Are expensive flashlights worth it?
24 considerations before buying a cheap flashlight.
While some cheap flashlights are just plain dangerous, others are just not worth the money... and the trouble.
Okay, here we go. If you just want to know which flashlights are good and affordable, make sure to check out our "Best cheap flashlights overview"
First off, we 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 take the a look at the good old SkyRay King high powered flashlight as a prime example.
(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 2000 lumens output. Many people liked it. Budgetlightforum was all over it, and I owned one too.
If you wanted to buy another copy of the same light 1 year later from a different source, it would be highly likely to receive a completely different one. When a certain flashlight became 'hot', the copy cats would be all over it. The quality would decrease, and you would get a copy of a copy.
A real, more expensive flashlight would be the exact same even a couple of years later. It's even very likely that they upgraded their model with a newer LED or newer Driver board.
2 - Subpar materials
You grab your Police light, hit the button, 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 in the Behind to repair.
Please, don't even consider of trying to repair it!!! It's impossible. Forget about it!
Lenses can be made of plastic. In some very cheap lights the lenses are made of plastic instead of glas. The cheaper lenses also have NO coating, or aren't clear. When you are buying a real brand flashlight, you should at least get an ultra clear or coated lens.
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 it has artifects so the beam will be affected by it. Especially when you want a flashlight that can throw far.
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 knock off. And wasn't worth the $10 they asked for it. Look at the machining on this light, it's just plain horrible.
4 - Subpar Anodizing
Most flashlights are made out of aluminum. Except for a few that are made of Brass, Copper or Titanium. To make a bare aluminum look a little better is, by anodizing it. 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.
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 actually never 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 usually have a proper User Interface. In some cases you'll be able to 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 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
The last couple of years we see more and more fake CREE leds. Since CREE is one of the major manufacturer 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 to use for a longer period of time.
And in almost all cases, you don't have the option to choose your preferred tint.
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 a 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 threading
Another thing you'll notice with some of the cheaper lights is the threading of the tailcap/body done cheaply. This happens especially with the smaller AAA or AA flashlights. Because of their size, the manufcturers use thin threadings, that sometimes result in cross-threading. This means that the threads on the 2 separate parts get stuck becuase the threads cross. This doesn't happen with higher end lights that have wider threads.
10 - Thin aluminum MCPCBs
A 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 fast as possible. These stars were in the past Always made of Aluminum. Only in the last 4 years or so, flashlight makers started using Copper MCPCBs.
Thin aluminum boards like the one that can be seen in the picture below are frequently found in cheap flashlights.
Thin boards can overheat the LED and break it.
11 - No Thermal paste/grease/adhesive underneath the MCPCB
The picture above, shows a LED board without anything underneath. This means that the heat transferred from the LED board tot the Pill is limited. Cheap lights tend to have no, too less, or too much thermal paste underneath these.
You could solve this by applying it yourself with Arctic Cooling MX-4, Arctic Silver 5 etc. These are also used for CPUs in computers.
12 - No (good) heatsink
Especially with more powerful flashlights this is a common problem. I was referring to the SkyRay King as a prime example of a copy of a copy through the years.
The ones that are currently available for around $20 have with 5 or 8 LEDs lack a proper heatsink. They usually sit on a very thin sheet of aluminum or only touch the walls of the body to transfer the heat.
The heatsink is meant to draw the heat away from the Led Boards so that they can stay cool and produce the most lumens.
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 the batteries have to provide enough current to the LED. These wires are connecting the LED to the Driver board.
These wires should be thick. Especially when you want to go past 1000 lumens, the thickness of the wires should be enough.
Most cheap flashlights come with AWG 28 wires, which are too thin to provide enough current to the LED.
AWG 22 is enough for most 2000-3000 lumens lights.
For the most powerful flashlights you need something between AWG16-18.
14 - No spare parts available
What happens when your cheap SkyRay King breaks? Do you throw it away? Or do you repair it? Well, in some cases the spare parts (if they even have them) don't even fit. Because there have been so many variations that most of them don't share the same parts..
15 - Nothing but Aluminum
Almost all cheap flashlights are made of aluminum, and some even of plastic.
They never have premium materials like Brass, Copper, Titanium etc.
16 - No proper packaging and accessories
Premium lights usually come in nice boxes and with a manual and some spare parts, like a rubber boot, spare o-rings, and neckstrap.
Cheap lights usually come in a plain box without any accessories. No manual or warranty card, nothing.
17 - No collectors value / no special editions
No, you don't need to collect flashlights, but if you do, it would be better that they keep their value, or even increase their value.
Cheap flashlights usually have no collector's value.... usually.
In some cases they have because they were unique, and cheap. But those were usually cheaper flashlights with some history, unlike the millions on eBay.
They also never have special editions, because..... you know why.
18 - Ridiculous Lumen claims
1000 lumens from an AA flashlight is just impossible.
Or 10.000 lumens from a single cell flashlight is also impossible.
The most powerful premium lights that run off AA batteries can 'barely' reach 500 lumens, like Zebralight. So a cheap flashlight claiming 1000 lumens of an AA battery is just impossible.
The most powerful single cell flashlight, the Fireflies E07, can do about 5000 lumens. 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 never existed :--)
19 - Dangerous batteries + chargers included in the package
This one should probably on the top of this list.
If you search on eBay for Flashlight with charger, you can find hundreds or thousands of these sets.
Those batteries are very dangerous, and have rediculous 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 the same lights, and 1 of them is DOA. (dead on arrival). Of course this could have happened during shipment, but in most cases the light just hasn't been tested beforehand.
Another problem that comes up regularly that something else isn't working properly, like changing brightness or a dead switch.
21 - No warranty
In above example it would be fair to send the light back and get it replaced or repaired within the appointed warranty. This however is sometimes even with bigger flashlight manufacturers a problem.
But there is usually no warranty whatsoever for a cheap flashlight. The only warranty you get is from the seller.
22 - No Return Policy
This probably fall into the category 'Warranty' but a return policy just doesn't exist for cheap flashlights that are not made by a real brand. You have problems and want to send it back? Uhm...where, how, who pays?
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, Brand name, Post address, E-mail address. You simple just won't find any for superbright, superfire, ohmyfire, mypantsareonfire.
24 - 'Brand names' that dont exist
If you ever browsed eBay or Aliexpress for a flashlight you probably have come across some funny 'brands'. Like Police, Ultrafire, mind your fire, subwayfire, pantsonfire. These are just no real 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.