Most of us have had the annoying experience of the bulb failing in our flashlight, usually at a less than opportune moment. Even when there’s a spare handy, changing it can be a challenge in the dark. How appealing would you find a flashlight with a bulb that never burns out, or at least not for tens of thousands of hours?
We’re talking about flashlights that use LEDs (light emitting diodes) instead of conventional incandescent bulbs. Yes, these are the same LEDs we’ve seen in electronic equipment, digital signs and cheap key ring lights for years. The problem has been that while LEDs came in an array of colors, they didn’t come in white—until very recently. Other colors might suffice to light up a keyhole or read a chart, but for general use they left a good deal to be desired.
A few years ago, a commercially viable white LED was finally developed. Actually, the LED itself is blue, but a phosphor coating enables it to generate a white light. Initial examples were quite dim and very expensive, but recently they have been getting brighter and, if not inexpensive, at least more affordable. While still dimmer than other LEDs, they are bright enough to make an LED flashlight practical, at least for some uses.
There is, however, considerable variability among white LEDs in terms of brightness and actual color, a problem that was at times very evident in our tests. The brighter and better color matched LEDs are more expensive.
We collected as many white LED flashlights as we could find, as well as an array of red and green night vision lights for this review. We limited the selection to waterproof models. However, most of these are not as waterproof as a dive light, nor do they claim to be. The lights were tested by submerging them for a few days in 4′ of water and all passed—adequate for most boating uses.
We drop tested the flashlights four times from 6′ onto concrete with not a single failure. While some makers claim the LEDs will last upwards of 100,000 hours, others only claim 60,000. Experts tell us that LED life may vary considerably depending upon how they are powered and what voltage is used, and many of these lights are pushing more volts through them than for which they were originally designed. Even so, you can expect the LEDs to last tens of thousands of hours, even when over-powered.
Another significant advantage of LED flashlights is that battery life is extended far beyond anything we have come to expect, though in our tests actual results varied from manufacturer’s claims, both plus and minus. With no real standards for measuring battery life with this new technology, all claims must be taken with a grain of salt. As the battery charge declines below nominal, the LED doesn’t go out, it simply gets dimmer. In many cases, this residual illumination will last again as long or longer than the nominal light output and the flashlight may still be useable for many chores at reduced light levels. Overall, battery life can be measured in days, not hours. We arbitrarily defined battery life as the point at which light output was noticeably dimmer and original functionality diminished. Note, however, that in normal use, where flashlights are used intermittently, battery life will probably be longer because alkaline batteries are at their worst when current draw is continuous.
The flashlights we tested ranged from single LED lights to 2-, 3-, 4-, 6- and 7-LED models, as well as a category-killer 24-LED flashlight. Even the brightest won’t punch a beam out as far as a bright, well-focused halogen or xenon beam from a conventional incandescent flashlight, regardless of size. Only the very brightest and most expensive of these LED flashlights would adequately illuminate the top of most masts from the deck or cockpit. However, for many uses such bright beams are counterproductive and the best of these lights provide excellent quality, diffused light, along with generally exceptionally long battery life and those nearly indestructible “bulbs.” One flashlight tested doesn’t even require batteries!
The single LED NightStar ($79) is that one sans battery. As you shake the flashlight, a magnet slides up and down past a coil, generating electricity that is then stored in a capacitor for periods up to “months.” Ninety shakes in 30 seconds will get you approximately 4-1/2 to 5 minutes of light. Light output is relatively dim, even for a single LED light, though a concentrating lens makes it brighter and more focused. You can keep it going indefinitely with regular shaking, but it quickly becomes a bother. It’s also bulky, a bit larger than a three D-cell Maglite, and not exactly lightweight at 13.5 oz. The strong magnets require care to avoid damage to some electronics and magnetic media or to avoid erroneous compass readings.
This flashlight might be a nice addition to an abandonship bag, but only as a supplement, not as a primary light source. For everyday use we’d stick with batteries.
Tektite, known for its dive and industrial flashlights, markets white LED flashlights to consumers through the C. Crane Co. The difference between the Tektite and consumer versions marketed by C. Crane Co. is the depth rating. The former are rated to 1000′, the latter only to 10′, the difference being in the O-ring seals for the head. As a result, the consumer versions are a bit easier to switch on and off since the head turns easier, but quite frankly, we didn’t find the dive versions at all objectionable.
There are three Trek models with two LEDs ($35), one with seven ($60). Two are powered by three 1.5-volt batteries, but the most compact, the Lithium Trek Light, uses a single special 3.6-volt lithium battery which is both expensive ($11) and not easily found (Radio Shack or order off the Web). The lithium-powered light is noticeably dimmer than the others, even though they all use the same dual LED module. Still, all three are adequately bright for close-up work or illuminating your way, particularly in an enclosed area like a cabin or cockpit.
All the Tektite flashlights are switched by screwing the head in and out.
The seven-LED Expedition ($60) produces enough light to make it useful for most purposes except long distance lighting. The LEDs combine to produce a decent sized central area of bright, even lighting. The US Navy recently approved a militarized version of this light, which is functionally the same.
The Mini-Trek Light model includes a molded-in clip that allows you to clip it to a hat brim and an enlarged “bite” area for the lanyard tab with integrated ridges, both of which allow for hands-off use, a handy feature. The standard Trek Light includes a wrist lanyard of elastic cord which worked well. The Expedition has one of the nicest wrist lanyards we’ve seen.
An accessory kit for the Trek from C. Crane ($20) includes a red lens, elastic headband, a magnetic mounting clip and a black rubber lens shield to prevent side light emissions.
Despite the company name, these Pilot lights don’t run off solar power. These are actually virtual clones of the original triple AA-cell Tektite Trek light, with a twist. Besides the $30 Pilot 2 two-LED model, Holly also offers a one- and a three-LED version. The single LED model, Pilot 1 ($20), didn’t seem to offer much except extra long life, exceeding the nearly 100 hours claimed (we stopped testing at 100 hours), and it was quite bulky for the light provided.
The $35 Pilot 3’s multiple light sources were not well aimed, causing three distinct lit areas (and only about 26 hours of light). Not too bad for finding your way, but seriously annoying when trying to use the light for close-up work.
The LED module was difficult to remove, making battery changes difficult. All the Pilot lights include an elastic cord lanyard.
The eternaLight three-AA-cell models offer some interesting capabilities, as well as a few silly ones. The microprocessor-based controller allows you to dim the LEDs electronically, as well as some razzle-dazzle modes of operation of questionable value. They claim “over 700 hours of burn time on one set of batteries,” but that’s using just one of the four LEDs, and at reduced power. At lower power settings, the processor actually pulses the power to the LEDs very rapidly, which is just barely noticeable if you look for it.
Unlike virtually all the other lights in this review, the eternaLights are flat and rectangular instead of a more conventional tube style, including the Model 3 Ergo and a variant, the Model 3M Ergo-Marine; the latter has a bright yellow case and it floats.
Despite having the LEDs aligned in a row, the actual beam was nicely converging and even—one of the best. At full brightness, the light puts out enough light to be useful for most work; at the minimum brightness level (with a single LED) it is usable for close-up work, but not much else. The various modes include the normal “on/dimmable” mode; “flasher,” “strobe,” and “dazzle,” all three with variable rates; and “SOS” where it flashes an SOS signal. There is also a momentary mode for signaling use.
If these lights have a failing it is the switches. These are pressure pad style and easily engaged unintentionally. Recognizing this, they have incorporated a timer feature into the power switch that turns off the light if you don’t push the “mode” switch.
Changing batteries is not something you’re going to accomplish in the dark or in heavy seas. It also requires a size 0 Phillips screwdriver and you’d best not lose the tiny screws.
Looking somewhat like a Mini-Maglite, the aluminum-bodied FlashLED lights are probably the first LED flashlights to incorporate a push-button switch and a range of LEDs, both in color and quantity. We tested both three-LED and six-LED models in white ($50 & $70), green ($46 & $70) and red ($30 & $50).
The three-LED white was unimpressive, with a brightness level lower than some single-LED models, though it did offer a somewhat wider lit area. The six-LED white provided just adequate light for close-up work and some general use, but still nothing to shout about.
The green FlashLEDs were disappointing in terms of beam quality, with significant striations (a general failing of green LEDs it appears). The red models were both bright and well focused with the six-LED red being almost too bright for close-up work.
LEDtronics also makes the KeyLED key chain light. This is the only such small LED light we found that is waterproof. Ruggedly constructed of aluminum and powered by three 1.5V alkaline button cells, we tested the white, green (both $19), and red ($17) versions. A lens somewhat reduces the light output and the white LED in our sample was decidedly off-color with a slight yellow tint. It lasted only 19 hours.
Light output was acceptable for close-up work, but was marginal for anything else and much dimmer than any other single LED light tested. The red version was far brighter and provided a good working light. The green LED was also bright, but generally as poor as all the green lights we tested.
LED-Lite also produces its own brand of red LED flashlights with the somewhat ignoble name of “Red Light District.” Available in both a double AA-cell and double D-Cell version ($16 & $19), these lights utilize a single 10mm red LED that’s far larger than typical LEDs. This LED is attached to a conventional bayonet bulb base and installs in the place of a normal bulb. Battery life was an incredible 60 and 90-plus hours, respectively. The Red Light District 10mm red LED is also available separately ($6) and will fit most conventional two-cell flashlights with a bayonet style bulb.
This oversized red LED produces a very bright, even light that’s a wee bit brighter than the six-LED FlashLED from LEDtrontics. Neither light has a place to attach a lanyard, a serious failing in our opinion.
The PALight is unique in its use of a 9-volt battery and because it is always on. When not in use the PALlight’s single white LED has just a trickle of current energizing it, just enough to make it easier to find in the dark—sometimes. The company claims that the battery “will last for years” in the off position. There are three models, the Sure ($20) and Survivor ($20) and the PALGold ($25), which is exclusively marketed by Led-Lite. The latter two offer both a dim and strobe mode.
The lights are encased in rubber and are available in a variety of case and LED colors. A lens focuses the beam from the relatively small, dim, wide angle LED into a useful and fairly bright though narrow beam, the brightest of all our single-LED models. The Gold version was brighter yet. On dim, the Survivor puts out enough light for close-up chores and the Gold a bit more. On bright, it is adequate for finding your way.
There is no provision for a lanyard on the PALights, odd for a light tagged with the name “Survivor.” A “lanyard” option ($2.25) is available, but that unit eventually leaked water after a few hours submerged.
The Lightwave 2000 ($30) four-LED, triple AA-cell flashlight provided the best beam quality and brightness of all the AA-cell lights in this test with the exception of the much more expensive eternaLight. The rotary head switch was a bit troublesome, occasionally allowing the light to come on again after we had turned it off. We had to find the “sweet spot” in order to be sure it was off for good.
The Lightwave 2000 is black molded plastic with the LEDs exposed in the head, but partially protected by the rim. A wrist lanyard is included (though it was incredibly and annoyingly noisy when the metal clip rattled on the case). The manufacturer claims it is waterproof only to 2′, but we had no leaks in our test.
Is the world ready for a $300 flashlight? That’s the question HDS Systems seems to be asking. Its Action Light was originally developed as the ultimate caving light, a use where reliability and long battery life are key to survival. So, for a serious spelunker, $300 may not seem too high a price to pay.
The key to its performance is an array of 24 white LEDs with a special 3V lithium battery ($19) and a triple intensity switch. Unlike most other LED flashlights tested, this one puts out enough light to truly compete with a conventional flashlight, except for really long-range uses. The Action Light would be an adequate replacement for a conventional flashlight.
The form factor, designed for mounting to a caving helmet, leaves something to be desired. What you get is a hunk of beautifully machined and anodized aluminum weighing a hefty 14 oz. Battery life varies with setting, supposedly 300 hours on low, a measured 48 hours on the mid setting and 13 on high. For close-up work and most general use the low setting is quite adequate and the mid setting will do for most everything else.
The LEDs are protected by a robust slab of polycarbonate. The LEDs are well matched and the light is uniform. The rotary switch needs some form of lock to keep it from being switched on inadvertently.
Were money no object, the HDS Systems Action Light is the hands-down performance winner, but the form factor is a big negative. If this was changed, we’d give it the thumbs up as best overall—but at $300 it’ll never win the value contest.
The seven-LED Tektite Trek Expedition provides better than adequate light levels and solid performance. This light will suffice for almost any flashlight chores, except the long range stuff. Battery life is good and the C-cell batteries are easy to find. The packaging is great; this is truly waterproof construction with a true non-slip grip area. The excellent lanyard is icing on the cake.
The best value of the bunch has to be the $30 Lightwave 2000. It has decent brightness and beam quality, AA-cell batteries, easy-to-change batteries, and is moderately waterproof. Its only failing is the temperamental switching mechanism.
The Tektite two-LED Trek flashlights aren’t quite as bright and don’t have the same beam quality, but construction is superior and these units are much more waterproof. They are a bit more expensive than others in their class, but we like the convenient size of the smaller Trek models. The Mini has easy-to-find AAA batteries to go along with the clip and bite tab features. Any of these Trek lights would be a good choice for an abandon ship bag, but the triple AA-cell Trek is probably the best choice.
The Technology Associates eternaLight has some nice features, as well as some annoying gee-whiz gimmicks we could do without. We especially like the Model 3M Ergo Marine which floats and has a bright yellow case that’s easy to find, but we are uncomfortable with the pressure switches. They have the best performance of the AA-cell models but at a premium price.
For chart and instrument reading while protecting your night vision and finding your way carefully around below decks and in the cockpit, the LEDtronics red KeyLED is quite adequate and inexpensive to boot. It’s bright enough, without being too bright.
If a brighter red light is desired, however, either of the LED-Lite Red Light District flashlights will suffice. The six-LED LEDtronics red FlashLED gives similar performance and has a lanyard attachment point, but at a premium price. For those seeking an inexpensive red LED light, the Red Light District 10mm red LED bulb will convert an existing conventional two-cell flashlight and give equal performance for under $10 including shipping—a real value.
While some people prefer green light for night vision, for the moment at least, green LEDs just don’t cut it as far as beam quality goes. We can’t recommend any of them. We also cannot recommend any of the three-LED white, green, or red LED replacement bulbs from LEDtronics or Holly Solar designed for use in two D-cell Maglites and similar size flashlights. None of them seemed worth the effort.
The development of LED flashlights, especially those with white LEDs, is in its infancy. You can expect to see brighter white LEDs in the near future and many more entrants into the market.
We are also beginning to see LED anchor lights with low current draw, which we’ll report on soon.
Contacts- Action Electronic, 1300 E. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705; 800/563-9405, 714/547-5169, www.action-electronics.com. C. Crane Co., 1001 Main St., Fortuna, CA 95540-2008; 800/522-8863, 707/725-9000, www.ccrane.com. HDS Systems, PO Box 42767, Tucson, AZ 85733; 877/437-7978, 520/325-3004, www.hdssystems.com. Holly Solar Products, 1340 Industrial Ave. Suite D, Petaluma, CA 94952, 800/622-6716, 707/763-6173, www.hollysolar.com. Innovative Technologies, PO Box 754, Fort Lupton, CO 80621; 888/828-1405, 303/857-1405, www.innovativetech.org. LED-Lite, 1387 Los Coches Ct., Chula Vista, CA 91910-7128, 877-309-0530, 619-482-8004, www.ledlite.com. LEDtronics, 23105 Kashiwa Ct., Torrance, CA 90505; 800/579-4875, 310/534-1505, www.ledtronics.com. Light Technology , 571 Interstate Blvd., Sarasota, FL 34240 ; 888/746-5903, 941-377-7445, www.lightechnology.com. Technology Associates, 959 W. 5th St., Reno, NV 89503; 877/832-4277, 775/322-6875, www.techass.com. Tektite, PO .Box 4209, Trenton, NJ 08610-0209; 800/540-2814, 609/581-2116, www.tek-tite.com.