October 24, 2006

World's Best Flashlights

Halloween is coming! Piper is going to be Hermione and Anthony doesn't know what he wants to be yet. We've got our big bucket of candy and spooky decorations ready.

But the most important question for Dad is.... Where are my flashlights?

I think my love of flashlights makes me an unqualified gadget nut. I don't know what the attraction of flashlights is - flashlights are simple things after all - you stick in the batteries, and light comes out. But for some reason I really enjoy a good flashlight. Every year around this time I get a bunch of flashlights for myself and my little costumed ones.

This year there are a couple new flashlights that I particularly like...

LEDs Make Neat Flashlights

Soon after Shuji Nakamura developed the first blue LED in 1993, Nichia and other companies started refining LED technology to make white LEDs bright enough to be used in flashlights. The current superstars of the LED world are the Luxeon LEDs made by Lumileds. These one-watt-and-up LEDs are now bright enough to be truly practical for illumination.

The amazing thing about LED lights is that they basically never burn out and they are much more efficient than incandescent bulbs; some of my older LED flashlights still have their original AA batteries. But the early LED flashlights were dim - they put out noticeably less light than ordinary flashlights.

Current LED flashlights are much brighter. Of course, they also draw more electricity so instead of lasting hundreds of hours, your battery might only last a few hours. But they still beat incandescent lights.

Previous Years' Favorites

My previously-favorite LED flashlight was the Arc AAA flashlight made by Peter Gransee. The amazing thing about the Arc is that it puts out a strong beam using only a single AAA battery - a feat which requires a little bit of electronics because you need to step up to about 3.5V to drive a white LED. The small Arc is nicely cut out of aluminum, watertight, and solid. And it passes the all-important rattle test: when you load up a battery and shake it, it does not rattle around.

After ARC went out of business in 2004, I looked for other brands of LED flashlights. (Actually Peter's company has been reincarnated so you can buy Arc flashlights again now.) Last year I played with one of the Peak LED flashlights. They make nice flashlights, but somehow not quite as nice as Arc - they are a little too heavy and solid for my taste. I gave the kids little Streamlite Key-Mates in blue and green to hang around their necks - those were a big hit all year, but they use unusual batteries. The kids also liked playing with the various colors of Photon flashlights - but these are too small to really rely on for walking.


Hunting for a new general-purpose compact flashlight, I browsed around Candlepower Forums and noticed that some of the flashaholics were fans of a new manufacturer in China. China? My previous experience with Chinese flashlight manufacturers wasn't good, with thin screw-on parts that didn't fit well, beams that didn't focus, and battery holders that would rattle. But heck, I figured I'd give this new one a try - Fenix.

I was pleasantly surprised! The Fenix E1 is like an improved Arc AAA flashlight. It has a solid feel and fits together very smoothly, with waterproofing O-rings. It passes the rattle test. And unlike the Arc, it comes with a shiny focusing mirror and lens; it has a very symmetrical beam; and instead of putting out 5 lumens of light it puts out about 12 (though it burns through the battery a bit faster than the Arc too). The Fenix E1 also has a flat tail so that you can set it down pointing at the ceiling, which I like.

Fenix also makes an incredibly bright 3-watt flashlight that uses a single AA battery called the L1T (that's the black flashlight pictured at the top). The L1T has a three-watt LED and adds a pushbutton tailcap switch and a twist-head that selects between two levels of brightness. And it really is bright - much brighter than, say, a regular old non-LED 2 C-cell Maglight flashlight.

Of course, the real attraction of an LED flashlight is that it's just so darn neat. I think it is cool to look into the flashlight and see, instead of a glowing filament, a little square diode chip pumping out piles of photons...

Happy trick-or-treating.

Posted by David at October 24, 2006 09:56 PM

Also a big fan of LED lights, I have a couple myself, a green and white one made by Inova. Great company and good quality flashlights.
There are more like spotlights, a bit more directed, but bright as well.

Posted by: Chase Lee at November 7, 2006 03:24 AM

I settled on the Inova XO3; same as the T3, but a lot easier to find, and it has a more reliable switch (or so some say). Its absurdly bright.

Posted by: Mark Nottingham at November 11, 2006 09:48 AM

Yah, I think the Inova X03 is even brighter than the T3, but I think the X03 uses CR123 lithiums. I like AA flashlights like the T3 because I always have a lot of AAs in the house.

Posted by: David at November 11, 2006 11:14 PM

Myself I bought an Inova X1, both the new and the old model.

Posted by: Harry at November 27, 2006 01:22 AM

Xmas last year I impressed my gadget man brother-in-law with some LED flashlights I got very cheaply. The main thing he liked about them was they took regular batteries like the models you suggest. Apparently he had spent a crazy sum on a fancy flashlight, only to find it didn't take regular batteries. Thanks for posting ones that take AAA's instead of Lithium.

And he ended up taking one of my $3 flashlights.

An emergency flashlight story for you:

This summer, I was going to wake up for a flight at 4am for a flight at 6am. The power went out overnight and I had about 15 minutes to get myself together in the pitch dark before the cab arrived for the airport. I remembered I had one of those $3 flashlights on my desk still in the packaging, and a fresh pack of batteries. I ripped it open, stuffed it full of battries and ran around my apartment trying to get ready.

Since power was out in the building, I was running down the halls and staircases with the flashlight and made it just in time as the cab pulled up. It was awesome! Though I am a bigger fan of LED headlamps like the Petzl Tikka.

All I can say is keep a flashlight handy near your bed in case of emergencies. (And if you live in an earthquake area, hard soled slippers/shoes. One of the commonest injuries during the Northridge quake in 1993/94 was lacerated feet from people stepping on broken glass in their pajamas.)

Posted by: mapgirl at November 29, 2006 10:24 AM

Hi, David. I am a flashlight designer. Your review on Fenix is quite good. Could you have a look on my product? It's NEOFAB LEGION II. You can find the info in my site: neo-fab.com/legionII/
If possible, could you introduce it in your blog?

Yours, Neoseikan

Posted by: neoseikan at July 31, 2009 01:06 PM

I agree, there is something very appealing about flashlights. I always have to buy a new one when I go camping. Have you checked out the Fenix flashlights?

Posted by: Fenix Flashlights Guru at January 20, 2011 04:19 PM

I am a flashlight junkie. My favorites have a common theme similar to what was listed on the arc aaa site: easy/convenient to carry, good runlife on a commonly-used battery, and durability equal to the user. I have liked the glow-in-the-dark paklite LED flashlight for a long time. The fantastically-simple design (the 2cm x 3cm piece plugs directly onto the 9-v battery) doesn't roll, it's very small and compact, and the piece glows in the dark after illumination. My second-favorite light is streamlight's nano-light. One stays on my work badge's lanyard all the time (I'm a paramedic, and I sometimes work 24-hour shifts). You'd think that I would go for a maglight, but I work better with a lighter load, plus there's a 3-cell (which may or may not work) in the ambulance, and I've always had problems with the maglite mini unscrewing and freeing itself from my keychain. Although I prefer a tailcap button, I do like the slim inovas, the gerber infinity ultra, gerber recon (4 different light shades). The screwcap works well one-handed when you run a keyring through the lanyard hole.

My story: I had one-aa flashlight with a tailcap button that I accidentally lost at a car wreck scene. I was heart broken, so my partner and I took the ambulance back out later that afternoon to look and couldn't find it. After our shift was over, I went back on my own and found it pushed down into the gravel on the shoulder of the highway. I dug it back out with my fingers, and it still worked perfectly. It's still in my car, but I don't remember what brand it is...

Posted by: susan at February 4, 2012 06:40 AM
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