Review: Budget Flashlights (Solarforce L2T, Ultrafire WF-501B) and Batteries

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.

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