AllOutdoor.com Guide to Flashlights
Tony Sculimbrene 06.11.13
You might even have one on your keychain right now. It is probably significantly worse for wear, lacking most of the colored anodizing and hanging on with a ratty looking lanyard. What is it? The ubiquitous Mag Soltaire, perhaps the Platonic Idea of the keychain flashlight, or at least it was in 1985. There have been many, many upgrades since, including the poorly made but featherlight LRI Photon, but for a lot of people the 1xAAA Solitaire is their everyday flashlight. But the world of flashlights has moved on from the dreadful Soltaire. The joke among the flashlight cognescenti on CandlePowerForums (the premiere flashlight forum on the ‘Net; yes, there is a forum all about flashlights) is that the Soltaire has the output, measured in lumens, of a match and slightly less runtime.
In the ensuing years since the Solitaire’s release, the tech revolution that brought us cellphones that can run apps and browse websites like this one have pushed the performance of flashlights to amazing levels. There are the budget lights like the Maratac lights that give you an incredible amount of value or hand built customs (yes, there are custom flashlights) like the Muyshondt Aeon Mark II that approach the level of refinement found in fine Swiss watches. Heck, even Maglight has moved beyond the Solitaire releasing the Solitaire LED in the past two months.
All of this begs a question: why carry a light in the first place? Prior to the modern flashlight upgrades, when all we had were the massive aluminum tubs that Mag put out or the plastic Every Ready POS there was no real reason. Those lights were heavy or dim or ran through batteries like a pregnant Kim Kardashian grazing on Klondike bars. Now lights are small, powerful, and sip batteries. Their size, cost, and performance make a compelling case for adding them to the stuff you carry with you everyday. Cellphones have been around for years and years, but everyone started carrying one when they became small, powerful, and relatively inexpensive. The tech overhaul that made the cellphone an everyday necessity has done the same thing with flashlights. If you could carry something that made it easier to find your wallet under a restaurant table or your car in a dark parking garage would you? Maybe, maybe not. But what if that thing weighed less than your wallet? What if that thing was half the size of a pen?
To put it another way, given the proliferation of computers, smartphones, and signing pads, how often do you really need a pen? Once or twice a day? Yet folks carry them everywhere and often in multiples. Modern flashlights are half the size with the same amount of utility and convenience. You would probably use a modern flashlight as often, per day, as you do a pen (I am a huge pen fan, don’t get me wrong, I carry both).
If this argument has moved you, even in the slightest, here is a brief overview of what to look for when you are shopping for your first modern flashlight. The high tech wonder gizmo flashlights are made possible by three technological improvements–LED emitters, battery regulation, and multi-mode outputs. Each is crucial to understanding what to buy and why.
We all know what LEDs are, but with flashlight fans, the type of LED emitter is tremendously important. There are long thread wars over the comparative merits of the XPG2 and XML emitters (both are great). In short, pretty much any emitter released in the last two years will provide more than enough performance. These ultra efficient emitters also make it possible to shrink a flashlight down, needing only a single battery to work properly. The long massive tubs of yore are gone, replaced by slender cylinders the size of your index finger. Most recent emitters, even in such small packages, produce more than enough light, but if you want cutting edge, look for the CREE XPG2 or CREE XML emitter (all modern flashlights list this in the specs; if it is not listed assume it is junk). If you want the best of the best look for a HI CRI version of the above or my personal LED emitter of choice right now (and that is crucial, emitters get updated very quickly) the Nichia 219. This emitter is plenty bright and efficient and also renders color with incredible accuracy (its accuracy is superior to anything you can find in the lighting section of a big box, coming very close to real sunlight, which has perfect color rendering accuracy).
All of this glowing superpower would be all for not if it wasn’t for something called battery regulation. Basically this means that the power from a battery is closely controlled so that the output is constant throughout the life of the battery and that the flashlight can extract power from an almost dead battery. There are two primary ways to do this, but both result in long runtimes. It used to be that a flashlight ran for minutes or maybe hours, but some of the newer lights have runtimes measured in…wait for it…months. Yep, months. It is very likely that we will see a light that runs on a very low output level using an obscure rechargeable battery for a year or more within the next 18 months, such is the relentless march of technology. Year long runtimes will soon be here.
Finally, flashlights now have multiple outputs. This is tremendously important because it allows you to customize the output of the light for the task at hand. If you are taking out the garbage and hear a bump in the night you can turn a light on and throw out 100-200 lumens easily, roughly 4 times the output of the biggest Mag light, all with a light the size of your index finger. If, on the other hand, you are using the light to navigate your way from the bedroom to the bathroom at night you can throw your light into what flashlight fans call “moonlight mode” and the light puts out anywhere from 10 lumens down to a quarter lumen. In moonlight mode you have enough light to see in the dark AND not lose your night vision. Finally, in moonlight mode lights can run for days on end. Some flashlights even allow for infinite variability in the brightness of the light. The days of one output only are, thankfully, long gone.
When you combine all of these innovations you have a marvel of modern technology. Emitter tech has recently improved to the point that common batteries, AAs and AAAs, now put out enough power to compete with the obscure batteries flashlight fans used to insist on (CR2 anyone?). Modern lights, or at least good ones, are half the size of a pen both in terms of size and weight. They run forever. They can light up the side of a mountain. And you can tailor the light’s output to whatever task you are doing. With all of that, NOW do you want to carry a flashlight every day? Why not throw one in your briefcase or backpack? Two ounces of weight could save your bacon one dark day.
Hopefully this little peek into the world of lights has made you curious. If so here are some recommendations for lights:
Shallow End: You want to see what a modern, high tech light can do but don’t want to drop half a day’s pay, start here.
- Olight i3 or i2: A great, multimode light that runs on either AAA (i3) or AA (i2). Good bolt on clip.
- Maratac AAA and AA: A simple, easy to operate light that even non-gear geeks can use and love. I got one for my Mom for Mother’s Day last year and I checked to see if she carried it in secret this Christmas. It was in her purse.
- 47s Preon 0: One of the smallest 1xAAA lights in the world with a dead simple control system and good runtimes. The magnet in the tail is a sweet bonus. It will stick to light plate switches, extra handy for power outages.
Deep End: You’ve decided to do more than get your feet wet and you want see what flashlights can really do, start here.
- Zebralight SC52: Holy moley…this is a ton of performance from an AA battery and proof positive that you don’t need fancy lithium batteries for cutting edge abilities.
- 47s Mini Series: Ignore the baffling nomenclature, which was, apparently lifted from a parts manual from a mid-60s Soviet plane depo, and focus on the fact that you get bleeding edge emitters in tiny bodies with stunning output all for less than $50. If you can tolerate the weirdo batteries, the CR123a light is especially good.
- Sunwayman M11R v.2: This is one of the best lights on the market under $100. It is small, powerful, and has a cutting edge control system–output is managed by a magnetic based selector ring. A lot of modern lights are complex to use but this one has the world’s simplest user manual: twist for on, twist more for more light. There are, of course, hidden modes and the like, but for basic use, the selector ring is awesome.
Mariana Trench: You’ve just won the lottery and instead of doing amortized payments, you took the lump sum option and are looking for things to buy, start here.
- Muyshondt Aeon, Mark II: A $495 light made of titanium with an amazing control system, decent highs, great lows, and runtimes that Methuselah can appreciate.
- McGizmo Haiku HI CRI: A $450 light, again made of titanium, with a beam that looks and lights like a mini-sun.
- Cool Fall Tri-V v.2: A $2,000 plus light with three emitters. The light you put in the glovebox of your Bugatti Veyron Vitesse SE because you, of course, just won the lottery.