I am not a big fan of clutches, because they can't set fasteners as consistently as I can set them by feathering the trigger. Admittedly, this has as much to do with variations in the density of the material as it does with the clutch.
All but two of the drills tested have standard mechanical clutches. The Metabo has an electro-mechanical clutch that cuts power to the motor after the clutch engages; it's quieter to use than a standard clutch and reduces wear on the battery and the motor.
Festool's clutch is controlled by a dial on the back of the tool and is entirely electronic. At the set level of torque, the motor cuts out and the tool emits a dual-tone sound. It's much more sensitive than a mechanical clutch, but I'd still just as soon feather the trigger. Also, the dial is located in a place that makes it easy to bump out of the desired setting. Heavier detents might solve this issue.
Some of the tools we tested allow the user to switch from drill to drive mode without losing the clutch setting. For those who like using a clutch and need to go back and forth between drilling and driving, this would be a nice feature. It can be found on the Festool and the heavy-duty models from DeWalt, Makita, and Milwaukee.
A battery gauge lets you quickly determine how much juice is in the battery, so you don't get somewhere and then immediately run out of power. About half the tools we tested have this feature. In most cases, the gauge can be operated by pressing a button on the battery. This is the preferred method because it means you can check the charge of a battery that's not on a tool. With Hilti and Festool, the gauge doesn't work unless the battery is on the tool. The batteries on the DeWalt drills do not have gauges, but the manufacturer has announced it will be releasing batteries that do.
Every drill in the test has an LED headlight. From left: The heavy-duty Hitachi's light is built into the belt hook and must be manually activated. Panasonic's is in the base and is also manually activated. The lights in the other models — including the DeWalt DCD980L2, shown — are activated by the trigger and are located in the base or above the trigger. The Makita BDF451 has a pair of lights above the trigger.
These plastic cases hold nearly the same items yet vary greatly in size. The DeWalt cases (third and fourth from the left) are compact and contain no wasted space. Many of the others are larger than they need to be.
From left: Festool uses a modular Systainer case that can be connected to other Systainers. Hilti's gate-mouth bag is a favorite because it can accommodate a drill index and a bunch of other tools. Though very compact, Ridgid's soft case has no straps or dividers to prevent the contents from bouncing around inside.
All of these tools have built-in LED work lights. I like lights because they make it easier to drill holes and engage fasteners in poorly lit areas. Most of the lights come on when you squeeze the trigger. Of the trigger-activated lights, I prefer the ones with a delay that keeps the light on for some period of time after the trigger is released. The other kind of trigger-activated light turns off right away unless you keep the trigger slightly depressed. A couple of models — the Hitachi DS18DL and the Panasonic — require you to press a separate button to activate the light. I find this feature annoying.
There are two ways to activate the light on the Ridgid: by squeezing the trigger or by pressing a thin pressure switch near the bottom of the grip. The pressure switch is easy to use and allows the operator to turn on the light without spinning the bit. I wish every drill/driver had this feature.
Lights are typically mounted on the base of the tool or above the trigger. The base is a better location because it's a straight shot from there to the end of a drill bit or the tip of a driver. If the light is above the trigger, the chuck may cast a shadow on screws you drive with a short driver bit.
Of the compact tools tested, only the Hilti and Milwaukee do not include belt hooks, but they can be equipped with optional hooks from their respective manufacturers. Belt hooks are less common on heavy-duty tools, presumably because the manufacturers think tradesmen do not want to carry heavier tools on their belts.
I like belt hooks and think every cordless drill/driver — including heavy-duty models — should come with one. It's convenient to be able to hang the tool from your belt — and safer too, because you'll be less tempted to put it down on a ladder or somewhere else it might fall from. Making hooks available as accessories isn't a big help, because retailers rarely stock them — and if you order one, you spend as much on shipping as you do for the part.
Some side handles flex under load, but the ones on these tools are very solid. From left: The steel handles on the Ridgid and Milwaukee tools clamp onto the tools in fixed positions. The DeWalt and Metabo handles pivot around the nose of the tool and can be locked in place at any angle.
Only the Festool has interchangeable chucks. It comes with a standard three-jaw chuck, a right-angle chuck, a Centrotec bit holder, and an offset-chuck — all of which install without tools.