce its overall presence. Here it is shown next to a AAA keychain light and a photon button cell light.

 photo 13 Sidekick size P1170838.jpg

With this extra size and relatively high cost (compared to its rivals, and especially in non-US markets), the Sidekick needs to work well to justify itself. The excellent beam and 300lm output do just that.

Ideally I prefer a smaller keychain light, but the extra size does make it more stable to hold, and you just don’t get that kind of output and runtime from something smaller and lighter.

If the housing were 100% plastic there would be heat issues, but Surefire have used a metal side panel which allows it to conduct heat out of the Sidekick. When using the High output this can get quite hot to the touch.

Perhaps the biggest annoyance for me has been that it is very similar in size to my car key, and when reaching into my pocket I now have to do the ‘pocket juggle’ of my keys to identify if I’ve grabbed my car key or the Sidekick.

The power button is quite stiff and has little feel to the click. The stiffness is an advantage in not having accidental activations (none so far, which I cannot say about other keychain lights), and eventually you do get some feel for the subdued click.

Not being a tactical light, the modes being L-M-H is ideal as for general EDC you most often only need a little light. One disappointment is the use of visible PWM in the Low mode. Medium and High have no PWM, and if only that Low mode was the same it would be much better.

Battery capacity is really great with the 640mAh cell always having plenty of output and runtime for everything I’ve thrown at it. Even with some unexpected night time strolls needing the path to be lit, using the full 300lm and plenty of other On/Off cycles to check things, and I’ve not needed to keep on recharging.

Recharging is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ things due to the main beam being used as a charging indicator. As it has never taken more than 1 hour to charge I haven’t needed to charge it overnight, so it is not that the main beam flashing and then going onto Low disturbs my sleep. However, the flashing can be annoying if you are in a room with lowered lighting. I was surprised by the Sidekick turning on the Low output once charging is complete, but actually it is a very clear indication that charging has finished, and even with a good charging circuit, it is never a good idea to leave any device on charge for a long time for no reason. The Sidekick tells you clearly to take it off charge. You can look at this either way, and to start with I thought it was not good, but having got used to it find it works pretty well.

The beam is very good, with a smooth floody profile and a neutral tint, which makes it so much better to use than lights with a 5mm LED or those with a more focused hotspot. This combined with the 300lm output, which is reasonably well maintained for a full 45 minutes of constant runtime, make this a really strong performer and the slight size penalty you pay is worth it.

Review Summary

_______________________________________________ _______________________________________________
Things I like What doesn’t work so well for me
_______________________________________________ _______________________________________________
Excellent MaxVision Beam. Bigger than most keychain lights.
300lm output. Easily confused for a car key.
USB rechargeable. Built-in non replaceable cell.
Lightweight. Main beam flashes then comes on constantly while charging.
45 minutes runtime on High. Visible PWM used in Low
L-M-H mode order.
Comfortable and stable to hold.
Strong, small, metal clip.


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