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So handy, so cheap

23 January 2019

Hands up all those who remember the clunky, old-fashioned, unreliable, expensive torches of yester-year?

Torches (or flashlights if you're an American) are very useful devices and something we should all have one or two of, preferably in working condition.

So why should a device so simple and ubiquitous be the subject of today's column?

Is it because I still recall to this very day, the day I discovered a passion for electricity and electronics -- all because of a torch?

Yes, I fondly recall dismantling an old-fashioned metal-cased torch when I was very young. After unscrewing the end-cap, the D-cell batteries all came tumbling out and rolled around on the floor. With much exertion, I then unscrewed the other end and extracted the tiny bulb from the reflector unit.

I then pressed one end of a D-size battery against the metal nipple on the bottom of the bulb and, using a piece of wire I'd found lying around, I completed the circuit.

Wow! The bulb lit up, albeit not too brightly due to the paltry 1.5V being fed it.

And thus a lifetime infatuation with electron-drive technology was born.

However, today's column is about the wonders of modern torches and how far the technology has come.

Actually, torches are probably less common now than they were back in my youth.

That's because we have torch functionality built into many other every-day devices so we seldom need a dedicated source of light.

You'd be hard pressed to find the equivalent of the old EverReady Dolphin 6V filament-bulb-based torch with zinc/carbon batteries in anyone's house these days. That primitive and poor-performing technology has been long-replaced by fancy LEDs and lithium batteries.

Everyone's phone has a reasonably competent LED-based torch built in these days so why on earth would you spend money on a dedicated device that will probably end up lost in the bottom of the "bitzas" drawer within a very short space of time anyway.

The real reasons for today's column were the events of this morning...

Since the old Parkinson's kicked in I've become an early-riser. A *very* early riser by some people's metrics.

At some time after 4am this morning I woke up and, being unable to return to the land of nod, decided to start the day.

A quick shower, a shave and into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal.

I should point out for those who don't know from personal experience that, even in the middle of summer, it's still dark at that time of the morning.

With cereal bowl in hand, I headed off to my office to start work on the computer.

My hand hit the light-switch in the office and the 140W halogen bulb burst into action... for about three seconds. Then it went "tink" and the room was again a sea of darkness.


With cereal bowl in hand I retired to the kitchen.

I always keep a spare bulb on hand -- but it was in the "bitzas" draw in my office and that room was in pitch darkness. What do I do?

I could have used the relatively feeble LED light on my phone (it's a flip-phone and hardly the kind of light that would enable the ack-ack guns to bring down a German bomber in WW2) but I had a better idea...

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I bought a solar-powered USB power bank from The Warehouse. It was cheap ($14) and whilst one side had the photovoltaic arrays needed to charge (yeah, right) the 4000mAH battery inside, the other side was festooned with LEDs that produce a prodigious amount of light when powered up.

I knew exactly where this power-bank/torch unit was so I grabbed it and held down the button that fires it up.

You could almost hear the choir sing as my previously dark office was once again filled with a sea of dazzling photons.

Now it was a piece of cake to find the new bulb bring in a chair and swap the dud unit out of the fitting in the ceiling.

What a brilliant (pun in tended) piece of kit!

However, this el-cheapo, solar-powered power-bank/torch could be a whole lot better and I am left scratching my head over several of the design mistakes that have been made.

Firstly, it's supposed to be solar-powered. To recharge or top-up the inbuilt lithium battery you only need leave it in the sun.

So why the hell is the damned thing black?

Knowing that heat is one of the major factors in reducing the working life-span of electronic components and batteries, what Einstein decided that it would be a good idea to make this thing in the one colour that is most effective at turning sunlight into heat?

Secondly, it has a little green LED which is supposed to indicate that it is charging via the solar panel.

Unfortunately, this LED comes on *before* the PVA is generating enough power to perform that charging. In effect, the LED simply indicates that *some* light is getting to the solar panel. This means that when you leave the power bank in a dimly lit room, the LED comes on and runs down the battery -- because there is insufficient power coming from the solar panel to even run that LED hence the LED current comes from the battery itself.

Small points... but irritating design flaws that turn what could be an *excellent* device into one that is still useful but limited.

Never the less, I like this little power bank and it's saved my bacon on several occasions now -- enabling me to continue to use my action cam to get useful footage long after the internal battery went flat, and to use an FPV video visor at the airfield even though I'd left it on by mistake and exhausted its internal battery.

Will it recharge from the sun?

Yes, but it would take about a week of brilliant sunshine to refill its 4000mAH battery and I suspect that by then it would have died from overheating in the mid-day sun anyway.

So my opinion -- gimmicky but still good.

If you really want an emergency USB power bank that can be used as a power-source of last resort (such as in a major natural disaster) then I'd recommend picking one up.

If you really want a quite useful rechargeable torch that does a good job of illuminating an entire room (rather than casting a beam) then you might also want to pick one up.

And finally, I also picked up a little $5 LED work light from The Warehouse. This is a nifty little unit that has plenty of light and (shock...!!!) comes with batteries included (4 AAA cells). It has a magnet on the base and can be easily tilted to any angle. I've already made extensive use of mine and for five measly bucks it was a steal.

Update... Sadly, as is so often the case, it seems that The Warehouse is no longer carrying the solar power-bank, or at least it doesn't appear in their online shop (there may be units left in some stores) however, the little work light is still listed.

No, I'm not shilling for The Warehouse! You could almost certainly find equivalent devices for lower prices from your favourite Sino-online-retailer so go look if you are interested.

The question for today is: do you still have a "real torch(tm)" or do you now simply rely on your phone for emergency lighting?

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