My hope is that this will serve as jumping off point for people doing research on gear. I am trying to survey of all of the tools and lights available in 2011 that can paired together and purchased for $25 or less. The goals and "rules" for this series of commentaries can be found here. At $25 total for a flashlight and a tool you are making serious compromises. You will not get good materials. You will not get a lot of features. You will not get many of the things that people that like tools and gear care about. But I think it is still possible to pick up a light and tool around $12 a piece that are worth owning and carrying. I'd never rely on these things in crucial situations, but for everyday convenience, they will work. This is perfect for a back up, like in your car.
You can get a myriad of knives for about $12 a piece. San Ren Mu makes quite a few knives and some people like them a great deal. Many, if not all of them are under $40, and a good number are under $12, including the infamous Sebenza counterfeit. Keychain Pockets had a good review of two small and cheap SRM keychain knives, found here. They have even started using better steel, a Sandvik steel. The issue with SRM knives is that I just don't trust them. I don't trust the locks, the warranty (if there is one), and the design (most of which are stolen from other designers and companies). For a long time the logic behind purchasing an SRM knife was that there were no good cheap knives and none of the companies with a decent reputation offered anything in the SRM price range.
That has changed. Kershaw has a few good offerings, the Chill, the OD-2, and others. Boker has the Keycom and the Subcom, as well as the Trance, all of which are sub-$30. And Buck has one of my favorite cheap knives--the Vantage. But even these are more than our price range will allow. The Chill, as the cheapest of the real knives from a real company, is $16, squeezing out only $9 for the light. The Ka Bar Mini Dozier is a great little knife, around $15 (or a buck cheaper if you can tolerate a pink one). It has a clip. It also has BY FAR the nicest steel of the bunch, running AUS 8A in this current version.
But if you are willing to tolerate the loss of a lock, Spyderco offers an excellent blade for $13. The Grasshopper, the largest of the Bug line of blades, is a very nice and pocketable size, it has the Spyderhole, one handed opening. And it has a decent blade shape. The steel stinks. There is no clip. And, or course, there is no lock, but at this price your not going to get everything you want. Still, a blade this size and shape, from a legitimate company, and with the fabulous Spyderhole is too nice to pass up.
If you are a traditionalist or if you live in the high desert, Opinel offers quite a few knives at decent prices and, unlike all of the other tiny splinterpickers in this rundown, in a larger size. They have locks, too (the unique collar lock). They are not one handed opening knives, but they sport an amazing blade shape. There are two drawbacks, though, to these traditional blades: 1) no stainless steel; and 2) completely wood handles. Now on an axe or a shovel, a wood handle is fine, swelling due to moisture in the environment is natural, and it actually helps the tool function better, locking in the steel head. But in a knife, the wood handle can swell making it very difficult to open and close the knife. I have an Opinel as a camp cooking knife and it is great, but if you leave it out over night, even the dew will make the handle very hard to use. This also, obviously, impacts the steel but if you can deal with the moisture related issues the Opinel is a good choice--unique, traditional, and a time tested design.
As good as the Grasshopper is, though, it is not able to compete with surprisingly full featured knives from Spyderco's budget line, Byrd Knives. The keychain knife in the Byrd line up, the Finch is pretty outstanding. First, it comes with a lock, which very few decent knives have in this price range. It also has a finger choil, a la the Dragonfly or the Caly3. Finally, it is capable of one handed opening. All this for $13. The steel is not the greatest, 8CR13MOV, but it will do most of the time.
Recommendation: Byrd Finch
Average Street Price: $13.95 (Knifecenter)
NB: If I were truly in the market for a knife in this price range, I'd probably just go with the Ka Bar Mini Dozier. Even though it breaks the price barrier here, it is just a better knife, at least on paper, than the Finch. It has a clip, a time-tested shape, and a better steel.
In the tool category there were a lot of good competitors, but in the light category there are very few good options. Lights from DealExtreme represent the same level of quality as the SRM knives. I am sure there are a few good designs among the horde of aluminum tubes on various Chinese-based deal websites, but quality is always an issue. And why go to the bargain basement when you can get a few really good lights from more reputable brands? Unlike an SRM knife, I have owned a few DX lights and they have been, uniformly, junk. This goes for "Black Friday Lights," those flashlights on sale at Home Depot and Lowes near the cash register on Black Friday. Some places, like Ace, carry them all year round and they are terrible. Usually they are more useful as a battery holder than a light.
There are a few really good choices. Your not going to get 500 lumen screamers for $12.50 or less, but you can find usefully bright lights. I really like the original keychain light, the LRI Photon. I really like the Photon Micro-Light II. It hits around 12 lumens and runs for a decent length of time. I have found that the difference between the real Photon and the generic Fauxton comes in terms of peak output. The real Photon, especially my Micro II doesn't seem to dim as fast as the generic ones.
Other micro lights also hit the $12.50 or under price point. Both the Pico Light and the Nanostream from eGear and Streamlight, respectively, come in under the magic price point. Here is an excellent comparison of the two. I have owned the Nanostream and while it was both light and bright, it was an enormous pain in the ass to restock with batteries. First, it is uses four cells. If I hate multiple cells in my main EDC light, I am definitely not going to like them in a smaller light were the batteries are exceedingly difficult to manipulate. Second, it is difficult to install the cells. The eGear light gets around this with a battery cage, but again, its still fidgeting with a lot of small parts. The batteries are also difficult to find. You can order them online, but they are so small that they require a bulk order to justify the shipping, which means you might end up with 50 or a 100 of these little cells. And here is the last drawback to these lights, even with cheap finds, the batteries are more than the light. I found a set of button cells at Harbor Freight that contained the right kind of cells and even then it was more expensive than the light.
If you don't want a button cell light, then there are very few options from established companies. ITP, which is a budget line of Olight flashlights, has one $20 option, the A3 EOS, but none that hit the magic, sub $12.50 limit. The Fenix E01, a Fenix version of the venerable Arc AAA, does hit the magic number. At exactly $12.50 it is perfect for this little experiment. It has also received quite a few good reviews. It has an average of 4.5 stars on Amazon with a very large number of reviews, 108. Here is a light-reviews.com review. The light even has some modest current regulation allowing for relatively stable output for the first 11 hours. It is, roughly, the same brightness as the LRI Photon, but uses a common cell and has a bit more runtime, thanks to the regulation. There isn't really a lot out there that can compete with the E01 in terms of features. It has really HAIII anodizing. It has the aforementioned regulation. And it works on the keychain quite well.
Streamlight offers some cheap AAA pen lights, but they are more than the $12.50 price limit. They also use two AAA cells instead of one. And finally they have much shorter runtimes and only modestly increased output (20 lumens for 1.5 hours v. 12 lumens for 10 hours). In the end, these lights are just not good enough.
Recommendation: Fenix E01
Average Street Price: $12.50 (Lighthound)
Honorable Mention #1: I really like the LRI Photon in combination with the Gerber Shard. I suppose you could swap out the Shard for a Gerber Artifact, but I find that the Artifact is a bit clunky. Like most things Gerber, anytime you add a pivot or moving parts, the tool just gets junky.
Honorable Mention #2: Almost as if they were anticipating the $25 challenge, LRI paired their Micro II with a Leatherman Style for a whole lot of function for $26.95. I would say this is it, but I really like both the real and actual blade on the Finch and the common cell light the E01 represents.
There are a lot of cheap options out there and I don't mean to dismiss them all. It is just too hard to find the good ones by wasting a ton of money on the bad ones, especially when there are a lot of good cheap options from good companies. If you have any suggestions from the realms of SRM/DX, let me know. Simply by pure luck, like the monkey typing Shakespeare, maybe one of the crappy brands has struck gold with a particular design. That said, I think the Finch/E01 combo will serve you well if you have only a few bucks to spend. Also, the Spyderco website lists the FRN version of the Finch as discontinued but it is available literally everywhere. Without the FRN version, I'd go with the G-10 version which is only a few bucks more or probably more closely tied to the price limit--a Spyderco Grasshopper.