Shining Some Light On Flashlights
You would be hard pressed to find a house that doesn’t have at least one flashlight stuffed away in a desk or kitchen drawer. All too often, though, those lights have burned out bulbs and dead or missing batteries. When the power goes out and you need a light, it can be really disappointing to repeatedly click the switch on your flashlight and have nothing happen. Thankfully, flashlights have come a long way over the last few years. On a good, modern LED flashlight dead bulbs are a thing of the past and they can run for days on the same set of batteries.
Comparing flashlights recently got much easier with the adaption of the ANSI/NEMA FL-1 standard. Over a dozen flashlight manufacturers got together and agreed to test their lights using the same procedures in their labs for things like output, battery life and beam distance. As long as the companies that make the lights follow the FL-1 standard, the numbers on the package are reasonably comparable between different brands. However, since two flashlights with similar numbers can produce quite different real world results, we’ve included some situational tests to give you a feel for how the lights perform in use. Each light was used to illuminate a fallen tree at a distance of fifty feet on its highest power setting and to read a map at its lowest power setting. The included photos should give you a better idea of how the lights perform, when you consider them in context, with the standardized lab data. Below, we will take a look at a spread of mostly LED lights at different price points. The flashlight market has exploded with new companies and models in recent years, but the seven lights below are some of the best ones I’ve found when considering cost, quality and features.
The classic American flashlight found in toolboxes and kitchen drawers would have to be the Mini Maglite. This light is on the short list of units still made in the USA and has been, all the way back to when it first came out in 1984. When it came out, it was a technological marvel. You could turn the head to have both a spotlight and a floodlight option. Twisting the head all the way off would let you use it like a candle for lighting up the inside of a room or tent. If you only want to invest about ten bucks into a flashlight, then the Mini Maglite is still one of your best bets for a really well-made unit. But, this will only buy you fourteen lumens of light for around five hours of runtime per set of batteries. The beam distance, the distance the light will project to 0.25lux, is rated at 96 meters. That is just fine for an around the house light, but not an impressive runtime by more modern LED standards. But, the body of a Mini Maglite is built like a tank and about the only way to kill this light is to leave a dead pair of AA batteries in it until they leak. The weakpoint of this and most other incandescent lights, though is the bulb. The Xenon lamps that power this flashlight are tiny and quite fragile. There is, thankfully, a spare bulb hidden in the tailcap of the light, under the spring. Spare bulbs come in a two pack and cost around two or three dollars. It would be a good idea to grab a few. I’ve seen Mini Maglites for sale recently in a “bonus pack” of sorts that even included an extra pair of bulbs in the box.
The MiniMaglite was not exactly a stellar performer in the distance test, as seen in the photo above. But, to be fair, it is the least expensive light in our comparison. It performed adequately in the map reading test, but the lighting is not particularly even. This can be adjusted somewhat by turning the head to adjust the focus of the beam.
The big step up in small flashlight output was the rise of the tactical flashlight. These lights are generally made to produce a powerful spotlight, without really trying to balance output with battery life. Early on, they gained the advantage of using a pair of the more powerful 123A batteries, which allowed them to put out more than four times the light of a Mini Maglite. It is still common to find these kinds of lights running on a pair of 123As. However, these batteries are a tradeoff in a preparedness situation. They have a good shelf life and store plenty of power, but are fairly expensive and limited in the devices that can use them. It is a benefit to standardize on as few different types of batteries as possible for emergencies. That way, one bulk back of AAs from Costco or a few sets of Sanyo Eneloops can keep all of your little electrical goodies up and running for a good while.
One of the first “affordable” tactical lights was the SureFire G2, now replaced by the upgraded SureFire G2x – For forty dollars, this light will pump out 65 lumens of light for an hour from a pair of 123As. The light itself is very well made. There are plenty of stories out there of these lights surviving everything from being run over by a truck to IED explosions. The tailcap switch can be twisted all the way down for constant light, pressed down for intermittent light or given a twist towards open to keep the light from turning on. The replacement Xenon bulbs run $15 to $20 each. SureFire used to make a LED powered reflector assembly, the P60L, which would replace the standard bulb in these lights. This reflector assembly has been discontinued and replaced by a new upgrade, which is a whole new sixty dollar head unit, the KX4. Some P60Ls are still available as old stock, but are no longer a common item. Aftermarket LED bulbs are available, that are close in design to the P60L, but can vary in price and quality. The G2x model has been upgraded to LED as a stock feature.
The SureFire G2 did well in the distance test. It is more of a spotlight than a flood light, but did a good job illuminating the fallen tree. The map test was more of a challenge, since this light does not have a low power setting. As you can see from the sample image, the bright spot washes out the details. An easy fix for this is to stick a piece of folded paper in front of the light to diffuse the spot before trying to use it for close up work. The G2 was tested with the LED lamp upgrade. The jump from Xenon bulbs like those used in the classic Mini Maglites and SureFires to modern LEDs is the most useful advance in flashlight technology in years. Switching out just the bulb/reflector assembly on a SureFire G2 will turn a sixty-five lumen, one hour flashlight into an eighty lumen light with six hours of usable run time. LEDs are that much more efficient.
The first factory LED light on the list is the Icon Rogue 2. This light does not explicitly subscribe to the FL-1 testing standards. These have come down in price to around twenty-five dollars, with a bit of shopping. It has a machined aluminum body, single tailcap switch and two output levels. By clicking the switch once or twice, you can choose between “high” and “low” light settings. The Rogue 2 will output 100 lumens for 3 hours or 10 lumens for 72 hours on two AAs. This is the feature that makes these kinds of lights so much more useful, from the preparedness point of view, than the plain tactical lights. The brighter light levels are needed for tasks such as quickly identifying the source of a strange noise, looking for lost children or pets in the dark and helping to deter potential threats. But, that super bright light does not work well when you are trying to look down your child’s throat to see if he has strep and is overkill for reading books or a map after dark. Being able to choose the right amount of light for the job is a big advantage for preparedness planning. Having multiple output levels will also allow you to maximize the lifespan of your batteries by being able to choose the lowest light level needed to do a particular job. The only real complaint about this Icon model is that the tailcap switch sticks out far enough that it is easy for it to get bumped and turn on, if you stick it in a pack or side pocket.
The Icon Rogue 2 did pretty well in both the distance and map reading tests, since it is a multimode light. This is a common trend in lights that have multiple output options. Some of the spotlight characteristics from the high power setting do carry over to the lower power setting, though.
The Inova X2 is the next step up in both price and output. This light can commonly be found for right around thirty-five dollars and is a very well made light. The X2 has an aluminum body with a lanyard hole on the textured tailcap. As for output, it will pump out 150 lumens for 70 minutes or 18 lumens for 60 hours. The X2’s switch is reminiscent in operation of the one on the SureFire G2. Pressing the tailcap down will give you intermittent light at high output and a second push will do the same on low power. Twisting the switch down turns on constant high power and a second on/off twist will put the light into constant low power output mode. What makes this light a good choice to keep in your pack or bag is that turning the tailcap one full twist counterclockwise will lockout the switch. Then, you won’t have to worry about the light coming on in your bag. The beam distance on high is 135m.
The Inova X2 is a clear step in in performance when compared to the previous lights. It produces a wider spotlight which produced good results in the distance test. The improved results are also clear in the map reading test, where it produced wide, even lighting that was easy to read by and did not overly wash out the map details. For a simple, solid light it is an excellent value.
The Nitecore MT2A is a thirty-five dollar light that steps up the features to four brightness settings. It can put out 280 lumens for 2hr 15min, 125lumens for 5h, 50 lumens for 12h or 15 lumens for 50hr. There is also the option to have the light automatically flash is a SOS/Stobe pattern, which could certainly be a benefit for emergency signaling. The Nitecore has a textured aluminum body and a slightly raised collar around the light with flat sides, to help keep it from rolling off of a tabletop or other flat surface. The tailcap switch is also protected with a raised “crown” on two sides, to make it harder for the button to be accidently bumped on. The beam distance on high is 115m.
Now, what the MT2A has that really sets it apart from many of the other feature packed multifunction lights is a two position “smart switch” that is selected by slightly twisting the head unit clockwise, as you would on a Mini Maglite. The big problem with many of the advanced lights made today is that you have to turn them on and then cycle through all of the different settings before you find the one that you want. Having to press the power button four or five times every time you need to use your light is a hassle. When the smart switch is in the first position, it will always start the light out in the 280 lumen “turbo mode” for about three minutes and then step it down to 125 lumens to help extend battery life and manage heat. The second position is user adjustable. It will remember what output level was selected the last time you used it and start back at that same level the next time you turn the light back on. This lets you pick whichever power setting will work best for the task at hand, but still be able to kick the light into bright mode without having to mess with the tailcap switch.
The Nitecore MT2A produced very usable results in the distance test at both the Turbo and High output levels, as shown. The maximum output is certainly the more impressive of the two, but the light will automatically step down from this to the lower output level at the three minute mark. However, what makes sense with the features of this light is to pick one of the lower light levels and then just give the head unit’s smart switch a counterclockwise twist to kick it up to Turbo output, as needed.
The Pelican 2370 is the only multi-LED light reviewed in this article. It is common to see really inexpensive lights that use an array of cheap LEDs to make a brighter light from older technology bulbs. The 2370 is not this kind of light at all. This well engineered Pelican runs around forty-five dollars and has a textured aluminum body with octagonal ends to help prevent rolling. The main bulb can output either 106 lumens for 3hrs 45 mins or 13 lumens for 41hrs 15min. The two output levels for the main light are selected by single or double clicking the tailcap switch for constant on or just pressing down on the button for momentary use. This switch is designed so that it feels somewhat recessed. While it does take firmer than average pressure to activate the switch, it is also much less likely to come on accidently. What sets this light apart are the two colored LEDs. Twisting the dial behind the head of the light lets you select between the main white light and a red or blue LED. This dial is a magnetic switch with a nice, solid feel that firmly clicks into place at the I, II and III markings. The red light is the classic choice when you are trying to protect your night vision. Red light is detectable by the cones in the eye, but not the rods, where night vision occurs. The blue is a nice step up from red that lets you see and read more easily, without going to a bright white light. The beam distance on high is 158m.
The Pelican 2370 produces a strong, tight spotlight in the distance test. The balance of its feature set is for up close work, though. In this test, the map was readable in the red, blue and lower power white light settings. Personally, I did some tests with this light after sitting in the dark long enough for my eyes to build up some rhodopsin, the fragile night vision chemical. The level of red light produced was enough to let me read details on the map, while still retaining a good ability to see in the dark. The blue light did have more of an impact on my night vision after reading the map, but was certainly better than regular white light. An unexpected result was that the blue light seems to give the map used in the test an almost 3D effect with some of the details and contours.
The Fenix LD41 is a high-end light that can act as both a powerful spotlight and a lower powered unit for close up work. At seventy-five dollars, it runs on four AAs instead of the usual two, giving it a big step up in output and battery life. As the largest light in our comparison, it is not pocket sized and comes with a belt sheath. The dual control buttons on the rear of the light separate the on/off function from the mode function, so users do not have to try to figure out a complicated pattern of clicks to change the settings on the light. The LD41 will also remember which mode was the last one used and start off at that level of light when it is turned back on. It can output 520 lumens for 2hr 10min, 190 lumens for 7hr 30 min, 80 lumens for 20 hr or 5 lumens for 160hrs and has a strobe function. The beam distance on high is 200m.
The LD41 has an aluminum body with a square-ish profile, which makes rolling off of a table a nonissue. The shape of the light gives it a nice feel in the hand, which is not something that you might assume at first glance. The tailcap has a raised crown around the control buttons, to help prevent the light from coming on accidentally. There are curved cutouts in the sides of the crown to allow your fingers easy access to the buttons. There is also a spot to attach the included lanyard. The wide crown also lets this light stand on its tail. When turned to medium power and pointed at the ceiling of my home office, it outputs enough light to comfortably illuminate the room.
The Fenix light put out good results in the distance test at High, Medium and Low settings. It provides more area illumination than some of the other, smaller lights. It also provided enough light for map reading at the fourth, Low-Low setting. Having a good design and twice as many batteries makes it hard to beat for light output in a AA powered flashlight.
All seven of these lights are good examples of modern flashlight design. The Mini Maglite is by far the oldest model, but still one of the best lights around for less than eight bucks. The SureFire G2 is a solid example of single mode tactical lights. The Icon Rogue 2 is a dual mode LED light for about what it would cost to take a date to a mom n’ pop restaurant. The Inova X2 is an excellent value for a very well designed light with really clean output. The Nitecore MT2A solves the problem of feature overload in small lights by building in the smart switch. The Pelican 2370 uses extra LEDs to move us past the days of easily lost filters. The Fenix LD41 doubles up on batteries to create the most powerful light in the lineup. The important thing is to consider what features would best suit your needs and then make sure that there is a good flashlight in your bag or on your bedside table when an emergency arises.