By Brent Hull
Specs and Tester's Tester Comments
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.