Flashlights span the range from simple, basic light sources to sophisticated high-tech gadgets -- with prices over an equally wide range -- making choosing a flashlight trickier than it used to be. Some LED flashlights are now bright enough to replace traditional incandescent flashlights, and the best flashlights even use microprocessors or voltage regulators to boost efficiency. Some flashlights let the owner adjust the light to different levels, and voltage regulators keep the light consistent, even while the batteries drain. At the other extreme, cheap LED flashlights use switches that can break early, as well as poor-quality LEDs that can produce inconsistent or just plain weird light.
Consumer Reports magazine hasn't yet tested flashlights. For a time, FlashlightReviews.com more than made up for this absence, however, with comparison charts and top-ranked flashlights based on objective tests. The comparison charts are especially helpful because they include quite a few well-known incandescent flashlights. This site also provides detailed single-product reviews, including photos showing the light beam at about three feet. However, the author announced that he has stopped updating the site as of June 2007. Thus, while what's there is still relatively up-to-date, that will change over time. Another flashlight-enthusiast site, CPFReviews.com, covers fewer brands and models, but otherwise does a similarly excellent job. Especially noteworthy is a useful rating of each flashlight's "bang for the buck."
These two sites, like several others we review, abound in technical data. Less formal owner-written reviews and ratings provide a good balance, often comparing the output of a specific LED flashlight to one of the well-known MagLite flashlights. Amazon.com not only provides the largest number of owner-written flashlight reviews, but also makes them easy to browse by showing each flashlight's average rating right on the list of models.
You can still buy an ordinary 2D incandescent flashlight for about a dollar. As long as you keep plenty of replacement bulbs and batteries handy -- and if such a flashlight provides light that's bright enough for your tasks -- there's no need to pay more. However, experts and owners agree that for reliable light in emergencies -- for example, for a flashlight to keep in your vehicle -- it's worth paying more. The best LED flashlights are virtually unbreakable, can withstand heavy rain or even a dunk in water, and use high-quality LED modules that last 50,000 to 100,000 hours. Furthermore, LED flashlights with voltage regulators keep the light consistently bright even as the batteries fade, then shift to a lower level so you have plenty of time to replace the batteries.
Not surprisingly, expert reviews warn that cheap LED flashlights use poor-quality LEDs. This means the beam may be off-center or a strange color, and the phosphor coating that makes the LED produce white light may wear off early. For a trip to the bathroom at night, it may not matter. For a travel or emergency flashlight, however, experts recommend a waterproof, shock-resistant flashlight built for durability.