These are not your grandpa’s flashlights. LED (Light Emitting Diode) flashlights have largely replaced those with traditional light bulbs. Gone are the days of incandescent flashlights, with their dim amber glow, short battery life, and sensitivity to jolts, drops, and sudden bumps. LEDs in modern flashlights are brighter, more durable, and much more efficient than incandescent bulbs, which means batteries last longer. But, while most LED flashlights are better than their incandescent predecessors, some are better than others—so it’s important to select the right model for the job.
LEDs vs. Bulbs
Traditional light bulbs are inefficient and waste a lot of energy. In fact, according to www.energy.gov, as much as 90 percent of the energy required to illuminate an incandescent light is given off as heat. The introduction of halogen bulbs proved to be more efficient, although they can still generate a lot of heat. Aside from this, light-bulb filaments in flashlights are notoriously delicate, breaking when jolted or dropped.
LEDs, on the other hand, are 70 to 75 percent more efficient than incandescent lights. The LED itself is a semiconductor that emits light when current passes through it. Without a delicate filament suspended inside, the “emitter” is far more durable than a traditional light bulb. Because they’re more efficient, LEDs are brighter than incandescents using the same amount of power.
What You Need to Know About LED Flashlights
LEDs in flashlights, while more efficient than traditional bulbs, can still generate a fair amount of heat. And with some manufacturers vying to produce the brightest flashlight made, the heat generated can be significant. There are two ways to manage heat that may be employed independently or in conjunction with one another. The first is to physically draw off the heat by mounting the LED to a “heatsink,” a piece of metal, with a lot of surface area, that absorbs heat and allows it to dissipate. The second way is to regulate the power used to illuminate the LED. Too much heat can damage an LED, and it gets less efficient as it gets hotter. For this reason, many LED flashlights have circuitry to manage power consumption. This circuitry has another benefit too, as it prolongs battery life.
Don’t Get Wooed by Lumens—Understand Them
Flashlight brightness is measured in lumens, which is a measurement of “total light, radiating equally in all directions.” Manufacturers were historically optimistic in their published lumen figures, and while many are now reasonably accurate, there are still some dubious claims out there. Also note, manufacturers may list the highest possible lumen output of the LED in their light—although they may not be powering it to its full capability to reduce heat or prolong battery life. None of that really matters all that much though, because a light with a ton of lumens doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the brightest in practice—or the best light for you.
A super bright light may not cast a beam as far as a less bright light. Variables like the reflector shape and lens play a big role in how far the beam is thrown, and how wide it spreads. Also, consider that LEDs are brightest when they are first turned on. As they warm up, they slowly dim, which is usually imperceptible to our eyes. As the LED dims, our eyes adjust to the light and we can see better with less light.
What Do IP Ratings Mean?
IP is short for ingress protection, meaning protection from stuff getting inside the flashlight. Those letters will be followed by two numbers: The first digit relates to protection from solids like dust or grit. The second digit relates to protection from moisture, in this case the concern is usually water. Sometimes there will be an “X” in place of one of those numbers, which means the flashlight hasn’t been tested for protection from liquids or solids, depending on the position of the “X”.
For the first number, protection from solids, the highest number, six, indicates the light should be impenetrable by dust and sand. The highest value for the second number, representing protection from liquid, is eight—indicating that the flashlight can be submerged in water deeper than one meter, for longer than 30 minutes, with no harmful effects.
Values for ingress protection from solids:
X – not protected, or not tested
1 – protected against solid objects over 50mm
2 – protected against solid objects over 12mm
3 – protected against solid objects over 2.5mm
4 – protected against solid objects over 1mm
5 – protected against dust with limited ingress, but no harmful deposits
6 – completely protected against dust
Values for ingress protection from water:
X – not protected, or not tested
1 – protected against vertically falling droplets
2 – protected against direct spray +/- 15 degrees from vertical
3 – protected against direct spray +/- 60 degrees from vertical
4 – protected against splashes from all directions, with limited ingress
5 – protected against low-pressure jets from all directions, with limited ingress
6 – protected against high-pressure jets from all directions, with limited ingress
7 – protected against temporary immersion, up to one meter, for up to 30 minutes
8 – protected against immersion, greater than one meter, for longer periods
A flashlight’s IP rating gives a partial picture of its durability. You’ll also want to take into account things like the materials used—ranging from lightweight but less-than-durable plastic to rubberized enclosures to heavy-duty anodized aluminum—and whether the flashlight floats in water in addition to being waterproof, not to mention the warranty.
How We Tested
There are three main components of our flashlight testing: lumens, beam drop-off, and beam pattern. Lumen testing turned out to be a significant project that helped us gain insight to how lumens relate to flashlight performance. Lumens are measured using a device called an integrating sphere. Integrating spheres are hollow, with a white coating on the inside that diffuses light, bouncing it around in the sphere. A light is fixed in one port, pointing into the sphere, which collects all the light, allowing none to escape, so that it can be measured with a sensor in a second port.
Integrating spheres are lab-quality instruments and can be extremely expensive. However, once we understood how they work in theory, we decided to build our own. In doing this we consulted with product engineers at two companies to vet our ideas, verifying lumens on calibration lights in their sphere to make sure ours would be accurate. Once our sphere was calibrated, we measured each flashlight in our test at set intervals. We took measurements when the light was first turned on at 0:00 seconds; then every :30 seconds up to 3 minutes; at 5 minutes; and then every 5 minutes, up to 30 minutes. We used the measurement at :30 seconds as our official lumens figure for each light because the brightness drops off quickly when first turned on. After :30 seconds, most LEDs stabilize and dim at a much slower rate.
Beam drop-off is the point where the light is no longer bright enough to positively identify objects. We tested beam drop-off by placing 10 reflective traffic cones, in a line, every five meters, out to 50 meters. We used a silhouette of a person, painted neutral gray, and moved it between the cones to determine the distance at which it could still be identified. Beam pattern was tested at 10 meters. We measured brightness in the center of the beam, then turned the light five degrees right and five degrees left, and measured brightness at both points. This helped determine width of the bright, beam center.
Integrating Sphere Test Results
Lumens: 466 claimed, 342 measured | Runtime: 16 hrs, 41 min, 21 sec | Battery type: C, alkaline (x2) | Rating: IPX4 | Adjustable focus: Yes | Length: 8 3⁄16 in | Weight: 12.7 oz
Despite measuring 342 lumens in our integrating sphere, the Maglite’s ML50L performed on par with brighter lights in practical testing. In beam drop-off testing, at a measured distance of 50 meters and using a focused spot pattern, we found our human silhouette was brightly illuminated and easy to identify. Pushing out beyond that to about 90 meters, we could still ID the silhouette. With the reflector adjusted in a flood pattern, the silhouette was identifiable at 50 meters, with a much wider area illuminated, but not as bright as the spot focus. With the reflector pulled back in floodlight orientation, we noted a dim zone in the center of the beam. The ML50L has five functions—high, low, eco, strobe, and momentary on—that are arranged in four function sets with three functions each. The general and outdoor function sets each feature high and low functions, with general including eco, and outdoor including strobe. Law enforcement and tactical function sets both feature momentary on, where the light comes on when the switch is pressed and turns off when released. They both include the high setting, while law enforcement also has eco, and tactical has strobe. We found setting the desired function set to be relatively easy and will be something most people would do only once. Switching between functions simply required a single, double, or triple click. The ML50L is a good example of why the most lumens don’t always make the best flashlight. The focusing reflector helps this flashlight throw a beam as far as technically brighter lights, as well as making it a little more versatile.
- Adjustable reflector from spot to flood.
- Easy to toggle between functions.
- Heavier than smaller lights.
BEST TACTICAL FLASHLIGHT
Streamlight Polytac USB X
Lumens: 600 claimed, 554 measured | Runtime: 5 hrs, 25 min, 40 sec | Battery type: SL-B26 Li-Ion rechargeable (included) | Rating: IPX7 | Adjustable focus: No | Length: 5 7⁄16 in | Weight: 4.9 oz
Streamlight’s Polytac USB X was the top performer in our test when it comes to straight-up lumens. Starting at 554 lumens after 30 seconds, it dropped to 334 at 15 minutes and stayed relatively steady, ending 30 minutes at 324—100 lumens higher than any other light we tested. The fixed reflector projects a beam with a tight spot pattern that drops about 50 percent in brightness 5 degrees from the center on the left and right. At 50 meters, we could easily identify the crisp outline of our human silhouette, which was still clear out to +/- 90 meters. We found the nylon polymer flashlight body to provide ample grip and feel much less cold to the touch than aluminum in low temperatures. A two-way clip allows it to slip inside or outside a pocket, oriented lens up or down—our preference was outside, lens down. There are three, preprogrammed function sets we were able to access using Streamlight’s Ten-Tap selector switch. The selection process is a little awkward, but most people will use it only once to set the preferred programs, which include low/medium/high, high/strobe/low, and high only. When we ran the runtime test with the light set on high, it ran for almost five and a half hours before going dark. The Polytac USB X is a good choice for those looking for a tactical flashlight with solid features and performance.
- Plastic body transmits less heat/cold to the user.
- High level of water resistance.
- Awkward program selection.
Anker Bolder LC 40
Lumens: 400 claimed, 384 measured | Runtime: 8 hrs, 35 min, 30 sec | Battery type: 18650 Li-Ion rechargeable, non-replaceable | Rating: IPX5 | Adjustable focus: No | Length: 5 in | Weight: 4.4 oz
The Boulder LC 40 turned out to be a surprising value, with good runtime and a consistent 200 lumen output over time. Starting at just over 400 lumens when turned on, it dropped to 200 at about three minutes and didn’t stray more than 10 lumens for the remainder of our 30-minute test. We found the beam pattern to be slightly narrower and more focused than the Polytac USB X, which helped it throw nearly as far with less lumens. At 50 meters, we could clearly see the outline of our human silhouette, and out to about 90 meters it was still identifiable. The five light functions—high, medium, low, fast strobe, and slow strobe—can be reached with sequential clicks, about as simple a process as we found during testing. The aluminum body is completely sealed, so the battery can’t be replaced, but a port at the butt end of the light is provided to recharge it.
- Simple, easy-to-use functions.
- External charge port for easy charging.
- Can’t replace battery, which is sealed inside.
Measuring lumens with an integrating sphere (left), and testing beam drop-off (right).
BRIGHTEST WITH ALKALINE BATTERIES
Energizer Tac 300
Lumens: 300 claimed, 325 measured | Runtime: 8 hrs, 13 min, 38 sec | Battery type: CR123 (included) | Rating: IPX4 | Adjustable focus: No | Length: 4 in | Weight: 4.9 oz
The small Tac 300 from Energizer is one of only two lights that tested over the manufacturer’s claimed lumens. We recorded 325 lumens after 30 seconds, dropping to 300 after 10 minutes. Beyond the 10-minute mark in our test, the Tac 300 steadily dimmed until it went out at a little over eight hours. For such a small light, the Tac 300 impressed us with how far the beam carried when we tested for beam drop-off. Identifying our human silhouette at 25 meters was very easy, moving out to 50 meters we could still make it out, and pushing out to about 90 meters, we could still see it, although it was getting difficult to ID. The aluminum flashlight body features 3 knurled areas to help maintain a grip on it, and a pocket clip that can be moved to either end to orient the lens up or down. The Tac 300 has three basic light functions—high, low, and strobe—that can be accessed by sequentially clicking the button on the butt of the light. Runtime is over eight hours, although beyond 18 minutes that will be at less than 200 lumens. The Tac 300 is an inexpensive, basic flashlight that may be best used in situations that require short bursts of use.
- Brightness starts to fade after 10 minutes.
Rayovac Workhorse Pro 3AAA
Lumens: 250 claimed, 271 measured | Runtime: 48 hrs, 41 min, 53 sec | Battery type: AAA, alkaline (x3, included) | Rating: IP67 | Adjustable focus: no | Length: 5 3⁄8 in | Weight: 4.6 oz
The medium-sized Workhorse Pro, powered by three alkaline triple A batteries, ran for a hard-to-believe, two-plus days in our testing. We measured lumens at 271, 30 seconds after being turned on—that’s 21 more than the manufacturer claims. Brightness dropped off gradually over our 30-minute test, ending at 165 lumens. In the second day of the runtime test, the light had dimmed very significantly, but still gave off enough light by which to read in the dark, when held inches from a page. The light color is a little more amber than the others tested, which we found more evident in the last half of its runtime. Testing beam drop-off, we found it bright enough at 50 meters to identify our human silhouette. Moving out to the end of our test area at about 90 meters, we were still able see the silhouette, just not as clearly. The Workhorse Pro has two modes—high and energy saver—that can be toggled between by clicking the power button on the butt end of the light. The light features rubber coverings on both ends to help protect it from drops and also help prevent the otherwise smooth body from slipping out of our hands. Rayovac’s Workhorse Pro is a nice flashlight for the money, with very gradual dimming over its excellent runtime.
- Long runtime.
- Uses common AAA alkaline batteries.
- Has only two light modes.
Eagtac DC25C MKII
Lumens: 800 claimed, 433 measured | Runtime: 2 hrs, 4 min, 18 sec | Battery type: CR123A | Rating: IPX8 | Adjustable focus: No | Length: 3 in | Weight: 1 oz
The tiny Eagtac DC25C MKII is quite bright for a single-battery flashlight, measuring 433 lumens in our testing with the supplied CR123A, 3-volt battery. That’s significantly lower that the 800 lumens claimed. The DC25C MKII can also be powered with a 3.7-volt RCR123A, which will produce more lumens, but we found difficult to locate with appropriate amp-hour ratings for use in a flashlight. While quite bright, the beam of light produced dropped off pretty quickly in our testing. Our human silhouette lit up pretty well at 25 meters, but it was difficult to clearly identify the edges at 50 meters. The light has five brightness levels, three strobe settings, and can be programmed to power on at the user’s preferred brightness. The programming, though, is a bit awkward as it requires loosening and tightening the flashlight head/reflector assembly, as well as multiple one-second pauses. We’re thinking flashlight aficionados will love the multiple modes and programming, but folks who just want a flashlight to see, maybe not. Runtime was just over two hours with the light set on high, which we thought was pretty good on a single battery.
- Highest level of water resistance.
- Complex programming and mode switching.
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