Incredibly bright light with a well-focused beam. Durable casing can take drops, falls, and tough weather. Recharge the battery with a USB cable. Doesn't get warm with prolonged use.
Can be hard to turn on and off, but that also means it won't accidentally turn on while in your pocket or purse.
Compact and sturdy for a penlight at this price. Takes just one AAA battery. Keeps working even after several drops and tumbles.
Isn't as bright as advertised.
The beam is bright enough to reveal defects in bright sunlight. Focused light that doesn't fade at the edges. Designed for optimal use 6 feet away from objects. Good battery life.
May stop working properly after being dropped.
Pupil gauge and ruler on the casing allow for quick measurements with one tool. Designed with a lower brightness for checking pupil response. Bulb is spring-loaded so if it's dropped, the bulb retreats into the penlight.
Can be finicky and easily turn on and off.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
A good penlight is a useful tool. It’s small enough to clip onto a pocket or fit easily inside a purse. It can be a convenient device for general-purpose illumination or offer task-specific solutions to a variety of professionals from doctors to electricians.
You want a durable penlight with a bright enough light for your needs. Depending on what tasks you want to use the penlight for, you might need one that can survive being dropped or one that’s waterproof.
We’ve been researching the penlight market so we can provide the information you need to decide which type of penlight is best for you. The several models we’ve recommended illustrate the wide choice of cost and performance solutions available. If you’re ready to buy, one of these could be ideal. If you’d like more information, we look at the whole subject in a bit more detail in the following buying guide.
Just about every smartphone has a flashlight feature, and you’ve got your phone with you most of the time, so do you really need a penlight, too? Here are a few reasons why it might be a good idea.
Battery: First and foremost, using your phone as a flashlight means you’re running down the battery. It’s okay for a minute or two, but extended use could leave you without a means of communication in an emergency situation.
Versatility: Unlike a penlight, phone flashlights are good for your immediate vicinity, but they have no way to focus and offer only moderate directionality.
Focus: There’s a reason you see law enforcement and CSI personnel use penlights: the narrow beam does more than just light up a specific area; it also helps concentrate your attention. If you’ve dropped something under a cupboard or couch or in the garage or shed, grab your penlight!
Safety: While you shouldn’t normally shine a light in someone’s eyes, a bright light can temporarily blind a potential assailant and might just give you the edge you need to escape.
While there are undoubtedly crossovers, we think penlights fall into two main categories: illumination for professionals and general-purpose illumination.
Medicine: Perhaps the most common use of penlights is by medical professionals as an aid to diagnosis. They can be flashed across or into the eyes to gauge pupil reaction or study the retina or macula. These low-cost penlights have a series of different-size dots along the side, for comparison purposes, and a small ruler. They’re also used to check the mouth, throat and teeth, or indeed any part of the body that may be difficult to see clearly under ordinary room lighting.
Building trades: The second group encompasses mechanics, engineers, and contractors. A penlight is useful in a whole mix of situations where precise lighting is needed. One can be really useful in an engine bay, which has a multitude of dark corners. It’s a boon for electricians when the power is out. Although any kind of portable lighting could do the job, a penlight is easy to manage with one hand, and it can be clipped to overalls, pants, or a shirt pocket so it’s ready in a moment. Many contractors will use the same kind of flashlight as anyone else, but some models have features appropriate to certain trades, such as low glare or the ability to show accurate color.
Law enforcement: Penlights are also widely used by branches of law enforcement and the military, though some are called tactical flashlights (we’ll look at the difference in below).
A cheap medical penlight might suit you perfectly well, but it’s a very basic tool and most are quite low-powered. For personal use, you might prefer something that’s brighter or has a larger feature set and thus more versatility. There are hundreds of different penlights to choose from, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find something that matches your requirements exactly. Below, we look at each aspect so you can build a picture of just what your perfect specification would be.
At their most powerful, the line between penlights and small tactical flashlights gets blurred. Tactical flashlights tend to be more durable and offer more illumination options, but they can be equally small. While many call them flashlights, they still have a clip for attaching to a pocket, so we see no reason why they can’t be categorized as penlights. Really, it all depends on your needs. If you want maximum versatility and power, you might want to push the envelope a little.
Brightness: This is measured in lumens, technically, units of luminous flux. Although we’re used to seeing bulbs measured in watts, that’s actually incorrect. Watts are a measure of energy consumption, not light. What makes things more confusing is that a 100-watt incandescent bulb is not the same as a 100-watt LED. The LED uses much less energy, so an equivalent to the incandescent 100-watt would be about a 22-watt LED.
How do you overcome the confusion? You can find comparison charts online, which help, but it’s best to always compare like with like — lumens with lumens — rather than try to convert one to the other.
A disposable medical penlight might provide as few as 8 or 9 lumens, but it could be perfectly appropriate given the task. At the other end of the scale, we’ve seen penlights that deliver 250 lumens.
Flexibility: This needn’t be expensive, and a number of mid-range medical penlights offer numerous brightness settings. Other models can switch between wide and narrow beam, and some have variable focus. A few offer strobe functions and even SOS signaling.
Bulb life: This varies. Almost all bulbs are now LED because they’re much more durable than incandescent. In cheap penlights, the bulbs aren’t replaceable, so their life is effectively the life of the device. On disposable models, you might get 3,000 hours, which is four months if you run it 24/7 (though that would never happen, of course). On high-quality penlights, the bulb life can be as much as 50,000 hours.
Compact size is one of the main reasons people choose penlights, but they aren’t all as small as you might think. Online images can be deceiving, so it’s always worth checking. Penlights can be as short as a couple of inches, but around five inches is common. Over six inches and a penlight becomes less manageable, though that extra size could be as a result of extra functionality. It’s really a case of deciding what you need most: reduced dimensions or additional features
Body: Most penlights are made of aluminum alloy because it’s reasonably light and quite strong. Aircraft-grade aluminum is tougher than standard. Moldings on the outside might be designed for better grip.
Lens: Lenses can be plastic, glass, or polycarbonate. The latter is almost unbreakable.
Durability: It’s not uncommon to see penlights rated as water resistant or waterproof, and some underline their durability by including a drop-test rating. Commonly, these are capable of surviving a fall of between three and six feet.
The switch won’t be a consideration for many, but a common complaint is that penlights can be activated too easily without you noticing. The battery then dies at precisely the wrong moment! Some penlights switch on and off with a button on the end, some with the pocket clip, others by twisting. The latter is probably the most positive and least likely to be activated accidentally. When making your decision, it’s worth looking at customer feedback. Users’ opinions are always a valuable measure of performance.
Batteries are usually included, typically one or two AA or AAA. Rechargeable penlights are available. They almost always use lithium-ion batteries, but it’s also possible to use non-rechargeable batteries in some of these devices if you want to. Charging is mostly via a USB connector, but might also be from AC or DC adaptors.
Run time: This is difficult to calculate because it depends so much on the power demands. Although it seems counterintuitive, a cheap medical penlight might last a couple months on a pair of alkaline batteries, while an expensive tactical penlight can run flat in under an hour! It’s all about the brightness and range delivered.
Inexpensive: The cheapest penlight we found was under $5 and highly rated by users. You can get pairs or packs of a half dozen disposable penlights for between $7 and $10 (and that includes batteries). There are even one or two rechargeable models in this price range. These are the type aimed at medical professionals — basic but perfectly functional.
Mid-range: Between $15 and $35, you’ll find an enormous range of better-quality medical instruments and those aimed at engineers, electricians, or people who need tools for inspection purposes. Most people looking for a general-purpose penlight will find what they need at these prices.
Expensive: At $40 and above, you’ll find high-quality penlights with multiple light intensities and/or beam patterns. They might be rechargeable, waterproof, and impact resistant. The most expensive we found was $65, but it could be argued that this is a tactical flashlight rather than a penlight.
Q. What’s the difference between a penlight and a tactical pen?
A. Penlights — whether for medical or general use — are a kind of flashlight. They don’t provide the ability to write. Tactical pens are writing instruments that have other capabilities, and a built-in light might be one of these, though that’s only one of numerous alternatives.
Q. Can you harm someone’s eyesight with a medical penlight?
A. You should never shine any kind of light into people’s eyes. While it’s unlikely to cause permanent damage, at the very least it’s unpleasant and you could cause temporary blind spots. Leave eye exams to doctors, nurses, and optical specialists.
Q. How can I tell if a penlight is really waterproof?
A. If the manufacturer has confidence in its device it will have the penlight independently tested for ingress protection (an international standard). It will have an IP or IPX number. For instance, IPX7 rates a penlight as safe in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one meter or less. IPX8 can be immersed in water continuously. It doesn’t necessarily mean that water can’t get in, but rather if it does, the water won’t affect the functioning of the device.
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