[[torches]]

Buying a Torch or Flashlight

Intro

Torches have come such a long way from the battery-guzzing bulb torches or camping lanterns you might still have around, with LED's surpassing incandescent bulbs in almost every aspect. Many battery-selling brands (energiser, eveready etc) are still selling torches with bulbs in them - those bulbs use more power, and hence, drive you to purchase more batteries!

The torches we're talking about today, are far better in every way than the cheap $2 junk you find at retail checkouts and sunday markets.

Buying a Bright Basic Bargain Torch

"I don't have time to read all this, I just want a simple torch!"

I hear you. To start with, you probably already have some form of light on you at the moment – your smartphone flash!!

  • Cost: $0
  • Performance: “I can see now!”
  • Value for money: “Did I mention that it is free??”

"I still don't have time to read all this, but I want something small and fairly bright!"

If you just want a good, simple, value torch for general around the house use, click here.

Any of those torches are compact, lightweight, and will be perfectly fine for working around the house or to keep in a bag for general use. They may or may not use genuine LED's, but if you are looking for a compact torch that runs off a single AA battery, they are hard to beat. These torches have a zooming lens which can be very handy, and are far, far brighter than any cheap bulb torches at under $4 posted. Similar torches are repeatedly offered for even less money from other direct-from-china sellers.

  • Cost: Less than $4
  • Performance: A lot better than anything you have used before LED's under $100.
  • Value for money: Can't be beaten.

"But I want something really bright but still really really cheap!"

If you're looking for something a bit bigger and a bit brighter, but still basic, then any of these torches might be a better choice.

  • Cost: $5 to $8
  • Performance: 3x AAA batteries provide enough power for most uses.
  • Value for money: Still Very Very Good

However, if you want to enter the torch rabbit hole, read on…


Buying a Better Torch

Step 1: Choosing your priories The first thing when looking for a new torch is to work out what you need! Torches are available in almost every possible configuration imaginable, the hardest part is working out what you actually want.

  • Cost: $15 to $100+
  • Performance: What ever you can imagine…
  • Value for money: Bargains ahoy! But how do we find them? Keep reading…

Below is a list of common considerations, where each question is linked to a section below that goes into more detail in that area.

There are some useful links to other sites with more info at the bottom of the page here.

Torch Sizes & Form Factors

Torches vary in size for many different uses. The most obvious thing that affects the size of the torch, is the size of the battery inside! A large battery will naturally give you a much longer run time.

As you get into more powerful torches, the amount of power output the battery can provide is also important - it doesn't matter if you have a 10W LED torch if you are trying to supply power from a single AAA battery – the battery just won't be able to put out the 10W of power needed to reach full brightness. Additionally, high-power LED's put out a significant amount of heat when running at full power, and you may find (if it is a quality torch) that the controller will reduce the power and dim the LED, to prevent damage from getting too hot.

Other design considerations:

  • Controls: some torches have on/off buttons near the head of the torch, while others have buttons at the end of the torch
  • Tail Standing: Some torches have flat areas at the end so that they can stand uprights, pointing upwards to a tent roof for example – other torches have curved ends or have keyring loops so cannot 'tail-stand'.
  • Bezel design: Some torches (“tactical flashlights”) have a 'strike bezel' with crenellations around the head of the torch, enabling the torch to be used as a weapon, or to break glass in an emergency.
  • Anti-Roll: Some torches are round – and as such may roll away if left on a slope. Others may have faceted edges that help prevent that.
  • Waterproofing: Some torches are waterproof, others are not. If you think this will be important, you might want to lear the difference between the different ingress protection ratings. Some torches even come with O-ring seals.
  • Material choice and finish: Torches tend to be made of aluminium, with some in stainless steel, and others even in titanium. To provide the wide range of colours, some torches are painted, some are anodised and some are electroplated. Different finishes and coatings will vary in their durability - for aluminium, Type III hard-coat (HC) anodising is considered to give the most durable finish.

Torch Beam Type

The shape of the beam a torch produces can vary with different torches designed for different needs. Searchlights and hunting torches tend to have long reflectors designed to “throw” the light a long way in a thin “pencil”-like beam. General purpose lights tend to produce a wider, more spread-out beam, designed to provide a degree of “flood-light” to aid peripheral vision. This throw or flood ability is important to know before you buy your torch.

Often sellers will post a photo of the beam shining on a flat surface - this may not be useful in working out whether a torch is a flood or a thrower, but is very helpful in seeing if a torch has a hot-spot in the centre, and to see how smoothly the light rolls off at the edges of the beam.

Some torches have zooming optics, designed to give the best of both worlds. While this may be a very big convenience, it does come at a cost, as a significant amount of light (up to around 50%) may be lost by the inefficient low-cost optics commonly used. These lenses may also cause changes in the colour of the light at different areas of the beam. A high-quality general purpose flashlight with a good reflector design will have both a good amount of throw from a smooth centre hot-spot, whilst also providing a reasonable amount of flood-light.

LED Brightness & Colour

As you look for a torch, you will start to notices weird keywords that keep appearing. Some of those will relate to the LED chip used in the torch, which has a big part to play in the brightness and colour of the beam.

The first thing is the manufacturer of the LED. CREE is the market leader in LED's for flashlights, and they produce a wide range of chips for different applications. Other major manufacturers include Nichia, Phillips and many others.

The brightness of LED's vary widely, as the LED manufacturing process produces quite a large variation in the brightness and efficiency of each and every LED. Because of this, each LED chip is tested and then classified into categories known as bins. Brighter LED's in better bins are rarer and cost significantly more, so a manufacturer may get 90% of the brightness by choosing to use a lower binned LED for significant cost savings. The most common LED product line used in many torches is the CREE XM-L chip, and the most common brightness bin is T6. For more info on the bins available and their rated lumens, click here

The LED colour is also important – and often not stated by the manufacturer. The colour of the light produced is typically measured in Kelvins, and more info on this can be found here.

Most LED's produce a cold blueish light, with phosphors then added that absorb this blue light and then output a more pleasing warmer light. However, the phosphors are not 100% efficient and they reduces the overall output of the LED. Because of this, cheap manufacturers tend to use the colder harsher colour bins, so they can advertise to have a brighter torch, even though the light produced is not as nice.

If we take a cold white LED and a warm white LED, and suppose they are both rated for the same brightness bin, the warm white LED is more expensive as it would have started out as a higher brightness bin, before the phosphor was added. The result is that warm LED's cost more. A chart of colour tints and the CREE colour tint bin codes can be found here.

One final point on colour, is colour reproduction accuracy: this is rarely mentioned in torches, but is a big deal in things like room lighting LED's, so that objects that are lit by the torch appear the right colour. The measurement that matters for colour reproduction is the CRI - color rendering index. If this is something that is very important to your use – e.g if you wanted to use your torch for portable photography lighting, then check out torches that use the Nichia 219B and related LED chips with high CRI's.

Drivers & Torch Modes

The torch you would have used 15 years ago would have had an on and off switch. Easy, but things have (for better or worse) moved on.

Nowadays, many torches will have multiple modes. After you turn a torch on, if you half-press and release the switch, often you can cycle through modes with higher or lower brightness, as well as other light patterns like strobe lights, sos patterns, and more. Different brightness levels will result in better or worse battery life, and some torches even have a very low power mode known as a “moonlight” mode, with runtime of many days. This moonlight mode is useful if you want to avoid losing night-adaptation while lighting up something in shadows.

These modes are programmed by the electronics in the torch (the driver) and some drivers have the ability to have the modes available changed with some minor soldering, for example turning a 5 mode torch into a 1 mode torch.

Batteries

A range of options are available for powering your torch, but before you buy, you need to make sure that your torch will work with the batteries you plan to use. Not all torches can use AA or AAA's, and not all of them can use lithium batteries either!

Most torches can still be run on single use Alkaline AA or AAA batteries, but these batteries are not able to put out the same kind of power that is available with rechargable lithium batteries, so you may find that you will not get the full brightness out of your torch when using AA's. Additionally, single-use batteries are both environmentally unfriendly, so even if you really want to use AA or AAA size batteries, you should consider investing in a set of rechargeable batteries – like Eneloops. If you've been on ozbargain for long, you probably have some already!

Lithium batteries are popular for use in torches, as they hold more energy for their size, can provide a higher power output, as well as being significantly lighter – all reasons why they are currently used in most mobile devices. They do have some precautions - charging them is more complex, and using them when in a very cold environment, you will find that they do not last as long either.

In particular, running lithium batteries completely flat is not recommended and will severely reduce their lifespan. To protect from this, 'protected' lithium batteries are available for most of the larger battery sizes, and these have a circuit board inside that protects against things like over-discharging and short circuits. It's recommended to use protected batteries where possible – BUT – some protected batteries are longer than the standard sizes and may not fit in your torch, so you need to do some research! Most quality brand-name torches will automatically turn themselves off when the voltage level drops too low, to protect the batteries from damage.

Like AA's and AAA's, Lithium batteries are also available in a wider range of sizes. Torches generally use cylindrical sizes, some of them are shown in the image below, and somer more info on sizes here:

Particularly common sizes used in torches:

Size Typical Capacity Description
10180 90mAh Used in pen-torches or keychain torches, these provide more power than a button-cell, and are rechargeable.
10440 340mAh Used in pen-torches, this size is similar to an AAA battery.
14500 700mAh Used in pocket-torches, this size is similar to an AA battery.
16340 750mAh Used in pocket-torches, this size holds similar amount to a 14500 while being shorter. Often interchangeable with CR123A single use lithium batteries.
18650 2000-3000mAh Used in full size torches, this is the most common lithium battery size. Some torches may even use multiples.
26650 3000-500mAh Used in very large torches, particularly ultra-bright ones with multiple LED emitters.

More recently, a newer type of lithium battery has become available – LiFePO4. These batteries hold even more than regular rechargeable lithium batteries, and are available in the same sizes as the rechargeable lithium batteries, but do require their own type of charger.

Chargers

Do you even need a charger? Some torches are available now that have a micro-USB port that allow them to be charged directly!

Regarding lithium batteries, they cannot be recharged in a normal AA/AAA charger, they need to be charged in a charger designed to charge lithium batteries. Some chargers may be advertised as being able to do both NiMH and lithium batteries - even better!

Don't spend too little on the cheapest you can find on eBay – cheap chargers often overcharge batteries and damage them, and have little safety protection. Find some reviews for the product you want, before you buy - if its a good charger, there will be plenty of reviews out there.

Common good charger brands include Nitecore, OPUS, XTar, La Crosse – but there are other good ones out there.

Saving money and buying a quality torch

Cheap torches cut corners in many areas:

  • The manufacturing quality will not be as good, so the threads holding the battery compartment together may be rough and not smooth to use.
  • They may not have put any grease on the threads.
  • They may have plastic lenses that absorb more light and scratch more easily.
  • Even if they have a glass lens, it may not have anti-reflective coatings
  • They may not have waterproof seals and o-rings.
  • They may have cheap buttons and switches that actually can signficantly affect the brightness of the torch!
  • They may have cheap electronics that are not as efficient, resulting in poorer battery life, or they may not have protection from things like putting the battery in backwards.
  • They may have poor thermal construction, so the LED isn't cooled properly and overheats more than it should.
  • They may have poor paint coatings that chip off and flake easily.

At the same time, there are expensive brands like Nitecore – a well known torch brand that makes high-quality products, but they would hardly be considered to be great value for money for the average person – they are more like the BMW of the torch world.

Many options are available between the extremes of budget-low-quality torches and deluxe-crème-de-la-crème torches, but hopefully this article has alerted you to the important things to look out for, and I hope as a result you can discover some real torch bargains!

Where to buy

Well known torch brands (e.g. Nitecore) are available in Australia, but mostly the best bargains are found on sites that ship from China, Hong-Kong or the US. No endorsement is provided on the quality or reliability of these stores, but the following places at least have a wide range of products at generally good prices.

More sites are available here, as well as comparison shopping search engines here.

On eBay you can find almost any torch, but often at significantly higher prices than the stores linked above. On eBay there are also some smaller sellers here and there who specialise in torches - again, NO endorsement provided!:

If you are still stumped, then torch forums can provide even more recommendations!

Building your own torch

If you are interested, you can buy all the parts needed to build your own torch. Generally this would include:

  • LED module
  • Driver electronics module
  • Housing
  • Optics

The hardest part is making sure they all work and fit together!

If this is something you are interested in, great – but that is outside the scope of this article. Have a read of the “more info” section below for links to get started!

More information

For more detailed information on flashlights and torches, check out the Flashlightwiki.com.

If you have specific questions, a great place to start is a dedicated torch or flashlight forum. The two most popular are CandlePowerForums and BudgetLightForums.

Reddit also has a torch discussion community at /r/flashlight/wiki/index - in particular they have a useful glossary of some common flashlight terms (e.g. forward clicky, EDC) here.