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.

Hammerdrilling

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.

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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.

Winners

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.