Sunday, September 1, 2013

Zebralight SC52w Review

When the SC52 came out and its specs were released, there was a peal of cathedral bells.  That was the death knell of the CR123a EDC light.  There is no real reason to opt for the more expensive CR123a cells anymore, this from an avowed CR123a-only guy, less than two years ago.  The performance gap was closing then and now it is almost gone.  Sure the S10 Baton from Olight and the F1 from LED Lenser still hit higher highs than the SC52w, but the reality is the difference between them in terms of real world performance is almost meaningless and certainly not enough to justify the increased expense.

Part of this has to do with how the eye perceives increases in lumens.  Here is a very useful chart on perceived brightness.  Running a NiHM rechargeable, the SC52W pumps out 280 ANSI lumens, while the S10 hits 320.  There is very little perceptible difference between the two.  Similarly, the 280 lumens compared to the F1's 400 lumens is also almost imperceptible.  To get a real bump at this lumens count you need to jump into the 600s.  But this is not the end of the story.  In my daily life, I have found that I rarely need more than 200 lumens for a task.  Punched up the end of my driveway at night to figure out what that bump was needs around 100-150 lumens, 200 on a stormy day.  Before the SC52 that level of performance on a single AA cell light was unheard of absent a rechargeable cell.  Now, on a primary AA, you can get around 280 lumens.  That's plenty and now competitive with most CR123a lights.  Eye physiology, brain processing, and practical use means that you probably won't need something more than what the SC52 puts out and that means, in turn, that you can go back to buying regular batteries (though I find it helpful to have many different format lights in an emergency). 

Here is the product page. The Zebralight SC52w costs around $65. Here is a written review (from SelfBuilt, YIPEE!). Here is a video review (more SelfBuilt). You can purchase the SC52w at E2FieldGear and if you use the coupon code "Commentary" you get 8% off AND benefit the site's giveaways.  You can click on the banner to the right.  Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary: Best AA light on the market, hands down.

Design: 2

There is very little to complain about here, really nothing.  The big things, such as the recessed side switch, are done right, and the little things, like the smoothed out portion of the head underneath the pocket clip, are nice.  Zebralight is at the absolute forefront of flashlight design and the SC52w proves it.  One thing that surprised me was just how small this thing is.  The last 1xAA light that I liked, the Fenix LD10, was probably twice the length.  Part of that is just a more efficient internal layout, but undoubtedly some of that is from the brilliant side switch.  As a rule, I love them.  They make the light tailstand better AND they make it possible to grip the light in many different ways.

For all of the big and little things done right, this is a light that kills the performance numbers.  On its max output (280 lumens, though with a lithium 14500 it can hit 500 for less than a minute).  The lumens:weight (280/2) his a very good 140.  The total lumens output, achieved on medium (50 lumens x 7.5 hours) is 375, very good for a light this size.  Here is the SC52w next to the Zippo (see, I told it was small):    


Fit and Finish: 2

In the two weeks or so that I used this light, I noticed not a single flaw in the fit and finish.  The threads were clean, the clicky was crisp, the anodizing was even and never chipped.  The knurling and heat sinks were even and precisely cut.  The emitter was centered and the lens was clean.  Again, all of this manufacturing goodness was in service to the overall utility of the light.  For instance, the pocket clip was a very high polish number, but that wasn't just for good looks (and of course it does look good), it also greatly aided in getting the light in and out of your pocket.  Excellent.

Grip: 2

As a rule, I love side switches.  This light, the SC600 Mk. II, and the soon to be reviewed EagleTac TX25C2 have convinced me they are the way to go if you are going to EDC your light.  They make the light tailstand better AND they make it possible to grip the light in many different ways.


I also have no complaints with accidental activation or mode switching on any of the side switch lights. Here the recess is significant, more so than on the TX25C2, and it all makes for a great light in the hand and in use.  I was worried that something this small might be hard to hold on to, but the different diameter between the head and body tube and the shape of the pocket clip makes this little gem easy to grab.

Carry: 2

Let me show you a superior pocket clip and placement:


Its that easy.  Everything about this pocket clip works--size, shape, placement etc.  The bolt on design is very simple and very sturdy.  It really does grab your pocket, but thanks to the smooth "landing spot" it is easy to draw.  If a manufacturer wants to do a bolt on clip, this is a good place to look for inspiration (noting, of course, that this bears a very strong similarity to the overall shape of a McGizmo clip).  

Output: 2 

Zebralight can rightfully claim about as wide a spread as any EDC light, as this can hit 500 lumens with a rechargeable on high and .01 lumens on low.  The 500 lumen is really nothing more than a burst, as it lasts less than a minute, but even then a 280 lumen output is extraordinary in the 1xAA format, even now almost a year after the SC52 debuted.  I found the .01 lumen setting to be too low, even in the blackest night, so I opted for the .6 lumen low.  I'll explain more about this below in UI.

Runtime: 2 

Along with the emitter upgrade that boosts the lumen count you get amazing runtimes.  A 1xAA light with runtimes listed in MONTHS? Check.  Again, I am thinking that the .9 hours of 280 lumens is more a aggregated runtime as that much light for that long in a light this size my cause a meltdown, but still, the totals are impressive and another piece of proof that you no longer need a 1xCR123a light as an EDC. 

Beam Type: 2 

This is perhaps the most subtle part of the SC52's superiority.  With a larger head you get a more competent reflector and the curse of the EDC light--the cloud of flood--is gone.  This is an excellent beam that is, of course, mainly floody with some ability to throw.  As I do the 1YL updates, its things like this that make a score drop over time.  If this little diminutive torch that runs around $65 can get a well balanced beam, others should be able to do the same.  

Beam Quality: 2 

The neutral white was gloriously revelatory, making nothing look like a hokum movie with its cheesy warms or a disco with its wild purples.  I still think that the majority of gear geeks do not give enough way to tint and the SC52w is a good example of why they should.  You'd opt for Hi CRI if it was available but the neutral tint here is a good substitute.  Of course there are no artifacts or holes and the beam is perfectly round.  

UI: 1 

I was on the edge of giving the SC52w's UI a 0 as it is WAY too complicated for a single button.  In the Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman talks about this slide projector that had only one button.  You clicked it to advance and pressed and held it to reverse.  It was a disaster.  If you hit the button too softly nothing happened and thinking (correctly) that you didn't hit it hard enough, you'd press and hold the button, but it would send the whole thing in reverse.  AWFUL.  This is probably not that bad, but the click v. press and hold is too subtle for a non-flashaholic to get.  I'd much rather have fewer modes and a simpler interface.  

But that is not the only problem.  All clickies, except for the Klarus and new Fenix lights (with their dual clickies) have that problem.  No the SC52w takes it a step further by having a high, medium, and low output with "sublevels" in each output.  That sentence alone is enough to tell you there is a problem.  You should never use the word "sublevel" when describing a flashlight.  NEVER.  In high you can actually adjust output to two levels, plus a strobe.  In low there are three levels.  Getting into the sublevels is another feat of one button gymnastics.  This many options are a sign that Zebralight doesn't really know what its customers want.  If you do a good job of choosing the levels you don't need to mess around with at least NINE possible settings.  McGizmo does it.  Muyshondt does it.  47s does it.  It is possible.  Do some research and just lock the modes in.  I'd vote for 280-50-1 if it were up to me.  That spacing provides you with a good combination of runtime and useful lighting and a significant enough spread between the levels to register a perceptible difference.

So why the 1 instead of a 0?  Well, if you don't mess around and play with the clicky, it is pretty easy to get the two most used modes--high and low.  Click to get high, press and hold to get low.  Not great, but definitely average.  You get yourself into trouble deviating from those two modes, even medium is something of a quest, but leaving the light to just those two makes the UI decent.  

Hands Free: 2

The benefit of a side switch, rock solid tailstanding:


The clip is a perfect anti-roll device and the diameter of the light is small enough to accomdate an emergency teeth grip.  Overall, just about perfect in the hands free department.  There used to be a few accessory mounts that converted this into a head lamp, but I can't find them on the Zebralight site anymore.  There is an aftermarket Fenix band that will work.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

This is very, very close to the perfect EDC light--common cells, excellent output and runtime, compact size, great pocket clip, and super side switch.  Only the UI holds it back.  I'd love Zebralight to lock in three modes and use the McGizmo memory mode set up.  That would make this light the perfect EDC under $100.  As it is, it is definitely a Top 5 light and one that flashaholics will have no problem whatsoever using.  Opt for the neutral, even with the sacrifice in lumens.  It is totally worth it for the better tint.  Can't say enough good about this light--it is great and Zebralight, a USA based company, is just killing right now.  Send Mike some of your dough and save 8% by clicking on the E2Field Gear banner to the right.  If you don't want to get into the hassle of dealing with Peak's bewildering options or if you light the storage superiority of AAs, this light is better than even my beloved Peak and you don't have to buy accessories for it to be as capable as the Eiger.  Out of the box, this is one hell of a light. 


  1. Which Zebralight do you like best? Between the two you have tried?

    1. I like the SC52w better. Much more pocket friendly, with a better pocket clip.

  2. Would like to know what you think about the Peak Logan AA flashlight and how it stacks up to this Zebralight.

    1. I'd love to try it, but I am not sure if my Prometheus pocket clip would transfer. Plus, you lose all of the head options that the Eiger comes with.

  3. I have a Peak Eiger (same package as yours) and a Surefire E1B Backup, so I don't really NEED another light, but I'd totally buy this if it wasn't for the funky UI.
    I've been eyeing Zebralights for a long time, but the lack of simplicity in the UI ultimately cooled down my interest. For now... :-)

  4. Another great review, thanks Tony :)

    I like my SC52W a lot. My only complaints are the tint which is a bit green for my tastes, though others may not notice or have a green tint in their SC52W, and the lack of watertightness in the press fit bezel, some people have had them leak.

    I removed my bezel easily here (to see if the glass effects the tint, not much):

    I'll just say a bit in defense of the UI if that's cool, as I do like the UI, it suits me very well. :)

    You say: "I'd vote for 280-50-1 if it were up to me."

    The beauty is, you can have that! And I can have 172-25-0.06 if I want.

    Once programmed, which I didn't find too hard (6 x double clicks), you can very quickly get familiar with the operation.

    After a week I was intuitively getting the level I want without thinking.

    Press and hold for low.

    Double click for Med. (Or press and keep holding through low).

    Single click for High. (Or press and keep holding through low and medium).

    Easy :)

    You never have to double click to access the sub levels if you don't want to.

    I do understand that it may not suit some people at all though, especially if you're used to a different interface.

    A rotary switch is probably the easiest and fastest to learn. As you've said before, turn for on, turn more for more light :)

    Thanks again,


  5. I think the "tint" you see is really anti-reflective coating. Which is more of a coating than a tint, but yes, it *could* lend a bit of a "tint" to the lens. (I'm not really disagreeing with you here, I'm just kind of clarifying a bit).

    Also I agree with you about the UI of Zebralight. I have had 2 or 3 and I am very satisfied with the UI. My wife hates it, though....

  6. I hugely enjoy your reviews. You are very generous with your time, if nothing else, and you deliver a lot of very valuable information.

    However the "Do some research and just lock the modes in" addressed to Zebralight can just as easily be said to the owner, especially at the start when you have the manual. Then it is three levels, short click for high, long click for low and cycle. And you won't have to worry for sublevels, ever.

    I do take the point from the Design of Everyday Things - fabulous book, but in the end you have to balance design, simplicity, and cost. A judgment call, and obviously you and ZL disagree.

    All the best, and once again thanks!

  7. Personally, I love the interface on my Zebralight SC31. Since setting up the sublevels, I haven't messed with any of the more complicated programming. I love being able to access both high and low with one click(short or long) and I can honestly say that I don't remember the last time that I turned it on to the wrong mode.

    Expecting a super-simple UI that doesn't require any configuration is akin to dinging a knife if you need to sharpen it out of the box. Personally, I sharpen almost all my knives out of the box and I don't mind taking a few minutes to set up a flashlight UI either.

    I know, personal preference...

    Also, it doesn't "require" configuration. I ended up keeping the stock settings anyways...

  8. Man I love my SC52 (non neutral)!
    Everything you say is spot on and I generally agree.

    I do have to say though that I think the UI is fantastic!
    Once mastered/set up, the 3 modes are quick to get to. The fact that it can be done one handed is great.
    I just wouldn't be so interested in it unless I had so much choice with the modes. This is a high end light purchased by people like us who have high demands from our lights. My mother will not buy this light! She won't have heard of Zebralight (like most people) she would buy a light with an on/off swtich for $3.
    If you are obsessed with EDC gear like I am and read great web articles/forums like this one (dare I say we are geeks) then this lights UI will not phase us!!
    Zebralight, you kick butt!!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Despite my reservations about the UI, I'm gonna get one of these, as I've been looking for a decent AA light, AND I'm going to get some Eneloops (both AA and AAA). With fall and winter coming, I need something better than the E05 and Thrunite Ti (my only two "good" lights)...

    1. The reservations about the UI seem to be mine alone. Go for it. This is an awesome light. Also, it is helpful to have such well informed readers. The comments here are better than the review.

    2. While we (your humble readers) appreciate the compliment, I can assure you that your review stands up very well on its own, tyvm. :-)

  11. Impressive performance... But it's so ugly! Great review as always, Tony.

  12. I like the look!

    Man I thought I was finished with flashlights. Lumamax on the nightstand, Mini ML in the pocket, Thrunite on the keys. Done; we're home. Moved on, started spending the light budget on knives and good wine.

    After your review, this is the first light in months to disturb my composure. It's even a neutral...

    According to Selfbuilt the default outputs on the cool white are 280 lumens (H), 50 (M), and 2.7 (L), which is perfect spacing. So I wouldn't even need to fiddle around with the complex programming. (Although it'd be neat to tuck in an 0.4 lumen "3:00 a.m. hall crawl" somehow.)

    The worst part is that I've sold off all the chaff from my knife lineup. Nothing left but regular users, role fillers, and blades that I just really like owning or have sentimental value. I don't have anything to flip for a Zebralight!

    So it goes.

  13. drool some more:

  14. Just purchased my SC52w thru E2Field Gear with the 8% discount.

    Tony, I have found your site incredibly useful as a newcomer to EDC. Thank you!

  15. The current debate running through my head:

    Olight S10 = Similar versatility, reversible pocket clip, BUT requires CR123s and the button may be susceptible to accidental switching (?)

    Zebralight SC54w = AA battery, recessed switch, neutral tint with barely any loss in lumens, secure screw-on pocket clip; BUT won't clip on a ball cap.

    Zebralight H52w = Same as SC54w plus right-angle style allows different grip/clip/tailstand options; BUT friction clip is less secure and needs to be removed when placed in headband.

    The good news = flashlight technology allows more competitive choices than ever.

    The bad news = flashlight technology allows more competitive choices than ever.

  16. I was surprised to see you hate on the UI so much. I have been looking at this flashlight hard simply because there is no other single button flashlight that I have seen where you can access two brightness levels from off.

    I need a light to do two things. Light up cars for picture taking and making my way through my apartment at night with the lights off. That means I need either a pretty bright medium level or a lower high level for work and a moonlight for home.

    The thought of having to leave the light's memory on moonlight all the time so I don't turn it on full blast in a dark apartment is not appealing.

    Like others have said, setting the brightness levels once and being done with the sublevels doesn't sound too cumbersome. I would rather have one button with complicated click patterns than two different buttons where BOTH must be utilized to turn the light off and on and adjust the brightness level.

  17. I have the SC51W. I think it's a very impressive toy and very well constructed. Yet, like others have mentioned though, I think the UI is just too complex. I even have to remind myself how to use it, if I haven't touched it for a few months.

    Secondly, this is a device where I really think you need to keep it simple. L - M - H. That's good enough for me. Like I said, it's a toy with those extra sub-levels that I used to play around with when I first got the light.

    Thirdly and most importantly for me, it's too small. I much prefer 2xAA lights like my Jetbeam BA20 with it's simple H - L modes. As far as I'm concerned, that's all I need. I really don't want to be baby sitting the Zebralight. At that size, it's just too easy to misplace.

    So, while it's a technological marvel, I don't consider it practical at all.
    It now just looks pretty sitting on a table. My choice is always something a little larger.

  18. Last step before custom lights for me .

  19. does removing the tailcap reset the light to its factory defaults? Example; let's say I programmed the worng modes and I want to get ithe light back to factory settings. How do I do that?

  20. I think you pegged this review perfectly.

    It is an awesome little light, wonderful build quality, and the output easily competes with 1xCR123 lights such as my 4Sevens Minis. I also love the resistance on the clicky -- firm but not awkward. That's a small detail but it improves the experience of using the light.

    The complex/nuanced UI is fine for enthusiasts, and enables some fun quirks, but no way you could hand the SC52w to a non-flashaholic and not expect some trouble. So it's definitely not a 2, but it's tolerable and has some upside, hence not a 0. You got it exactly right.

  21. I love the UI, and don't find that it's difficult to operate at all. Once you set it up the way you want, it's basically just a matter of 1 click for your choice of high, two clicks for your choice of medium, or press and hold for a moment for your choice of low. And what a low it is! (I went with the .06 lumen as well, .01 is just visible in the dark if you're looking directly at the emitter.

    The only caveat for me is the lack of a momentary on feature, but it's a small price to pay for the other advantages this system offers.

  22. "even medium is something of a quest, but leaving the light to just those two makes the UI decent."

    Click twice, straight to medium. Click once, straight to high. Hold, straight to low.

  23. This thing has now been my exclusive EDC for over a year. It rules. I have no inclination to replace it. Runtime in ordinary use with L91 lithium primaries is bananas.

    Still think your review is spot on re: the complex UI. That said, I've learned the nooks and crannies and have it programmed perfectly to my taste.

    Man, I love the SC52w.

  24. I really like it but I agree the UI should be much simpler. It's not that I can't use it but it could be simpler. I think my preference would be a single click that turns it on/off to whatever you had last, press and hold makes it get brighter, and any clicky clicky toggles strobe. It's the ambiguity in current set up that is most annoying - fine if you're still but a pain if you're doing something at same time and not sure. I'd give it a 1. Everything else great though :-)

  25. The ZL UI always seems to be a divisive issue. Personally I don't understand why people find it difficult. Single-button interface will necessarily have some compromise in terms of complexity... but for me [two-button] or [clicky-and-head-twist] UIs also have their shortcomings because they require changing grip and/or finding the second button. ZL UI is FAST!

    Here's the thing: if you don't like programming the ZL, then don't! :) Use the presets and there's no programming involved. As others have written, it's simple to get to the three main levels using three different click styles.

    Too difficult to remember how to double-click? OK, then just press and hold to ramp through the main levels from low to high.

    Ready for some "advanced programming"? On any given main level, you can double-click to drop down to a slightly lower sub-level. (Luddites can ignore the fact that the sub-level is programmable.) :) Easy-peasy.

    After using this UI for about 5 minutes, it was completely intuitive.