This will be one of many reviews to come (a new feature on this site since I installed the CMS). I let things wait for a very long time before posting the results you’ll see in this article, and have given each one of these flashlights at least a year and many charges between, in which to prove themselves and establish a measure of quality.
First off, a quick photo:
I’m going to start out by noting that neither of these flashlights uses standard batteries. There is a new format called 18650 that’s been making the rounds for the vast majority of high performance and professional grade flashlights over the last several years. These cells are lithium-ion, normally with capacities in excess of two amp-hours (2000 mAh), and since they’re rechargeable you only need a small supply since they normally have a life cycle of about 500 to 1000 charges.
Should you choose to delve into this format, it’s a lot different from the everyday stuff you find at the hardware store. You’ll want to make sure your cells are from a reputable source and have a low-volt/over-volt protection circuit built in. I bought mine directly from Solarforce.
Second, the bulbs these flashlights take are nowhere near ordinary. All of them are high-flux white LED assemblies rated at 500 lumens or greater (Cree XM‑L U2 or Cree XM‑L T6). At the time of this writing, they are among the newest line of LED lamps coming out of China and easily outshine almost anything you can throw at them. It’s not unusual to see them sold in stores with an eye damage warning (don’t look down the beam at close range). The most common form factor they come in is known as the P60 Standard. Named for an older Surefire build specification that many manufacturers have emulated, this is the most popular and common design on the market.
The flashlight bodies themselves are very diverse, even among the two shown above in this picture. Both are three-piece designs, made from 6061T aluminum alloy, with good durability and excellent corrosion resistance. That’s where the similarities end, though.
I first bought the Solarforce L2T in 2011 to replace my aging Mag-Light, and so that I’d have a compact and reliable light for everyday carry. It’s lived up to these expectations many times over. I’ve taken it out in all kinds of weather conditions, including snow and rain. I’ve accidentally dropped it on concrete floors and roadways. Through all this, I’ve never had to replace a single part. The one thing that did come up was a slightly loose solder link on the outer spring of the LED bulb, and this was due to the fact it had been dropped so many times. Even after swapping that bulb out to my other light, I haven’t had any problems with it, and this is after a further year of service.
The other detail you’ll notice on my Solarforce is it’s equipped with stainless steel tips at the bezel and tailcap. These were a custom request and a durability consideration due to my usual activity level and the amount of use these lights see on a daily basis. It was well worth it! As an avid cyclist, I would advise my readers to opt for this feature as well, because it drastically reduces the damage your light will take if it’s dropped.
As far as machining and design go, the L2T’s alloy metal appears to have been properly heat treated at the factory (it doesn’t dent or gouge easily) and the anodizing finish is high quality. Newer lights may sometimes offer a milspec HA3 finish, this is an aluminum anodizing that’s even thicker and more durable. Still, after nearly two years in service, I have no complaints about the HA2 finish on mine. There are only very minimal signs of wear and no problems to speak of. Internally all the threads and machining are smooth, shiny, sturdy, and I likewise have no complaints or worries. Solarforce’s manufacturing strikes a remarkably high standard and balance between quality and price, so if you’re hunting for a professional grade light, they’re definitely worth checking out.
I also have no regrets in switching over to the new 18650 battery system. I went with the 4Sevens single-bay v3 charger, which reviewers have generally held in higher esteem than the rest due to its better power curve, multiple charge features, USB port, car plug option, and noted reliability. Generally speaking, with any rechargeable battery system you always want to find a good charger because it’s going to make or break your experience as far as the batteries’ life cycles and performance are concerned. I’ve been using mine for about two years without issue, have not seen any problems, and my batteries still hold about the same amount of charge as when I started out.
The cells I’m using are Solarforce S18650P V2’s and V3’s. The V2 was rated for 2400 mAh, while the current model V3 is rated at 2600 mAh. So far, they’ve performed admirably in all weather conditions and temperatures and I have no issue passing along my recommendation to others. If you’re making your first forays into 18650 battery systems, resist the temptation to buy cheap junk from eBay and go with these instead. This cell model is very easy on price and delivers as advertised.
The Ultrafire flashlight was something I bought from eBay as a general knock-around cycling light. Here I wanted something with a bright beam that I wouldn’t miss too much should it ever get stolen or broken. After perusing forums and review sites, I finally settled on the WF-501B because it’s a P60 light and many sellers are offering the bare bodies at ridiculously low prices. This one went for about $10!
I was very pleased when it came in the mail and I got a chance to inspect the fittings and machining. Everything goes together properly and feels very solid and smooth. There’s a spacer between battery and bulb on this model so you’ll want to make sure you use batteries that have a bump on the positive (+) side.
The material used to make the Ultrafire is advertised as 6061T alloy, but after the few drops onto concrete and other surfaces this one has experienced, I’d wager it’s not heat-treated as well as the Solarforce body as the metal on this one is noticeably softer and more easily damaged. Several dings on the bezel stand as testament to this. The anodizing finish appears to be HA2, and it’s held up very well over time (no complaints or issues there).
In terms of performance, I’m using Solarforce Cree XM‑L bulb heads in both flashlights. The Ultrafire has a T6 and the Solarforce has a U2; both of these are cold white in colour and give a roughly similar level of illumination (noted as 500 to 880 lumens on paper). The beam is like that of a floodlight, with a wide and very even hotspot in the middle, both good features for anyone who’s regularly on the road at night. Total arc of visibility (range others can see the beam ahead) is approximately sixty degrees, again a nice balance if you’re looking for both visibility and being able to light up objects in front of you.
Total runtime per battery is sixty to eighty minutes, which is to be expected for the amount of current this LED draws. To give one example for comparison, the output of either of these lights is like that of a fifty watt halogen reflector bulb, only much whiter and more consistent. Also to be expected, these lights normally heat up quite a bit in extended use, so if you’re mounting them to a fixed point it’s something to take into consideration.
In summary, the bulbs, batteries and lights of the 18650 system are a worthwhile investment that will save huge amounts of money due to the fact the batteries are rechargeable, and also provide tons of useful light and keep you visible in situations where high performance is needed. They’ll more than replace your old D cell flashlights, and since lithium-ion keeps around 80% of its charge after a year in storage, they’re an excellent standby or everyday companion.