Features March 2005 Issue

Rechargeable Spotlight Test

The Optronics QR 2001 comes out on top, followed by models from Brinkmann and LSI. And the Garrity is bright, lightweight option.

The group of portable, rechargeable spotlights (14 from seven different manufacturers) that were tested included models ranging from $23 to $70 in price, and from 500,000 to 2.25 million watts of candlepower.

There was something very noisy and very wrong happening in the aft end of the engine compartment one night on the way into the harbor. It was worrisome, especially as we were in the narrow mouth of the entrance at the time, and it was choppy. Someone grabbed a D-cell flashlight and jabbed its beam past the engine into the recesses of the stern. Something was moving back there, and it wasn’t part of the engine. After we throttled way down, the noise got better, but it was still there.

The skipper showed up, peered in, smiled, and said, "I know what it is. And by the way, you call that a light? This is a light." With that he pulled the trigger on the handheld spotlight. Suddenly, the whole engine compartment was as bright as day, maybe brighter, and we could see a plastic bucket bouncing merrily up and down on the slowly turning shaft coupling. Crocodile Dundee had nothing on that guy.

We think of handheld spotlights mostly for finding buoys and channel markers and other things in the dark. But there are plenty of situations in which they can be used more as mega-flashlights. They can shine down into the water for a look at the bottom, or your anchor rode. And they can probe easily into the recesses of the bilge—or the engine compartment. If you've had one on board before, it's hard to imagine doing without, yet quite a few sailors do just that.

When we last tested handheld spots, we covered three kinds—ones that plug into DC cigarette lighter receptacles for power, ones that take drycell batteries, and ones that carry permanent rechargeable batteries.

We developed a distinct preference: "Rechargeable spotlights, in most respects, represent the best of all spotlight worlds. They can be charged either from 110-volt AC ashore, or through an inverter; they're among the brightest spotlights made; they don't require battery changes as do the drycell-powered models, and they can be unplugged and used without the restriction of a power cord...On the downside they're heavier than the plug-ins—typically by 3 to 4 lbs. And the ones we tested, at last, lack some durability features, such as the tight-fitting cases and waterproof switches that appear on the better plug-in models."

For this evaluation, Practical Sailor cononcentrated on the rechargeable kind. All can be recharged directly from the boat's 12-volt system. This is a big improvement over the previous requirement that the lights either be recharged through an inverter, or taken home for charging.

Spotlight Concerns
There’s not much difference between a rechargeable flashlight and a rechargeable spotlight, except size and power. Both have filaments that glow, and parabolic reflectors to direct the light into a beam. The depth and shape of the reflector, and how it's set in the light housing itself, determines how the light is focused. It's not necessarily bad for one light's beam to be a bit wider than another's, but the trade-off for a wider spread is usually less distance, or penetration into the dark—and that, presumably, is what these lights are supposed to do. So we prefer lights that reach out with a narrow beam.

The chart (see sidebar) shows, simply for comparison's sake, claims made for candlepower, which is a measure of luminous intensity. (The more modern term is the candela.) While the amount of light coming from all those focused candles or candelas—ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions and reaching a surface at a particular distance—can be metered and expressed in lumens (or foot-candles), we haven't found over the years that either the stated ratings or our many hundreds of measurements are as informative or useful as plain old eyeball observation and hands-on, on-water tests.

One characteristic that's easy to observe is how tight and neat a light's beam is. Neatness is important because a small design or production glitch in the relationship of filament, parabolic reflector, and housing can cause light scatter (aka spatter or reflected glare) outside the main beam. This means less light headed in the necessary direction, which can cause a garish mess inside a fog bank.

Other concerns have to do with the battery—how long it will last on a charge, how long it takes to recharge, how it can be recharged, and whether there’s overcharge protection. Also, as we know, rechargeable batteries can run the gamut in quality and lifetime longevity, usually depending on how they're treated, but not always. Following the manufacturers' directions, we tried to get a sense of how these batteries did their job.

What We Found
With this many products, Practical Sailor testers often repeat tests several times to whittle the field down to those that pass our initial tests. And that’s just what we did with the spotlights. A few of the lights lost power during our beam-diameter test, so they were out of the race early on. One of those lights, the West Marine Seavolt, has been discontinued due to its poor performance, according to Chuck Hawley, West Marine vice-president of product development.

The next part of the test—the actual on-the-water evaluation—weeded out most of the others. (All the lights except for the Coleman passed the salt-water spray test, but it doesn't claim to be water-resistant.)

We came away with five finalists: the Optronics Illumma-Light PR-201, and Optronics QR 2001, the Brinkmann Maxmillion II, the LSI/Koehler-Bright Star Nite Tracker, and the Garrity 5800G. All five lights maintained their brightness and beam spread after the timed trigger tests, and all of them shoot tight, clean beams with relatively minimal light scatter.

The Brinkmann Maxmillion II and the LSI/Koehler-Bright Star shoot the brightest and tightest beams of the four. The Brinkmann is $15 less expensive than the Optronics Illumma-Light—not an insignificant amount—and almost $9 less than the LSI. The Illumma Light has overcharge protection, while neither the Brinkmann, the QR 2001, nor the LSI light do. The LSI and both Optronics lights have a 3-year warranty, compared to the Brinkmann and Garrity's 1 year coverage. Both the LSI and Brinkmann have brims around their casings to reduce light scatter. (We thought the LSI's did the job better.)

The Illumina Light has two other advantages over its competitors: First, its blue beam creates less glare than the others. Second, it can be bought through West Marine, which has a no-questions-asked return policy.

And the Garrity is the lightest of the four, fits snugly in your hand, and shoots a pretty bright, clean beam.

We like spotlights with strong, tight beams. Most any spotlight can pick up a reflective marker, but the better lights can illuminate unmarked objects.

The Brinkmann Maxmillion II, LSI, and Optronics QR 2001 do this job the best. Of those three, we'd take the Optronics QR 2001. Although it doesn't have the side brims like the LSI and Brinkmann, the Optronics' blue bulb reduces glare. Plus, the Optronics is a pound lighter and the least expensive of the three.

If you want a lighter spotlight, the Garrity is the way to go. And if glare is an issue, then the Optronics Illumma-Light PR-201 with its blue light, is a good choice.


Also With This Article
"Spec Sheet: Rechargeable Spotlights"
"Rechargeable Spotlights: Performance"
"How We Tested"

• Koehler-Bright Star, 800/631-3814
• Brinkmann, 800/468-5252, www.thebrinkmanncorp.com
• Garrity, 203/245-8383, www.garritylites.com
• Optronics, 800/364-5483, www.optronicsinc.com
• West Marine, 800/BOATING, www.westmarine.com
• Coleman Powermate, 800/445-1805, www.colemanpowermate.com
• Husky, (Home Depot), 800/553-3199, www.homedepot.com

Comments (1)

Being in the market for a replacement 12v spotlight, I initially did the usual google search and asked my sailing buddies for their opinions. Then thought to go look see if PS had done a Spotlight review. Very impressed with this review and provides good ideas for considering when buying a new spotlight.

Of course, this article was in the March 2005 issue, and LED's have undergone considerable advancement since then and many of the lamps tested back in 2005 are no longer available or no longer detailed on the manufactures sites.

So it must be time for an update. Presumably the testers have regrown their skin from the trigger testing by now. Do they have 'flash backs' about this test. :)

Great article and just makes it more worthwhile to renew my subscription. The money saved on getting the spotlight choice right first time will easily cover the annual cost.

Good job guys.


Posted by: Paul A | March 30, 2011 7:04 AM    Report this comment

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