Garmin's Varia UT800 is rocking some pretty cool tech to help you light the roads and trails
Words and photos: James Raison
I’m an obsessive light adjuster. I only use the lumens I need, rather than deploying all the lumens I have. I like to conserve battery power in case I need it later and I don’t want to blind descending cyclists while I’m climbing. So having a light that would adjust itself according to speed is appealing to me.
So, does the Varia UT800 manage to be a good light and a smart light? Let’s find out.
THE VARIA UT800
In the box:
- Varia UT800 unit
- Garmin Varia Out-Front Over and Under Bike Mount
- Micro USB cable
- Rubber spacers for narrow bars
- Quick start manual
- 800 lumens: 1.5 hours
- 400 lumens: 3 hours
- 200 lumens: 6 hours
- 100-300 lumens pulsing night mode: 6 hours
- 700 lumens daytime flash mode: 25 hours
The Varia ships with a double-decker out-front mount to cleanly keep GPS and light on the same apparatus. I like its cleanliness and the convenience of being able to detach the light for charging without removing the entire mount.
The light uses a GoPro interface to attach to an middle-mount with a quarter turn locking system. That attaches to the underside of the out-front mount with a rotating lock. It’s not a solid connection and the light wobbles slightly because the GoPro mount platform floats. That means the locking mechanism is rigidly fixed to the underside of the top level mount, but not tight enough to immobilise the floating GoPro platform. There’s a couple more degrees you can twist the locking mechanism to make it a little more solid but enough bumps will undo that extra tightness and the light will move a few milimeters. The middle interface means you can quickly whip the light off the mount for charging, and that's awesome. The sacrifice is rigidity.
Garmin’s decision to use the GoPro mounting interface means the world of third party mounts are at your disposal. I chucked the Varia onto a K-Edge mount and it worked just fine. Removing with an allen key is far less convenient than Garmin’s included mount though.
THE EDGE CONNECTION
Connecting the Varia to your Edge is straightforward. Fire up your Edge unit and navigate down to the “Add Sensors” menu item and select Lights. On your Varia, hold the power button for a couple of seconds until the battery indicator light flashes purple. Select the Varia when it appears on your Edge, and you’re ready to rock and roll.
You’ll be presented with options for how you want the light to function:
- Light mode:
- Auto: light adjusts automatically according to ambient light and time of day.
- High visibility: the brightest flash mode if it’s daytime, the brightest solid setting at night.
- Trail: light adjusts automatically according to ambient light and time of day - but is recommended for MTB rides. I couldn’t find any difference between Trail and Auto.
- Individual: user can change beam intensity manually with the Edge.
- Light beam activation: set whether you want the light to turn on when the timer starts, or the Edge powers up.
- Test light: activate to see the light fire up and cycle through its modes.
- Auto beam adjust: On/Off. When Off, there’s a menu item that lets you change the output without having to touch the light.
There's even a Light Network data screen you can turn on to keep an eye on the status of the Varia UT800.
BEAM ME UP
Let's talk the light basics before the techy stuff. The Varia is a quality “dumb” and is a solid contender for your cash independent of whether you want its smart capabilities.
The light beam itself is up with the best lights of the integrated-battery-800-lumen bracket that’s stacked with quality options. It uses a central dot with a washed out halo of light around it. The dot illuminates the road ahead and the halo splashes light onto the periphery. Like all lights mounted to your bars, it’ll still struggle to light up sharp corners in darkness as the beam is pointing forwards.
Light intensity is solid with the Varia and it outperforms most 800 lm lights I've used. Where it doesn’t excel is light spread. The central focal point is good but the surrounding splash isn’t quite the best. It falls short of my benchmark 800 lm light; the Bontrager Ion 800 that I reviewed. The Ion’s light quality is top dog in my experience for this light type. The Varia comes close, but doesn’t quite match it.
Where the Varia handily beats the Ion is build quality. The Ion’s rubbers began splitting and snapping within weeks, and the unit developed a persistent rattle as the battery moved around within the body. The Varia has been rock solid since I started using it.
One unexpected problem is heat management. I wanted to do a battery life test at home by running the light until it died while sitting in its mount. I didn’t get the chance because the Varia overheated and shut down after 40-50 minutes in my 3 attempts. I had no overheating issues on the road with air moving over it. It is Winter though and I wonder how it’ll handle sultry night rides. I’ll find out in a few months.
THE SMART LIGHT
The self-adjustment system is very cool to see in action. It mixes ambient light and moving speed information to give you the lumens you need. This is my anecdotal description of how it behaves: below 20kph the light drops to 200 lumens, 20-30kph used 400 lumens, and over 30kph bumped it up to the full biscuit of 800 lumens. The transition is very quick and reacts to your changes in speed immediately so you’re never caught out with low light at sudden speed. It can make a fun training game too as you try and stay over 20kph on a climb to prevent the light from reducing light output.
The ambient light sensor will adjust according to your environment too. It’ll respond to well-lit urban environments and pitch dark trails and country back roads differently and idependent of speed. I always had the lumens I needed. It’s a very cool system.
While I love the Edge/Varia connection, I was disappointed by the way it chews through the battery. A typical night ride for me is up a hill, over the top and back down a different hill in 1.5-2 hours. Most of the time is spent with the light on low or mid output with full power used when descending back home for a maximum of 20 minutes or so. I was very surprised to get low battery warnings after about 1:45. The speed distribution should make it last longer than that. The cost of smart communication seems to be a chunk of battery life. It leaves me questioning whether I need the smart connection when I can get better battery life manually adjusting intensity.
The Varia UT800 is definitely a Garmin product; mostly excellent but with a couple of head-scratching problems.
It’s a very good "dumb" light. The beam is bright, battery life matches the competition, and its build quality is very good. The elephant in the room is the Bontrager Ion 800 that’s $149, compared to the Varia UT800’s $250, and has a slightly better beam. Admittedly the Ion’s build quality is a little stodgy but that’s a big price difference. I much prefer Garmin’s use of the GoPro mount interface over the Bontrager proprietary system, and the included Garmin Varia mount is quite good despite being a little loose. The take-away is that the Garmin might not be the best value, but it’s a very good package considering the mount system that comes in the box.
As a smart light, the Varia UT800 is very cool. I love the automatic adjustment system. Battery optimisation does let it down. Communicating with a Garmin Edge comes at the cost of longevity. It’s a shame. A self-adjusting light that stretches battery life would be brilliant.
Quirks aside, I like the Varia UT800. There’s a lot of strings to its bow. Those looking for a quality light that's smart and easy to live with should check it out. It might not be the value pick, but it offers a lot for its premium price.