Monday, September 22, 2014

The World's Most Popular Flashlight Stinks

If you own an iPhone you own a flashlight.  Since your iPhone is probably always on you, so too is a flashlight.  There are a dozen or so apps, all of which are bit wonky, but with the release of the last version of iOS 7, there was a built-in flashlight feature, in the slide up menu.  The light is produced by the iPhone's flash.  I have seen so many posts where people explain that their smartphone is their flashlight and seeing as I had an iPhone I decided to try it out.  I think my experiences would carry over to other smartphone flashlight features, but I am not sure, so Android readers take this with a grain of salt.

I am always on the hunt for the smallest, most useful, most full featured items to carry with me and if I can drop an item out of my EDC, I am thrilled to do it. I am not a person that believes in carrying a backpack full of gear on an everyday basis. So I thought I'd see what would happen if I dropped a flashlight from my daily carry.  I wasn't seriously considering this as a long term plan, but just an experiment--I like flashlights too much to leave them at home permanently.  Think of how sad my Spy 007 would get, just sitting there on my shelf all day.

I carried just an iPhone as my flashlight for about five days, two of which were consecutive, and here is what I found.

First, the tint on the light is quite good, better, for example than the tint on stock 47s cool emitters.  There is very little in the way of purple or blue or green.  This is probably due to the fact that it needs to be able to take relatively lifelike pictures.  

Second, I have to commend Apple for a great interface--the ability to access the light on the slide up menu is awesome.  It is easy to use and intuitively place, exactly like Apple products should be.  It also blows away the fiddly apps out there that just never seem to work right. 

Third, I really did try to like the flashlight feature.  I hoped that I would be persuaded enough to occasionally leave a light at home even if it didn't replace the lights entirely.  

But there are few problems with the iPhone flashlight that convinced me that it was not a replacement for a standalone light.

The iPhone itself is an awfully expensive piece of equipment.  Out of contract replacement costs start at $600.  That is more expensive than all but one of my flashlights and I have a pretty darn nice flashlight collection.  So the idea that you would want to use your iPhone as a flashlight instead of a $60 Zebralight doesn't make a whole lot of financial sense, especially when you consider that at least some of your flashlight use will occur in adverse conditions (down in a basement with a water leak, outside in the cold and dark, etc.).  

Additionally the shape of the iPhone does not make it easy to use.  Holding a slick, thin, wide device is awesome for talking and browsing the web, but when you need to point your iPhone light at something it can be quite awkward, bringing to my its replacement cost. Additionally, many times I use my light in my teeth, doing handsfree work.  This is impossible with an iPhone.  

Then there are the limitations of the emitter itself.  First, it has no reflector at all.  This means you cannot get a focused beam and a ceiling bounce is impossible.  Second, its not all that bright. Essentially the iPhone flashlight is as bright as an LRI Photon.  In fact, the iPhone light is almost a perfect replica, in performance terms, to the Photon.  Its great at illuminating doorknob in front of you (though the grip problems make this unadvisable), but forget about checking around your yard for bumps in the night.  

In short, the iPhone light is not good enough, even though it is essentially free (in terms of space, additional cost, and batteries) to make it worth not carrying a good, compact modern standalone light. If you carry nothing, its a good feature.  I'd probably never buy a Photon style light if I owned a smartphone with a light feature, though I have a special hatred for button cell lights.  

The iPhone light is basically the equivalent of keys for people that use their keys to open packages--it sometimes, under perfect circumstances, can do okay.  If that limited use profile is good for you, then you probably aren't a regular reader of this site.  Furthermore, with the improvement in emitter technology over the past five years, the size and capabilities of standalone lights has improved so much. Your not lugging around your Surefire 6P anymore.  Its probably something with a single cell that is no bigger than your index finger.  And given that competition, the iPhone light stands no chance.  


  1. If people are cheap, the Streamlight Microstream is $20, indestructible, tiny, and absolutely blows the iPhone away in terms of lighting ability. There is no reason NOT to carry a dedicated light.
    TACTICAL ASIDE: More so if you are carrying a gun for self defense. I can not tell you how many people I know who carry a gun everyday but do not carry a flashlight. The majority of defensive gun uses happen at night. You should probably not be shooting at something unless you can identify it. To do that in the dark you need a flashlight. But the guy lugging around the $1500 pistol with two spare magazines says it just doesn't make sense to carry a light and they are too expensive anyway. I CANNOT STAND THAT GUY. END TACTICAL ASIDE.
    Tony is right. Just carry a light.

  2. My Android has a flashlight app that I have used only once, but it was helpful at that time. I think for most people the iPhone would be the same way: when you have nothing else, it will do. As a local farmer said about some crappy hay he was baling, "It beats a snowball!" My test is "Could I change a tire with it?" as that is the extreme level of use I plan for. Anything more is nice but not necessary for the vast majority of people, I'd think.

  3. I sold a car recently. The prospective buyer, who was a mechanic, pulled out his iPhone to inspect it. I happened to have my V11R in my pocket (I always have one light or another) and he was surprised enough to comment on it, but not in a good way - more "I'm dealing with a real nerd here" - his actual words - "you carry that in your pocket?" Usually I carry a smaller light but I thought it interesting a mechanic would have a dedicated light especially at a meeting to buy a car.

  4. I cant tell you the amount of times that I'm in a movie theatre and someone is looking for something they dropped after the movie. They pull out their phone and are awkwardly searching around. Everytime I pull out a small aaa light to look with them, they seem blown away that such a small light can produce much more light than their phone. My happiest moment was when one guy turned to his girlfriend and said "this is why I should carry a small light with me".

  5. It's good as a small stopgap measure, but it's useless for anything more than looking under a couch. A small keychain light would be much better for someone to carry than using an iPhone if just for ease of use and ruggedness. I regret not carrying a light when I worked at a cinema as you're forever looking under chairs in that job, and an iPhone just doesn't cut it.

    My sister has twice dropped and cracked her phone while walking home at night, but still turned me down when I offered to buy her a cheap light for her handbag.

    1. My daughter has a PD35...

  6. I totally agree with you!

    Except for the "Your not lugging around your Surefire 6P anymore."
    That's exactly what is in my bag!

    Surefire 6P incandescent. There's nothing better. Extreme quality, never fails. I bought a Surefire P2X Fury Defender recently. But most of the times I still carry the 6P because I like it better.

  7. I almost think the iPhone light is above rating - I mean, it's attached to the iPhone, and as much as us EDC nuts don't bring it up, a smart phone is a huge part of our EDC setup. I don't leave the house without a knife, watch, phone, and wallet. Lately i've been carrying a light too, but sometimes it sits on the shelf when i'm doing things in the day.

    What i'm saying is, of course it's a bad light. But you're carrying the iPhone anyway, so it takes up no space at all.

    Now would I follow the logic of "I'm not going to carry a light, my iPhone has one" - of course not. It's not even useful for seeing where the dogs go in our tiny back yard! Which is why I carry my PD35.

    Another great article Tony!

  8. I agree with everything in the review, although in my case there are additional factors to consider in my experience as a user. For example, charging. My iPhone has such high utility I'm sure to charge it every night and carry a charger with me. To charge it, I simply plug it in.

    I have a Quantum on my keychain but it hasn't earned a place in my pocket because I can't just plug it in. I have to unscrew it, use a magnet to get the battery out, then find the little proprietary USB charger, then find a USB plug or a laptop to plug that into, then store the little proprietary USB charger somewhere I'll remember to find it next time.

    So when I look beyond the devices to consider my experiences with the devices, which to me is what really matters, the iPhone has far greater utility.

    The times I do use my Quantum it is great at what it does, thanks again for that review.

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