Are expensive flashlights worth it?
24 considerations before buying a dirt cheap flashlight.
While some cheap flashlights are just plain dangerous, others are just not worth the money… and the trouble. If you want to skip my rambling, and just want to get a good and affordable flashlight, make sure to check out our “Best cheap flashlights overview“. First off, I need to generalize here a bit, because not all ‘cheap flashlights’ are bad. And some ‘expensive are also not worth it. But here is a list with well-known problems that we have come across in the last 10 years. Not all of them apply to every cheap flashlight of course.
1 – Inconsistency is the key
Let’s start with an example.
Consider the good old SkyRay King. (Is that even a brand name, SkyRay King?). Back in the day, (about 6 years ago) this was a highly popular budget flashlight with about 2,000 lumens output. Many people liked it. Budgetlightforum was all over it, and I owned one too.
If you wanted to buy another one, 1 year after you bought your first one, you would likely receive a completely different one. When a certain flashlight became ‘hot’, the copycats will be all over it. The quality decreases, and you get a copy of a copy.
More expensive flashlights don’t have this. They remain the same throughout the years. It’s possible that the older model get discontinued, and you can only get the newer model though. But the product will change because of that.
2 – Subpar materials
You grab your Police light, hit the switch, and it doesn’t turn on. What do you do?
Well, it is probably the switch that broke. Have you ever bought a ‘Police’ flashlight on eBay? The ones that have plastic pressed-in switches? Those are a real pain to repair.
Please, don’t even consider trying to repair it!!! It’s impossible. Forget about it!
In some very cheap flashlights, lenses are made of plastic instead of glass. The cheaper lenses also have NO coating or aren’t particularly clear.
When you buy a branded flashlight, you should at least get an ultra-clear or coated lens that is more scratch resistant, and does not block light.
Sometimes the reflector is just a piece of plastic that looks like a reflector but isn’t the right size for the LED. And sometimes cheap flashlight have artifacts in the reflector that affect the beam. This is especially true when it comes to long-range flashlights.
3 – Subpar machining
In the following picture, you can see an example of a poorly machined flashlight. It was supposed to be a Roche F12 knockoff. And wasn’t worth the $10 they asked for it. Look at the machining on this light.
This kind of low quality maching is not possible on higher end flashlights like Olight, Fenix, Nitecore etc.
4 – Subpar Anodizing
Most cheap flashlights are made out of aluminum. You can aluminum flashlights look better by anodizing them. Cheap brands usually equal cheap anodizing. In most cases, the anodizing doesn’t fall off, but you can definitely see that the coating on the flashlight looks cheap.
Branded flashlights have much more consistent anodization, and often use a matte finish instead of the cheapy looking shiny black finish.
5 – Functionality/ User interface (memory/blinkies) and no driver options.
A driver is a piece of hardware inside the flashlight that controls the brightness and functions.
- Many cheap/low-quality flashlights have horrible user interfaces and the outputs are not programmable.
A user interface normally consists of different brightness modes, including a Low, medium and high output.
- Many of these lack a mode-memory, or even worse, they have the horrendous NEXT-MODE memory. (Which means that the next time you switch on the flashlight, it is in the Next mode from which you turned it off.)
- Most have no possibility to skip the Blinky modes (sos/beacon/strobe). So if you go from low to high, you have to go through SOS and Strobe before returning to low again.
More expensive flashlights have better-grouped modes and often have a dedicated User Interface. In some cases, you can even modify the output of these modes with a programmable driver.
6 – Low frequency PWM
One of the things that even higher-end flashlight manufacturers had problems with in the past is PWM. PWM stands for Pulse-Width-Modulation. In laymen’s terms that means that the LED will switch on and off in a very rapid interval. Cheap drivers still have this noticeable flicker in them.
How to check for PWM?
- Set the flashlight in the Lowest mode possible. Hold it in your hands facing your eye, shake your hand and you’ll notice Dots of light instead of a solid line of light.
- Point the light at something that is fast-moving eg. a hand waving, a ceiling fan, or a shower.
- Point the light onto black fabric and you can actually ‘hear’ the PWM. This one is fun to do. Just make sure you don’t put it too close when it’s a powerful light.
7 – Common LED problems
In the last couple of years, we see more and more fake CREE LEDs. Since CREE is one of the major manufacturers of LEDs, other manufacturers started copying them. Well-known fake CREE leds are made by Latticebright. Check out the difference in this BLF thread.
Premium flashlight makers usually give the option to choose the LED color or tint. The very cheap flashlights usually have an angry purple or blue beam. This kind of beam color is unpleasant for most people. And in almost all cases, you don’t have the option to choose your preferred tint with cheap flashlights.
8 – The lack of a real Low-mode or a moon-mode.
Somehow it is rather difficult to make a useful Low mode for cheap without PWM. The cheaper flashlights usually have no proper Low mode or as we call them, moon-mode. The lowest modes start at about 10-20 lumens, which is for some people too bright for a low mode.
9 – Bad threads
Another thing you’ll notice with some of the cheaper lights is the threading of the tailcap/body done poorly. This happens especially with smaller AAA or AA flashlights. Because of their size, the manufacturers use thin threading, which feel gritty, and can sometimes result in cross-threading.
Cross threading means that the threads on the 2 flashlight parts get stuck because the threads cross. This shouldn’t happen with any higher-end flashlights.
10 – Thin aluminum MCPCBs
An MCPCB is also referred to as the LED Star or LED board. The board to which the LED is attached.
This board is meant to transfer the heat from the LED as quickly as possible. These boards were made of Aluminum. Only in the last 6 years or so, have flashlight makers started using Copper MCPCBs.
Thin aluminum boards like the one in the picture below are frequently found in cheap flashlights.
They can overheat the LED and break it. And even if it doesn’t break, it does likely reduce the output considerably.
11 – No Thermal paste/grease/adhesive underneath the MCPCB
The picture above shows a LED board without any thermal compound underneath. This means that the heat transferred from the LED board to the Pill is very limited. Cheap lights tend to have no, or too less thermal paste underneath them.
You can solve this by adding some Arctic Cooling MX-4, Arctic Silver 5, etc. These are also used for CPUs in desktop computers.
12 – No (good) heatsink
Especially with more powerful flashlights, this is a common problem.
You can see many $30 flashlight with multiple LEDs (sometimes even 10-15). They often lack a proper heatsink. The LED board sits on a very thin sheet of aluminum or only touches the walls of the body to transfer the heat.
A proper heatsink is meant to draw the heat away from the LEDs so that they can stay as cool as possible and produce more lumens. When an LED heats up, it produces less output!
When a LED board (led star) heats up, the heatsink is designed to absorb and disperse excess heat away from the LED.
13 – Too thin electrical wires
With powerful flashlights, batteries need to provide a lot of current to the LED. Wires are connecting the LED to the Driver board.
These wires should be copper, and thick. Especially when you go over 2000 lumens, the thickness of wires should be adequate.
Most cheap flashlights come with AWG 28 wires, that are too thin to provide the required current to the LED. AWG 22 is enough for most 2000-3000 lumens lights. For the most powerful flashlights (10,000+ lumens), you need something between AWG16-18.
14 – No spare parts available
What happens when your cheap flashlight breaks? Do you throw it away? Or do you want to repair it?
Well, in some cases, spare parts (if they even have them) may not even fit. Because there have been so many variations of that particular flashlight, that most of them don’t share the same parts.
When you have a more expensive flashlight, you should be able to get spare parts from the manufacturer. And if they don’t have the parts anymore, they are likely willing to get you another flashlight or fix the light for you.
15 – Nothing but Aluminum
Almost all cheap flashlights are made of aluminum (or worse: plastic).
Higher-end flashlight brands often sell flashlights made of different materials, including brass, copper, titanium, etc. These are often limited editions.
16 – No proper packaging and accessories
Premium flashlights often come with nice boxes, a manual and some spare parts, like a rubber boot, o-rings, or lanyard.
Cheap lights usually come in plain boxes without accessories. And sometimes they don’t even include a manual or warranty card.
17 – No collectors value / no special editions
No, you don’t need to collect flashlights, but if you do, it’s better if they keep, or increase their value.
Cheap flashlights don’t really have any collector’s value…. usually.
They also never have special editions, because….. you know why.
18 – Ridiculous Lumen claims
1000 lumens from an AA battery is still impossible.
The most powerful premium lights that run off AA batteries can ‘barely’ reach 500 lumens, like Zebralight SW5. So a cheap flashlight claiming 1000 lumens of an AA battery is impossible.
The most powerful single cell flashlights, can do about 13,000 lumens, but they aren’t cheap. So anything that is cheap and says 3000+ lumens is simply a lie. Also, look in the picture below, you can see Cree XM-L Q5.. that LED never existed :–)
19 – Dangerous batteries + chargers included in the package
This one should probably be on the top of this list.
If you search eBay for “Flashlight with battery charger”, you can find hundreds or thousands of sets. The included batteries are very dangerous, and often include ridiculous claims!
Buyer, please beware!
Please educate yourself before buying lithium-powered flashlights. On CPF you can read a lot about these dangers: http://www.candlepowerforums.com/vb/forumdisplay.php?107-Smoke-and-Fire-Hot-Cells-and-Close-Calls-The-dangerous-side-of-batteries
20 – There is no quality control
You order 2 of the same lights, and 1 of them is DOA. (dead on arrival). Of course, this can happen, but in most cases, that light wasn’t tested before sending.
Other problems that come up regularly are problems with the UI, switch or even a flicker in the light.
21 – No warranty
In the previous example, it would be fair to send the torch back and get it replaced or repaired within the appointed warranty. This can even happen with more ‘premium brands’. Because who knows what happened during transport.
But more often than not, there is no warranty for cheap flashlights. The only warranty you get is from the seller.
22 – No Return Policy
This probably falls into the category ‘Warranty’ but a return policy just doesn’t exist for cheap flashlights that are not made by a real brand. Do you have problems and want to send it back? Uhm…where, how, who pays?
When you buy locally, you can just return it to the store, and they will take care of the rest.
23 – No Customer Service:
Good afternoon sir, how can I help you? Well, I have a problem with my flashlight, when I want to change modes, the light stops working. Well, sir, this is Customer Service.
A real brand has a website, a brand name, postal address, e-mail address. Cheap junk brands like superbright, superfire, andyfire, ohmyfire, ohmypantsareonfire don’t have any website, or contact details and no customer service.
24 – No official Brand name
If you ever browsed eBay or Aliexpress for a flashlight you probably have come across some funny ‘brands’. Like Police, Ultrafire, quickfire, subwayfire, pantsonfire. Those are no brands! Just some names stamped on a piece of aluminum.
No money for an ‘expensive flashlight’ above $50?
Choose the best bang for your buck!
I prefer to call them Budget lights, to distinguish them from the “Cheap” ones because they provide some serious bang for your buck. Check out our overview with Best Cheap Flashlights.