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torches: an elegant tool for a more civilised age

Not all revolutions make the headlines. Some are dramatic in their sphere whilst being inconsequential everywhere else. Smartphones are probably the best recent example of a transformative technological advance we are all aware of and saturated in. LED flashlights? Not so much. But as it happens the humble torch has undergone a transformation simultaneous with, and in part because of, the smartphone. And today you – yes you – are going to hear ALL about it, as well as what it means for your wallet and social standing. YIKES!

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From their invention in the late 19th century until the early 21st century, torches didn’t really change that much. Some people will eat me for saying that, but I think it’s true enough. They got somewhat smaller and/or somewhat more powerful as materials and battery technology improved, but incandescent bulbs put some pretty heavy limits on what was possible in terms of efficiency, and therefore output and runtime. This is why your parents probably had/have an enormous club-like torch in the shed that needs 4 giant batteries and puts out a pretty shitty amount of light. They worked OK, but they weren’t significantly better than lights from 20-30 years before.

In the late 90s and early 00s though, a few previously unrelated technologies started to mature simultaneously. First of all, LED technology started to really take off, accelerated by demand from electronics companies. At the same time, battery technology like NiMH and Lithium Ion began to go mainstream, and when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, overnight Apple created an entire industry where batteries and LEDs were some of the most critical components. Suddenly, torch manufacturers were downstream beneficiaries of the world’s biggest growth industry. The results were dramatic.

When I first became interested in torches around 2010, this niche hobbyist revolution was already underway. In 2011 Zebralight released the SC600, widely considered a landmark light, putting out up to 750 lumens from a compact torch running off a single 18650 cell. If these figures are Greek to you, I’ll put it another way: it was like having a car head lamp in a package smaller than your fist, and about 50% brighter than the other high-end lights in its class whilst also being smaller. 8 years later, and the equivalent light can put out over 4300 lumens using the same cell in a smaller package. Even if you can’t tell your lumens from your lemons, that’s a 573% performance increase on what was already a groundbreaking light. You can get much brighter lights than these of course, but they’re also much bigger. What’s remarkable is the kind of power you can get from modern pocket torches – heat build-up is now the primary constraint. And the progress in efficiency has also allowed manufacturers to make lights for under $20 that would have been $100 class-leaders just 8 years ago.

just a couple of typical flashlight enthusiasts
just a couple of typical flashlight enthusiasts

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Suffice to say, torches are really fucking cool now, and you should get one. And I’m here to help. The rest of this is essentially the flashlight companion-piece to my post on Swiss Army Knives. Unfortunately, there’s no ‘victorinox of torches’, so it’s a little more messy. Nevertheless, in a similar vein I’ll try and narrow down your decision points and suggest some do-no-wrong options, with an emphasis on affordability, portability, flexibility, practicality, and show-boating ‘wow factor’. In other words, I’m going to be looking at cheap, compact lights, with good interfaces, rechargeable battery options, floody beam profiles, and impractical but hilarious turbo modes. If you want a light for finding lost sheep or mounting on your assault rifle, go fish.

The first thing you’ll want to pick is the battery type, specifically the battery form, and the battery chemistry, because this pretty much determines everything else. Battery form refers to the physical dimensions of the battery, which obviously plays a big role in the size of the torch. Battery chemistry is about the guts, which determines the kind of output and runtime you can get. In my opinion, here are your basic options in terms of [form] – [chemistry] for a first light:

AAA – NiMH
AA – NiMH/L-ION
18650 – L-ION

From top to bottom, we’re talking smaller and less powerful to bigger and more powerful. AAA/AA NiMH cells are cheap, durable, and low-maintenance. The most famous NiMH cells are Panasonic’s Eneloops, which are the rechargeable AA batteries you wish you had, instead of the crap ones you bought that were useless after a couple of charges. They hold their charge well over time, they hold their charge capacity well over time, and are basically the bees knees. Despite being around for about 25 years, a lot of people still don’t know about Eneloops and buy dreadful rechargeable batteries that are just frustrating. Now you’re in the know, so welcome to the Illuminati as it were. In comparison with AAs, AAAs trade output and runtime for a much more compact battery, and therefore (all other things being equal) torch. In my opinion, AAAs work fine for indoors, but don’t really offer the output or runtimes needed for outdoors (not without spending a lot of money anyway). Even if you just want a light for walking, the difference between AAAs and AAs is dramatic, and AAs really aren’t much bigger. AAAs are OK for your keychain as a spare, but IN MY HONEST/HUMBLE OPINION, that’s about it.

eneloops, battery of the future, today!
eneloops, battery of the future, today!

Frankly, NiMH AAs can support all the output and runtime most people realistically need. But realism, and needs, are boring. If you want DANGER, DESIRE, and FANTASY, Lithium-Ion cells are the name of the game. This chemistry is what powers your phone, laptop, and essentially all high-end electronics, and they are capable of significantly more performance and capacity than NiMH batteries. However, with great power comes great responsibility, hence the DANGER. If you’ve heard about exploding laptops or seen phones with swollen batteries, this is the downside. Quality L-Ion cells are very reliable and almost always safe – most of your stuff already uses them. But the chemistry is fundamentally more unstable, so you can’t abuse it the way you can NiMH. You need to take care of them the way you would other high-end electronics. If you’re the kind of person who regularly smashes, washes, or loses their phone, stick to Eneloops. You should also make sure you’re buying quality cells (e.g. Samsung, Sony) from a reliable seller (e.g. not some dodgy-looking third-party vendor on Amazon). If you don’t feel confident determining that, stick to Eneloops. These dangers are inherent to the chemistry: I’ve seen multiple phone and laptop batteries which have swollen due to failure, so again, your house is already full of them. But shitty electronics combined with shitty batteries is bad juju – see the plight of vapists the world over. The higher outputs typical of L-Ion torches also produce a lot of heat. Many high-output lights can get hot enough you might drop them; some can quite literally set things on fire. You’re not going to burn your house down or anything, but minor skin burns are definitely possible if you’re not careful.

L-Ion batteries come in all kinds of sizes, capacities, and form factors, but you can ignore most of them. The first important size are 14500s, which is how AA-sized batteries are usually referred to when they’re L-Ion based. The reason these are interesting is because quite a few decent AA lights support the extra performance offered by 14500 cells, so you can get the benefit of L-Ion chemistry, whilst knowing you can use regular AAs in a pinch if you’re away from your charger or fleeing the Zuckerbots. Not so with 18650s, which are thicker, longer, and have no ‘over the counter’ equivalent in size. Both the form and chemistry of these batteries is specialist (although they’re the basis for many battery packs in consumer products), so like the 14500s you’ll need to order them online, but unlike the 14500s there is no ubiquitous battery in the same form factor. Some lights will accept 2xCR123 cells, but this is less and less common, and in Europe these batteries are harder to find than in the US (in addition to being just plain expensive). The upside is that 18650s are absolute beasts, with by far the best performance:size ratio in this group. These are the cells that let you enter the Silly Zone, blasting a wall of light from a torch that fits in your palm.

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OK, so you’ve picked your battery (haha just kidding, I know you haven’t), but now you need a light for it. I’m going to give you a couple of picks per cell-size, and hopefully doing that will illuminate things for you. Yeah yeah, groan.

AAA
Lumintop EDC02, Fenix E05

I’m going to offer suggestions here against my better judgment, because I honestly think that UNLESS you are specifically interested in a light for your keys, you should ignore the AAA form. AA lights come slim and short enough for anything aside from keychains, and offer way better… well everything really. Some swear by AAAs, but I disagree, unless it’s as a backup kind of thing.

If you REALLY want a AAA torch as your main, get the Lumintop Tool 2.0 AAA. It’s basically a pen-sized typical torch, with a fairly simple interface and a simple set of modes. More sensibly, if you want something for your keys get the Lumintop EDC02 or the Fenix E05. These models are mostly equivalent, except the Lumintop EDC02 is better, but newer and thus doesn’t have the same long-standing reputation. Both are dead-simple, 1-2 mode twisty lights with diffuser optics. This means you get a nice, even spread of light that’s unlikely to blind you in close quarters, but by the same token they’ll only light up a few feet in front of you.

AA
Lumintop Tool 2.0 AA, Zebralight SC5w MK II

Now we’re talking! In fact we’re talking a lot, so here’s the main takeaway for this entire post: if you’re uncertain, get the Lumintop Tool 2.0 AA. This advice goes for all categories. It’s a great NiMH light, and has the added benefit that it has amazing performance on a 14500, so you can ease into the world of L-Ion batteries and chargers if/when you feel the itch. For the price there’s just no better way to start, and you really can’t go wrong. It even comes with a lanyard and glowy condom-esque diffuser so you can use it as a light baton, on the off-chance you don’t look nerdy enough already.

very cool
very cool

What the Tool doesn’t have though is a nuanced UI or a proper moonlight mode. One of the funny things about extremely bright torches is that they really make you appreciate lower-lumen modes and a UI that lets you get at them easily. Blinding yourself in the middle of the night is just the worst, and it’s just a pain having to go through modes you don’t want in order to find the one you do. Even if you own a good torch, these things will happen to you constantly on all but the best UIs. The Zebralight SC5 solves these issues by featuring one of the most customisable UIs out there, which lets you programme the outputs of button actions. For example, you can set a single click of the button to switch the light on at it’s lowest output, or its highest output, or anything in between. Likewise a double-click, or any of the other recognised inputs. If this sounds extremely boring and uncool, well, it probably is. But, trust me, so is accidentally blinding yourself with your torch.

Speaking of which, the SC5 has a really excellent ‘moonlight mode’. It’s dim enough that even in pitch darkness, it doesn’t strain your eyes, and it can run in this mode for literally months (Zebralight say 4.3 months, to be exact). In addition to this ridiculous efficiency, the SC5 also offers best-in-class NiMH performance – you get serious output without having to switch to L-Ion cells (which, incidentally, it does not support). Cons? First, it’s about 3-4x the price of the Tool. Remember, as impressive as the SC5’s NiMH performance is, the Tool can take a 14500 L-Ion cell and be brighter. So to justify the cost, you really need to be the kind of person who will use the extra UI features and doesn’t want to go near L-Ions. It’s also a good bit wider than the Tool, albeit shorter, but for a pocket torch width is a much bigger factor than length. In fact, the SC5 is wider than some 18650 lights, so that the usual form-factor advantage of AAs doesn’t really apply.

zebralights centre) are cool, but their big heads give them a large footprint for their cell-size
l-r: tool 2.0, sc52 lii, fw3a. zebralights (centre) are cool, but their big heads give them a large footprint for their cell-size

For what it’s worth, if I had to own just one of these two and nothing else, I would pick the SC5. In my opinion the super-low moonlight mode, customisable UI, and NiMH performance justify the price tag, especially if you don’t want to deal with L-Ion batteries. So why do I recommend the Tool? Mostly because Zebralight are pretty marmite – even among torch dorks, not everyone likes the UI, aesthetic, etc. Whereas the Tool is so cheap, and so versatile, that it’ll either be all you ever need, or a great guide to what you want. And at 650+ lumens from a 14500 L-Ion cell, no normal person will ever need more light. For less than 20 yoyos, it’s very unlikely you’ll regret it.

18650
Lumintop FW3A, Emisar D4V2

Now you might be thinking, “Hey, this guy’s a Lumintop stooge”, but hold your horses pal.

There was a time a few years ago when Zebralight were pretty much the undisputed kings of (semi)-affordable EDC torches. They were leaders in efficiency, practicality, and options, whilst not being silly-expensive. If I had written this 3 years ago I would probably have recommended them in every category except AAA (and then only because Zebralight have never made AAA lights). They still make amazing torches, but they haven’t updated their 1×18650 line for over 2 years, and as such there are newer lights with better performance at significantly lower prices. In particular, Lumintop have an unmatched budget portfolio at the moment, and that’s why they’re so heavily represented here.

But actually, the FW3A is only kind of a Lumintop torch. They build it, but the light was designed by the BudgetLightForum community, who approached Lumintop to get it built. It’s a light for the enthusiast community, by the enthusiast community, and it is radically different in ethos, aesthetic, and UI to all previous Lumintop lights. The UI is even open source! I really love this torch. I might do a full review of it at some point, but in short it looks great, the UI is brilliant, and the performance is ridiculous.

the fw3a looks great, whereas i look like i have leprosy
the fw3a looks great, whereas i look like i have leprosy

I don’t own the Emisar D4V2, but it has the same UI, arguably better output and functionality, and is around the same price. But for me, it just doesn’t look as nice. Some of that is because it’s a side-clicky light, which I usually prefer, but it just has a ‘minecraft’ vibe that I’m not into. Finally, both of these lights can only sustain their top-end outputs for a short time before thermal regulation steps in to stop the lights melting (yes), so the greater max output is not as big a differentiator as you might think. This is especially so because in normal use, light output is perceived logarithmically – a torch that’s twice as bright will not seem twice as bright. The FW3A does not look 10x brighter than a Tool running on NiMH, even though it is – to my eyes in my garden, it’s more like 3-4x as bright. These ‘diminishing returns’ mean the Emisar probably doesn’t look that much brighter than the FW3A in real world use.

Having said all of that, if you prefer the look of the Emisar, then go for it. These two torches are extremely similar, with most of the differences to be found in their aesthetics/form rather than performance or interface. They’re also just head and shoulders above all other similar lights in almost every respect, and significantly cheaper.

Just remember that once you get to 18650 batteries and torches with these kind of outputs, you are firmly in enthusiast rather than consumer territory. They are completely safe to use as long as you’re not careless, but if you don’t treat them with due diligence then you’re going to get burned, literally. These cells are the same ones that are blowing the faces off reckless vape-heads, and though the vaping industry is full of cowboys and its customer base is full of idiots, nevertheless that cautionary tale should leave you with a healthy respect for the mighty 18650. And even aside from that, the heat from these lights is perfectly capable of burning holes through your trousers. I don’t smoke, but I’m pretty sure you could light a cigarette off them. Understand that it’s a tool that should be treated with caution, just like a knife or a drill, and you’ll be fine.

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Anyway that’s it, now you too can be a torch doofus. Or run away, now, before you learn more about batteries than you ever thought possible.

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