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Budget Night Vision Optic – Reviewed

Forums Optics, Scopes, Rings, & Mounts Budget Night Vision Optic – Reviewed

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    STO
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    Night vision is a complicated and somewhat opaque topic. There is very little in the way of good comparative data and standards on the subject, and individual optics are expensive enough very few people have “lots” so can do a serious and unbiased comparison. Furthermore photography in the dark is very challenging, so even on those rare occasions when you can see through the reviewer's optic, it is hard to get a feel for the context; is that object at the edge of the clearly defined range 50 or 150 meters out? How bright a night is it really? Things used to be clearer, pun intended, because you had only gen1, gen2, and gen3 image intensification and those were concrete technological differences. But suddenly you have gen1+, digital, thermal, and so on to the point now where it seems to me like nobody is even bothering trying to explain what you can and can't see through a given piece of equipment anymore. There are no standards, just marketing copy and if you're lucky a few Amazon reviews.

     

    I am not going to clarify any of that I'm afraid, but what I do want to do is review an inexpensive user-friendly night vision option which might be good for someone looking to dip their toes, wow their friends, or light up a few rodents. Fair warning/full disclosure, I'm just some nutcase on the internet who likes these toys. I've never worked in the industry, I don't have any insider knowledge, and while a few of my friends have expensive toys I've only ever owned modestly priced night vision equipment.

     

    So here is the thing: fifteen years ago you had gen1+ image intensification tubes, which you could get an inexpensive unit for about 500$ that would allow you to see a green hazy indistinct blur as far out as you felt like. Most included an IR illuminator because if you wanted to see under trees, inside a house, or on a dark night you'd need it. They were a hassle to use, and if you flashed one with daylight or someone's bright flashlight you could damage it. Even the auto-gated ones were far from indestructible, and they all ate batteries.

     

    About 5 years ago digital hit the lower-cost scene, and started really changing things. For about 250+ and up you could get something which was about like the gen1 tubes, but gave you black and white instead of green and they were more durable as they ran day/night.

     

    Fast forward to today, you can now pick up a digital unit with a bunch of features for about 100$ including shipping from the usual suspects. But how good are they really? What are they useful for? Would you want to buy one?

     

    Again I want to be fully transparent here: I bought this optic with money out of my own pocket. Nobody paid me a penny to write this. I also only tested one example, and provided the EXACT link I used to order the product. That is really the extent of my knowledge on this specific product. I also will update this review over time as I use the unit more, however please be aware that at the time of writing I've only had the unit for about a week. This makes it a “cursory” review, where I can explain its function, but longevity I simply don't have data on. And, again, this is a sample size of one and I'm just some lunatic flogging my keyboard from the other side of the intertesticle so take everything I say with a shaker of salt.

     

    So here is the exact link from which I bought this unit:
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Night-Vision-Riflescope-Hunting-Day-and-Night-Riflescope-Hunting-Quick-Disassembly-Digital-Night-Vision-Scope-Outdoor/32911399909.html

     

    Full disclosure, a couple years back, a friend bought me the original version of this for about 250$. It had a worse mounting system for the camera, the screen mounted separately using a scope ring, and the IR illuminator was just a flashlight provided with a basic scope clamp. A few friends had built units like this from cobbled together parts, but I had never gotten around to it. So when this showed up, I absolutely ADORED it. Finally I didn't have to remove my scope, zero my NV, put up with a crappy NV scope and reticle and turrets of questionable accuracy, and then re-zero my daytime scope when I reattached it. Further, all my daytime practice with my nice expensive glass wasn't wasted at night when I had to give it up. I still have and use and love that unit, but when I started setting up my Crown I realized I had a problem: there isn't enough real estate on my scope tube to mount my IR illuminator and screen and still clear the magazine and everything. It is just too cramped. So when I saw this latest gen all-in-one unit for about a hundred bucks, with its quick-attach system I could mount in seconds instead of minutes, I jumped.

    The packaging on this new version was MUCH more professional than on the original. Lots of custom cut foam, so robust even a 3rd grader couldn't break it although I've heard nothing is beyond the abilities of the postal service. (I had UPS put a 45 degree bend in a cold hammer forged steel barrel once, still don't know how they actually managed it) And what a bonus, the box was thoroughly waterproofed with the finest in yellow Chinese packing tape. :P

     

    It is worth noting that there was no chingrish manual to suffer through, no manual of any kind in fact. This has never slowed me down before, after all why should a manufacturer know anything about their own product, but for those who like to hallucinate while staring at the pressed and processed carcasses of dead trees this might be considered a negative. Just something to keep in mind.

    Mounting for the first time took only a few minutes, but there was one hitch: the Athlon Argos I run has a fatter ocular ring than the tube beyond it, which caused the camera to tilt as I tightened the clamp. The fix was easy: with the included fabric tape, I simply built up a small “shim” on the top of the mount to fill the gap, and held it aligned as I gently tightened. For those worried about aluminum-on-aluminum marring, you could put the tape all around the inside of the mount as well. 

    From there I popped in two 18650s. This is one thing which I was never thrilled about on the original unit, and they appear not to have changed on this one: the battery box is TIGHT. If you think you're going to fit fat-wrapped protected 18650s in here you've got another thing coming. I put in some sanyo unprotected cells I had kicking around. The battery box appears to want unprotected button top cells, for what it is worth. I pulled the (now included) lens cap off the camera, clicked the unit on, and focused it on the reticle with the scope's front-cap closed and the reticle illuminated at its lowest setting. Done, ready to go.

     

    There are a couple other little things about this unit worth noting before I get into performance. First is that the green "tab" seen as the corner is a pull for the screen cover. Because I want to avoid scratching my screen, I just leave it on as a screen protector. Heck one has even been  hanging out for years on my original unit. The IR illuminator connects at the side, and has its own on-off switch which is nice. It appears to have a ramping feature, which is also nice. I don't care though, because I have every intention of running my own vastly more powerful illuminators. But it is there for those who care. Another thing is that there is a second switch, which is not the power switch, on the back of the unit. This one perplexed me on the original, because one day I couldn't seem to get it to work worth a damn. Turns out it is a day-night setting, the switch allowing you to choose between the two. Cool huh? If your picture is in color, it is because you're on the day setting. ;) There is one more negative I want to point out before we get to the testing portion of the exercise which is that, while the screen does have adjustable brightness settings, I think all of them are too bright for night hunting. I've been meaning to pick up some window tint to put on the screen, but the fact that in years I haven't I guess should tell you either that I procrastinate a lot or that I don't find it to be that much of a nuisance. For what it is worth, I have never in my life found an NV unit which wasn't too bright. 

     

    So on the fine evening I picked to do the photography of this unit it was moonless, very clear, there was minimal light pollution, and the stars were bright and crisp. I had my scope, still an Athlon Argos, set to 16x. The target was 100 yards away, and in the middle you can see a bullseye target with a 2” bull in the center, and I believe the top-left hand disc is 3" in diameter. The targets are dingy white from white spraypaint and weather and so on. Please note all of these images are cell-phone pictures of a screen. This creates nasty artifacts, obviously, but also produces less clear images because of the lack of persistence of vision which our eyes have. Basically the unit looks better in person than in photographs. 

     

    Without any illuminator turned on, this was the view from the screen. You can see precisely nothing

     

    This is with the in-built illuminator IR. The lack of light causes the unit to compensate probably with simulated ISO, causing a more grainy image. Again the lack of persistence of vision makes this look like it has more snow than it appears to in real life. This is 100 yards out though, and you could easily spot and shoot a mouse at this range. not bad for a tiny in-built aspheric with a lens the size of my thumbnail. 

     

    Here I clicked on one of my more powerful infrared illuminators. This flashlight is dangerous, because you can't see it but it is likely powerful enough to damage your eyes if you look into it even at a surprisingly long distance. Just something to keep in mind when playing around with IR illuminators, some of them are dangerous in the same way IR lasers are; you can't see them and they trigger no blink reflex. In the image though you can clearly see the grain is smaller, everything is crisper and sharper. Individual blades of last year's grass poking through the snow are clearly defined. While it is a little washed out, due to the interplay between screen and camera, I could clearly see my hits on these targets. 

     

    So do I recommend this night vision unit to other people? The answer is a big fat maybe. If you are a bit of a techno-phobe, or mechanical fuddy-duddy, or the kind of guy who likes to call up and get in-person customer service/technical help I'd say DEFINITELY NOT!!!! You get no instructions, no help, and you're left to figure it out yourself. Aligning the camera to your scope can also be a fiddly process, particularly if you're not used to it. So if you want a made-in-America turn-key solution with a help line and a retailer you trust, this is definitely not for you. 

    On the flip side of the coin, if you kinda know what you're doing, you can problem-solve on your own, and you would like to try night-hunting on a budget I believe this unit is a HUGE win. For just 100$ you can get something that gives you a hundred yards of pitch-black night hunting capability, THROUGH YOUR DAY-TIME SCOPE!!!! And with a good illuminator you can stretch that out to a thousand yards or more. As you might be able to tell, I absolutely adore my old unit, and this new so far seems like a very nice upgrade. 

     

    I hope everyone finds this review helpful. :) I had meant to review a second hand-held unit (from a different company) which also cost 100$, however that unit was DOA. So I will follow-up on that later in another review after things resolve themselves. 

     

    *update* 
    So I promised an update on the DOA handheld monocular. The unit I bought which arrived not working was this bad boy:
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Monocular-Night-Vision-Infrared-Digital-Scope-For-Hunting-Telescope-Long-Range-With-built-in-Camera-Shoot/32919835380.html

    So it arrived, and it no workey-workey. Wouldn't power up, and when you plugged it into aux power you could get the screen to power up but it wouldn't display anything. So boo hiss, I filed an aliexpress dispute. There was some back and forth, first they wanted pictures then they wanted a video, all of which I provided, and in the end on a 95$ order they gave me 80$ back and said I could just keep the unit. So all but 15$ back I can live with, especially since I had every intention of scavenging parts out of the thing anyway. 

    Funny thing is, after the dispute was settled, I figured I may as well tear into the thing and see why it wasn't working or at the very least salvage a few parts. After all, if I didn't do that, it'd just be going in the garbage so why not? Turns out it was just a bad connection, and it is now working. Given that the reviews on it, both from this seller and others, are overwhelmingly positive I'm going to assume that this was just a fluke. It'll take me some time, but I'll work up a review on the thing now that I've gotten it working. Having used it just a little now two things jump out at me:
    1) The way the screen is displayed is a little weird. Rather than being integrated, it looks a lot like staring into an old stereo viewer from the 80s to look at a square screen. Clearly this unit was largely cobbled together from other off-the-shelf parts. This is not only fine for the price, I'd argue it is good because it means you're using well tested and proven hardware bought off the shelf and reconfigured, so the chances that there is some exotic thing in here which hasn't been large-scale tested and can break at any second is a lot lower. 

    2) The controls are weird, and not very intuitive. It really is a lot like a camcorder that was converted with an IR LED and a high sensitivity camera sensor. The IR LED for example isn't just on or off with a button, you access it through a menu on the screen and can actually adjust it to multiple brightness settings. 

    3) It advertises that it uses an AA battery, but then further down the documentation it says it runs on 3.7v. Well which is it? Turns out it runs on a 14500 lithium cell, which is about the size of an AA battery but obviously is not an AA battery. (higher voltage and output) I had my suspicions this would be true, but obviously until I got it working there was no way to know for sure. 

     

    That is all I have for now. I'll have to try it at night and test it a bit more, but assuming it performs okay in the dark I'd say for 100$ it is good value. Keep in mind that, compared to the hazy green blur of a gen1 image intensification tube sold by Bushnell just a few years ago for several hundred dollars, this appears to be a big upgrade at a much lower price. So I'm willing to forgive it a few quirks and faults. 

     

    *update2* 
    So I've had some time with this monocular and I think it is not bad. I strongly prefer the Best-Sight NV unit which attaches to my scope as reviewed above, but it is hard to compare a 100$ unit attached to several hundred dollars more worth of optics with just a 100$ stand-alone unit. So for what it is, I think it is fine and fulfills the purpose. I do maintain the slightly awkward controls are not wonderful. 

    It is hard to show what this unit actually looks like. The screen is higher resolution per unit area than the BestSight screen, and is meant very much to be viewed by a human eye against the eye-cup. What it is not made for is to have someone awkwardly try to aim it at a target with one hand and then hold a camera in space and try to aim that at the screen. So apologies in advance, these pictures do NOT do the unit justice. Test conditions were the same as above, a clear moonless night. With the illuminator off, essentially nothing was visible. 

     

    This is 100 yards with the integral illuminator turned up to max. Again on the right hand cluster of targets, you can make out the 3" circle no problem. At this rate of drain, the NV plus its illuminator maxed out, I suspect the life of that single 14500 cell will be relatively short. Voltage sag was evident because as soon as I turned the illuminator down the battery capacity indicator went up. I will say though that at 100 yards, while you could identify deer for example, you'd have a hard time IDing rodents. This just comes down to the magnification of the optics, or lack thereof, but again a 100$ all-included unit isn't a fair comparison to a 100$ unit attached to a couple hundred dollar scope. 

     

     

    This is approximately 30 yards, with the illuminator on a much lower setting than the 100 yard shot. I think this is a much more typical application for the monocular. And at this distance it works well, rodents would be clearly visible. 

     

    So would I recommend this unit to someone? I would say that if you're looking for a re-branded unit to purchase from somewhere in the United States, you would probably spend about 200$ to get something with equivalent features and function to this. (ballpark) How useful it is really depends on your application. This unit actually has fairly high magnification for what it is, and so you're not going to want to use it to try and walk around in the dark for example as it isn't sufficiently wide angle. At the same time it doesn't have the magnification of a spotting scope, which would require MUCH more expensive optics. So it inhabits that middle ground in terms of what you can see with it, it probably functions optimally for spotting things in maybe the 20-50 yard range, and can be pushed out to 100 yards maximum with its in-built illuminator. With an auxillary illuminator, which could be mounted using the unit's RIS rail, you could in theory see as far as you liked. Again though lack of magnification will limit your ability to physically see targets under a certain size beyond a certain distance. I guess what I'm trying to say is, all in all, if I wanted a hand-held monocular I would buy this again. Unlike the BestSight unit I don't love it, but I think part of that is that I simply don't find monoculars to be as useful as an NV conversion for a scope. 

     

    *Update 12.7.19*

    Both units, such are they are, still work great. They don't see a huge amount of use, and I don't abuse them, but they see enough.

     

    *Update 3.18.20*
    Both units are still working well. For steakouts of my favorite hunting spot, I've started bringing an external charger so I can run the handheld unit off of USB power. It turns out the handheld NV unit requires a battery, however when plugged in does not drain it, so it can be run indefinitely….. with an annoying catch: the unit auto powers off after ~10 minutes of use. I think it is too smart for its own good. So that is annoying, but it is otherwise very functional. One of my little picatinny rail to arca swiss adapters allows me to put it on top of a tripod ball head, so all that together makes a handy little setup to keep an eye on things and wait for rodents to show up. 

    This has made me want to convert my scope mounted unit to also be able to run on wall power. Mounting it first to the rifle, then mounting the rife on a ball head tripod means you can sit hands free and watch your hunting spot and take a shot when something shows up. The big screen means you and your buddies can all sit back, relax, crack a beverage, and watch the action rather than sitting/standing in a stress position trying to look through a scope or similar handheld optic. The trouble is, how many batteries do you want to carry and do you want to be swapping them out in the pitch black? Making an adapter to run the unit on wall power would be super convenient. So this is on my to-do list. At some point I'll crack that out and that'll make night hunting even more relaxing and convenient. 
     

    • This topic was modified 10 months ago by STO.
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    HeyU
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    Great review,thx! The one picture makes me think of that Matrix film. Hope to see a follow up review on this by you. Do u have any other reviews?

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    Phildog59
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    Thanks for your review.I think this could be a good starter as I’ve never tried night vision. What IR light would you recommend for this unit?

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    STO
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    HeyU

    Great review,thx! The one picture makes me think of that Matrix film. Hope to see a follow up review on this by you. Do u have any other reviews?

    Thanks. :) The only other "review" I have on this forum is this:
    https://www.airgunnation.com/topic/fx-crown-bespoke-moderator-tesla-gas-diode/page/5/#post-453278

    It is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive test of airgun moderators ever done. I'll probably slowly muddle my way through other reviews, but in general if I'm going to review something it has to be "new" or otherwise have a new take on the subject. Doing a review of my FX Crown for example doesn't seem like a very good use of my, or anyone else's, time because it is old news. I hope that makes sense. :) 

     

    Phildog59

    Thanks for your review.I think this could be a good starter as I’ve never tried night vision. What IR light would you recommend for this unit?

    Good question, but not one with an easy answer. I would say, if you're just starting out, the in-built unit is pretty good and you can probably use that for a while until you have a taste for it and what sort of capabilities you want. I personally am a freak for flashlights, and build/mod my own, so my tastes are a little more unusual and expensive. (more expensive than the NV unit itself. :P) I'm going to try and take a shot in the dark (pun intended) and make budget-friendly recommendations. (note any of these can be bought from aliexpress or Amazon, but you'll pay a large markup to buy on Amazon) 

    Before you get a light, you'll need a mount. These clamps are NOT suitable for firearms or anything with any real recoil, but on airguns they are simple and work well. They are also big enough they give you the clearance. Often you'll get one for free with a more expensive IR illuminator. Again they're not perfect, and there are fancier and more expensive mounts which work better, but I've always found these to be a cheap, cheerful, and satisfactory fix particularly on airguns where you don't usually have many mounting options: 
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Barrel-Mount-Rifle-Scope-Mounting-Tools-Gun-Mount-For-IR-Light-Night-Vision-Flashlight-Torch/32894188922.html

     

    As far as lights go, at the very low end you have these cheap little "zoomies" as they're called. If you watch CNN you'll see these things rebranded (generally in visible light) and sold at outrageous markups as "tactical" lights to dupes who don't know any better. That said, the optical quality is surprisingly good, and while cheap and under-driven and with little cooling consideration, they also just kinda work. A lot of the flashlight industry hates them, but quite frankly I'm of the opinion that a lot of that hatred is because they produce surprisingly good performance for very very little money IF you know where to buy them. Keep in mind some percentage of these are DOA, or don't work for long, but an even more surprising number just work great. This is kind of the ultimate budget flashlight in a lot of respects, and it wasn't that long ago these things were handing Surefire's ass to them in terms of performance. I would expect to use one of these IN CONJUNCTION with the built-in IR illuminator to maximize range. 
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Zoomable-IR-850nm-5w-Night-Vision-OSRAM-Infrared-LED-Flashlight-Torch-Lamp-light/32711769946.html

     

    Still budget, but at the other end of the specturm, you have something like this UniqueFire. I've also used and fettled these, and the optical quality is a real dice roll. Even still, they'll produce surprisingly good throw performance for very little money. Also keep in mind it is a modular system, so you can swap heads and pills (electronics) and such as you so desire. And, unlike the Zoomies, they actually have at least some internal engineering and thought to performance. 
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Uniquefire-UF-1508-75-IR-850nm-zoomable-3-modes-led-flashlight-press-switch-gun-mount-charger/32699095809.html

     

    One final note: I say this every time I offer up a link to aliexpress: do your due diligence. Keep on top of the delivery timer, test everything immediately when it arrives, and don't expect an instructions manual or for the seller to hold your hand. It is cheaper that the exact same item on Amazon for a reason, so if you're not willing/able to deal with the unique requirements of buying on Aliexpress just pay the markup for Amazon or some other company. ;) 

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    STO
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    Just a quick bump to say I've completed a preliminary review of the NV monocular. I also still, unsurprisingly, love the NV scope conversion. I have to say, if you want to NV hunt with friends and just sit around in comfortable chairs chatting and watching bait stations, this scope mounted NV is just the ticket to have a killer good time. It is a lot of casual fun for not very much money. 

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