We often think of history as an arrow of progress traveling in only one direction. Engines get more powerful, medicine more effective, and computers faster. But that myth is demonstrably false. The placebo effect was more powerful that actual medication for centuries. Roman engineers were significantly more advanced compared to folks working in the so-called Dark Ages. For that matter, and more specifically to our interests, wootz steel is a technology that has only recently been figured out. For centuries our steels were inferior to those produced hundreds of years ago using wootz to make real (as opposed to pattern welded) damascus. Things don’t always get better. In fact, sometimes they get worse.
On a very small scale that is especially true with flashlights. Flashlights have, since the blog started, gotten better and then, in the last few years, markedly worse. There are a few things causing this.
First, the adoption of the ANSI standard for measuring light output has seriously and permanently impacted the performance of modern flashlights. By placing an artificial emphasis on the first 90 seconds of runtime, ANSI’s standard has warped flashlights. We get “turbo” highs for 90 seconds and then basically the same output as we had a decade ago for the rest of the time the flashlight is on.
Second, we have marketing impacts. People are still conditioned to buy lights based on output. We know that output is about tenth on the list of important traits, but for consumers, output is like horsepower—a single number that the general public believes is important but really isn’t.
Finally, we have Anduril. The idea of an open-source UI is incredible. The flexibility of the UI is great. But the difference between a good idea and a great one is often an editor. Anduril let flashlight companies do whatever they wanted. As a result, we got lights with dozens of modes and menus that could simulate a lightning storm but were terrible in an emergency situation for everyone but the five or ten nerds that bothered to learn that daunting programming chart that accompanied these Anduril flashlights. Anduril II is an improvement, but but virtually everything is an improvement over the first Anduril.
Taken together these three trends have resulted in the average flashlight, especially in terms of UI, being WORSE than the average light ten years ago. The halcyon days of the McGizmo Haiku’s UI are long gone. The Lumintop FW series, bedecked in Anduril finery, is the entry point for many flashlight enthusiasts. And generally speaking, they aren’t great. The FWAA is the high watermark in my mind, and there are dozens of lights with better UIs. All of this means that some lights, that in the good old days, were below par in terms of UI are now above par. One such series of lights are those from Zebralight. They too have a daunting programming regiment, but it can be ignored for the most part. And now that the we have addition by subtraction leveling the field on UIs, the other truly astounding features of the Zebralight design snap into place.
Using just one alkaline battery, the SC5c can do wonders. It also accepts NiMH batteries for some really impressive performance. In terms of dual fuel lights you won’t find something better than the SC5c. And as the most recent instantiation of the 1xAA form factor generations of iterative improvement have resulted in a truly impressive piece of gear. It still has the stupid Zebralight UI, but now, thanks to a proliferation of garbage, that UI is actually not that bad.
Quick Review Summary: Addition by subtraction and years of iteration makes this light better than it used to be.
By now the Zebralight form factor is pretty familiar—fat head, cylindrical battery tube, bolt-on clip, dead flat tail cap and a recessed side switch. The light has gotten smaller and brighter over time, but that general layout hasn’t changed for good reason—it works exceedingly well. My first brush with Zebralight involved a light without a recessed switch and it was basically a pocket oven. With the SC5 II I have yet to have an inadvertent activation. The light fits well in the hand, better than an ultracompact twisty like the Four Sevens Mini Turbo Mk. III. If I am in jeans or have a jacket with me and space is not as much a premium, this is a good light to carry, an excellent balance between grip and carry.
Fit and Finish: 2
While not as nice as something like the McGizmo or the Focusworks F2 (quick preview—this is one of the best made lights I have seen in a long time), it is pretty good for a sub-$100 production light. The rubber switch boot seems like a booger magnet for whatever reason (see below) and that prevents the light from looking new and clean.
Most EDC flashlights these days have all but given up on making their lights easy to hold. Its kinda strange that they are willing to develop modes that simulate a lightning storm, which you will never use, but do nothing to make their lights more comfortable to use and hold, which you will always use. Perhaps this is emblematic of the entire design failure of modern lights. Either way, the SCII bucks the trend and gives you a small light that is actually good in the hand. Go figure. The head and the side switch are bit proscriptive but I’d rather have that than nothing at all. Compared to some of the Rovy Vons, like the Aurora series, this is a change that I welcome.
Clicky lights, even the small ones, like the BOSS 35, tend to be pocket penalties. Walking around in jeans with a 1xCR123A or 1xAA light in your pocket is noticeable. These lights print like crazy—everyone on planet Earth will know you are either carrying a like or an old-school roll of film. This is why I have generally shifted over to the 1xAAA format. If the light can’t fit in a coin pocket or lay flat in the main pocket, I am hesitant to carry it. The SCII can squeeze into a few coin pockets, but not many. Clipped or loose, like virtually all non 1xAAA clicky lights, its noticeable, not bad, just noticeable. Moving forward, this penalty will apply to a lot of lights. Over the past year, thanks to lights like the 47 Mini Turbo III Ti (which is not a clicky), Prometheus Lights Ti Beta, the Laulima Hoku, and the CWF Micro Arcadian, I have realized just how much of a carry penalty you incur when you carry clickies that using CR123s or AA battery formats. This is the first light to receive such a penalty. All that written, this is one of the better clickies out there, coming in around the same height as the BOSS 35, which is very, very compact. It is still noticeable, especially because of the bulging head, but it is better than most. Obviously, a lot of lights are going to get hit. Just be aware going forward. Times have changed. 1xAAA torches can hit 650 lumens. We are in a different world.
By now you probably know the ANSI lumens trick—because the high is measured based on only the first 90 seconds of runtime, manufacturers really have two high output modes a blindingly bright 90 second mode (advertised as “turbo”) and the actual high that you get for the remainder of your light’s runtime on high (with a gradual and minimal drop off). Most of these highs are around 300 to 400 lumens regardless of the output on “turbo.” The Zebralight doesn’t do that exactly—it his 475 on turbo for 3 minutes then drops down to 352 lumens and holds it for a half hour. 475 is plenty for most people. I am not sure you will find better in a dual fuel light anywhere, but if you need 3000 lumens (first, your wrong), then look elsewhere. Given the dual fuel cavaet, I think this output is worth a 2.
The runtime on low, long a feature of Zebralights, is insane at .08 for 4 months. These two numbers tell us one thing—Zebralight really prioritizes runtime and for me, that is the best approach to a torch.
Beam Type: 2
With a bulbous head, real reflector, and a decently powered LED, I can light up my shed from across the yard. That’s further than I get from the TIR torches or small stuff like the Beta Ti. The decision to lean into more throw, it seems to me, is the right one. Its part of the reason why I greatly prefer something like the 47s Mini Turbo Mk. III to something like the regular Mini. Just a smidge of throw makes a huge difference, converting a night light into a spot light.
Beam Quality: 2
Like in the knife system where grind and fit and finish are linked, beam quality and fit and finish are also linked. Unsurprisingly, given the very nice finish on the light there are no rings, holes, spots, or egg shaped beams. Everything looks good. When you combine that with the Samsung LH531D emitter, which I like quite a bit, you get a very, very good beam. This is a Hi CRI masterpiece. Nichia is not the only one that makes great emitters.
Here is Back Pack Hack’s video on mastering the Zebralight UI. It is 15:42. That tells you all you need to know—this UI is too complex. I will tell you it resists click mistakes better than Anduril and Anduril II, but it is still more than is necessary. There are three modes, each with three submodes. And all of this accessed by one button. No thanks. I do like immediate access to high and low from off, but a lot of lights can do that now. It used to be Zebralight’s calling card. Its still good, just no longer unique.
For the record here is the perfect clicky UI if you are limited to only a single button:
Three modes: moonlight (less than 1 lumen), medium (50-60 lumens), high (300-500 actual lumens for more than 90 seconds); NO TURBO;
Press and hold from off for high
If you notice this is basically the UI for the McGizmo Haiku. No programming modes, no lighting storm. If you want to start in any mode, make it the last mode you use before turning off the light. I did add direct access to high because sometimes you want to punch up the night.
Hands Free: 2
This light tailstands like a Romanian gymnast sticking a landing and is still small enough to go hands-free.
Fidget Factor: Low
Fett Effect: Low
Overall Score: 18 out of 20
This is an outstanding light. Ironically it has gotten better as the market has gotten worse. As probably the best dual fuel light available, you should probably have one. I recently had a power outage of two days and the ability to drop down to alkalines kept me in business with this torch as my go to and EDC for the entire outage. Its really excellent. It also makes for an upgrade from the Streamlight ProTac 1L-1AA, which, for years has been my recommended emergency light. Now that the Zebralight has a higher high with a NiMH, there is virtually no reason to choose the ProTac over this. As an EDC light it is a bit bulky, but not too bad, especially in jeans. This is a great light. There is no sequel, but Zebralight just released another 1xAAA, the SC53n is pretty similar with a Nichia 519A in the place of the Samsung. There are no runtimes or lumens figures yet.
There are a lot of lights in competition with this light, but only a few really keep pace. The Eagletac D25A is an excellent light. The aforementioned Lumintop FWAA is another good 1xAA form factor torch. The ReyLight Lan is also a well made, premium 1xAA light with good output. But these lights lack the difference maker that the SC5c II possesses—true dual fuel performance. The fact that this light can use both alkaline AND rechargeable batteries means that you are almost assured to find a cell that will work even in an emergency. Notably, the excellent but now long out of production L3 Illumination L10C is a strong 1xAA torch with few bells and whistles but lots of solid fundamentals AND it can do dual fuel. Scouring the internet can turn up a few of these jewels, but they now have woefully under par highs with only 120 lumens. Compared to the SC5c II, this thing looks like a dinosaur. I would be wrong to fail to include the Focusworks F2 on this list, as it is a custom light with PLENTY of output and a brilliantly simple UI that costs around $180 for the aluminum version. The much more expensive OKLuma DC0 is also a 1xAA form factor light with tons of output. But over and over again there are lights that are close, but none that are just better. That is the sign of a truly superior piece of kit.
Streamlight ProTac 1L-1AA
Eagletac D3A (the update to the D25A)