Lume Cube, known for their namesake waterproof Bluetooth lights, recently expanded their lineup of diminutive lighting solutions with the Lume Cube Panel Mini, a credit card sized bi-color LED light aimed at content creators.
The Panel Mini seems to fill a gap left in the popular Aputure lineup of portable lights around the $50 mark. With everyone from YouTube content creators to all the new Zoom conferencing users (thanks, pandemic) looking to enhance their videos, the Panel Mini offers something new and easy to use. Even advanced video creators may find a use for something this small and versatile.
Most content creators will be familiar with Aputure, a lighting brand that has nailed it when it comes to reaching out and building community. Their equipment is all but the standard for anyone serious about YouTube. And why not use their stuff? Aputure has almost everything you’d need to light any scene with a definitive upgrade path to studio lighting once you “get serious” about your content creation.
But when it comes to ultra portability, I think Aputure might have left an opening for another company to enter the arena. The venerable Aputure AL-M9 was an early credit-card sized rechargeable light that you found in the bags of influencers like Peter McKinnon, so naturally it became a mainstay for the growing horde of would-be YouTubers. However, there hasn’t been another product at the same price point from Aputure to update this light, which was released in 2016.
But what about the Aputure AL-MX? Sure the AL-MX is similarly sized, and it vastly out powers the M9, but it’s also three times the price! Enter the Lume Cube Panel Mini. It’s slightly more expensive than the AL-M9, but the Panel Mini claims more output, has 60 bi-color LEDs, and better construction in the same form factor.
On paper, the AL-MX has the Panel Mini beat with output and color temperature range, but it weighs a lot more and is quite a bit larger. There’s certainly room for the Lume Cube Panel Mini, a tiny bi-color light, to compete with Aputure’s current lineup.
Lume Cube Panel Mini Build quality
Right out of the box, I love the feel of this light. Its aluminum body inspires a more confidence than the AL-M9’s plastic, though fairly sturdy, construction. They both feature the same credit card design, though the Panel Mini is ever so slightly longer. The only real size difference is noticeable once you attach the Panel Mini’s plastic diffuser. This bulks the light up by a few extra millimeters, though it’s really not that big of a deal. I feel the silicon diffuser might even protect the Panel Mini from dings if you bump or drop it.
Unbelievably, the Panel Mini is lighter than the Al-M9. The Aputure light weighs in at an additional 63%, which amounts to 4.9 oz as compared to the 3 oz weight of the Panel Mini. Not that big of a deal, again, but it shows how much improvement in design and materials has been made over the intervening years since the Al-M9 was released.
The provided mounting hardware for the Panel Mini includes two 1/4” - 20 thread holes on the side and bottom, offering some welcome options for attaching it to your gear. Inside the box comes a cold shoe mount, one of the smallest I’ve used, to place it on your cage or any other conceivable setup. I also grabbed a couple of suction cup mounts from Lume Cube for in-car lighting, which I plan to use these for. They’ll also attach to GoPro mounting accessories if you’re wondering.
With the AL-M9, you get a somewhat janky cold shoe mount that only allows one orientation using the top or bottom of the light as mounting points. This helps you if you need the control buttons on either the left or right, but does not offer a side mount solution if space is tight. It isn’t a big concern, but it does add to bulk and takes away from versatility. A big point in favor of the Aputure cold shoe mount is how quickly you can remove it as I’ll describe next.
Since the Aputure allows quick release of the AL-M9, changing out gels and diffusion is a snap. Literally. You can easily release the light from its mount, pop off the magnetic diffusion plate, replace the gel, and then return the diffusion plate with a satisfying magnetic snap. Unlike the Aputure ML9, the Panel Mini requires you to unscrew the light from your cold shoe mount, or magic arm, in order to remove the diffusion. It’s not that big of a deal, but in some situations I can see this being annoying.
Lume Cube Panel Mini Output
The Panel Mini clearly has the advantage on paper here, but in a very unscientific test I found that the Lume Cube light was about a third/two thirds of a stop brighter than the AL-M9 at 20 inches/0.5 meters.
The Panel Mini features a frosted diffusion plate in front of its 60 LEDs, and it is not removable. I left the AL-M9 magnetic diffusion plate on in front of its nine LEDs to make it more comparable. With that magnetic diffusion removed from the AL-M9, the output was about the same, though the shadows created by those nine bright LEDs made it unusable. With further diffusion from the gel or color temperature gels, the AL-M9 was even dimmer.
Some of you may prefer a gel to bi-color LEDs, but these are a simple solution for “content creation” where color accuracy isn’t always a necessity. What the eye sees and what your sensor sees can vary drastically, though both lights have a relatively high CRI rating for what it’s worth.
With the content creator in mind, the Panel Mini makes changing from daylight to tungsten quite easy. Most run-and-gun YouTubers are all over the place, shooting indoors and outdoors, often in the same sequence. A quick click of the button and temperature selection with the dial gives you an easy match for many lighting situations. It’s an easy upgrade to your video quality to be able to change from warm to cool light.
Both throw a very wide beam, but will require the maximum diffusion provided with the lights to avoid those stuttered shadows so often seen with multi-LED lighting systems. The diffusion is pleasing enough, and ought to be fine as a key light from arm’s length, perfect vlogger to camera distancing. Just don’t expect much when outdoors in broad daylight, the Panel Mini struggles for this purpose. Perhaps that’s a job for its larger sibling, the Lume Cube Panel GO that offers nearly twice the output (1080 LUX @ 20”/0.5m). I sense another review coming…
LumeCube Panel Mini in Use
It’s a simple matter of holding the power button to turn them on, then a quick press of the power button to choose between output and color temperature. A jog dial quickly changes the output and temperature. All of the controls are kept to one side, including the USB-C charge port, but it’s not too cluttered and it’s very easy to operate if you have it rigged up somewhere that you can’t see it and have to go by feel.
This is far superior to the AL-M9’s nine-step output control. I’d rather see that I was using the Panel Mini at 50% on a screen instead of noting that I had clicked the minus sign button four times from full on the AL-M9 to recreate certain lighting scenes. Is it simply a bonus having a display, or a necessity? That’s up to you.
Though the AL-M9 comes with gels and a clever magnetic diffuser to hold them, I feel it’s not as portable when mounting on your gear due to its clunky shoe mount, though it can easily release to change out the gel. Having a dialed in color temperature is much easier to deal with and leaves fewer things for you to lose. The Panel Mini’s ultra simple controls, a button and a dial, are easy to navigate even if you had to do it by feel.
The handy LCD panel quickly shows your charge, time remaining, color temperature and output level. The Panel Mini seems to do a good job of calculating the battery time depending on your output. I saw lower output settings offering hours of continuous lighting, and at 100% you could run this light for a little over an hour on the built-in battery.
According to my tests, the power estimates were both responsive and accurate, but less so once you got down to the last few minutes of charge. My lights showed two minutes remaining for about five minutes. Otherwise they appeared quite trustworthy.
After some quick tests, I found that the Panel Mini delivered battery life at least equivalent to what’s stated on the spec sheets. At 100% power I was able to get 1 hour and 20 minutes at both 3200K and 5600K color temperatures. At 50% power you can add another hour to that run time for both 3200K and 5600K. Recharging the Panel Mini took just under two hours using the USB port on a desktop computer. Though the manual states that there is a high/low operating temperature warning, I noticed that it didn’t get very hot after a full hour at 100%.
Don’t forget it can be powered by USB-C, especially useful once you’ve had it for ages and the battery life isn’t so great anymore. With my Lume Cubes that are three years old now, I still get fairly close to the original 30 minute charges from them at full power. I expect the same durability from the Panel Mini. The AL-M9 is the same. It lasts for at least an hour on full output after owning it for two years.
There is no wireless connection, so you can’t control these with the phone app, but that’s fine with me. It’s useful to control the original Lume Cubes with the phone because of the millions of ways you can use them. Nobody wants to be pulling them out of the water and adjusting them when you can simply change them on your phone, for instance. But with these Panel Minis, I find them easy enough to dial in as needed.
It’s not waterproof, like my Lume Cubes, but I imagine a clever person could rig something up, and perhaps there will be accessories in the future for this.
Is the Lume Cube Panel Mini for content creators like the marketing states? Sure, but it’s so much more. I can definitely see this pairing well with a SONY ZV-1, which features a “decent” vlogging mic next to a shoe for accessories like the Panel Mini. Adding a light source will only help the ZV-1 lock onto you with its ridiculous auto focus and also provide the best picture overall. Feel free to take the light off and place it in some creative spots while using your camera to shoot “b-roll” of products for your review videos, or even to simply add as an accent light on a bookshelf in the background.
This light is more than good enough for those new to video who want to make their Zoom image look infinitely better than their coworker Doug’s. We all know Doug. He’s the guy who uses a 12-year-old laptop with a potato-quality webcam covered in tape-residue who joins video conferences from his bedroom with the ceiling light behind him creating that creepy silhouette effect. With the suction cup mount accessory you can easily stick this to the back of your laptop lid and improve your Zoom video. Don’t be a Doug.
I do wish that the diffuser was more easily removable while it is mounted. As it is, you must unscrew the light from the shoe before being able to pop the diffuser off. I guess you could cut the diffuser to make it slip off while mounted, but I’m not that concerned about it. With the AL-M9 you do get that magnetic clip, but then you have to keep track of gels, so I call it a tie.
Narrative and documentary shooters might ignore something like this, but I think it will make a great car light. Maybe not as useful as some of the professional lighting I’ve had the good fortune to use on some productions, but a couple of these in the right place and you’re set. At the very least, it’s a cheap kicker light. It’s so small you can hide it virtually anywhere with a bit of tape or Velcro.
The Panel Mini would even make a decent piece to camera light in a pinch for the independent photojournalist. A lot of newspapers are asking their reporters to submit video clips as well as copy. If you want to stand out, this light won’t break the bank and will make you look great while hanging around council chambers.
However, as I mentioned earlier the Panel Mini is not that great in the bright outdoors. It’s definitely a lot more compact and lighter than my current bi-color LED light that devours hefty SONY NP-F batteries. I’ve added a pair of Lume Cube Panel Minis to my kit and I barely notice the added ounces but appreciate the increased versatility.
Overall, I’m really taken with the form factor and ease of use of the Panel Mini. With fairly quick charging and decent battery life, which can be extended by plugging it into a USB power brick, this little light has earned a permanent place in my camera bag. I am currently thinking up creative ways for these to add something to my night landscape photography.
With more mounting options and easier control over the output than the Aputure AL-M9, I think I’ll be happy with my decision. I don’t think there’s much out there right now that does as good a job as Lume Cube did with this portable light, and at a fair price point.
Chris Koehn is a former newspaper journalist turned videographer. With independent documentary and corporate video production experience, Chris helped newsrooms adopt video content strategies as media convergence and DSLR film making transformed the online news landscape.
His video work earned nominations and national news awards in Canada for elections coverage. Chris is now working in independent journalism and documentary while freelancing for Canadian news outlets.