Twenty years ago, I worked with a Makita 9.6-volt pistol-grip drill/driver, a standout among cordless tools of the time. Since those early models, things have come a long way: more powerful motors; keyless, one-handed chucks; variable-speed triggers; automatic brakes; and batteries that just keep improving. Another advancement has been the addition of a hammerdrill function to many standard drill/drivers. Because it doesn't add much weight, size, or cost, many are opting for the purchase of a convenient, all-in-one cordless hammerdrill/driver, even if masonry drilling is not going to be the tool's primary function. It's just nice to have the versatility.
My company builds and installs historic and custom millwork for commercial and residential projects. In our work, it seems there are no standard tasks. Whether it's driving screws, drilling through old bricks, or boring holes in hardwoods, we need cordless drill/drivers that are versatile and powerful. And as I rely on my crew every day to get the job done right, I also relied on them as my tool test team, providing a valuable blend of opinions and many years of experience.
We tested 15 tools: the Bosch 13618-2G, DeWalt DC925KA, Fein ASB18, Festool TDK15.6CE, Firestorm FSX18HD, Hilti SFH181-A 3.0, Hitachi DV18DL, Makita BHP451, Metabo SBP18 Plus, Milwaukee 0824-24, Moty-Ko 18HD, Panasonic EY6950GQKW, Porter-Cable 9987, Ridgid R8411503, and Ryobi P201.
All these tools are 18-volters, except the Porter-Cable, which is 19.2 volts, and the Festool, which is 15.6 volts. All the models have hammerdrilling capabilities except the Ryobi and the Festool. The Hitachi, Makita, and Milwaukee tools have lithium-ion batteries and the Hilti and Panasonic tools have NiMH. All the rest are powered by nicad batteries.
In my opinion, the most important qualities to look for in a drill/driver are professional power, proper balance, and a comfortable feel in-use. The tools that did best in our test balanced all three qualities.
In order to see which tools had the best combination of performance and ergonomics, we worked them hard on the job and in the shop in a battery of tests. We tested for feel, comfort, and speed by driving screws, we tested power by boring 2-9/16-inch holes into a slab of walnut, and we checked out balance throughout. We evaluated the test results and considered each tool's features to determine a winner.
All the tools in the group have a 1/2-inch chuck, which has become the new standard; a 3/8-inch chuck is too small for larger bits and heavier work. All of the hammerdrill/drivers in the test come with a side handle, great for controlling large bits and heavier work.
Thankfully, all the tools have an automatic brake that activates the moment you release the trigger. This great feature speeds production because you can immediately change bits or start the next screw instead of waiting for the chuck to stop spinning. Another feature common to all is an automatic locking spindle, which allows you to loosen or tighten the chuck with one hand. Gone are the days of trying to fit both hands on a small plastic chuck to crank down on a bit.
Makita and Hitachi both feature an onboard task light. This is great if you ever work in dark spaces (even just a cabinet) and need to place your driver on a screw head or accurately drill a hole. Makita's light is activated by pulling the trigger, and it remains lit for about 10 seconds after release. The Hitachi light is manually activated by an on/off button on its moveable belt clip and can be aimed. The Makita also has a belt hook. Both are great details that other brands should offer.
Another feature we rely on is the easily overlooked onboard bit storage. In old houses, we always seem to need at least three different driver bits, and it is convenient to have them right on the tool and ready to change without digging through pouches or pockets. This may seem like a little thing, but we save lots of time and frustration by having bits situated where we can grab them and go.
The compact Festool model has three interesting drive options. Besides the chuck, it comes with a snap-in bit holder that saves some weight, but only fits special bits. Removing the holder allows you to click standard bits directly into the drive spindle and shave 2 inches off the length of the tool, making it a full 4 inches shorter than most of the tools and the lightest by far. Additional offset, right-angle, and depth-setting bit holders, available separately, also fit this tool.
Weight & Balance
We use drill/drivers in our shop every day, sometimes for hours at a time, so the feel of the tool is a big deal. Just like a hammer needs the proper weight and balance, so does a drill/driver. We want a tool that is easy to handle and doesn't give us a hand cramp because we had to compensate for poor balance.
In order to fairly judge, we waited until after we had a feel for each tool before we checked their weights. Past experience has shown us that the specs in the owner's manuals are often inaccurate within one-half pound, which can make a difference in cordless tools, so we weighed them ourselves with a battery only (no side handles or bits) on our shop scale. Here's what we found, in descending order. The heaviest tool was the Ridgid at 7 pounds. Half of the tools were very close in weight, around 6.5 pounds: the Porter-Cable, Metabo, DeWalt, Bosch, Moty-Ko, Hilti, and Fein. The next bunch was right around 6 pounds: the Milwaukee, Panasonic, and Firestorm. The lightest tools were the Hitachi, Festool, Ryobi, and Makita, weighing in between 5 and 5.5 pounds.
Despite the measured weights, a tool's balance can help overcome gravity. The tools that felt the best right off the bat were the DeWalt, the Hitachi, and the Milwaukee models; those that felt clunky and awkward were the Panasonic, the Fein, and the Metabo.
Comfort in Use
Balance and feel out of the box are important, but repetitive actions and continual use provide the best test of tool comfort. Comfort is related to the tool's ease-of-use. If a tool is easy to use, it is intuitive and instinctive, allowing you to work longer and faster, which leads to better quality work.
To test the comfort and ease-of-use we drove and removed 2-1/2-inch black driver screws into thick mahogany. This repetitive action helped us test switching the reverse and forward functions, driving power, and overall feel.
Discomfort really surfaced in two ways. First, in difficulty switching from forward to reverse. If you have to change hand position to switch from forward to reverse over and over, your hand starts cramping and the hand twisting can lead to raw spots and future blisters. The worst offenders were the Fein, Metabo, Moty-Ko, and Ridgid. The easiest and most intuitive were the DeWalt, Hitachi, Milwaukee, and Porter-Cable.
The second problem is a fat handle. We noticed this as we tried to figure out why the DeWalt grip felt so right: It has a narrower handle than most. We determined that this relative narrowness is a design feature we all liked, but it is hard to put a measurement on the best size because it also depends on the proportions of the oval shape that makes up the handle. Suffice it to say, we prefer the smaller handles for the comfort and control they provide. Some handles that felt too large to ever be comfortable were the Bosch and the Metabo.
It was nice to see that every tool had rubber overmold patches on their grips, but the Ryobi trigger tended to pinch the trigger finger due to the tacky rubber surrounding the area. Porter-Cable supplies different-size grip inserts for its tool, but we liked the medium size that came installed. Overall, the DeWalt, Hitachi, Milwaukee, and Porter-Cable were the most comfortable. We used them all day without fatigue.
Power & Performance
Cordless power has come a long way and much is being made of new lithium-ion (LI) battery technology that companies claim brings more power to lighter tools. We didn't set out to evaluate the differences between the LI, nicad, and NiMH batteries in this group, but it's hard to ignore the fact that three of the top overall performers were LI tools.
To test power and torque, we started by drilling 1-inch-diameter holes into solid walnut, which wasn't a problem for any of the tools.
We increased the degree of difficulty by changing to 2-9/16-inch self-feeding bits, and that's when the differences became clear. We started with fresh batteries, put the drivers in the lowest gear, and let 'em rip. These 2-9/16-inch bits are big, and we needed to be careful not to burn up the motors, but at the same time we were interested to see which tools worked the hardest so we didn't stop until the battery did or until the tool literally started to cook. The Milwaukee was the only one that tripped any heat overload protection; the rest just got hot.
After cooling off, the drill/drivers fell into three categories. The failing group comprised those that couldn't complete two holes–the Ryobi, the Moty-Ko, and the Bosch. The Moty-Ko and Ryobi were especially weak because they couldn't complete even one hole, while the Bosch stopped at one-and-a-half holes. If we are set up to bore holes on a solid-core hardwood door job, the last thing we want is a tool that can't keep up.
The next group did reasonably well but couldn't match the power of the top tools. This group comprised Metabo (two and three-quarter holes), Porter-Cable and Firestorm (both with three holes), Festool (three and one-half holes), Hitachi (three and three-quarter holes), Panasonic (four holes), and Fein (four and one-quarter holes). Although the Firestorm made it to three holes, it was especially slow getting there.
The best tools bored more than five holes. The Ridgid performed well at five and one-quarter holes, but its chuck gave us some problems: After its last hole, we needed locking pliers to get the bit out. The Hilti bored six and one-quarter holes, and the Milwaukee completed six and one-half holes.
The top two were the Makita and the DeWalt. The Makita completed eight holes; its pace was slow, but it steadily worked away and impressed us all. The DeWalt really wowed us, though, not only because it powered through 10 holes without hanging up, but it also was quick. There is nothing like working with a tool that rocks, and the DeWalt really set the pace.
With so many of these tools including a hammerdrill function, which we use all the time on our trim and cabinet installations, we took the models into the field and focused on this feature.
Most of these hammerdrill models switch functions by dialing in the hammer symbol on the clutch setting ring, but the Bosch, Milwaukee, and Ridgid all have a second ring for this and the Makita has a top-mounted sliding switch. These are nice because they keep you from losing your clutch setting every time you hammerdrill.
When drilling into masonry, we found that the DeWalt and the Hilti stood out as the fastest with the least vibration. The Hitachi, Ridgid, Milwaukee, and Fein also showed good performance in this mode. The Panasonic seemed to vibrate more than hammer; although it drilled through concrete block well, it wasn't our favorite for the task. The rest of them were decent performers.
After all is said and done, we came up with three clear favorites: the DeWalt, the Hitachi, and the Makita, with the DeWalt clearly in the lead.
The DeWalt tool has the best power and a great ergonomic design. Although a little heavy, its ease of use and superb performance won everyone over. The Hitachi and the Makita are close seconds. They are much lighter tools, and they don't give up anything in power, comfort, or even style. The cases are well thought through, and the accessories are good; if you are partial to a lighter tool or want to buy into lithium-ion power, these are great buys.
It should be noted that the Milwaukee won some new fans and came through with great power, design, and feel. Though not in the top three, it's still a strong contender that should be part of anyone's consideration list as they go shopping. The other models finished behind in the following order: Porter-Cable, Hilti, and Festool placed together, followed individually by Ridgid, Moty-Ko, Panasonic, and Bosch. Trailing them were the Fein and Metabo equally, and finally the duo of Firestorm and Ryobi.
–Brent Hull is a historic restoration and millwork contractor. He owns Hull Historical in Fort Worth, Texas.