What’s up guys, and welcome to another thought-exercise post. Every year, manufacturers release a plethora of flashlights that are brighter, more efficient, and more advanced than the last year’s. And in a market saturated with options, finding that one, perfect flashlight just becomes all the more difficult. Likewise, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there about flashlights which is exploited by manufacturers. In this post, I’ll be breaking down some of the most important considerations and aspects of a flashlight that you should have in mind before making that purchase decision. If you’re a flashlight geek like myself, then you probably already know a lot of this, but feel free to follow along.
Bear in mind that there is no single, “best” flashlight. Anybody who claims otherwise is BS-ing you, allow me to elucidate. Simply put, different people will have different usage applications for their flashlight. And by definition, the word “best” implies that there can only be one. You can probably see why saying that there is a “best” flashlight doesn’t make sense from a logical perspective when multiple would need to exist. Above all, what’s most important when choosing a flashlight is that it conforms to your uses.
If we’re being more specific though, which is the point of this post, there’s several critical aspects of a flashlight that serve to accentuate a user’s overall experience. First and foremost, let’s talk about UI. UI is short for user-interface, and it’s how you actuate the flashlight and select modes. If the UI of a flashlight is junk, then you can infer that the flashlight is junk in practice by extension.
Here’s some of the most common UIs and their basic pros and cons:
Most smaller flashlights are twisties, meaning you turn the head or body to turn on the light and switch modes. Twisties are the most reliable UI in the sense that there’s very little that can go wrong, but they’re also prone to accidental activation from pressure. With many twisties, you need to remember to untwist the head completely to lock it out. Another disadvantage of twisties is that they tend to take two hands to turn on and off. Generally speaking, and to reiterate, this type of UI works best in smaller flashlights for this reason.
Some flashlights use a mechanical switch. Flashlights that use a mechanical switch are quick to actuate and easy to operate one-handed. This is important in applications where you might need a hand free. The disadvantage of a mechanical switch is that all moving parts will eventually fail, and you’ll probably need to replace the switch in the long-run.
But a UI that has become increasingly popular is the electronic switch, or e-switch for short. Some e-switches can be programmed for specific user behaviors, such as a long-press and hold or two short clicks. In essence, they’re much more versatile than a traditional mechanical switch. The main disadvantage is that an e-switch will have some measure of parasitic drain to the battery which can be bad if you’re storing your flashlight over a long period of time.
An example of a less common user-interface is a dial. A dial is normally paired with one of the aforementioned switches. This type of UI generally allows for more output options that can be accessed simply by turning the dial. Most flashlights that use a dial require two hands to change outputs.
There’s definitely more user-interfaces out there, but these are the most popular ones. Now I’ll be covering actual output, or lumens. It’s worth noting that there’s a few other means by which output is measured, such as candlepower, but lumens is the most widely accepted measurement nowadays.
This is where I’m going to deviate from what a lot of people think they know about flashlights. Unfortunately, a lot of consumers fall into the trap of thinking that more is better. Manufacturers likewise prey on this perception by advertising higher lumen counts each successive year. This practice has become known as the “lumen wars”, and it fails to take into account a few very important considerations:
1. LEDs generate extreme amounts of heat at higher output levels. Pushing an LED to its maximum output will significantly shorten the LED’s lifespan and has the potential to damage the electronics in the flashlight. Manufactures themselves are cognizant of this, and will often implement a very fast step-down in output. So you’re getting the advertised output – if you’re lucky that is – but only for a very short amount of time.
2. The human eye doesn’t perceive light linearly, rather it does so logarithmically. In essence, it takes a huge step up between two outputs for your eyes to perceive the difference. The difference between, say, 500-600 lumens is close to imperceivable. Meanwhile, it takes a significant toll on both the LED and battery.
3. Too much light can also lead to backwash, especially in close quarters. There’s no point in using a flashlight so bright that you quite literally blind yourself. This is a problem with some modern tactical lights. Think about when you wake up in the middle of the night – your eyes are much more sensitive to light than normal.
While generally yes, more output is better, this only applies to a certain extent. Most people will never need more than a couple hundred lumens for everyday use. Some people will use that kilo-lumen max output, but it pays to recognize that it comes at a cost. It certainly holds true that with most modern flashlights, less is more.
If you own multiple flashlights, you’ve probably noticed that there’s slight differences in how the color of the LED looks between them. Or maybe you haven’t because you still own an incandescent. That’s OK, and that’s what this post is for. These different colors are called the color temperature of the beam. Warmer colors range from around 3000K-4000K, neutral colors from around 4500-5000K, and cool white from around 6000-6500K. These are just rough numbers, and everyone has their preference.
Something less well-known to most people is that LEDs are also measured on something called the color-rendering index for how faithfully they portray the true colors of an object. These measurements go from 1-100, with 100 being the best. This can be important in color-critical applications, such as if you work in the medical field or work with wires often. Generally speaking, flashlights that use High-CRI LEDs, as they’re commonly known, have a warmer color temperature and are more pleasant to the eye. This isn’t without a disadvantage, which is namely a small loss in output relative to cooler, non-High-CRI flashlights. If you’ve been following along, though, you’d know that output isn’t really a concern with most modern flashlights.
As I mentioned earlier, technology progresses very quickly in the flashlight world. Likewise, so too has battery technology. Rechargeable batteries are optimal for most consumers. They’re better for the environment and will save you a lot of money in the long run. Modern rechargeables can hold their charge for a substantial amount of time and are fairly reliable. There’s a myriad battery sizes for everyone and I highly recommend reading my article on all the most common ones and their pros and cons. If you’re using rechargeables, just make sure you pick up a quality charger, and buy from a reputable source. Pro tip: Pretty much anything with “fire” in the name is a literal fire waiting to happen.
The one exception to this rule is Surefire lithium batteries. If it matters, pretty much all USA lithium primaries come from the same Panasonic factory with some small nuances between them. But the main advantage of lithium batteries over their rechargeable counterparts is reliability. Lithium batteries are better at operating at extreme temperatures and retain their capacity over even a decade. They’re also more resistant to shock and impacts. Long story short: If reliability is paramount or if you’re storing your flashlight over a long period of time, then lithium primaries are preferable to rechargeables. But rechargeables are the better option for people who intend to use their flashlight in an EDC capacity, which is the majority of people.
A pretty common thing that gets overlooked when buying a flashlight – and this applies to any product, really – is the warranty and the company backing the product. What this will really come down to is doing your own homework. There’s a lot of budget flashlights out there that are a great value, but are made by an overseas company that isn’t going to stand behind their flashlight. Only you can make the decision for how much extra you’re willing to spend on a product from a company with a proven track record.
And if fancy metals are your thing, you’re in luck. The flashlight world has many manufacturers, particularly custom makers, that cater to a wide range of metals in their flashlights. Common types of metals used in flashlights include aluminum, copper, brass, and titanium. The most practical of these metals is no doubt aluminum, but some people will want other metals like copper and brass for that personal flair. Copper and brass will develop patinas over time, although they are more malleable than the other metals.
Hopefully this covers some of what you should look for when choosing an EDC flashlight. It bears saying that these aren’t all the aspects of a flashlight that you can consider, just the most important ones. There’s a great online tool from Parametrek that’ll show you possible flashlights with your specific qualifications. You can also check my rankings list for the lights that I think are worth it. And if you take anything away from this post, I hope that it’s all about finding what works for you and your usage applications.