A growing space in the world of personal lighting (flashlights) is the USB rechargable key fob light. These are not your grandma’s key ring lights of yesteryear, but powerful photon blasters that in some cases outreach even your dual-celled flashlights. Like any new tangent in lighting, there are tradeoffs. Being rechargeable, you cannot simply replace the depleted cells with new ones when the light blinks out.
On the other hand, you can re-power the light with a computer, cell phone charger, backup battery, solar panel, or any other creative solution that provides a five volt DC stream of electrons into a micro USB cable. Another issue at play here is the form factor. As light manufacturers explore new designs, we need to consider the opportunities of shape and not just be resistant to change. The flatter design of these keyfob lights is possible due to the flatter design of their batteries. Like the traditional car lock remotes, the key fob lights easily disappear into a pocket.
The three main lights highlighted here are the Surefire Sidekick, the Nitecore Tube, and the Factor Ghost 130. One other will be mentioned but it’s not currently available to the public. But I have a feeling that within a year, quality rechargeable keyfob lights will be the new norm and offered by every reputable brand, as well as many not so reputable.
The Two Elephants in this Room
First into this space was Nitecore and it’s low cost decent-performance light named the Tube. Recently, the arguably best survival flashlight maker jumped into the game with its entry, the Sidekick. As expected, the Sidekick costs more than the Tube; six times as much in fact, but the Surefire blasts out six times the lumens if needed. Both lights recharge their lithium polymer batteries through a standard micro USB connection. The Ghost is in the middle and of conventional shape with the bonus of micro USB rechargeability. However, the build quality of the Ghost 130 is seriously beyond the paygrade of entry level tech. Don’t let the size fool you. The Ghost is scary good.
The Surefire Sidekick has three level of brightness and the Nitecore Tube has two. I’ve always found that the low setting is just as an important consideration as the high beam. Surefire’s low end is five lumens, a number common to many of their other lights. Five is an excellent amount of glow for reading a map in the dark or even lighting a path over smooth terrain. However, Nitecore opted for one single lumen as its low setting. One lumen is enough to help a key into a lock or read a watch, but not much else in my opinion. Well, I guess it would appear as a lighthouse in night vision goggles even at a distance.
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The Nitecore maxes out at 45 lumens and the Surefire’s middle setting is a similar 60 lumens. But then the Surefire does what Surefire does best. When it shifts into high gear, a full 300 lumens pump out the business end end this tiny block. Runtime at full speed is about 85 minutes with 45 hours on low, and about four hours on the medium 60 lumen setting. Nitecore’s Tube offers up about one hour of full blast and claims two full days at one lumen starting with a full charge.
Weight wise, the Nitecore Tube tips the scales at just under a third of an ounce. The Surefire Sidekick, on the other hand, is four times heavier at a massive 1.2 ounces. So both lights tug on gravity much less than a small pocket knife. Another comparison would be that the Tube is a dime and a quarter in your pocket, while the Sidekick is more like a buck and a half worth of quarters. Noticeable, yes. But since the light is not as dense as a quarter, it’s girth distributes its weight better and becomes more a question of size than weight.
Operationally, the Surefire is classic Surefire. The interface is responsive yet firm as it toggles through its four choices of high-medium-low-off. It is possible to reverse the sequence by connecting the light to a charger and toggling the power button three times, then back to off, then disconnect it from power. The light will now be low-medium-high-off. I much prefer this order as I find low plenty for my immediate needs. Be advised, however, that the light will turn off with the next click only after a couple seconds have passed. Otherwise the light will change to the next level. With low as the first, I have blinded myself trying to turn the light off quickly.
The Tube is a simple and unchangeable low-off-high-off as long as you depress the single button within a second of the previous click. Otherwise it will turn off and restart on low again.
All three lights have a lanyard or split ring attachment point. In the non-symmetrical body cases of Sidekick and Tube, the hole is perpendicular to the light’s major flat surface. This keeps the light in line with keys, when on a larger ring, but can also make the light wider in the pocket depending on what is attached. On my Sidekick, I attached a loop of paracord along with the incredibly small spring-loaded hook Surefire provided with the light. I use the loop more for an extraction handle when pulling it from deep in my pocket, as well as an extra grip when the light is not in its most common other use positions; wedged in my hat like a headlamp or in my mouth.
By far the best feature about lights in this space is that they recharge. Battery management is important when you are paying for disposable batteries. So if you are picking up the tab on your own batteries, you are likely shutting the light off as soon as possible, and using the lowest setting possible. Knowing that you can conveniently recharge the light makes it easy to leave the light on longer and not shut it off between repeating needs such as when working on a truck, or lighting a camp or work space. Plus, you can leave home with a full charge everyday.
For all their goodness, two of these lights have significant but correctable drawbacks. The biggest problem with the Surefire Sidekick is that when recharging the battery, and I’m not kidding here, the light blinks while charging and then stays on when done. Seriously, WTF? I actually have to cover up the light when charging it or the incessant blinking drives me crazy. I talked to Surefire about it, and it sounds like the issue is so obviously a bad idea that future versions will hopefully not carry the “feature” forward.
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The main problem with the Nitecore Tube is that the it’s LED is essentially unhoused. This means that the nub of glass on the business end of the Tube spills light in all directions around as well as forward. So looking down on the light when 90 degrees forward-facing, light fills your eyeballs with brightness. I tend to slide my thumb up over the top of the LED in order to kill the spill. Electricians tape around the light would also fix the problem, but so would a design refresh. However, since the light is only slightly thicker than the LED in the first place, I can see why they didn’t bother to thicken up the light’s front end. And for ten bucks, how much can you complain?
The Tube does have a rubber USB port cover that I like. The Surefire’s electronic mouth is open wide and will collect pocket debris and lint over time. Surefire recommends a squirt of compressed air to relocate any transient fuzz. On the other side, the water resistance to the interiors of the lights might be affected by the need and/or absence of a rubber cover. A necessary extra cover might also indicate a potential weak point.
In all cases, there are no deal-killers here. Both lights are exceptional and well worth their price, especially the Tube, which, by the way, comes in almost a half-dozen color flavors including the Surefire’s only Model-T black. The Surefire Sidekick retails for $79.99, but can be easily had for ten bucks less. And with that $10, you could buy the Nitecore Tube as well.
Seen a Ghost?
A new company on the scene grew out from a need near and dear to my heart: real quality. Spelled out frankly on their website, “where junk gear is not an option” pretty much says it like it is. And just off their drawing board is an extraordinary little light that has the durability of a bad internet rumor, and the output of a light saber. At 1.5 inches in length and half that in thickness this shiny silver cylinder has a blast radius well beyond it’s paygrade, and a durability factor beyond any other small USB light on earth. In addition to the intricately machined aircraft aluminum housing, the light is sealed on both ends by O-rings. The front head is unscrewed and removed exposing the USB port. The glass encased flashlight head also unscrews leaving the center of the cylinder filled with a replaceable battery. Two light output options are available, low and holy-moly that’s bright!
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The two-stage lighting is activated by screwing down the head. First low output, then high. A screw-down head also allows for toggling the light either between off and low, or low and high by adding a little more downward pressure with one’s finger rather than the threads. It also means that a little pocket pressure could activate the light (on low) if the electrical contacts are just barely out of reach when in the off position. The only downside of this light that I can tell is it’s heft. At 0.74 ounces with battery, which by any other standard is ignorable, the density of this whole light is not too far off the metal it’s made of so you might feel it in your pocket.
When recharging, once the cord is connected, a tiny internal red light indicates charging and a green light makes obvious that charging is finished. Surefire could sure learn a thing or two from Factor. In fact, the gun light industry might get a little spine shiver if Factor popped out an inexpensive tail switch onto the Ghost 130 along with a rail mount. For thirty bucks, a new space in weapons mounted lights could emerge. But it might be a waste if this light spends its days in a bedside biometric handgun safe.
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The Ghost’s MSRP $29.95 and will likely be a hot seller with good reason. With lithium-ion batteries having a 500-plus recharge lifecycle, that means at five bucks of replaceable batteries, this little beast of a light could save you $2500, give or take. And that’s almost enough for a Daniel Defense DD5v1 .308 if that’s what’s on your list today. I know it’s on mine.
And even better is that Factor Equipment is so sure you will be thrilled with their lights that they offer a 30-day-Buy-and-Try. That means you’ve got a month of personal use and abuse “abuse within reason” in their words) before you totally commit to keeping the light. If you return the light within 30 days, you will be credited your purchase price towards something else that Factor Equipment makes.
One more light in this USB rechargeable Keyfob space includes a yet to be released Fenix light that very much mirrors the Tube. The Fenix light that is in development is an effective lighting solution addressing the exact same space as the Tube. I know because I got some hands-on time with both of the only examples in existence at SHOT Show; a blue one and a pink one presumably covering the entire gender spectrum of potential buyers. It’s flat profile and unhoused LED provides plenty of work area lumens, but less reach except for easily avoiding confrontations between your shins and furniture in a dark house. The build-quality of the Fenix seems a step up from the Tube, but the as-yet unpublished price point will be quite similar to the Tube.
No doubt, as this space evolves, there will be some amazing new lighting opportunities. Just as every other electronic space that ditched the round cells for built-in rechargeables opened doors, the future of mico-lighting is brighter than you can imagine.
All Photos By Doc Montana