Using your phone as an impromptu flashlight may work in a pinch. But if you spend enough time diving under desks, rummaging through supply closets and searching dimly-lit basements, you'll want to invest in a proper torch.
Today, LED lights are a lot more versatile than those D-battery-eating behemoths of yesteryear. Here's a look at four super-bright beams small enough to slip into a pair of jeans.
We tested four LED flashlights, each with a maximum output of about 200 lumens, powered by either a single AA or CR123A battery. For the batteries themselves, we used the Sanyo Eneloop 1.2V 1,900mAh AA, Duracell non-rechargeable AAs, the Tenergy 2.0V 900mAh Li-ion RCR123A, and the Surefire 3V non-rechargeable Lithium SF123A.
Since the Fenix can't take Li-ion and the Sunwayman gets a 200 Lumen boost from rechargeables, we first tested all the lights using the non-recharging cells, then swapped in the Li-ion to those that could accept it and repeated the testing. The Zebra Light was similarly double-tested with both the Eneloop and the standard Duracell AA's.
Our primary method of evaluation is a simple ceiling bounce test. We placed each light exactly three feet away from a matte white ceiling in a completely darkened room and turned it on. This allows us to not only evaluate the beam spread and relative intensities between flashlights. We also used each light to navigate a dark basement.
Last, we tested the lights' run times and relative operating temperatures by installing fresh cells, turning them on to their highest brightness settings, and waiting for the batteries to slowly die.
Fourth Place: Fenix PD22
The Fenix PD22 is the most affordable of the four lights we tested, retailing for nearly $10 less than its nearest competition. Unfortunately, this cut-rate price is reflected in the PD22's performance. With a max output of 200 lumens and a 2-hour, 10-minute run time at that setting, the PD22 still among the shortest lasting of the light we tested. It was also, by far, the hottest. Thirty minutes into the run down test, the Fenix was too hot to be held in a bare hand; 90 minutes in, and you could actually see heat rising from the unit.
The PD22's design is also somewhat limiting. Instead of an infinite dial control like the Sunwayman, or an integrated power/selector button like the SOG, the Fenix employs an end-cap power button. It sticks up just enough to prevent the PD22 from sitting upright. A side selector switch flips the output between four preset levels (and two flashing modes), often by accident. However, it does throw a focused beam over 300 feet and can last run for up to 97 hours on its lowest 8-lumen output (that's the setting least likely to brand your palm). It is also quite petite, which does allow the PD22 to be easily and discreetly tucked inside a pants pocket.
• Length: 3.5"
• Weight: 1.5 oz
• Battery Type: CR123A
• Max Lumens: 190
• Run Time: 2 Hours at 200 Lm (Turbo), to 97 Hours at 8 Lm (low)
• Price: $57 (MSRP)
• Gizrank: 3 stars
Third Place: SOG Dark Energy 214
The SOG Dark Energy 214 is sweet little light—bright and ruggedly-built—but the fetaures that make it so handy around a campsite hamstring it as a daily-carry torch.
The DE214 is the brightest of the lights we tested (when using standard batteries). With a maximum output of 214 lumens, the Dark Energy can quite literally light up a room or act as an impromptu spotlight, throwing its beam well over 250 feet. However, that unbridled luminescence also plows through battery power—it lasts just over two hours on its highest setting—and makes the light uncomfortably warm if left on for more than half that time. Only the Fenix PD22 got hotter.
Similarly, the aggressive styling and deeply checkered gripping, which help you keep hold of it through rain or snow or gloves, routinely tear the skin from uncovered knuckles when fishing for change. What's more, at nearly four inches long and weighing 3 ounces, the Dark Energy 214 is a noticeable, bulging addition to your pocket's contents—brace yourself for the onslaught of "or are you happy to see me?" jokes.
• Length: 3.8"
• Weight: 3.0 oz
• Battery Type:CR123A
• Max Lumens: 214
• Run Time: 80 minutes (high), 180 minutes (low)
• Price: $105 (MSRP)
• Gizrank: 3.5 stars
Second Place: Sunwayman V11R
The Sunwayman V11R came in a close second for this battlemodo, but it's still a solid four-star torch. Not only more compact than both the Fenix and the SOG, it is also far more powerful. Using normal CR123A batteries, the Sunwayman runs for just over two hours (2:13) and outputs 200 lumens. However, plugging a rechargeable Li-ion battery in and the V11R's output more than doubles to 500 lumens, if for only five minutes. Be warned though, just five minutes is more than enough time to get the V11R piping hot—not scaldingly so as with the two previous contenders, but still uncomfortable enough for you to find the house lights. It was also the shortest-running light we tested, even though 200 Lumens for 1 hour 50 minutes is impressive.
The V11R's lumen selection range is also superior to both the Fenix and SOG. Rather than dictating how much light is emitted using factory-preset toggles, the Sunwayman has an infinitely adjustable magnetic selector dial that twists to shine between 1 and 500 lumens. The V11R is also flexible, able to accept a standard CR123A or use a AA battery with the help of an adapter tube—that's handy when you're rummaging around your battery drawer and coming up with nothing but AA's.
• Length: 3.26"
• Weight: 1.62 oz
• Battery Type: CR123A or AA with adapter
• Max Lumens: 210 (500 with a RCR123A)
• Run Time: 5 Minutes at 500 Lm (Turbo), 1.9 Hours at 210 Lm (Max)
• Price: $75 (MSRP)
• Gizrank: 4 stars
Bestmodo! Zebralight H502 Headlamp
The H502 may look like the runt of the litter—smaller and lighter without the overbearing luminescence of the others—but this actually works to its advantage. Barely three inches long and 2.0 ounces, the H502 slips into a pocket or purse without notice. And thanks to its forward-facing optics, the H502 can also easily be worn on a belt, shirt collar, or headband as well.
As for stamina, the H502 outlasted both the Sunwayman and the Fenix during the run-down test—not bad for a standard AA battery. Its endurance at the lowest setting is even more impressive, staying on for more than two weeks with a 0.8 Lumen output. And even two hours into the run-down test, about the time the Fenix started to singe my workbench (almost), the H502 remained cool to the touch. It didn't slowly brownout like the SOG or begin strobing like the Sunwayman just before its battery failed.
The beam spread of the H502 is also very useful as a daily-carry light. While it doesn't tout the same beam distance of, say, the DE214, the H502 casts a more diffuse beam that evenly illuminates your path or work space without being blinding. And the fact that it runs on common AA batteries makes keeping the H502 charged as easy as ducking down to the corner store. At $69, it's not a bad deal, either.
• Length: 2.76"
• Weight: 2.0 oz
• Battery Type: Eneloop AA
• Max Lumens: 260
• Run Time: .9 Hours at 260 Lm (H1) to 16 days at .8 Lm
• Price: $69
• Gizrank: 4 stars