Flashlight Buying Guide

 

What the best flashlight has

  • LED bulbs. LEDs are far brighter and consume less battery power than incandescent bulbs, with no burned-out bulbs to replace. All of our top flashlight picks use LEDs that produce an attractive, white light (not the cheap, bluish glare you'll endure from some LEDs).
  • Bright, useful light. The best flashlights easily adjust from soft to bright and/or narrow to wide-beam, to suit the task at hand.
  • Long-lasting power. This is where so many flashlights fail: They shine brilliantly for a few minutes, then weaken and die. The best flashlights can blast their brightest light for at least a few hours on a fresh set of batteries (or a full charge). 
  • Ease of use. When you're fumbling in the dark, you need a grab-and-go flashlight -- not fiddly controls, or a separate rechargeable battery that you have to find and insert (the best rechargeable flashlights charge fully assembled).
  • Durability. We found a time-tested, nearly unbreakable flashlight for $20, and even a $9 mini flashlight that owners say lasts for years. There's really no reason to put up with a flimsy flashlight.
  • Strong warranty. Even in the $20 range, the best flashlights carry a lifetime warranty.
  • Reasonable price. You can find $100-plus flashlights, but our $30 top pick gets better reviews.

Know before you go

Size matters. Traditional full-size flashlights, like the top-rated MagLite LED 3-Cell D ST3D016 (Est. $30), offer certain advantages. They throw the widest beams (you'll be able to flood your whole backyard with light) as well as the longest beams (more than a quarter-mile, with the MagLite 3-Cell). They're big enough to swallow long-life D-cell batteries or hefty rechargeable cells, so you won't be constantly replacing the batteries or recharging them.

Small flashlights can be mighty, too. Thanks to today's ultra-bright, ultra-efficient LEDs, even tiny flashlights can shine blindingly bright. They can be just as rugged as full-size flashlights (or even more so).

Batteries or rechargeable? Traditional replaceable-battery flashlights have one major advantage: no recharge time. If your batteries die, you can just slip in a fresh set and get back to work.

But how often do you use your flashlight, on high, for four hours straight? That's how long our top rechargeable flashlight pick can go on a charge. Even our $9 cheap rechargeable pick lasts 3.5 hours on High, and both last far longer on Low.

Rechargeable flashlights are mighty convenient. You can keep them on their wall or car charger, so they're always charged up -- and you always know where they are -- when you need them. They shine just as brightly as regular flashlights. Plus, you'll never have to buy batteries. Police departments tend to prefer rechargeable MagLite MagCharger flashlights for these reasons. However, you'll still want to keep a standard battery flashlight on hand in case of an emergency -- most notably an extended power outage.

More lumens aren't necessarily better. Some flashlights promise outrageously high lumens (light output) -- but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll actually look brighter to your eye. Also, mega-lumen flashlights tend to gobble their batteries (sometimes in just minutes), leaving you with a weak or dead flashlight.

Do you need a tactical flashlight? Tactical flashlights are trendy right now. Originally designed for military use, these rugged, palm-sized flashlights shine super-bright, focused beams that can temporarily blind an enemy. Some have toothed rims that turn them into dangerous striking weapons. However, they're also expensive. If you really just want a small, sturdy, useful flashlight, the ultra-reliable, incredibly tough $20 Mini MagLite Pro (Est. $22) may be all you need.

Don't judge by price. We found that $100-plus flashlights are a total waste of money for the vast majority of people. They aren't tougher, brighter or more reliable than our top picks.

Do judge by brand. Very rarely is this true, but it works with flashlights. MagLite, Streamlight and Energizer make our top flashlight picks; we found that flashlights made by these brands earn consistently good reviews.

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