A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Introduction and Caution Notice: This website does not recommend that consumers purchase any Class 4 laser (500 milliwatts or more). The beam is too hazardous for laser pointing or similar beam-viewing applications. These hazards include instant eye damage, eye injuries from viewing the laser dot, skin burns, and photochemical blue light "sunburn" to the retina. For laser enthusiasts who understand these hazards, a Class 4 laser must be used with extreme caution, especially when other persons may be around.
Review: Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic series 1-watt portable handheld laser
This laser, sold by Wicked Lasers of Hong Kong, has a nominal 1 watt beam (actually around 0.7 watts) at 445 nanometers which appears blue-violet to the eye.
As of September 2010, there are two versions. The current version is the second-generation "G2" that has an extra safety device called the SmartSwitch. The older first-generation "G1" was manufactured before the SmartSwitch's development.
In this review, we will primarily discuss the safety-related features of the G2 Spyder III Pro Arctic laser product. These are:
- a warning flyer,
- a user manual,
- the SmartSwitch,
- a low-power "training" cap
- "safety glasses"
When you first open the shipping box, one of the items is a full-page flyer warning "Keep Handheld Lasers Safe and Legal". It warns against aiming at aircraft or otherwise distracting or annoying other persons. This is essentially the same material that LaserPointerSafety.com makes available for any laser seller.
Unfortunately, as Dan Goldsmith of X-Laser points out, the flyer is really intended for Class 3R and 3B lasers. It does not adequately address Class 4 hazards. As a result, we have developed a Class 4 flyer which highlights safety information in Wicked’s user manual. We believe Wicked should switch to this flyer, or something similar. This way, users will be informed of hazards “out of the box”.
A 24-page User Manual is included. Six pages cover the hazards of a Class 4 laser. Most of this material was written by LaserPointerSafety.com, so we are a bit biased, but we do think this is useful and comprehensive. Hazards discussed include:
- direct, reflected and diffused beam eye damage
- skin burns
- flammable material burns
- never aiming at aircraft or stars
- blue light photochemical eye damage
If a user reads and follows the User Manual information, they will have a much better chance of operating the laser without incident.
Main power switch
The Spyder III Pro Arctic laser has a rubber coated on/off switch on the endcap opposite where the beam emits.
On the G1 version of the laser, clicking the main endcap switch turns the laser beam on and off. According to Wicked, this version is no longer being manufactured: "No G1's are going to be offered to any customers since we started shipping the G2's last month [August 2010], and we will be implementing the Smartswitch to our other models, such as the Spyder II. We plan to add it to every Class 3B and 4 model we sell in the near future."
The G2 version adds a safety feature called the SmartSwitch. There is a button on one side of the unit about halfway down, and three small indicator lights on the other side. Holding the laser housing, your index finger is on the button and you can view the indicator lights.
Clicking the main endcap switch causes one of the indicator lights to begin flashing. You must then click the SmartSwitch button in a pattern of multiple presses, to get the beam to turn on. When it first comes on, the beam is about 0.17 watts (170 milliwatts) and it is flashing. Once on, a short press of the SmartSwitch cycles between flashing and continuous beam, while a longer press cycles between 1/4 power (0.17 watts) and full power (0.70 watts).
The SmartSwitch is a good idea. In our testing, we found it was not possible for someone to turn on the laser who does not know the specific SmartSwitch pattern. (Cautionary note: A determined person could do an Internet search to find out what the SmartSwitch code is. The code is the same for all Spyder III Arctic lasers. Because of this, an owner should not rely solely on the code to prevent access by minors or other unauthorized persons. They should also prevent physical access.)
It is also a good idea that the laser initially turns on at 1/4 of full power. Having a readily-available lower-power mode is handy, since the laser does not always need to be operated in full-power mode.
However, "low" power is still pretty strong. At around 0.17 watts (170 mW) this is about 35 times the U.S. limit for laser pointers. It would be better if the lower power mode were 50 mW or less. This is a safer range while still giving good visibility. Perhaps for future models Wicked Laser can reprogram the SmartSwitch so it cycles between three power levels: low, medium and high.
The Spyder III Pro Arctic comes with screw-on caps for the output end of the laser. The minimum set included is two: a cap with clear protective glass, and a "training cap" with darker glass that reduces the beam power by about 80%. Additional caps are extra-cost options; these provide various beam effects such as diffraction grating, star filter and line filter.
Greg Makhov, a laser safety expert and instructor who is with Lighting Systems Design Inc. (LSDI) in Orlando, measured the power. He used a professional-quality Thor Labs PM100 meter and D10MM thermal detector. The laser battery was fully charged and the laser was turned on and warmed up for a minute or so. The results:
- Clear cap, high-power mode: 0.72 W (720 mW)
- Clear cap, low-power mode: 0.17 W (170 mW)
- Training cap, high-power mode: 0.16 W (160 mW)
- Training cap, low-power mode: 0.03 W (30 mW)
The clear cap passed most of the light. We did not get noticeably dimmer readings when the clear cap was on versus when there was no cap at all. The clear cap is useful to protect the laser's output lens from smoke, dust or other contaminants.
With the training cap on, and low-power mode selected, it would be theoretically possible to use the Arctic as a 30 mW "laser pointer". However, LaserPointerSafety.com does not recommend this for many reasons:
- The laser is not certified as a pointer.
- The lowest output power of 30 mW substantially exceeds the U.S. 5 mW limit for laser pointers.
- It is awkward to use as a pointer, since there is no way to quickly turn the beam on and off. You'd either need to enter the SmartSwitch code every time you want to point at something, or keep the laser on continuously.
- When on and in low-power mode, the laser is just one SmartSwitch press away from going into high-power mode.
- It is not easy to tell whether the training cap is on. It looks just like the regular (clear) cap except for having a smaller diameter. If the training cap was colored or marked, this would be better. (Wicked later indicated they might do this.)
- It is a temptation to remove the training cap and be in a higher power mode, which is unsafe. A standard U.S.-legal laser pointer can't be increased in this way -- it can never go beyond the U.S. limit of 5 mW.
With every Arctic sold, Wicked Lasers includes orange-tinted "safety glasses" that cut down on blue light. These are useful when doing experiments involving looking at the beam at close range; for example to hold it steady while trying to burn something. One hazard of a Class 4 laser is that even looking at the diffuse beam (the laser "dot" as it hits a surface) can cause eye damage.
However, there was no information printed on the glasses to indicate their optical density or effective wavelength. This is standard practice for real laser safety glasses.
Wicked Lasers indicates that this laser requires an optical density (OD) of 3 for shorter exposures and 4.4 for longer exposures. This translates into a reduction of 1000 to 25000 times in the beam power. Greg Makhov double-checked Wicked’s calculations and found them correct: an OD of 3 (1000 times dimmer) is sufficient to reduce the power of a direct 1 watt beam.
Unfortunately, we estimated that Wicked's safety glasses only were OD 2. This makes the beam only 100 times dimmer, when it should be 1000 times dimmer.
So while Wicked gets points for including "safety glasses", they lose points for not having any OD or wavelength information printed, and for supplying glasses which are about 10 times weaker than they should be. [Update Sept. 16 2010: Wicked has indicated that future glasses will be of the proper OD for this laser.][Update March 21 2011: Wicked has indicated that OD3 glasses have been shipping since late 2010.]
At least a 100X reduction is better than nothing. And it is sufficient for viewing the beam "dot" on a bright surface. Makhov's calculations indicate that the glasses' OD of 2 (100 times dimmer) is sufficient for up to 10 minutes viewing of the beam diffusely reflecting off a surface nine inches from the eye. This is similar to how someone might be closely viewing the beam on a surface while trying to burn it.
Using the glasses in practice
In practice, the supplied glasses made it more comfortable and safer to work with the laser "dot", which appears orange when viewed though the lenses. (The "dot" is actually a line about 5 times longer than wide. This is due to the laser diode emitting a stripe rather than a dot.)
It is still possible to see even the lowest power laser dot through the glasses. This is good to be able to monitor and control where the beam is pointing.
One user reported that the glasses started to melt after about 4 seconds of direct exposure to an unmoving beam. This is a highly unlikely scenario in real life, where a person would move out the way if the direct beam hit their glasses. Thus, we do not consider this a significant flaw.
If you are buying for home use, and there are others who will from time to time join in or watch your demonstrations, you should purchase extra pairs of the glasses for the spectators. This way, they can safely see the things you are doing such as burning matches and popping balloons, instead of having to look away or askance at the bright dot. Wicked Lasers sells extra safety glasses for $30 each.
Other safety steps
There are other safety steps that Wicked Lasers has enacted:
- The sales copy at their website stresses the extreme danger of this laser and that it is not a laser pointer.
- The website has additional laser safety information about lasers in general, and about the blue light hazard of this particular wavelength.
- Before going to the order page, the website requires the user to agree to a number of conditions, before they can actually purchase the laser.
- The laser includes a U.S. FDA-required interlock which not all manufacturers include on Class 3B and 4 handheld lasers.
- The laser's safety label warns against aiming at aircraft, which is not required by law but which is strongly advocated by LaserPointerSafety.com.
This review has concentrated on the safety features of the Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic laser. Wicked has taken commendable steps to reduce the potential hazard of accidental or ignorant misuse of a Class 4 laser. The SmartSwitch is an especially good idea since it requires a specific sequence to operate the laser, and even then it starts up in a lower-power mode. We gave the laser to safety experts to try and turn on, and they could not without knowing the specific switch code.
While we cannot recommend that most people buy a Class 4 laser, if someone must have one then they should choose a laser with safety features similar to or better than those in the Spyder III Pro Arctic. These features include detailed safety information in the manual, safety glasses of appropriate density, a security switch that locks out casual users, an FDA-required interlock, and a way to operate in only low-power mode (e.g., a "training" lens).