When I depart my dwelling at the start of a weekend I spend an hour traveling several lonely roads, and it is not uncommon to encounter less than three cars the final 45 minutes of the commute. As for the last 15 minutes, it’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t encounter another soul, let alone an occupied vehicle. Winter this year has been particularly brutal. With darkness falling early in winter and more sub-zero days and nights than I can remember it would be unfortunate to have a mechanical difficulty en route to camp.
2.23.2014 – Sunday
I’d wager most cell phones have an LED capable of casting a fair quantity of lumens. None-the-less, I wouldn’t want to rely on my phone on a dark, cold night. Especially with the majority of the trip occurring in the absence of cellular reception. In addition to winter travels a good flashlight is a valuable tool for hunting, home protection, and camping. Over the past few years I’ve acquired more than a few flashlights and after some wisdom from my wife have decided to declare my flashlight collection complete (for now).
These are my primary flashlights that get use throughout the year. Left to Right (model – battery type):
- Sunwayman T20CS – 2x CR123a / RCR123a or 1x 18650
- Sunwayman V11R – 1x CR123a / RCR123a
- Princeton Tec EOS – 3x AAAs
- Armytek Wizard Pro – 1x 18650
- Sunwayman M40A – 4x AAs
Testing (in the real world)
All photos taken at identical exposures: f/5.6, 5.0s, ISO 200, 5150K white balance, 28mm focal length. Temperature (5.4°F) and light conditions were constant – lights were photographed within 5 seconds of turning on. Burn time is a combination of my experience, best guess (results may vary depending on batteries), and manufacturer claims. The EOS is an older light and I can’t find information on burn time and output anywhere (other than the high mode). The Center of the beam is between 130-140 feet, the corner of the garage is 40 feet. I have corrected the exposure to reflect what the relative brightness is in real life.
- Sunwayman T20CS 648 lumen (5 min limit), 476 lumen (2.5h), 92 lumen (11h), 18 lumen (82h) – runtime for 18650 battery
- Sunwayman V11R 570 lumen (25 min total / 5 min limit), 1 lumen (35h)
- Princeton Tec EOS 50 lumen (1h), 25 lumen (?), 10 lumen (?)
- Wizard Pro 1010 lumen (1.1h), 550 lumen (2.8h), 250 lumen (7.5h), 115 lumen (15h), 30 lumen (50h), 7 lumen (9d), 0.5 lumen (100d)
- Sunwayman M40A 500 lumen (1h), 150 lumen (5h), 15 lumen (60h)
The Sunwayman T20CS has four well-spaced output modes and will be used as the standard.
I consider 500 lumen to be an adequate benchmark for a high-power LED flashlight. From my casual use I’ve noticed that for a flashlight to be an upgrade it has to either have double the brightness or double the burn time. If I were to upgrade from a 500 lumen light to a 550 lumen light it would be tough to notice a difference, but make the jump from 50 lumen to 100 lumen and the difference is immediate. The next test image is of the Princeton Tec EOS on 50 lumen (high). It is quite clear that this is weaker than the 92 lumen image above.
The next quality to consider in a flashlight is the beam pattern. The Sunwayman M40A and T20CS have deep reflectors. This translates to a long throw beam. The Sunwayman V11R has a hybrid reflector that is moderately deep for it’s size. The Wizard Pro has a shallow reflector and a 70° flood pattern. As a general rule of thumb a deeper reflector will yield a longer throw and less flood. A smooth reflector is also an advantage for long throw (T20CS) while an orange peel textured reflector disperses light for a more pleasant experience at distances less than about 20 feet (V11R, M40A). A newer development is the micro lens front element on the Wizard, which works flawlessly for a flood light pattern.
Some side by side beam shots (screen captures)
The final quality that merits consideration is the user interface. There are two primary types of interfaces: set interval and variable output. The V11R is 1-570 lumen infinitely variable. It is a great feature on an EDC (every-day carry) light. Having a super low and super high setting is a brilliant feature. In the deer stand I can get situated discretely, yet if I drop the gate key in the snow I can flood the woods with light and retrieve my lost item. Because it is a pocket light with a huge output, burn-time isn’t paramount and I don’t need to know how much time I have left on the battery. I usually keep a soft memory card case with two spare batteries nearby (glove box, duffle bag).
The rest of my lights have set intervals. The advantage of this second type of user interface is that I can pretty accurately gauge my burn time. With the variable power V11R I have no hope of guessing the output and the associated burn time. I wouldn’t want a variable power tactical light. The perfect light with set intervals would have exponential intervals: 1000, 500, 250, 125… etc. The newest light in my collection, the Wizard Pro, plays to this preference fairly well. It also has a super low mode – one of my favorite and most useful modes. The T20CS is a tactical light and the tail cap switch ALWAYS goes to max-output (648 lumen) when activated. Then it must be stepped down into lower output modes. The M40A has to be stepped up from the lowest output. The Wizard Pro is an interesting light and has an interface I really like (though not everyone shares my preferences). It’s too much work to explain the entire interface but here is how I use it: since it remembers the last mode it was in, I usually have it set at either 250 or 500 lumen. From this point I can click once to turn on to my previous mode or hold the button and it starts at the lowest output. A double click will go straight to 1010 lumen. Among my lights it has the fastest combined time from off to highest or lowest output.
- Flood light ranking: Wizard > V11R > T20CS > M40A
- Long throw ranking: T20CS > M40A > V11R > Wizard
- Most versatile user interface: V11R > Wizard > T20CS > M40A
- Easiest user interface: V11R > M40A > T20CS > Wizard
- Best burn time: Wizard > T20CS > M40A > V11R
- Cost (highest to lowest): M40A > Wizard > T20CS > V11R
The Sunwayman T20CS is a superb light! – I’m starting to think that the manufacturer brightness ratings are underrated. It is a very long throw light with an intuitive user interface and some flood for walking at night without tripping on obstacles. The burn time is very good using a 18650 cell. The Sunwayman V11R is my everyday carry light (EDC). It fits comfortably in a well fitting pair of jeans and securely clips onto any piece of clothing that lacks a pocket. The output from such a tiny light is mind bending and I’m in love with the variable light output from 1 to 570 lumens. The Princeton Tec EOS has been my go-to light since 2003! The new ones have improved output and light color and it lasted me about 10 years before being claimed by obsolescence – they really last and last… but the Wizard Pro is my new go-to headlamp. It’s not much bigger than the EOS but has many more light output modes – the low moonlight mode and 550lumen high mode being my favorites. It’s also made from aluminum and feels very light and strong. The elastic headbands and silicone light holder are top quality and it is unequivocally the most comfortable headlamp I’ve ever worn! The venerable Sunwayman M40A is like a shorter more potent Mag-Lite. It is way overbuilt and over engineered, very bright, and fills the hand quite assuredly. It’s a superb AA flashlight but due to it’s high cost (probably due to generous over-engineering) and the better burn time offered by 18650 powered lights it’s hard to make an argument for this AA powered light.
- The T20CS sits in a small gun vault with a Ruger P95/Crimson Trace for home/cabin defense (rarely used)
- The V11R is always at my side – only my iPhone gets handled more on a daily basis.
- The EOS is a camping light my wife uses from time to time – I don’t use it anymore
- The Wizard Pro is my hunting and camping light – always in the tent, on my head, or in my pocket when in the stand or field. I can track a deer with just this light at night! Prior to this light I needed a 400 lumen Princeton Tec LED dive light (8C batteries).
- The M40A is a backup light – stowed in a car, in the bottom of a duffle bag, or on a shelf at home (used regularly for family night time walks). Rugged and reliable.
Dad uses his T20CS all the time – it is his EDC and he uses it daily when at the cabin and always tosses it in a pocket when heading out hunting. I agree. He keeps a Panasonic NCR18650B in his and carries a spare. If I had to choose one light the T20CS would be that light… but I sure love the tiny V11R and Wizard Pro.
Batteries and Chargers
Rechargeable AA/AAA batteries should be used for best results. They far outperform alkaline in the cold and pack much more energy density. I can confidently recommend Sanyo eneloops. For pure performance, look for flashlights powered by the energy-dense 18650 lithium ion rechargeable cell. If the flashlight packs it’s own ‘protection circuit’ then buy ‘non-protected’ batteries, otherwise look for protected cells. If you have a short, lithium ion batteries can dump a massive amount of energy in a short time which can generate a lot of heat – this is very bad (explosions, fire, etc…) I use Panasonic NCR18650B 3.7V cells, and have had good luck so far (about 4 months only – I have 4 years experience with eneloops). The 18650 is a superior battery for one simple reason: capacity! A typical rechargeable NiMH AA has about 2.5mAh and the 18650 has 12.5mAh of capacity (5x the power). Look to the T20CS and M40A for a comparison in performance. I also use RCR123a type cells from Tenergy and Ultrafire and so far have no complaints. The Ultrafire seem to perform slightly better in the V11R – likely because they are not voltage limited to 3.2V like the Tenergy cells.
A bit more on protected cells. Protected cells do three things very well: they keep the battery from exploding in the event of a short, extend the life of the battery by preventing over-discharging (cut output at 20% charge), and leave you stranded in the dark without warning. Protected cells will appear to die instantly and without warning. Unprotected cells will not do this. The Wizard Pro is designed to accommodate unprotected cells and will flicker a few times and then drop to a low output mode when the battery is low. The low ‘battery saver’ mode then allows the user to locate a back up battery or second flashlight. Know our battery and know your light.
I’ve had mixed luck with chargers. I started out with the Lacrosse BC-700 Alpha (AA/AAA). I was drawn in by the positive reviews on Amazon and bought one for me and one for the Ol’ man. It was a regrettable move. Mine failed after a minor run in with a toddler and the Ol’ man’s has been misbehaving – not registering a full charge after a day of charging. Pop the battery out and in again and it will register charged. I tried again with the Maha PowerEx MH-C9000 WizardOne charger and am much more pleased. The interface, ease of use, and performance far exceed the Lacrosse BC-700 Alpha. The Maha also has some heft to it which makes me feel better about having it in the same house as a toddler. I value durability more than ever these days. I use the Nitecore IntelliCharger i4 Battery Charger for RCR123a and 18650 batteries, and it has performed as expected. It also feels durable like the Maha (and uses the same power cord as my Canon T3i DSLR battery charger).
If off-grid or in the woods you have to own a headlamp. It’s pretty much a requirement. 100 lumen is more than adequate unless you plan on tracking a deer with it, then step up to 500 lumen. After the headlamp, a 18650 battery powered tactical light with at least 600 lumen output is the next best choice. And if you are a flashlight geek like me and require a 3rd light, an EDC with a 1 to 500+ lumen range like a Sunwayman V11R is simply epic.
…if you’re looking for in depth information on lights and related check out CandlePowerForums and get your geek on.