Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's only the best most of the time.
The Long Version: High-output LED lights have revolutionized flashlights, and in the past few years there's been a proliferation of mil-spec tactical lights that boast about being able to blind people at close distances. Fantastic. But what good is it to have a torch that can throw a ten-foot disk of light the length of a football field when I'm just trying to find a pair of shoes in the back of the closet? Being bright is over-rated.
The Zebralight is one of an emerging new design of flashlights with variable brightness levels, making them useful for more tasks than search and rescue. Their SC51 family are small flashlights that pull an amazing amount of light out of a single AA battery. Optimized for the new generation of slow-discharge NiMH batteries with exceptional shelf life, they'll run at high power for almost an hour. But if that's not right for the job, they have five other power levels, and the low settings let the light last for days. All of this is controlled by different clicks of its single button.
It's a little unusual to need instructions to work a flashlight, but the important thing to know is that a quick click of the button starts it on high power. Holding the button a little longer when turning the light on – the trick is to not over-think it – starts it at its lower power setting. Holding the button down longer, even when it's already on, makes the light cycle through its three main power settings – with two memorized outputs each – starting from the low position.
Physically, the Zebralight is a small light with an oversized heat-sink for a head, a removable pocket clip attached to a non-removable mount, and its anodized aluminum finish is a subtly greenish-grey colour. The heat-dispersing fins aren't exactly sharp, but they're simply machined straight into the head without any sort of rounded edges.
I already have a handfull of long-throw lights, so I picked the SC51Fw "Floody" design. This takes the beauty of a variable-output light even farther by giving it a frosted lens that gently diffuses its light across a wide beam with just a subtle hotspot. It's not a true flood with completely even output – Zebralight makes those in a headlamp style – but it really is much more, well, "floody" than a standard flashlights' beam. Maglight popularized the focusable beam that can throw a dimmer but wider hotspot, which hints at the utility of a flood beam, but the reality is much more effective and useful.
While it still throws a smoothly weighted cone of light, the Zebralight Floody has a beam that looks more like a portable desk lamp than a spotlight. Click on the "photo" link after the name of each flashlight to see larger comparison images taken with the same settings (40mm-e, 1/4s, iso800, f/2.8, daylight white balance) for the SC51Fw (photo), Pelican 7060 (review / photo), and Pelican 2410 (review / photo). The far corner of that scary underground room, which is roughly in the middle of the frame, is about forty feet from the camera.
It turns out that flashlight power is fairly tricky to measure. I created a rig that put the flashlight into a sealed box, with the lens a fixed distance from one end, and then used a photographic light meter to measure the light bouncing out from a hole on the opposite end. There are some problems with it; for one thing the box is wood, so the warm light of the Zebralight's warmish 'neutral' bulb will be bounced more efficiently than the cooler blues of the other LEDs. While my results were quite consistent and repeatable, other errors certainly could and undoubtedly have crept in. But it's as fair a system as I could devise for comparing a flood to a narrow beam, as the focusable Filzer I-Beam flashlight measured essentially identical output no matter what lens setting it used. The following chart uses the EV scale, so a difference of "1" indicates doubling or halving the light output and creates a noticeable difference in illumination. A difference of 2 is four times the output, three is eight times, and so on.
MEASURED POWER OUTPUT • LOWEST TO HIGHEST
Gerber Infinity Ultra – 5.2
Pelican 2410 Recoil – 7.1
Princeton Tec Amp 1.0 – 7.2
Filzer I-Beam X4 – 8.4w / 8.5t
Leatherman S2 Serac 6.6l / 9.0h
Pelican 7060 – 9.7
Zebralight SC51Fw – 10.4
While some of those results seem a little screwy – I never would have expected the "high" setting of the Leatherman S2 to rank so well – they're fairly indicative of each light's basic abilities. When I was in doubt I'd shine two lights against the nearby wall and see which one drowned out the other, and in each case I was satisfied with the results. But that doesn't mean that I'd pick the Leatherman over the LAPD-issue 7060 when exploring a dark alley. Remember that these numbers are close-distance measurements and I've tried to remove beam quality and pattern from the results.
(Quick bonus review: The Filzer X4 light runs on two AA batteries for eight hours, gives quite an impressive output, and has a focusable beam. It also costs half of what the Zebralight does. If you like the venerable 2xAA Maglite size, but want something much brighter with a tail switch, it's worth a serious look.)
The best lights for real-world use will vary depending on the beam style. As the previous sample photo links show, the Floody smoothly lights a vast volume at the expense of peak brightness and range. The Pelican 7060 throws a huge amount of light in a fairly limited direction, so I can bounce it off of a white celling and light up a small room. Testing under these conditions kept the order of the results unchanged except that it knocked the Floody down one spot to rank below the 7060, and it was noticeably easier to read the LCD display of the light meter with the big Pelican light. (The Filzer's variable beam on the wide setting also performed much less impressively than its tight beam setting, measuring one full EV darker.) Of course the bounce trick doesn't work as well if the room has a dark ceiling, and if I was really trying to light up a room with the Floody, then I'd just point it where I want to look.
I need to take a moment and point out how ridiculous it is that I'm even comparing this Zebralight to the two Pelican torches. The 2410 Recoil light takes four AA batteries, and the 7060 runs on a proprietary 3.7V 2200 mAh Lithium-Ion pack. Both pelican lights do have a longer burn time (1.5h for the 7060, 7h for the 2410) than the 50 minutes that the SC51Fw is rated for, but the Zebralight is doing it all on a single 1.2V rechargeable AA. It's also worth noting that the Floody-White LED version is the least powerful member of the SC51 family – their 'normal' model, with the clear lens and a bluish LED, is rated considerably brighter.
The flood pattern isn't perfect for everything, but at high power it's great for using at distances shorter than twenty feet, and good out to forty or fifty. Beyond that a more traditional pattern from a powerful light will be better. A less powerful light – which most hardware-store lights will be – won't give much more throw than the Floody, but with a considerably less useful spill pattern. The Floody actually has enough usable beam to let me use peripheral vision when I'm exploring a dark warehouse, so there are fewer scary haunted-house shadows shifting and jumping around.
In the city there's so much light around us all of the time that a flashlight needs to be bright just to be seen, which means that lower power levels aren't appreciated as much. But they are very handy to have when there's time to adapt to the lower light levels; even the brighter of the medium settings will run all night if you have no choice but to keep walking through the forest. Working at close quarters, like when changing a fuse or looking for shoes, the dimmer settings do make the Zebralight much more pleasant to use. It takes some practice to master the "slow click" that turns on the lowest power tier, but it's worth the effort because they're the second-most useful setting.
In fact, my biggest criticism of the Floody light is that its lowest low power setting is too bright to use with dark-adapted vision, or at least that I can't use it in the dark (such as an intercity bus at night or in a movie theatre) without it being obnoxious for the people around me. But then that's also true about the LCD on my phone. Its rated output of 0.3 lumens seems trivial, and sometimes I need to look at the lens to see if the light is on, but it's enough to read with at night and the battery will last for weeks.
The SC51 family is made in China, and ships directly from their facility there. Mine was posted promptly and then took a month to arrive, but at least worldwide shipping is included in the prices on their website. Currently selling at 64USD, they're more expensive than any of the lights that I compared it to except for the Pelican 2410 (tie) and Pelican 7060, which costs vastly more. But it's also the only one with the sophisticated controls that let it run at different power levels, has a regulator to keep a constant output, and throws far more light than a torch this size has any excuse for.
I have to admit that I'm smitten by both the Zebralight and the flood pattern. To have a single AA in a light that rivals some of my biggest, which are driven by four times the power, is astonishing. To have one light be bright enough to change a flat tire on a moonless night, and then dim enough to read a map in the passenger's seat without blinding the driver, is incredibly useful. If I could only have one flashlight – perish the thought! – the Zebralight Floody would be the one I would choose for most of the scenarios I could reasonably face. The times that need more brightness at a distance will still call for a light like the Pelican 7060, but that could conceivably be replaced by another pocket-sized single-AA Zebralight SC51. Amazing.
The only thing that has stopped me from ordering a second Zebralight is a little counterintuitive: the SC51Fw is so impressive that I'm likely to wait and see what they can come up with next. New LEDs have made a huge difference over just the past couple of years, and there's no reason why that's going to stop now. Until then I have my collection of other lights, but I'll keep reaching for my little Floody first.
last updated 16 apr 2011