Nearly everybody has a $500 flashlight

When I described using a laptop computer as an impromptu flashlight, that triggered a lot of comments from people using their cell phone or PDA as a flashlight. One nickname I've heard for this phenomenon is "the $500 flashlight", $500 being the price of a PDA or SmartPhone at the time the term was coined. (I was amused to find that even Scott Adams does this.)

A few years ago, on a trip to Tikal, I took part in a pre-dawn hike into the park in order to observe the sunrise from atop Temple IV. For many people (including me), this was an impulse tour rather than a planned option, so we hadn't packed flashlights in our gear. There were a lot of $500 flashlights on that hike.

Comments (30)
  1. Steve Heights says:

    The links to the $500 flashlight and Scott Adams’ blog result in a 404.

    [Thanks. Fixed. -Raymond]
  2. Improfane says:

    I use my Gameboy Advance SP backlight.

    PS, thanks for a great book Raymond! Hope to see another perhaps?

  3. Thomas says:

    Back in early spring a thunderstorm rolled through our area and knocked the power out for several hours.  As dusk approached we began gathering our flashlights and searching out batteries to help us move about in the impending darkness. Shortly thereafter, just as the sun set, we heard our front door open as someone entered.  Suddenly the hallway was bathed by light.  Yikes, Who’s coming in our house with a flashlight?  It was my nephew, carrying his $800 cell phone with its built-in light.

  4. jeffdav says:

    A friend of mine did the same thing when they went to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.  They also used their digital cameras: take a picture (with flash), see what the path looks like, walk 20 feet, repeat.

  5. The best are those people on Handango that actually sell a piece of software for $5 that turns the screen white. Flashlight programs. Great.

  6. KPRoth says:

    Word to the wise though – if using a blackberry as a source of emergency lighting while in the men’s room, hold on tight.  I’m told they look really cool glowing underwater in the porcelain bowls, but they don’t work for very long afterwards.

  7. Tomi says:

    Back in the early 90’s, I went sailing with some friends and we ended up in a WW2 era island bunker in the archipelago. We had no flashlights with us, so we also ended up using whatever light sources were available. I used my then-new Canon EOS 5 (I forget its US model name, Elan perhaps), which had a red light reduction system which consisted of a fairly bright white lamp. In addition to the lighting duty, the battery was only able to provide enough power for the camera to shoot one roll of film, so essentially I used up $20 worth of battery to light my way around the small bunker (those batteries were really expensive back then here in Finland).

  8. posting on impulse says:

    I’m not sure what’s weirder: the fact that so many people decided to take an impulse pre-dawn hike (you have to think about doing that the night before, so it’s not all that impulsive, right?), or the fact that on a pre-dawn hike atop a Mayan temple so many people would bring their laptops!

  9. ArC says:

    See also the wallpaper at the bottom of this PA post:

  10. AlmostAlive says:

    On my Windows Mobile Smartphone I have a tool that turns on the camera light and I use that a flashlight.  It’s very effective.

  11. Steve Boyko says:

    I was in the men’s room at work one day, when some yahoo turned the light off when he left. I was stuck in a pitch-dark room, so I used my cellphone to guide me out of there.

    It’s been handy during thunderstorms too.

  12. michaele says:

    I for one would never have made it on that hike without Mr. F’s $500 flashlight.  Too many ditches and tree roots.  Maybe I should eat more carrots.

  13. Joe says:

    Whereas I just carry a $15 mini-Maglite around with me…

  14. David Brooks says:

    I once came across a PPC app that would turn the screen white for use as a flashlight, or black for use as a mirror.

    I always wondered whether the latter gave you a better black than the off switch.

  15. Donald says:

    We had just taken our son’s nappy off for changing when the power went out completely.  We had a pants-free baby (known for his wanton biological vandalism) lying on a bed in complete darkness.  We’d just moved into the house so we had no torch at all – until I remembered the Powerbook!  I’m sure I looked like an idiot waving my laptop around while trying to get a clean nappy on a squirming infant.

    It’s good to see that I’m not alone…

  16. Stephen Jones says:

    The reason you often use your mobile phone as a flashlight is that you  always have it with you.

  17. Peter says:

    My cellphone has what would be a really handy flashlight if it wasn’t buried 5 menus deep under "Camera". Getting to it safely involves avoiding all the various menu options that cost money, so normally I survive with the only slightly less illuminating screen.

  18. DriverDude says:

    Sometimes, though, people forget their laptops and phones run on batteries. When the power goes out, people naturally think everything that can be plugged-in is dead… forgetting their laptops have a builtin UPS.

    "I was in the men’s room at work one day, when some yahoo turned the light off when he left. I was stuck in a pitch-dark room,…"

    I thought the building codes require some kind of lighting (emergency or otherwise) so noone can ever be in a totally dark room? You know, in case a fire cuts off power and your floor is filling with smoke…

  19. KiwiDude says:

    There is I imagine a difference between "power loss" and "turning out the lights", a difference that building codes perhaps respect?


  20. Worf says:

    Well, yes.

    In a dark room, it’s assumed that it’s dark because no one is there, or they’re sleeping and have no use for light.

    However, should power fail or the fire alarm go off, the emergency lighting is supposed to kick in, lighting your way. So the main lights stay out, but auxiliary lighting provides minimal illumination in an emergency.

  21. Dean Harding says:

    the fact that so many people decided to take an impulse pre-dawn hike (you have to think

    about doing that the night before, so it’s not all that impulsive, right?)

    Um, it’s obviously "impluse" in the sense that it wasn’t known about before he left home, when he was packing his bags, where he could have packed a flashlight, had he known about the hike, which he didn’t, because it was only decided on "the night before at least," on impulse.

  22. Guido says:

    Cell phones often have this LED "flash", which does nothing for providing ample light for making good or even reasonable pictures in dark surroundings, but serves astonishingly well as single-LED flashlight.

    It would be a waste not to use that for the only purpose it’s good at ;)

    The downside is that the batteries will always fail you when you need that impromptu flashlight most. Such happened to me in a very dark forest, with a spouse scared in dark evil nature-y places. It was a tough job keeping her in her comfort zone…

  23. Leo says:

    Speaking of $500 flashlights, I don’t own one of these but it’s a tempting geek gadget:

  24. Jivlain says:

    I once used my mobile phone as a light while trying to find a book in an unlit garage.

  25. Gabe says:

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, my 1998-era cell phone ($200) has a regular LCD so its backlight doesn’t need to be visible in daylight, making it generally useless as a flashlight.

    However, when making color photographs, one must be in a totally dark room. Total darkness can make it hard to find something you’ve misplaced. It turns out that my cell phone’s green LED backlight provided just enough light to be able to find something I was looking for.

    If I used it too much I got a magenta cast on my photo, but I was glad I had my $200 safelight.

  26. Duncan Bayne says:

    Flashlights are great – I carry an aluminium-bodied LED flashlight everywhere I go, & am planning to buy one of these at some stage:

    It’s a flashlight that doubles as a defensive weapon.

  27. Glenn Maynard says:

    My cheap pay-as-you-use Kyocera cellphone has one of those LED flashlights built in.  There’s even an option in the menu to turn it on without holding a button down constantly.  Unfortunately, the one time I needed it, the backlight was disabled and I couldn’t see to navigate the menus–guess I needed two of them.

    (I wish they’d spent the time on a power button that works, but I guess that’s only available with real cellphones.)

  28. Kythyria says:

    I see I’m in company here. If I use a laptop as flashlight, I open IE to about:blank, hit F11 (for fullscreen), and crank the brightness to maximum. No special software required, just a stock install of Windows.

  29. Melvin says:

    Though I carry a couple different mini LED flashlights (on on my keys and another on my Swiss Army Knife) I have often used the indiglo function of my watch as a short range torch. Because I always wear my watch but I don’t always have the contents of my pockets on me.  Especially useful for those midnight trips to the facilities in unfamiliar places.

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