Choosing the Best Portable Lights

Thanks to LEDs, flashlights have never been better. They’re brighter, smaller and more durable, and batteries last much longer. This enhanced performance means you have even more choices of types and features.

If you are considering some new lights for yourself or as holiday gifts (everyone can use more than one portable light), here are some useful guidelines. Once you’ve determined your priorities, you’ll need to understand basic performance standards for flashlights so you can compare products (see “Understanding FL1 Icons,” below). Note: There’s a lot to think about besides lumens.

What's Your Type?
Battery-powered lights come in several configurations: Cordless tool accessories, tactical flashlights, dedicated work lights, headlamps, emergency area lights (lanterns) and even wrist lights and illuminating glasses. Each shines in its own way.

Start by picking up the LED light that works with your cordless tool batteries to make even better use of those expensive rechargeable packs. I received a 12-volt Ridgid compact drill/driver and LED flashlight combo last Christmas and have used the flashlight as often as the drill. This fall Milwaukee introduced the M18 Spotlight, which works with its 18-volt system. The company says it produces 30 percent more light than a 250-watt halogen light and generates only about 20 percent of the heat (100 degrees instead of 500 degrees).


Coast’s HP7R flashlight offers flexibility and performance in a compact size. It runs on rechargeable Li-Ion packs or four AAA alkaline batteries. The Flex Charge System allows charging from an AC receptacle, DC vehicle power outlet or USB port.

Next, choose a good tactical/high-performance flashlight. These are compact, rugged and invaluable for DIY task lighting, searching for items, personal security, power outages, outdoor activities and roadside emergencies.

Many do-it-yourselfers consider their tactical torches essential items to carry with them like a pocketknife or compact multitool. (As long as you don’t pack spare batteries in your checked bag, TSA agents won’t snatch the light away at airports.) If you want a daily-carry flashlight, it will need to be fairly small and lightweight enough to fit in a pocket. (A larger light in a nylon belt sheath may be a bit much if you work in an office.) If you can carry your flashlight in a toolbox, vehicle, briefcase, purse or jacket, you have more choices.

Another option that you might overlook, an LED headlamp, comes in handy for a variety of tasks. It will shine light wherever you look while leaving both hands free, whether you’re picking up after the dog on an evening walk or fixing a plumbing leak in a cramped cabinet. Some headlamps are fixed and have a single LED and beam setting. Others tilt, feature multiple LEDs for longer range, high/low brightness options and spot/flood focusing.


Streamlight’s new anodized-aluminum ProTac HL Headlamp combines light weight, comfort, performance and versatility. The multifunction pushbutton switch and Ten-Tap programming let you choose from three brightness levels.

Finally, consider completing your collection with an emergency area light. These units are perfect for camping and filling rooms with ambient light during power outages, and unlike old-fashioned lanterns, they don’t use volatile fuels, have fragile components or generate dangerously high heat. Some even offer a power port for recharging a phone.

Versatility
Depending on the situation, you may need enough light to read up close, illuminate small far-off objects, establish a broad field of view or attract attention to summon help. You may need intense light for a relatively short time or be willing to settle for less light that lasts much longer.

Lights with focusable beams and high/low brightness options are most versatile. To operate these lights, you slide or twist the head to make the beam narrow and intense (spot) or broad and even (flood). You can use the low setting for reading or for extended runtime during a power outage and switch to the strobe setting for an emergency locator beacon. A low-power red light is ideal for low-light reading that will not compromise night vision.

Coast’s new HP7R Rechargeable Flashlight is the ultimate example of high performance and extraordinary flexibility. It comes with two 2.7-volt lithium battery packs that can be recharged from an AC receptacle, a 12-volt vehicle power outlet or a USB port. It also has high/low/strobe modes, and the beam focuses from a broad floodlight to a narrow spotlight. The HP7R is only 6 in. long. It can be carried upright in a belt sheath or horizontally in a belt clip, hung from a wrist lanyard or snapped into a wall/car mount.


Milwaukee’s new M12 LED Stick Light contains three LEDs that produce 220 lumens. It features a replaceable, impact-resistant lens and stainless steel hanger and can be fitted with an accessory magnet for mounting on steel surfaces.

Power
Although most portable LED lights are powered by batteries, they use different sizes and numbers of cells. Some rely on readily available alkaline batteries, whereas others run on rechargeable Li-Ion cells or offer both battery options. Disposable batteries are good for extended power outages and when you are away from a charger or AC power.

If compact size and low weight are your priorities, opt for a light with less run time and plan to replace or recharge the batteries more frequently.


The EAL20 is Coast’s most powerful and longest-lasting emergency area light. The lantern is powered by four D-cell alkaline batteries. The smart switch features a built-in battery-life indicator.

Ergonomics
Flashlight bodies may be aluminum or plastic and either smooth or nonslip. Many tubular models have a flat side or lanyard bump so they don’t roll. Auto mechanics prefer knurled metal surfaces because they withstand chemicals and are easier to keep clean. Nonslip lights are handy in wet conditions.

Switch position and style are important for one-handed operation. The thumb of your holding hand is enough to operate a back-mounted button switch or a sliding-head beam focus. Twist switches usually require two hands, one to hold the flashlight body and another to rotate the head.

If you’re shopping for a powerful headlamp, keep in mind that units with batteries mounted on the back of the band rather than at the light tend to be more balanced and comfortable.

Illumination
The most basic question when choosing a light is whether it will be bright enough at the distance you need to see. The quality of the optics (lens, reflector and focusing mechanism) is every bit as important as the lumen output. Lumens are a measure of the maximum amount of light the LED can produce based on factors such as the size, quantity and quality of the circuit board and controller. However, the efficiency of the optics determines how well that light is projected. A high-quality, lower-lumen flashlight can achieve greater range and intensity than a lower-quality higher-lumen product.


Understanding FL1 Icons


Bonus Video: