If there’s one thing my reviews lacked when I first started doing them, it was structure. I don’t think this sets a good precedent – especially with the introduction of my grading system. And so I’ve decided that there needs to be both greater consistency and transparency to how I develop my conclusions. Going forward, all my reviews will follow this new format that takes into account each aspect of my grading system.
It occurred to me that while I’ve ranked this flashlight, I’ve never gotten around to giving it a full review. I should be lynched, right? Such an iconic flashlight and yet I’ve neglected to share my full thoughts – well, you’ll find out why in this review. Every once in a while, a flashlight comes along that captures the ethos of the flashlight hobby. It was the Emisar D4 in 2017, and it was the FW3A in 2019. The FW3A was a collaboration project between BLF (Budgetlightforums) doing the design-work and Lumintop doing the manufacturing. Enthusiasts got a barn-burner torch at an excellent price, and Lumintop eventually got rights to the design – it was a win-win. Needless to say the FW3A was a massive success; it is a consistent recommendation amongst flashlight geeks and has since spawned numerous iterations.
Driver: FET+7+1 driver. Low parasitic drain while OFF
Firmware: The FW3A uses free software called Andúril programmed by ToyKeeper of BLF, distributed under the terms of the GPL v3. The code is available at http://tiny.cc/TKAnduril
Body: Aluminum with hard-coat anodizing
Switch: Electronic tail switch
Ingress rating: Equivalent to IPX7
Battery: One flat-top or button-top high discharge (>10A) unprotected 18650 cell (max length 66mm). Battery is NOT included.
Recommended batteries: Sanyo GA, Samsung 35E
Weight: ~53g (1.87oz) without battery
Size: 25.5mm (1.00″) head diameter, 92.5mm (3.64″) length.
For lack of a better word, the FW3A uses the tried-and-tested “hourglass” design where the flashlight body’s center tapers. The tail cap and head both unscrew from the body tube, and the clip uses a circular ring to slide onto the threads of the tail. As a consequence, it’s quite easy to swap in parts if you want to modify the flashlight or something goes wrong. The fact that the FW3A also manages to cram an 18650 battery into such a short package is impressive. The biggest flaw is that the entire functionality of the tail cap is predicated on a small nub. If you lose it, good luck. Overall, this is a very clean design that I can’t fault much either ergonomically or from a functional standpoint.
Build quality overall is decent, but there’s some questionable quality-control issues. For example, many users have reported flickering at turn-on which requires tightening down the pill more than it should have to be. My own FW3A arrived with one dead LED, and the replacement switch’s actuation didn’t feel nearly the same as the old one. My friend’s FW3A’s switch also felt different, imagine that. I had a flashlight from one of the first batches, so hopefully these issues have been since worked out.
Physical Grade: B
From a pure numbers standpoint, the FW3A is very impressive. It pumps out roughly 2800 lumens on the high setting and has whisper lows to back up the other end of the spectrum. There’s also plenty of quality LED options to choose from, something for everyone. Measuring parasitic drain I get ~25uA which translates to more than seven years of standby with a 3000mAh battery. The runtime graph is kind of pointless here just because of how fast it has to step-down, and I don’t feel like starting a fire. Make make no mistake though: Output, runtime, and features – the FW3A has them all in spades.
Alas, here’s where I’ll be parting ways with most die-hard fans of the FW3A. To be blunt, the Anduril firmware the FW3A uses is a hot mess. I’ll refrain from explaining in-depth all its nuances simply because there’s too much to cover; however, suffice it to say it’s exactly that: Too much. And one look at the UI sheet should serve to drive this point home.
Wait, wait you say. You can’t just leave it at that. If I must elaborate, first let me just say I have no problems with the base, ramping user-interface. Hell, I love it. It’s practical, simple, and even a non-flashlight geek could figure it out pretty quickly. But my problem with the firmware lies when you look at all those other features: The disco strobe modes, lightning storm mode, and Muggle mode just to name a few. Each individual feature requires a very specific amount of clicks (from 1 to 6) to enter, and some of them change depending on whether the flashlight is “on” or “off”. Add on to this sub-clicks for those initial clicks, and yeah, it’s a nightmare keeping track. What happens when you screw-up trying to put the flashlight into lockout (because this flashlight can literally start a fire)? And let’s not even talk about the fact that you need no less than two clicks, a hold, and then subsequent two more clicks to enter tactical strobe. All for a mode that should ideally be activated almost instantaneously when one is under duress.
Let’s address the naysayers here. The most apt solution to the issues I’ve outlined is just throwing the flashlight into Muggle mode which is basically code-word for “I’m not a flashlight geek, so make the UI dummy for me”. The problem with this is that some of those extraneous features like the battery check and bike flasher are actually quite useful. Add on to this Muggle mode severely hampering the max performance of the flashlight, and it’s like slapping a band-aid on at best. The next argument I got was “or learn how to use the options”. Let me just leave this here: Is the flashlight working for you, or are you working for it at that point? A good tool works for you, not the other way around.
And this begs the question: Why should I settle for either 1) Muggle mode or 2) learning all the options when I can have both with a flashlight like the HDS Systems Rotary? The main problem with Anduril’s features is not strictly that these features exist, but rather that they’re incredibly unintuitive to navigate. Accidentally clicking into one of them is annoying, and this adds up. And like so, this is truly a case of where less is more.
Technical Performance Grade: C+
Assessment of Value
The FW3A packs incredible performance and a myriad features into a $45 price point (and even cheaper when I purchased from the original group buy). There’s no getting around it, and so I won’t deny it: The FW3A is an excellent value for what it is. You could buy parts for a custom, triple Convoy host, put it together by hand, and it would cost nearly as much if not more. Relative to both custom flashlights and more mainstream flashlights, the FW3A smacks the good majority of them from a price-to-performance ratio. And thus, some concessions must be made when adjusting the FW3A’s less-than-stellar, B-minus raw grade for its cumulative grade.
★★ (Redefines the price bracket)
Much of the FW3A’s execution makes me think that it’s a toy more than it’s a tool. Sure, I love fancy disco modes and crazy, barn-burner output as much as anyone else, but how often do they actually get used? Thus, in tandem with the issues I outlined, the FW3A would benefit greatly from a firmware revision if it wants to excel in practical-use. Now for the million-dollar-question: Do I recommend the FW3A? I don’t like it, but yeah, I do recommend it. It’s a great entry choice for most flashlight geeks. Don’t make me say it again.