Review, Teardown: Nitecore HC60 1000lm USB Rechargeable Headlamp

After I wrote my review of the Nitecore MH10, I decided to ask Nitecore (nicely) if they would like me to review their other products, as they had a reviewer’s section on their site. To my surprise, they were happy to send me a product to be reviewed under the Review Challenge terms.

The product in question is their recently released HC60, a light-weight 1000lm Cree XM-L2 (U2) based headlamp with USB recharging capability and included 3400mAh protected 18650 Li-Ion cell. I was quite impressed with its on-paper specs – a headlamp that uses the same LED as used in the MH10 offering 1000lm is going to be really bright. It’s definitely something that can come in handy, because when you’re busy working away on something in the dark, you can’t always spare a hand to hold and aim a flashlight. Moreover, the flashlight beam angle might be too narrow to effectively light your workpiece at close range.

So lets take a look at the whole package, how it performed under testing, and what’s “under the hood”.

Unboxing

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The unit came directly from Nitecore and is packaged in a retail cardboard box with hanging tag in their recognizable yellow-and-black colour scheme. The front shows an image of the product, and some key features including its 1000lm output, included 3400mAh battery, and USB recharging feature. The rear has a short blurb describing the unit and its 100-degree beam angle, multi-function power button and compatibility with 18650 and CR123 batteries. The unit is backed by Nitecore’s 5-year warranty promise.

2016082816328333 2016082816328332The side of the box summarizes some features and potential applications in pictorial form. The maximum run-time is 680 hours, using the ultra-low 1 lumen mode, which isn’t the most useful figure for consumers. The maximum distance and intensity is lower than those quoted for the MH10 due to the wider beam angle – you really want a headlamp to light most of your field of view. The unit claims to be waterproof to 1 meter, but this is a label – removing the label seems to show the unit was formerly claimed to be 2 meter water resistant.

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Inside the box, a moulded clear plastic tray holds all of the items. From the top, we can see the included strap, main body of the headlamp with battery pre-installed, and the ergonomically shaped curved holder.

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On the underside of the tray, there is a USB cable provided for charging with a velcro tie, a catalogue of Nitecore products, a warranty card and a one-page leaflet with English on one side and Chinese on the other. There is also a zip-lock plastic bag with replacement end-cap gaskets, body gasket and power button cover. It’s good to see these accessories included, as they can wear out over time and be problematic to source.

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The cable itself uses two 24AWG conductors for carrying the charge current. This is a pretty average thickness of wire, but is sufficient considering the charge current (see later in the performance testing section for more details).

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The body of the unit is sort of “pipe” shaped with a middle protrusion, and two screw-on end caps. The brand and model number are engraved into the body on the top side, with the serial number engraved underneath. The front face is a black plastic cover attached to the body by four T6 torx screws. One multi-function power button is to the left side, with a translucent button that also reveals a blue LED that indicates battery voltage by blinking the volts, pausing, then blinking the 1/10ths of a volt when the battery is inserted. The LED is also used to indicate charging condition – blinking while charging, fast blinking in case of problem with the battery, and steady for full charge.

The multi-function button can be used to:

  • Directly access ultra-low (short press from off)
  • Access the last-used mode memorized (medium press 1s from off)
  • Directly access turbo (long press > 1s from off)
  • Turn off (long press from on)
  • Access special modes (double-click from off)
  • Cycle between brightnesses of ultra-low, low, medium, high and turbo OR modes of strobe, SOS and locator beacon (short press when on)

As a result, all the modes and dimming can be accessed with a single button and a few presses. This is distinctly different from the way the button operates on the MH10 which has one less brightness mode, requires press-and-hold to change brightnesses, short press for off, and no direct access to turbo. If you use both, this can be a little confusing to memorize.

The main output LED and lens assembly is to the right, and its’ quite impressive that the whole assembly is as “slim” as it is – it doesn’t protrude as far as I would have expected. The front cover appears to be a coated glass with some anti-reflection properties, and the reflector inside is very smooth and shiny, although it seems to have a larger hole at the base. The LED was just slightly off-centre in mounting, but not enough to affect the beam noticeably – the yellow phosphor of the LED can be seen to fill the reflector above.

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The endcap that carries the Nitecore branding is used to open the battery compartment, whereas the other end-cap marked with the USB symbol reveals the charging port in the threads.

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The battery compartment features gold plated terminals for better contact, and uses the body of the torch to carry the negative connection. The battery terminal has been designed against reverse polarity connection, but appears to require raised-top cells to make the positive cell connection. That being said, you should only use protected cells with the unit anyway in case of accidental activation and run-down.

The battery compartment can be seen to be asymmetrically bored into the aluminium pipe, and a channel is seen on the left. It seems this is a thermal optimization, allowing for more thicker aluminium near the LED to improve heat transfer near the LED compared to a uniformly thick pipe. The channel near the centre allows for connection wires to be routed through, and probably avoids transferring the hottest “spot” of heat from the LED directly to the battery, avoiding any potential issues with melting heatshrink and protecting the battery from localized overheating.

On that note, this unit features automatic temperature regulation (ATR) which means that the drive current to the LED is regulated in response to the unit temperature to prevent over-stressing the LED and overheating. This mode of regulation is more advanced than the timed throttle-back protection on the MH10 which reduces output after a set time regardless of whether it is necessary. In the case of the HC60, output is automatically scaled back just as much as necessary to prevent damage and loss of lifetime, so if the environment is cool, you can enjoy longer high-brightness operation.

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The other side houses the microUSB connection for recharging the battery. It is claimed that the battery can be charged in approximately six hours. There is also a “closing” nut which is cross-threaded in (notice the crookedness of that and the fact the internal plastic insert is applying extra pressure on the lower side only). This seems to be a slight quality-control issue, but the torch does still work as expected despite this defect.

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The supplied battery is a protected type cell, wrapped in a mostly yellow colour wrap, and claims a 3400mAh capacity with model number NL1834. This doesn’t correspond to Nitecores’ own standalone batteries. It claims to be Made in China, and features prominent Nitecore branding on the terminals and on the wrapping.

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It is supplied with a branded elasticated headband strap which requires a minimal amount of assembly to prepare for usage. The eyelets also have “cuts” in them to facilitate rapid threading of the strap. The strap is about one inch wide, relatively comfortable to wear, and has Nitecore branding on it.

The whole unit, assembled with battery and headstrap, tipped in at 148 grams on my scales, making the whole unit relatively light.

Performance Testing

Subjective Opinions and Experiences

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From using the unit a few times over the past weeks, I’d have to say that the HC60 is quite impressive. It’s relatively light, especially considering the brightness of output available, and the curved support is comfortable and applies pressure evenly over a wider area. The strap itself is not irritating, although because it’s only 1″ wide, there have been occasional cases where it needed adjustment as it was riding up my head. A wider strap may have helped. The over-head band had a habit of undoing its rear clip if you over-tightened it due to the design of the clip with a cut in it to facilitate easy assembly. A little bit of electrical tape around the “cut” helped secure the strap for good. The branding was not a major issue for me, although a more “discreet” branding might be more attractive.

The design of the holder itself is quite effective. The holder allows for the pipe-shaped light to be rotated fully through 180 degrees, more than enough adjustment in case of looking down at close-up work, or straight ahead into the distance. It is very snug and secure, and doesn’t move on its own.

The body of the torch does get quite warm when operating in the higher modes, and this is expected. However, when wearing it on your head, very little of this heat is transferred to your head, making it comfortable even at its highest turbo setting where “hand-holding” the body of the unit is difficult due to the ~50 degrees C temperature.

The beam was wider than the torch, as expected, and covered most of the field of vision although not into the peripheral. At the higher brightness settings, it could be feasible to film short to moderate distances using a smartphone camera in hand. The beam had a bright spot in the middle, but it wasn’t too much brighter than the reflector-based surrounding annulus of beam which can be credited to the design of the reflector. According to my camera, the colour temperature was pretty much 5000K exactly. From what I can tell, the 1000lm rating is pretty much on the dot, as it will do quite a decent job of lighting up my room at night with no other light sources.

The battery level indicator feature is a little “forgotten” in this unit, as the only way to check it involves removing and re-inserting the battery, making it rather difficult to effectively use. I suppose that’s not as big a deal if you top it up via USB after each use, or use a set of cells with an external charger.

Waterproof Testing

Update: Nitecore has contacted me to confirm that the unit is rated at IPX7 for 1m depth, 30 minutes immersion only, and as a result, the below testing does not match the description exactly due to reduced depth and increased duration.

As the unit was “given” for review purposes, I had much less qualms about potentially destroying it. As a result, I decided to put the body of the unit through a potentially gruelling test – namely, a test of its 1m waterproof claim.

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To test it, I placed it under about 15cm of water (1.5L) in an IKEA clear plastic storage container. I then reached in, and switched it to turbo mode and left it to run down underwater. This also allowed me to verify the ATR system actually worked (see next section). After about 2.5 hours, the unit was retrieved.

2016083023008403Unfortunately, the unit didn’t quite pass with flying colours. It was found that a small amount of water had entered and condensed on the inside of the front glass. The amount of water that entered was small, and replacing the battery with another 18650 and running it for a short time on turbo evaporated all the moisture away.

It seems that the water had entered in the seal between the glass and the plastic body, but it was such a small amount that it did not harm the unit at all. Checking the seals at the end of the torch revealed no water had entered the USB port or battery compartment.

In light of this, I think the 1m waterproof rating is a little optimistic because of the design of the front glass window seal, but even then, it is sufficiently waterproof for regular head-torch uses – e.g. getting caught in a small rain-storm is unlikely to cause the unit to fail.

Run-Time Testing

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fl1dataThe unit claims listed in the manual and on the website are reproduced to the left. Compared to the achieved run-times, the results are all over the place.

In the case of Turbo, 1 h is claimed and 2h 58m is achieved. This is because the ATR system was active, and reduced the drive current to the LED under room temperature conditions without movement to keep the temperature in the “safe” operating zone. When High is selected, it seems either ATR is less aggressive or inactive, as a result, the claim of 2h 30m is matched with a 2h 32m operation recorded.

For Mid and Low operation levels, the claimed time is longer than the actually achieved result – 7h 15m claimed, 5h 4m achieved and 25h claimed, 15h 18m achieved. This may be due to regulation deficiencies towards the end of discharge, where there seems to be a predictable increase in brightness just as the cell completely discharges. Because ultra-low has such a long time rating, I didn’t feel it was necessary to do any verification. As a result, the specifications are a little less accurate than those for the MH10, but I suppose different results can be achieved under different circumstances. Note that the times claimed are until complete extinguishing of the output, rather than when it falls below a certain amount compared to the initial brightness, thus it would have spent some of that time operating below the claimed output level.

To illustrate that, when the torch was operated in Turbo underwater, the water acted as a thermal heatsink that slowed down the temperature rise by absorbing the generated heat. As a result, the curve shows a much higher output maintained, and a shorter operating time of 2h 17m. This proves that ATR is indeed present and working.

Unlike the MH10, this unit maintains its operating brightness well into the cell discharge, and runs slightly brighter just before the brightness quickly decays and the unit turns off. This behaviour means that more of the charge is spent running at the rated brightness (or close to it), but also means that the unit will “give out” on an empty cell with almost no visual notice. Once it completes its discharge, it also has a habit of “cycling” – it will turn off its output but as the Li-Ion cell voltage “floats” back up, it will come back on and drain the cell down until it goes off again. In this case, the control for the torch is unresponsive until it cycles on again, when you can turn it off. Otherwise it will remember the operating mode and run the LED right after you unplug the USB charging connection.

Charge Current Profile

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Just as with the MH10, it appears to use a linear charging solution, and as a result, the charging efficiency suffers and the time to charge is longer than absolutely necessary. The unit is seen to have an effective soft-start which starts at about 60mA until the voltage on the cell reaches 3v. Full charge current is about 540mA (or about 500mA) making it highly compatible with all ports, and charge termination current is about 50mA.

It claims a charge time of approximately 6 h, but in my case, I measured a 7h 22m charge time, almost 1.5 hours longer. The delivered charge is about 3415mAh, but considering some of this is used to power the controller and LED, this implies the battery may have an effective capacity of about 3250mAh. This is not unexpected, as some of the larger Li-Ion cells require the use of a wider voltage window (e.g. discharge to 2.6V, charge to 4.35V) and if a “generic” charge profile (4.2V) is applied, all of the capacity may not be available. There is also tolerance on a cell-by-cell basis.

Regardless, the end of charge voltage was measured as 4.189V, and the end of discharge voltage was approximately 2.678V based on measuring a cell just taken out after full charge and full discharge. This is ‘safe’ for most Li-Ion cells, although the discharge point seems a little low so I don’t recommend unprotected cells in case the torch is left on accidentally and cycles at the end.

A switching charging solution or higher current setting will allow for faster charging (2-3 hours is practical) but can break compatibility with low-current ports (e.g. those on PCs).

Special Modes

Even though it’s a headlamp, it offers special modes as well which are identical to those offered on the MH10.

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The strobe feature operates at 20Hz with a 36.3% duty cycle.

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The SOS feature has been “fixed” compared to the MH10 which had a difference in the “space” times between ‘S and O’, and ‘O and S’. The measured duty cycle is 35.12%.

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Locator beacon operates at about 0.5Hz (once per 2 seconds) with a duty cycle of approximately 0.95%.

Teardown

Given that it’s been given to me, it would be a shame if I didn’t take it apart to see how well made it is inside. So off came those for Torx screws …

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The top cover is made of plastic and has seals for the button, the main unit and the reflector/glass. The seal along the top appears to have been slightly “pushed in” during construction – it sealed completely around the edge but not as effectively as it should have as the contact area was slightly reduced.

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The entire circuitry is built upon a single piece of double-sided metal-core printed circuit board for heat dissipation reasons. The board is secured to the body with a single screw. Two wires enter the board from the routed slot in the gear.

From a cursory glance of the board, debug pins are on the left, with a microcontroller that looks like it’s probably an ST microelectronics product (by the font). A fully enclosed inductor is used, and it seems some of the 5-pin packages are probably MOSFETs with an SMD resistor for current shunt measurements. The rest of the components are SMD, but they were not easily identified by their markings, but there’s probably a linear charger chip somewhere as well.

The are marks of thermal paste around the PCB …

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… however, it seems to be a lot less than expected. In fact, the MCPCB is double-sided to make all the connections in a compact space, so the rear is covered in a mask layer as well. Even though it’s not ideal for thermal conduction, not applying paste on the large flat surface contacting the main body seems to be a suboptimal decision, as the edges don’t make much contact at all due to the gap between the body and the edge.

As a result, I modified the unit when I reconstructed it, applying non-conductive ceramic thermal-paste to the flat surfaces with no adverse effect. In fact, I think it’s probably a little better at dissipating heat than without it.

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Because of the cross-threading, removing the end nut was more difficult than expected. A watch wrench was used, and red thread-locker sealant was found to avoid the end “vibrating loose”. A plastic cover is used to hold down the PCB that contains the positive battery terminal and USB connector. The negative is wired in common to the gold “ring” around the edge which contacts the body – the two wires to the main PCB supply the battery positive and USB positive, and the single screw on the PCB supplies the common ground.

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In case you don’t believe me, that’s the back of the PCB where there is absolutely no active circuitry. With that explored, I managed to reassemble it without any damage, and this time, taking care not to cross-thread the nut.

Conclusion

The Nitecore HC60 headlamp is a lightweight USB rechargeable headlamp that really packs a 1000 lumen punch, making it bright enough for any task. It features five total levels of brightness, catering for most situations and allowing for extended run-time from its single 3400mAh 18650 cell (included). Operation is user friendly, with a single multi-function button. Its 100 degree beam width is appropriate for most situations, with a quality reflector optic allowing for better light distribution. Its mounting arrangement protects the wearer from the generated heat while allowing for easy adjustment of the beam angle. The strap is easy to assemble, comfortable and non-irritating. It comes complete with battery, charging cable, spare gaskets, headstrap and a five year warranty.

Operation of its automatic thermal regulation (ATR) was verified, meaning that the unit also features the intelligence to throttle back output only when necessary to keep the unit from overheating and preserving the lifetime of the LED. Special modes have been retained and could come in useful, with the SOS feature performing as expected this time around. Nitecore specific design expertise with the reflector, battery capacity indication, anti-reverse-polarity protection and thermal design of the body is evident.

On the downside, charging was still limited to around 500mA using a linear charger, requiring about 7 hours and 22 minutes. This could be improved with a switching charger or increasing the current limit at the cost of compatibility with some low-current ports. Minor quality control issues were found with a cross-threaded end-nut, and slight water ingress near the front glass during the waterproofing test. This did not impede actual operation, however, and the waterproofing was assessed to be adequate for normal use cases. Actual operation time for medium and low fell short of the specification by a notable margin. A teardown appears to show there was a lack of thermal interface material between the rear of the PCB and the body of the unit which acts as the heatsink with the only paste applied right at the edges. This is not optimal, as any reduction in heat for the LED and circuitry improves light generation efficiency and lifetime. The strap was also slightly less secure than I would have liked, with a tendency to ride-up the head over time.

Even that said, the unit performed well despite the above and was very adequate especially at the low-mid settings for extended wear, and would be a handy addition to any toolbag or backpack.

Thanks to Nitecore/Sysmax Industry Co. Ltd. for sending the unit for review.

Update 16th November 2016: Contacted by Nitecore in regards to waterproofness test – clarification statement added to body of review.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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4 Responses to Review, Teardown: Nitecore HC60 1000lm USB Rechargeable Headlamp

  1. Frboc says:

    I`d be interested in real luminous flux that this torch outputs… But I guess….too difficult to measure?

    • lui_gough says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t have the equipment for it, nor do I have access to it. I did mention this in the MH10 review with the same LED that according to the datasheet and under the highest rated drive current, the chip should be capable of just shy of 1000 lumens. To actually test for it requires a large radiometric integrating sphere and calibrated radiometer which is both (very) expensive and bulky.

      That being said, the maximum output for most high-power units (torches, headlamps) cannot be sustained for more than a few minutes at the most anyway, as the ATR system will reduce the drive current to prevent overheating, and the increased heat reduces the efficiency of the LED, so the point is moot. This can be helped if the unit was bulkier, and had more surface area acting as a heatsink. I’d think most people are likely to use the medium and low settings, as they’re more than sufficiently bright for most use cases, and you really might desire more than 2.5 hours run-time from a single battery, in which case the under-running of the LED is likely to contribute to increased longevity.

      – Gough

  2. Aaron says:

    The battery level indicator feature is a little “forgotten” in this unit, as the only way to check it involves removing and re-inserting the battery, making it rather difficult to effectively use. Not true. A slight twist is all that is required to check status. You do not havevto unscrew at all.

    • lui_gough says:

      Well, the only reason that works is because it’s breaking the battery contact on the negative side. It’s more than a slight twist. In my unit, it takes around a full turn of the battery cap to disengage the contact to break the circuit, and another turn to re-engage it again for it to blink out the voltage. As it is an aluminium body, doing this may wear out the threads slightly over time and contribute to the generation of aluminium dust. This is nowhere near as easy and convenient as in some of their other units which have dedicated button access which requires much less fumbling around for it. If you’re going to make a “feature”, at least make it easy to get to.

      – Gough

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