Expensive flashlight vs cheap flashlights
What to look out for when buying cheap flashlights.
Do you really want to know?
Okay, here we go. If you want to know what good affordable flashlights are, check out our "Best cheap flashlight overview"
First off, I need to generalize here a bit, because definitely not all 'cheap flashlights' are bad.
But here is a list with well known problems that I have come across in the last 10 years. Not all of them apply to every cheap flashlight of course.
1 - Inconsistency
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, SkyrRay King?). Back in the day, about 5 years ago, this was a popular bright budget flashlight with about 2000 lumens. Many people liked it a lot. Budgetlightforum was all over it, and I owned one too.
Well, image you liked the flashlight so much, that after 1 year you decided to buy one for your best friends' birthday.
Upon receiving the light you drop it like it's hot. It is the same size, but it looks cheaper, actually it looks nothing like the older flashlight. The quality is inconsistent. It's a copy of a copy.
2 - Subpar materials
You grab your Police light, hit the button, and it doesnt 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 B to repair.
Don't even think 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.
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 machine that is done on this light. 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 do cheap anodizing. Fortunately the anodizing doesn't fall off, but you can see that it's done cheaply.
5 - Functionality/ User interface (memory/blinkies) 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 you can't change the brightness options.
A user interface normally consists of a different brightness modes. A low, medium and a High.
- But many of these lack mode memory, or even worse, have NEXT-MODE memory. (Which means that the next time you turn on your light it is in the Next mode from which you turned it off.) And most have no possibility to skip the Blinky modes (sos/beacon/strobe).
- More expensive flashlights have better grouped modes and better thought through User Interface.
6 - 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 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 fast-moving. Hand waving, a ceiling fan, or shower.
- Point the light onto black fabric and you'll be able to 'hear' the PWM
7 - Problems with LED
The last couple of years we see more and more fake CREE leds. Since CREE is a manufacturer of LEDs, some manufacuters copied them and called them CREE. The well known fake CREE leds are made by Latticebright. Check out the difference in the BLF thread.
Premium flashlight makers usually give the option to choose the LED color or tint. The very cheap flashlights usually have Angry Purple or Blue beams. This is unpleasant for most people.
And in most instances you have no option to choose a tint.
8 - No real Low-mode / moonmode.
Somehow it is rather difficult to make a useful Low mode for cheap. The cheaper flashlights usually have a few modes without a proper Low mode or Moon-mode. Their lowest mode starts at about 10-20 lumens, which is for some people waaay too bright for the lowest mode.
9 - Bad threads
One thing that I noticed with some of the cheaper lights is that the threading of the tailcap/body is sometimes done cheaply. This happens with the smaller AAA or AA flashlights.
Because of their size they use thin threadings, which sometimes can result in cross-threading. Meaning that the threads actully cross. This usually doesn't happen with bigger 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 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
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 - Rediculous Lumens 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 Emisar D4, can do about 4000 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
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 - 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 really exist
If you ever browsed eBay or Aliexpress for flashlights you probably have come across some funny 'brands'. Like Polic, Ultrafire, mind your fire, subwayfire, patnsonfire. These are just no brands! Just some names stamped on a piece of aluminum.
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.