Source: TOOLS OF THE TRADE Magazine
Publication date: April 19, 2012

By Greg DiBernardo

Today's cordless drills are significantly better than the ones I used four or five years ago — they have more power and greater runtime, and take less time to charge. Many of them are lighter, too. The most obvious change has been the move from nicad to lithium-ion batteries, with lithium-ion becoming the de facto standard for pro-grade tools. But it's not just the batteries that have gotten better; now motors are smaller and more efficient, and chargers charge more effectively, because they communicate with the batteries.

For this article we looked at compact and heavy-duty cordless drill/drivers with 1/2-inch chucks. I evaluated these tools by using them myself and by sending them out with my remodeling and deck-building crews.

I didn't perform runtime testing, but the editor of this article did; the results can be found in the sidebar .

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Battery Platform

All the drills we tested are 18-volt models, except for the Hilti, which is rated for 21.6 volts. We included it because it's not any bigger than an 18-volt tool.

A compact 18-volt battery pack contains a string of five 3.6-volt cells wired in series (5 x 3.6 = 18) and is typically rated at 1.5 amp-hours (Ah). Full-size 18-volt packs contain two such strings wired to each other in parallel, a configuration that increases the storage capacity to about 3.0 Ah without affecting voltage. A 21.6-volt battery contains more cells — there are six cells in a compact version and 12 cells in a full-size pack.

Some contractors are very focused on runtime, but it's rarely an issue for us. I keep plenty of spares around, and in the time it takes to drain a battery there is nearly always time to charge a spare. It might be different if we drilled hole after hole or drove lag after lag, but that's not how we work. If you're doing the kind of production work where you can outpace the charger, then you'd do well to stick to corded tools.

For me, one of the most important things about a battery is the number of tools it works with. I regularly use cordless drills, impact drivers, recip saws, circular saws, hammer drills, and angle grinders, and it would be hard for me to buy into a battery system that did not include those tools. Your list of must-have tools may be different; before you buy into a system, find out which tools are in it.

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Tool companies typically produce two different 18-volt drill/drivers: large heavy-duty models and smaller compact models. Most heavy-duty tools have all-metal chucks and come with 3.0-amp-hour batteries and side handles. Compact tools usually ship with 1.5-amp-hour batteries and have plastic-sleeved chucks.

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Makita makes three 18-volt drills — a heavy-duty model and two compact models. The compact models (center and right) are nearly identical. The blue version (LXFD01) has a long belt hook and ships with 3.0-Ah battery packs, while the white one (LXFD01CW)has a short belt hook and includes 1.5-Ah packs. Either compact tool can use either pack, but the 1.5-amp-hour packs do not fit the heavy-duty model.

Form Factor

With their large motors, heavy-duty gearing, and — in most cases — all-metal chucks, heavy-duty tools weigh more than compact models, even without batteries. Compact tools come with smaller batteries and typically have plastic chuck sleeves (meaning the gripping surface is plastic).

The small drilling and driving tasks that I perform on a day-to-day basis — installing cabinet hardware, driving drywall screws, drilling small holes, and so on — can usually be done with a compact drill. But if I need to use a large-diameter hole saw, spade bit, or auger, I'll go with a heavy-duty drill, even though it means handling more weight.

Speed and Power

While most 18-volt drills have two gear settings, the DeWalt DCD980L2 and the Makita BDF451 have three, which allows you to better match power to the task at hand. I like this feature, but it wouldn't greatly affect my purchase decision.

I found myself gravitating toward the tools with the highest maximum rpm, because they drill noticeably faster with twist bits and small spade bits. Both DeWalts top out at 2,000 rpm; their nearest competitor is the Hilti, which tops out at 1,800 rpm. Many models are significantly slower.

Rpm and other information can be found in the spec boxes for the tools (Go to specs). We did not include a torque specification, because manufacturers don't adhere to a common test standard, and their published specs frequently bear no relation to how powerful a tool actually feels. For example, Bosch's compact model is rated at 600 inch-pounds of torque, and Ridgid's at 535 inch-pounds — yet the Ridgid feels more powerful. We noticed this a lot in our testing: The published torque specs weren't a reliable indicator of how the tools compared to each other in use.

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The heavy-duty tools from Makita and DeWalt have three-speed transmissions and mode switches that allow the user to go between drill and drive without changing clutch settings. None of the other drills have more than two speeds, though the Festool and the heavy-duty Milwaukee do have mode switches.

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The dial on the Festool controls an electronic clutch that cuts power to the motor at the desired level of torque. The Metabo has an electro-mechanical clutch that cuts power to the motor after the clutch engages.

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A battery gauge can tell the operator how much "fuel" is in the tank. The gauges on the Bosch, Metabo, Milwaukee, and Ridgid batteries are activated by pressing a button, and can be read on or off the tool.

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Festool's battery gauge is on the drill and displays the level of charge whenever you squeeze the trigger. Hilti's gauge is activated by snapping the battery into the tool. Neither gauge works unless the battery is on the tool.