I suspect that the only interaction most of our UK readers have had with LED flashlights are those horrible, horrible things they seem to stock at Halfords or B&Q. They also seem to spring up on garage forecourts, camping and outdoor equipment stores and in bargain shops. You know the ones, they have so many LED's onboard they look like somebody has stuck bubble-wrap on the end. That they still manage to give out less light than a geriatric firefly after a long night shift is probably why there seems to be so little appetite for LED lighting over here in Blighty.
Did you know that behind the scenes there's a whole LED revolution going on? Did you also know that for little or no more than the price of a regular flashlight you can get one that's brighter, whiter and last many times longer than even the best incandescent based hand torch? Well you can.
What's more these aren't bloated devices festooned in dozens of LED's. Most feature a single LED with usually one or four dies , and if you want to blast through the 1000 Lumens barrier you can get some models with three LED's up front though rarely more than this. They're usually machined from aluminium alloy, hard anodized for looks and durability then, and this is the bit that puzzles me, they appear on eBay or on one the many "specialist" flashlight retailer websites. Quite why they're struggling to become more mainstream and find their place on high street shelves really rather puzzles me.
Once you've crossed over into the murky underworld of LED flashlights you actually realise that there's no black magic or Voodoo involved at all. Sure, there are groups of very experienced enthusiasts who know way too much about what makes an LED tick, and if you really want to get into understanding throw, spill, colour temperature, thermal efficiency or how to drive your LED to within an inch of a full thermal runaway then there are lots of fantastic websites resources that can help you with all that. Sites like CandlePowerForums to name but one.
That however is not the route of this review. I'm not here to baffle you (and possibly myself) with amps and volts and reflow soldering, I simply want to share with you the exciting and rapidly evolving world of LED's.
Of course we're all familiar with the LED. There can't be many people reading this who haven't had dealings of one sort or another with the humble light emitting diode, particularly their increasing use in the PC case market and the ever increasing love for the blue variety. Though very bright for the energy they consumed early LED's were great for decorative use but not really powerful enough for day to day lighting applications. As brightness levels went up and price levels fell with equal vigour to the point they became viable, so a whole herd of cheap, generic flashlight manufacturers began to jump on the bandwagon following the lead of early pioneers like Olight and Fenix.
Naturally these dime-a-dozen lights were of questionable quality but also tended to be fairly bright for the money as, unlike a prestige brand with a reputation to defend and a returns department they'd prefer remained unmanned, these companies could generate a buzz by driving their LED hard and sod the consequences if it blows. I'm a sucker for a tortured light cannon capable of frying an egg at 100 metres but after you get through that phase you start to yearn for something more. It's a bit like that watch you buy with a built in calculator and 100 name database that speaks the time in seventeen languages and picks up time signals from Frankfurt. It may consume your every waking moment for the first week but as you grow bored (or maybe it's as you grow older?) you start to want the simple beauty and precision engineering of a Tag-Heuer. Well today I'm looking at what I hope will be the Tag Heuer of the LED flashlight genre. It isn't the brightest or the biggest or the cheapest or the fanciest.....so why all the fuss?
With so many cheap and sometimes nasty flashlights on the market I can't imagine it's hard to stand out from the crowd for your quality provided you can get yourself noticed. Becoming known for combining quality with innovation and customer service however is an entirely more difficult game when just about everything that can be done with a flashlight has already been done. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well.
Just as CPU's are speed binned so LED's are binned for brightness and colour temperature (colour tint). The T6 is part of the Cree XM-L line and this is how the current X Lamps XM-L lineup stacks up in terms of their brightness. The four columns (left to right) show the brightness produced at different power levels. So a T2 driven at 1000mA (1 amp) would produce 275-303 Lumens (second column from the left). A T3 at the same power level would produce 303-330 Lumens and so on.
The U2 and U3 bins lead the way at present and altough there are U2 products available to buy the T6 is the current darling of the LED world for cost and colour tint.
So we know we're getting the best of the current crop of diodes from Sunwayman what about the flashlight itself? I own probably a dozen LED flashlights, mostly cheap(ish) units bought fuel my thirst for ever brighter output but luckily none have had any major reliability issues. Some needed the threads cleaning up to remove the gritty feel of filings left behind from the cutting process, others needed grease applying to keep the "O" rings in serviceable condition but I always considered them perfectly acceptable for build quality....until now.
One word you may have noticed cropping up repeatedly throughout this review is the word "Tactical". It seems that despite the liberal use of the word there's no minimum specification that a light must meet before it can call itself a tactical light. In fact, any feature that may be useful in a tactical situation qualifies, and therefore any light with a functioning light source and a charged battery is tactical in that being able to see where you're going in the dark is undoubtedly a tactical asset.
It's not the brightest you can buy nor is it the most bling but it tries to strike the perfect balance in all areas and for the most part it succeeds. It sacrifices a little brightness for great running times. It sacrifices a little size and weight for great portability, it sacrifices a little bit of throw for a nice slice of usable flood and it does all this for under £63 (price sourced from Sunwayman) at the time of this review. It's quality coating, optics and reflector and the attention to detail with anodized square-cut threads, waterproofing to 2 metres, exceptional machining, quality regulation with no visible flicker and innovative magnetic control ring should be enough to get this on any discerning buyer's short list and over a relatively short period of time it has become my favourite light and a regular companion on dark nights.
- CREE XM-L T6 LED, with a lifetime of up to 50,000 hours;
- Digital Sensor Magnetic Control system - slightly twist the Rotator Ring from left to right to select desired mode from super-low current standby, output ranging from 0.5 to 438 lumens, to strobe function:
Max: 438 Lumens (2hrs)
Min: 0.5 Lumen (120hrs)
Strobe: 438 Lumens
- Standby current is 50 µA when the light is at OFF mode
- Constant current circuit, constant output
- Effective range of 300 meters
- Uses two 3V CR123A batteries or one single 18650 battery
- Working voltage: 3~8.4V
- High quality reflector maintains great throw distance and spread with an ideal beam pattern
- Dimensions: 134mm (length) x 32mm (head diameter) x 25.5mm (tail diameter)
- Weight: 120g(battery excluded)
- Aerospace-grade aluminium alloy
- Military Specification Type III- hard anodized body
- Waterproof, in accordance with IPX-8 standard
- Ultra-clear tempered glass lens resists scratches and impacts
- Tactical forward click switch with momentary on
- Tail stand capable- can be used as a candle
- Accessories: Metal tactical ring, lanyard, holster, O-ring, rubber cap
The V20C is very much a notch above the lights I currently own in terms of fit and finish. One thing I like is that unlike the vast majority of lights the anodizing isn't black, it's more of a titanium or gunmetal colour (natural) and it really does look the business. As is comon Sunwayman opt for type III anodizing which simply means the coating exceeds 25 µm in thickness and uses Sulfuric acid in the process. Both the standard of the machining and knurling and the subsequent anodizing process are carried out to an incredibly high standard on all the Sunwayman lights I've seen and the V20C is no exception. The lines are clean and well defined and knurling is deep enough without being too open and aggressive.
Sunwayman also make tripod heads, rails and other precision photographic equipment under the brand Sunwayfoto and having bought and used one of these a year or so ago it's clear that they've invested in some precision tooling and are busy putting it to good use. Forget the notion that China can only do high volume low quality, this is a quality piece of kit.
The box contents are certainly comprehensive and if the spare set of "O" rings and quality Sunwayman branded holster don't win you over then perhaps the "free" R01A keychain light will. If Sunwayman are looking for value added box contents then for me a tiny sachet of silicone grease would find favour. I know that many users regularly use petroleum jelly to lubricate the "O" rings with no negative effects but a quality silicone grease is the chosen route if you're to do the job properly and it's something very few of us would have kicking around the house.
As you can see, the V20C is by no means a big light. here's how it compares to the R01A and its AAA cell.
· Nichia LED, with a lifetime of up to 50,000 hours
· One mode of 10 Lumens output
· 21hrs working time (11hrs sun mode and 10hrs moon mode)
· Constant current circuit, constant output
· Reverse battery protection design
· Uses 1x 1.5v AAA (NiMH, Alkaline, Lithium) batteries
· Working voltage: 0.9v - 4.2v
· High quality reflector with soft beam pattern
· Dimensions: 70mm x 14mm
· Weight: 13g(battery excluded)
· Aerospace-grade aluminium alloy
· Military Specification Type III- hard anodized body
· Waterproof, in accordance with IPX-8 standard
The R01A is a simple but still very well engineered mini light that operates off a single AAA battery and offers ample light to find that sweet you dropped under the desk or the door lock after a night out. That oddly shaped tail end means it won't tail stand but that's hardly a deal breaker for this type of device. It operates by tightening and slackening the head to switch on and off and offers a single mode 10 Lumens output with a beam almost as blue as my video collection.
It shares an Ipx rating with the V20C which means it can at minimum withstand being submerged in water by over a meter rather than just being splash-proof. It's usual for the manufacturer to set the extent of their ipX-8 protection and Sunwayman have a symbol on the main box showing a safe submersion depth of 2 metres with no time limit specified for the V20C so I assume the same applies for the R01A.The supplied lanyard is of genuinely admirable quality for a flashlight at this price and it can be attached to the tail cap or to the removable anti-roll tactical bezel.
As is now de rigeur there's a forward clicker on the tail cap which acts as the master power switch but, as we'll see in a moment, this isn't the only control on offer. The clicker has a momentary action (a gentle half press illuminates the LED without having to click it fully to the "on" position) and this is one of the features considered important for tactical use. Two cut away recesses in the tail cap make clicker activation comfortable while still allowing it to be stood on its tail-cap for hands-free use, yet another tactical feature. A nice touch is that the light can tail stand even if you have the lanyard attached to the tail cap.
It's often the little touches that win favour with me and to see the Sunwayman logo on the clicky cover when so many manufacturers use plain old generic covers available anywhere for almost no money scores a point or two. Should the cover be of the often used "glow in the dark" variety? I don't believe so, this is a gimmick I've never found especially useful but perhaps the right situation has never presented itself?
Up at the business end is of course the LED but of vital importance when it comes to how far the beam travels and how smooth the beam pattern appears is the reflector. The V20C has an OP (Orange Peel) reflector which is used to even out imperfections but in this case it boasts very fine texture which combines the benefits of both smooth and OP reflectors. In testing the beam pattern was as good as I've seen with minimal ringing and no obvious artefacts. Being relatively deep the reflector helps to give the beam a little extra throw (distance) but it's by no means a long thrower. In fact for me it sits beautifully between throw and flood making it suitable for a wide range of uses whether used mounted to a bike, a rifle or just out walking the dog.
The body of the light is quite heavy on text with branding on both sides, a hot surface warning on the head, some kind of serial/model number on the tail cap and markings for the control ring but the text is small and neat and I really don't have an issue with at all. I know some like their flashlights with a little less ink, but these always look a little like dime-a-dozen unbranded OEM units to me somehow.
With the tail-cap unscrewed there are two things that become clear. First is that the threads are square cut. Sunwayman actually claim it's a trapezoidal thread but it certainly looks square to my eye. So what? well, square threads are generally considered superior in such relatively low load scenarios in that they wear less and are generally more efficient. They're not used more often because they're slower and more difficult to cut. The threads have been anodised after being cut making for a very hard thread surface with a smoother feel and lower tendency to generate filings over time. The tail cap thread is also anodised post cutting so the surfaces very much glide against each other.
Incidentally the thread on the R01A also appears to be square cut which is a commendable touch.
The Variable Control Ring:
I mentioned earlier that unlike the vast majority of torches the tailcap clicky isn't the only control available. With a single switch it has been a battle for manufacturers to develop a UI that suits everyone. Some UIs memorise the mode last used and set it when you switch on, others reset when you switch off. Add to this a variety of attempts to set modes based on long presses or multiple presses and it all gets a bit muddled. Having to scroll through low power modes, strobes and SOS modes in order to get to where you want to be is a real turn off for some users and results in some refusing to even buy a torch is they see a strobe or SOS function available.
Man has relied on the rotary dial for decades on radios, cameras, amplifiers and more and for good reason. They're simple, easy to understand and infinitely adjustable. It's the most natural thing in the world to turn a dial to increase or decrease something and on a torch there can simply be no better control system.
The V20C features a magnetic control ring which means it sits externally with no mechanical connections to the inside of the barrel which might compromise its waterproof credentials. It also means you can't use it reliably anywhere near a reasonably powerful magnetic source.
Operation of the dial is very smooth yet remains firm enough to not be easily moved by accident. The arc of operation is around 45 degrees from off (standby) to the maximum setting then a further 30 degrees or so takes you to strobe mode making it easily and totally avoidable if you so desire.
I've heard complaints that 45 degrees is too short an arc from off to maximum but this allows you to set your brightness to any level you like with a single sweep of your thumb rather than having to lift off for a second sweep which for me is perfect.
If I was being churlish I'd complain that the operation isn't 100% consistent with a need to turn the dial approximately 20 degrees to light the LED on the way up while it stays lit all the way down to the off position on the way back down but it's really no big deal. This isn't a scientific instrument where I feel I should demand control to the nearest single Lumen, I'd expect to pay several times the asking price for something of that nature. The reality is that in general use rather than in the scrutiny of a review I never even notice and have never failed to find the exact light level I needed quickly and easily.
The "OFF" "MAX" and "STROBE" positions have a firm stop with a reassuring click to accompany it.
The dial operates using a visually linear system which means the dial position roughly equates to the brightness level that is visible. You can't achieve this by having half the voltage at the dial's half way position and three quarters of the voltage at the dial's three quarters position as the eye doesn't perceive light levels this way so to pull this off requires a little internal jiggery pokery that not all manufacturers bother with.
In standby mode (tail switch on but rotary dial set to off) the V20C consumes a very meagre 50µA and at its lowest setting the torch has a claimed output of around 0.5 Lumens.
What is a Lumen?
I did say this review wasn't going to get too technical and it's not but we need to understand that the Lumen isn't a measurement of how much light a point source produces (this is radiance) but is rather a measurement of how well it illuminates its surroundings. Lumens take into account light which radiates in all directions so although a 100 watt household bulb can create close to 2000 Lumens the light is radiated in all directions and some is event wasted.
LED's are directional in nature so the brightness is concentrated into a smaller wedge of light. This also means it's really difficult to make brightness comparisons between a flashlight and light sources you may already be familiar with or indeed to other lights with tighter or wider beams. Also bare in mind that a doubling of Lumens doesn't equate to a doubling of brightness. Confusing? Let's just say that an accurate and honest rating of over 200 Lumens is as bright as any hand torch you've probably owned unless you were rich enough to own a HID unit. Your average hand held torch probably generates around 100 Lumens as a rough guide.
You should also generally take a manufacturer's Lumen rating with a pinch of salt as some will claim figures that represent an LED's theoretical maximum while others just seem to pick out a random figure, usually at or above 1000 Lumens, then run with it. Remember those 5000watt PC speakers for £9.99? well, the same fantastical claims exist in the torch world too. The stated 438 Lumen rating for the V20C actually seems pretty much on the money to me as does the two hour runtime provided you've chosen to use a quality battery.
Speaking of batteries this is an area that clearly confuses most new users. In a nutshell many lower power lights can be run from one or more AA or AAA batteries while the more powerful units require something with a little more oomph. The most common rechargeable option is the 18650 Li-ion, a lithium-ion affair which resembles a large AA and is often found in laptops. In fact many of the budget 18650s for sale online are reclaimed laptop batteries that are almost certainly past their prime so investing in something a little better (Senybor, Panasonic etc.) makes perfect sense. Some lights allow the use of a pair of CR123A batteries in place of a single 18650 and that's the case for the V20C too. If you're taking the plunge and buying your first LED light then budget for a decent charger and a few batteries to go with it to get you started.
What is a "Tactical" flashlight?
I think there are a few features that probably stand out as offering a tactical advantage in certain situations so let's examine a few of them.
By being able to dazzle someone with a light press on the clicky means you can aim and illuminate more quickly and the absence of an audible click stops the enemy getting a more accurate lock on your location. Momentary operation allows rapid switching.
Crenelated Front Bezel:
More effective for striking and wounding an enemy in close combat. Head standing produces low levels of light radiation for reading documents while maintaining a low signature.
Lets you leave the light free-standing to free up both hands. Of primary use when searching indoors or as a beacon outdoors.
Low Minimum Light Setting:
Allows the user to keep a low detection signature while still producing enough light to navigate.
Helps secure your grip when used alongside a firearm and while manoeuvring.
Helps secure your grip in damp conditions or when palms are sweaty.
The light stays where you left it making location simple and reducing chance of detection as it falls to the floor.
Though avidly disliked by many LED flashlight fans, the strobe has a very real tactical use. Rapid, bright flashes from the LED overload the suspect's visual system and temporarily disorient them making it easier to approach or escape.
Strobe can also be used as a locating beacon as it uses around half the power of a constant beam and therefore operates for longer on remaining charge. Strobe used with momentary operation in bursts can produce an easily seen high intensity beam for many hours.
In the cupboard under my stairs is an old, gaudy yellow plastic 1 million candle power hand held spot lamp. I bought it for its output but rarely use it because it lasts about 15 minutes on a full charge and shouldn't be used for more than a minute or two continuously as it overheats. The V20C offers near identical output, fits in my pocket, can be used continuously, is waterproof, can take a battering and lasts the best part of two hours between charges on high. It shouldn't be the first choice for those who buy with a view to modding as it's not very convenient to disassemble. It is however a beautifully made light for those who like a quality gadget or for those who simply want a terrific torch, and let's face it that's its job description.
Huge thanks to Steve at Sunwayman for providing the review sample.
We're always looking for ways to make our reviews fairer. A Right To Reply (as started by us back in 2004) gives the manufacturer or supplier of the product being reviewed a chance to make public comments on what we've said. They can explain perhaps why they've done the things we were unhappy with or blow their own trumpet over the things we loved. It's easy for us to pick a product apart but sometimes things are done a certain way for very specific reasons.
Should Sunwayman decide to exercise their "Right To Reply", we'll publish their comments verbatim below.