Just as technology has made amazing strides in the past 20 years, it was inevitable that someday the flashlight would eventually catch up as well. The invention of the LED…(light emitting diode) seemed like a good fit to eventually replace the standard “bulbs” that flashlights used for decades to produce light. These days, choosing the best led flashlight is to understand which features are available, and what you actually need.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
Gone, are the days when you needed something resembling a billy club to shine a beam of light. Most lights today can be described as EDC (everyday carry) which means they’re probably 6” in length or less, and about 1” thick. There are a great deal of mini-size lights ranging from about 1 ½ “ to 4” in length. These are the ultimate in EDC lights. Battery options for these tiny torches will be covered shortly.
HOW DO THESE BABIES WORK?
Most turn on/off from a rear “clicky switch”. But of late, there’s been a push to reinvent the old fashioned side switch. Some lights will feature both types working in tandem. It’s up to you to decide which is more convenient. The advantage of a tail switch often means that the light will have tactical abilities. This is where “momentary-on” is possible, in addition to constant-on. Not all lights with tail switches will feature this.
Some lights even operate (in layman’s terms) like a dimmer-switch. This is often referred to as variable control or infinite brightness. As is pictured, they’ll be a ring below the head. To adjust brightness, just turn the ring, and it’ll go from really dim to really bright! It’s really cool!
Another typical feature, are multiple levels of brightness. Usually, with continued presses of the switch, (either side or rear) the light will offer a minimum of three levels; low, medium & high. This will vary.
Some have an ultra-low (moonlight) level and some will have a turbo mode in addition to a ‘high’ mode. Other modes (sometimes described as “hidden”) will include strobe, beacon and SOS. “Hidden” refers to the fact that either a few extra button presses, or an extra twist of the head, is the only way of accessing these modes. Some people describe them as “disco lights” and say they’re unnecessary. It’s all a matter of preference. However on a high-end light, those modes will come standard whether you’ll ever use them or not.
MAN, THAT’S BRIGHT!
With LED flashlights, it’s all about the lumens! And it’s an important term to be familiar with since each light will advertise its top lumen level. Just shy of a decade ago, 100 lumens of LED brightness was considered blindingly bright. Today, 100 lumens pales in comparison to those sporting anywhere from 300, all the way up to 1000 lumens and above! The truth is, if using a light ONLY for indoors, (and especially in pitch darkness – [indoors]) a mere 10 lumens or LESS will be all the light you’ll need! But, it’s also good to have options available for outdoor use, or if an electrical blackout occurs and you need substantial light just to do the simplest of tasks. Many lights will stand upright and can be used as a candle.
For camping, hiking, and general outdoor activities after dark, you’ll find even 100 lumens is often not bright enough. Many multi-level lights will have a lumen range from as low as 0.01 all the way up to 700 (for example) with fixed increments between the two. With the previously mentioned variable ring, their are no increments!
WOW! I CAN SEE ALL THE WAY OVER THERE
Lights will also differ in terms of throwing capability – the distance in which the light can shine a useful beam. This is usually determined by how far down the LED is seated within its reflector. The type of LED used will also determine this. This distance will be trumpeted on the package (or in the description) and measured in meters. A very good range will usually begin around 100 meters.
NOT ALL LED’S ARE CREATED EQUAL
CREE is the “brand name” of most all LED’s. The basic description of any light will give the type of LED used. A few years ago, most LED’s were of the XP-G variety. This was the technology of the time. The beam of an XP-G light had a narrow spotlight center, and their top lumens was often not much more than 200. LED technology has advanced a lot since then. Most of the lights as of this writing, now use a CREE XM-L LED.
The variances within these LED’s will often be “T6” or “U2”. The beams produced by these lights often have a wider center, and an ever wider “spill” area. This gives the light the ability to illuminate an extremely wide area in total darkness. The older LED’s could not accomplish this to the degree that they can today.
FEEDING THEM THE POWER
This one is a biggie! Because the best led flashlight, might only run on ONE battery. In general, lights either use alkaline, NiMH rechargeable, or lithium (Li-ion) rechargeable cells as the power source. Important: Alkaline (and NiMH) based lights will seldom offer as many lumens as lithium based lights. This is because alkaline and NiMH batteries operate at a lower voltage than Li-ion cells – 1.5 & 1.2 volts, vs. 3.0 & 3.7 volts. Higher voltages produce higher lumens.
AA and AAA alkaline is the old standby. They last a fair amount of time, are available everywhere, but must be tossed when depleted. Rechargeable AA cells [NiMH] (when full) won’t provide on demand power for as long (at a stretch) as alkalines, but will save money since they can be recharged hundreds of times.
Rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries are available all over the internet. Popular brands such as Energizer, make lithium cells in AA form…but they are not rechargeable! CR123 size is lithium based. They too are 100% disposable. These are better known as camera batteries. They’re short and stubby and can be bought at major retailers but are usually quite expensive…about $5 per cell. The rechargeable version, known as 16340 (aka “RCR123” size) can be bought online for as little as $1 each!
Popular Li-ion battery sizes are 18650, 16340, and 14500. The latter looks EXACTLY like a AA, and is rechargeable. A 18650 cell is the size of two 16340’s stacked end to end. The very smallest lights which I referenced earlier will always use either ONE ‘123’ or ONE AA-size cell. Click here for an in-depth look at different types of rechargeable batteries. The best led flashlight will give you all the features you’ll need within a price point that’s comfortable for your budget. This would include any that utilize either TWO CR123’s (or related rechargeable) ONE 18650, or even AA cells. Which finally brings us to….
HOW MUCH TO SPEND?
Generally for a well made (*name brand) Li-ion based light, expect to pay $50 and up. Upwards of that $50 tag, you can get an exceptional light. It’ll be completely waterproof and virtually indestructible! This would actually be considered military-grade and be ideal for any situation including search and rescue missions. *This article discusses reasons to be wary about buying lower cost lights. If the price mentioned above is too much, there are a multitude of AA size lights as well. They’ll also span a large price range. As a example, the Jetbeam AA light pictured at the top of this page is very reasonably priced.
For a super selection of super-cool lights, batteries and related accessories, CLICK HERE!!
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