By June 3, 2010

Harbor Freight vs Key Chain LED Flashlight Shootout

I love flashlights. Like pocket knives, they are a tool that when you need it, you really need it. I used to carry around a “Mini” MagLite and the MagLite Solitaire but those were too big for pockets and I hated wearing a flashlight on my belt. Fast forward several years and I started buying LED flashlights for the house. They were still too big for my tastes until I stumbled upon the 9-LED flashlight from Harbor Freight Tools (see my review).

Even with such a small design, I sometimes forgot the flashlight or left it at home. I was walking through Harbor Freight not too long ago and found a single LED keychain flashlight for $0.99. I had avoided these before because they always seemed too underpowered to be of much use. However, I figured for a buck it was worth it. Cheap Gibberish entry, at least.

Then I found TEN similiar LED keychain lights on for $5.99 (they are now $5.39 as of this writing). That’s including shipping! I had to wait about a week for my order to arrive.

All of a sudden we went from a quirky one-off review to a full-on cheap ass key chain flashlight shootout.

The Contenders

Harbor Freight Tools

  • The Harbor Freight Tools LED key chain is the thicker of the two contestants.
  • It feels more durable and fits better in my hand.
  • It is more noticeable in my pocket, and I can actually feel it next to my keys. I don’t like this.
  • The key chain is long enough to be usable with more than a few keys.
  • The ON/OFF button is harder to depress.
  • The ON/OFF button locks into place VERY easily, which is its major strength over the Meritline.


  • The Meritline LED keychain is smaller than the HFT.
  • Because of its size, it is easy to leave these all over the house. I have one attached to my house key in my motorcycle jacket, one attached to the car keys, one attached to the spare house key, etc etc.
  • The ON/OFF button is easy to push and hold down, but very hard to lock into place. This is by far the biggest drawback to the Meritline.
  • The keychain is also short, and would probably be too short if you have a ton of keys on your key ring. I tend to keep two or three keys on each ring and just carry multiple rings (house keys vs vehicle keys, for example), so this isn’t a problem for me.


The Meritline is MUCH brighter than the HFT. As in, “the HFT flashlight is never going to be used again” brighter. I took a set of pictures to show the difference in illumination between the two:

No lights

Pretty dark, eh? I shot these with my Canon Digital Rebel on a tripod, timer, f/4.0 and 400 ISO. Distance was ten feet.

Harbor Freight Tools

Frankly, I could hardly tell this thing was on. The light was very scattered and not very bright.


Holy shit, bust out the Bat-Signal! The Meritline was much brighter, with a more well-defined (but still scattered, compared to my “real” flash lights) beam pattern. This is actually usable, and I find myself using my Meritlines as spotlights to point out cracks in the pavement and stuff to Sedagive? when we walk at night.

While the Harbor Freight Tool LED key chain flashlight may win in the ruggedness and locking switch categories, the Meritline stomps it in all others. Price, performance, easy to push ON button, and a wider color selection puts the Meritline in the lead by a wide margin.

Strongly recommended.

Posted in: preparedness, review

6 Comments on "Harbor Freight vs Key Chain LED Flashlight Shootout"

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  1. Vince says:

    I’ve got an Inova Microlight on my keys.

    The switch is a press and release for on. One quick press and it’s full power, two quick presses and half power (done by fast strobing), and three quick presses and it strobes like a signal beacon. One more press and it turns off. It’s very bright and extremely useful (it can easily light up beyond 20 feet, website says 50). Beam pattern is pretty much a spot at close range and at full power. The key chain clip is flat and rectangular unlike the typical ring, so carrying profile is negligible. It essentially folds up against my keys. About $10 is what I paid for it at Target several years ago. Oh, and the battery is replaceable.

  2. DrFaulken says:

    That is awesome! It is about $6.24 on Amazon Prime right now, which isn’t super expensive but still less than ten Meritlines.

    However, yours seems like an actual pocket flashlight replacement instead of a “just in case” or giveaway lights.

    I might give it a try, thanks!

  3. huntsvegas says:

    Since you love flashlights I have to recommend the following. Fenix PD30. Easily the best value in a flashlight I’ve ever seen and it fits in the palm of your hand and easily in a pocket and blasts out 265 lumens for about $50. Check it out. You won’t be disappointed. (shortened link to Amazon)

    I love your reviews on stuff. Keep it up. Are you still digging your Kel-Tec PF-9?

  4. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for the review. I don’t have a pocket/purse flashlight anymore, so it’s nice to check out a couple reading your reviews.

    And your readers had a couple suggestions to.

    Thanks a bunch.

  5. I have bought the Fenix PD30, and it helped me alot. Thanks to you huntsvegas. I will also try out the keychain Meritline for my Toyota Hilux key. Thank you everyone!

  6. Teri says:

    I buy the Meritline flash light 5 packs for .99 (free shipping) a few times a year when I catch them. I have had 2 of the 15 I’ve bought burn out that I know of, but at .20 a flashlight, they’re technically disposable in my opinion. I always keep 2 on my keychain and give them away on occasion when people marvel at how bright they are.