Launch Slideshow

Helpful display. All of the models have illuminated displays, but the backlight on the Bosch GLM 80 is the brightest. Its also the only one that can be operated manually or controlled by an ambient-light sensor. Whats more, the unique display can be set to rotate automatically for an easy read regardless of the orientation.

Laser Distance Meter Features

Laser Distance Meter Features

  • Tracking, min/max, stake-out. All of these tools can take a continuous reading while moving toward or away from a target, which is called tracking. Eight tools can also freeze the minimum and maximum distance measured, which makes the function far more useful. For instance, you can check a room or door jamb for square by sticking the lasers tailpiece into a corner, sweeping the beam across the opposite corner, reading the maximum length, then repeating for the other diagonal. Tracking the minimum reading between two surfaces is also useful  for fitting built-ins between two out-of-plumb walls, for example. (For some reason, the new Stanley TLM 165 min/max mode only works with indirect measuring, not tracking.) Seven models offer a stake-out mode, used for laying out a series of equal intervals by setting the spacing dimension and moving the laser away from a fixed target. A change in tone pitch or frequency indicates when each interval has been reached. Its reasonably accurate but slower than using a tape.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp6AEA%2Etmp_tcm80-1752760.jpg

    Tracking, min/max, stake-out. All of these tools can take a continuous reading while moving toward or away from a target, which is called tracking. Eight tools can also freeze the minimum and maximum distance measured, which makes the function far more useful. For instance, you can check a room or door jamb for square by sticking the lasers tailpiece into a corner, sweeping the beam across the opposite corner, reading the maximum length, then repeating for the other diagonal. Tracking the minimum reading between two surfaces is also useful for fitting built-ins between two out-of-plumb walls, for example. (For some reason, the new Stanley TLM 165 min/max mode only works with indirect measuring, not tracking.) Seven models offer a stake-out mode, used for laying out a series of equal intervals by setting the spacing dimension and moving the laser away from a fixed target. A change in tone pitch or frequency indicates when each interval has been reached. Its reasonably accurate but slower than using a tape.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Tracking, min/max, stake-out. All of these tools can take a continuous reading while moving toward or away from a target, which is called “tracking.” Eight tools can also freeze the minimum and maximum distance measured, which makes the function far more useful. For instance, you can check a room or door jamb for square by sticking the laser’s tailpiece into a corner, sweeping the beam across the opposite corner, reading the maximum length, then repeating for the other diagonal. Tracking the minimum reading between two surfaces is also useful — for fitting built-ins between two out-of-plumb walls, for example. (For some reason, the new Stanley TLM 165 min/max mode only works with indirect measuring, not tracking.) Seven models offer a “stake-out” mode, used for laying out a series of equal intervals by setting the spacing dimension and moving the laser away from a fixed target. A change in tone pitch or frequency indicates when each interval has been reached. It’s reasonably accurate but slower than using a tape.

  • Inclinometers. The Bosch GLM 80, Leica Disto E7400x, and Stanley TLM 330 have built-in tilt sensors, or inclinometers, that not only measure slopes and angles, but raise indirect vertical and horizontal measuring to the next level. Say you need to measure the horizontal distance to a wall, but theres a couch in the way. You can angle the meter up until the laser dot clears the couch and hits the wall, click once, and get the precise horizontal measurement (assuming the wall is plumb). Boschs optional R60 attachment (shown) instantly converts the GLM 80 into a 24-inch electronic spirit level to make the inclinometer even more versatile.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp7637%2Etmp_tcm80-1752773.jpg

    Inclinometers. The Bosch GLM 80, Leica Disto E7400x, and Stanley TLM 330 have built-in tilt sensors, or inclinometers, that not only measure slopes and angles, but raise indirect vertical and horizontal measuring to the next level. Say you need to measure the horizontal distance to a wall, but theres a couch in the way. You can angle the meter up until the laser dot clears the couch and hits the wall, click once, and get the precise horizontal measurement (assuming the wall is plumb). Boschs optional R60 attachment (shown) instantly converts the GLM 80 into a 24-inch electronic spirit level to make the inclinometer even more versatile.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Inclinometers. The Bosch GLM 80, Leica Disto E7400x, and Stanley TLM 330 have built-in tilt sensors, or inclinometers, that not only measure slopes and angles, but raise indirect vertical and horizontal measuring to the next level. Say you need to measure the horizontal distance to a wall, but there’s a couch in the way. You can angle the meter up until the laser dot clears the couch and hits the wall, click once, and get the precise horizontal measurement (assuming the wall is plumb). Bosch’s optional R60 attachment (shown) instantly converts the GLM 80 into a 24-inch electronic spirit level to make the inclinometer even more versatile.

  • Indirect measurements. When poor access, obstacles, or the lack of a dependable target prevent direct measurements, units with inclinometers can use internal trig functions to calculate various dimensions indirectly from a distance. Several models can use Pythagorean geometry instead to indirectly calculate certain measurements like wall heights, requiring two or three shots taken from a distance. But you only get precise results with Pythagoras functions if you always pivot the meter off a fixed point and ensure one 90-degree angle. Leica, Milwaukee, Stabila, and Stanley allow you to use the min/max function when taking these measurements, which helps. But in any case, careful freehand shots are fine for estimating.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp702C%2Etmp_tcm80-1752765.jpg

    Indirect measurements. When poor access, obstacles, or the lack of a dependable target prevent direct measurements, units with inclinometers can use internal trig functions to calculate various dimensions indirectly from a distance. Several models can use Pythagorean geometry instead to indirectly calculate certain measurements like wall heights, requiring two or three shots taken from a distance. But you only get precise results with Pythagoras functions if you always pivot the meter off a fixed point and ensure one 90-degree angle. Leica, Milwaukee, Stabila, and Stanley allow you to use the min/max function when taking these measurements, which helps. But in any case, careful freehand shots are fine for estimating.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Indirect measurements. When poor access, obstacles, or the lack of a dependable target prevent direct measurements, units with inclinometers can use internal trig functions to calculate various dimensions indirectly from a distance. Several models can use Pythagorean geometry instead to indirectly calculate certain measurements like wall heights, requiring two or three shots taken from a distance. But you only get precise results with Pythagoras functions if you always pivot the meter off a fixed point and ensure one 90-degree angle. Leica, Milwaukee, Stabila, and Stanley allow you to use the min/max function when taking these measurements, which helps. But in any case, careful freehand shots are fine for estimating.

  • Target Accessories. Laser-enhancement glasses make it much easier to see the laser dot on distant targets or in bright light. Target plates (above right) maximize the measuring range and brighten the dot. The two items shown above are Hilti accessories. In a pinch, a Post-it note (below) makes a quick and easy target at edges and outside corners.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp454A%2Etmp_tcm80-1752704.jpg

    Target Accessories. Laser-enhancement glasses make it much easier to see the laser dot on distant targets or in bright light. Target plates (above right) maximize the measuring range and brighten the dot. The two items shown above are Hilti accessories. In a pinch, a Post-it note (below) makes a quick and easy target at edges and outside corners.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Target Accessories. Laser-enhancement glasses make it much easier to see the laser dot on distant targets or in bright light. Target plates (above right) maximize the measuring range and brighten the dot. The two items shown above are Hilti accessories. In a pinch, a Post-it note (below) makes a quick and easy target at edges and outside corners.

  • Area, volume, , -. Eleven of the models can compute square footage, and can also add and subtract dimensions and results. To find the area of a wall, for instance, you measure length and height, then read the result on the display. You can also measure a series of walls this way and add the results as you go. Better yet, the Bosch GLM 80 can store a common ceiling height, then apply it to any number of wall lengths to calculate the total area. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x essentially do the same thing, but you have to press the  button between the length measurements. Ten of the models can also measure volumes, which can be especially useful for hvac calculations.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp49D0%2Etmp_tcm80-1752712.jpg

    Area, volume, , -. Eleven of the models can compute square footage, and can also add and subtract dimensions and results. To find the area of a wall, for instance, you measure length and height, then read the result on the display. You can also measure a series of walls this way and add the results as you go. Better yet, the Bosch GLM 80 can store a common ceiling height, then apply it to any number of wall lengths to calculate the total area. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x essentially do the same thing, but you have to press the button between the length measurements. Ten of the models can also measure volumes, which can be especially useful for hvac calculations.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Area, volume, +, -. Eleven of the models can compute square footage, and can also add and subtract dimensions and results. To find the area of a wall, for instance, you measure length and height, then read the result on the display. You can also measure a series of walls this way and add the results as you go. Better yet, the Bosch GLM 80 can store a common ceiling height, then apply it to any number of wall lengths to calculate the total area. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x essentially do the same thing, but you have to press the “+” button between the length measurements. Ten of the models can also measure volumes, which can be especially useful for hvac calculations.

  • Memory. Lasers with memory store measurements even while the power is off. Nine can store the last five to 50 dimensions or results in order. The Bosch GLM 80, Stanley TLM 330, and Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x let you delete the memory so you can start a new list. Except for the Leica E7300, these also store complete calculations, as does the Spectra Precision QM55.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp7D7B%2Etmp_tcm80-1752781.jpg

    Memory. Lasers with memory store measurements even while the power is off. Nine can store the last five to 50 dimensions or results in order. The Bosch GLM 80, Stanley TLM 330, and Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x let you delete the memory so you can start a new list. Except for the Leica E7300, these also store complete calculations, as does the Spectra Precision QM55.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Memory. Lasers with memory store measurements even while the power is off. Nine can store the last five to 50 dimensions or results in order. The Bosch GLM 80, Stanley TLM 330, and Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x let you delete the memory so you can start a new list. Except for the Leica E7300, these also store complete calculations, as does the Spectra Precision QM55.

  • Power. Twelve of the meters run on two AA or AAA alkaline batteries that allegedly deliver up to 5,000 to 10,000 measurements. But the Bosch GLM 80 uses a convenient rechargeable 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery thats supposed to deliver up to 25,000 measurements per charge and takes about three hours to recharge. The compact charger plugs the meter into an AC outlet so you dont have to remove the battery. All of the batteries drain faster if the backlights and beeps are turned on or you leave the power on longer than necessary.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp4EE2%2Etmp_tcm80-1752720.jpg

    Power. Twelve of the meters run on two AA or AAA alkaline batteries that allegedly deliver up to 5,000 to 10,000 measurements. But the Bosch GLM 80 uses a convenient rechargeable 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery thats supposed to deliver up to 25,000 measurements per charge and takes about three hours to recharge. The compact charger plugs the meter into an AC outlet so you dont have to remove the battery. All of the batteries drain faster if the backlights and beeps are turned on or you leave the power on longer than necessary.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Power. Twelve of the meters run on two AA or AAA alkaline batteries that allegedly deliver up to 5,000 to 10,000 measurements. But the Bosch GLM 80 uses a convenient rechargeable 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery that’s supposed to deliver up to 25,000 measurements per charge and takes about three hours to recharge. The compact charger plugs the meter into an AC outlet so you don’t have to remove the battery. All of the batteries drain faster if the backlights and beeps are turned on or you leave the power on longer than necessary.

  • Reference points. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 both measure from the back end only, while the other models can also measure from the front. Ten models include a tailpiece that allows you to take measurements easily from inside corners to check diagonals. The Bosch GLM 80, the three Leicas (one of which is shown), the Milwaukee, the Stabila, and the Stanley TLM 330 can also hook outside corners for easier measuring from the back end. Five models can mount to a tripod and be set to measure from the center of the socket.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp54BF%2Etmp_tcm80-1752728.jpg

    Reference points. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 both measure from the back end only, while the other models can also measure from the front. Ten models include a tailpiece that allows you to take measurements easily from inside corners to check diagonals. The Bosch GLM 80, the three Leicas (one of which is shown), the Milwaukee, the Stabila, and the Stanley TLM 330 can also hook outside corners for easier measuring from the back end. Five models can mount to a tripod and be set to measure from the center of the socket.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Reference points. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 both measure from the back end only, while the other models can also measure from the front. Ten models include a tailpiece that allows you to take measurements easily from inside corners to check diagonals. The Bosch GLM 80, the three Leicas (one of which is shown), the Milwaukee, the Stabila, and the Stanley TLM 330 can also hook outside corners for easier measuring from the back end. Five models can mount to a tripod and be set to measure from the center of the socket.

  • Image

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp59A2%2Etmp_tcm80-1752736.jpg

    Image

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

  • Helpful display. All of the models have illuminated displays, but the backlight on the Bosch GLM 80 is the brightest. Its also the only one that can be operated manually or controlled by an ambient-light sensor. Whats more, the unique display can be set to rotate automatically for an easy read regardless of the orientation.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp5E94%2Etmp_tcm80-1752744.jpg

    Helpful display. All of the models have illuminated displays, but the backlight on the Bosch GLM 80 is the brightest. Its also the only one that can be operated manually or controlled by an ambient-light sensor. Whats more, the unique display can be set to rotate automatically for an easy read regardless of the orientation.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Helpful display. All of the models have illuminated displays, but the backlight on the Bosch GLM 80 is the brightest. It’s also the only one that can be operated manually or controlled by an ambient-light sensor. What’s more, the unique display can be set to rotate automatically for an easy read regardless of the orientation.

  • Keypad lock. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto 7300 and 7400x allow you to lock the keypad. That prevents them from accidentally turning on and draining the batteries when riding in a pocket or toolbelt.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp827E%2Etmp_tcm80-1752790.jpg

    Keypad lock. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto 7300 and 7400x allow you to lock the keypad. That prevents them from accidentally turning on and draining the batteries when riding in a pocket or toolbelt.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Keypad lock. The Stanley TLM 330 and the Leica Disto 7300 and 7400x allow you to lock the keypad. That prevents them from accidentally turning on and draining the batteries when riding in a pocket or toolbelt.

  • Durability. Most of the manufacturers claim that theyve tested the shock-resistance of their lasers by dropping them onto a hard surface from a height of one meter. Spectra Precision drop-tests from 1.5 meters, and Leica drop-tests the Disto E7400x from 2 meters. Nine of the lasers have an IP54 rating, which means that dust intrusion and water splashes have no ill effects. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 rate at IP55, while the Leica Disto E7400x rates at IP65; you can drop all three in the mud and wash them off, and the Leica is also completely sealed against dust.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp8751%2Etmp_tcm80-1752798.jpg

    Durability. Most of the manufacturers claim that theyve tested the shock-resistance of their lasers by dropping them onto a hard surface from a height of one meter. Spectra Precision drop-tests from 1.5 meters, and Leica drop-tests the Disto E7400x from 2 meters. Nine of the lasers have an IP54 rating, which means that dust intrusion and water splashes have no ill effects. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 rate at IP55, while the Leica Disto E7400x rates at IP65; you can drop all three in the mud and wash them off, and the Leica is also completely sealed against dust.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Durability. Most of the manufacturers claim that they’ve tested the shock-resistance of their lasers by dropping them onto a hard surface from a height of one meter. Spectra Precision drop-tests from 1.5 meters, and Leica drop-tests the Disto E7400x from 2 meters. Nine of the lasers have an IP54 rating, which means that dust intrusion and water splashes have no ill effects. The Hilti PD 5 and Spectra Precision QM75 rate at IP55, while the Leica Disto E7400x rates at IP65; you can drop all three in the mud and wash them off, and the Leica is also completely sealed against dust.

  • Continuous beam. When shooting a series of lengths, such as when installing baseboard, you normally have to press the top button twice per measurement  once to turn on the beam and a second time to take the measurement and turn the beam off. But the Bosch GLM 80, the Stanley TLM 330, and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x also let you keep the beam turned on so you only have to press the button once per measurement.Signal strength. Spectra Precisions QM55 is the only LDM in the group with a signal-strength indicator. More bars indicate a stronger signal, which means a faster, more dependable measurement.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp9116%2Etmp_tcm80-1752807.jpg

    Continuous beam. When shooting a series of lengths, such as when installing baseboard, you normally have to press the top button twice per measurement once to turn on the beam and a second time to take the measurement and turn the beam off. But the Bosch GLM 80, the Stanley TLM 330, and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x also let you keep the beam turned on so you only have to press the button once per measurement.Signal strength. Spectra Precisions QM55 is the only LDM in the group with a signal-strength indicator. More bars indicate a stronger signal, which means a faster, more dependable measurement.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Continuous beam. When shooting a series of lengths, such as when installing baseboard, you normally have to press the top button twice per measurement — once to turn on the beam and a second time to take the measurement and turn the beam off. But the Bosch GLM 80, the Stanley TLM 330, and the Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x also let you keep the beam turned on so you only have to press the button once per measurement. Signal strength. Spectra Precision’s QM55 is the only LDM in the group with a signal-strength indicator. More bars indicate a stronger signal, which means a faster, more dependable measurement.

  • Timers. Six of the lasers have a programmable timer that delays the shot after you press the measure button. Because you can press then aim (rather than having to press the button while trying to keep the beam on the target) its much easier to aim the beam precisely in an awkward position or at long distances.

    http://www.toolsofthetrade.net/Images/tmp658A%2Etmp_tcm80-1752752.jpg

    Timers. Six of the lasers have a programmable timer that delays the shot after you press the measure button. Because you can press then aim (rather than having to press the button while trying to keep the beam on the target) its much easier to aim the beam precisely in an awkward position or at long distances.

    600

    Bruce Greenlaw

    Timers. Six of the lasers have a programmable timer that delays the shot after you press the measure button. Because you can press then aim (rather than having to press the button while trying to keep the beam on the target) it’s much easier to aim the beam precisely in an awkward position or at long distances.

 

Leica Geosystems introduced the first hand-held laser distance meter in 1993. Although there are now at least 17 brands and 42 models on the market, most of us still exclusively use our familiar steel tape measures. But postings on various builders' forums indicate that the mindset among pros is gradually changing as they gain trust in laser-measuring technology and realize the benefits.

Laser distance meters, or LDMs, work by bouncing a visible laser beam off a stationary surface. They receive the reflection through a lens, calculate the phase shift or time of flight, and translate the results into a digital measurement. The simple point-and-click operation normally delivers a measurement in less than a second and allows you to measure by yourself with minimal walking and climbing.

LDMs can quickly measure existing architecture for preparing floor plans and elevations, and some are ideal for estimating and takeoffs. Finish carpenters have discovered that well-equipped models are faster and more accurate than tapes when running baseboard, crown moldings, chair rail, and long top casings, or when squaring up jambs for wide or tall doors. Some models can find the angles for stair skirts and handrails.

The meters have limited value for framing, but they do make it easier to frame walls in place, fit tall posts, and measure between rim boards to size long joists. You can also use them to plan staging, determine which of your ladders will reach a roof, measure between deck posts for infilling top and bottom rails, and so on. Tapes are still required, however, for taking very short measurements, transferring dimensions to your stock at the cutting station, and measuring to a layout mark, an edge, or an outside corner (unless you put a target there).

You can buy a basic LDM for around $100 (or less) that's accurate to within 3/32 inch. At the other extreme, $350 to $800 buys advanced features, such as built-in scopes or cameras that make it easier to aim at distant targets or in bright light, and integrated Bluetooth for transmitting data to Excel, AutoCAD, and other programs.

For this article, I evaluated 13 state-of-the-art models that cost about $115 to $280 and are accurate to within 1/16 inch or better. In my opinion, that's the sweet spot for most residential and light-commercial work. I used the tools for several weeks, then compared their features, performance, and ease of use.

Range

The spec chart on the next two pages lists the range and accuracy for each model. To measure at the maximum distance, though, you need to aim the laser at a target plate like the ones sold by Bosch, Hilti, and Leica. These plates increase the measuring range and effectively magnify and brighten the dot for easier viewing. Aiming at typical building materials can reduce the range by 20% or more. Bright light, high temperatures, and unpredictable surfaces such as shiny metal can all cause measuring problems, but you'll normally receive an error alert rather than an incorrect measurement when conditions are unfavorable.

Outdoors, the biggest issue is being able to spot the laser dot from a reasonable distance or in bright light. Using a target plate is one solution, but you have to position it and account for its thickness, which is extra work.

Laser-enhancement eyeglasses, on the other hand, make it easier to spot the dot without adding any extra steps. Wearing Hilti's optional PUA 60 glasses, I could (with plenty of concentration) find the dot from more than 150 feet away when measuring to shaded yellow metal siding, virtually doubling my viewing range. When I tried to measure to a sunny section, I could barely see the dot at 10 feet without the glasses, but with them I could pick it out of the glare at 50 feet. Prices for laser-enhancement glasses start at about $10.

Five of the meters I tested can mount to a tripod, which also makes it much easier to hit a distant target.

I found that most of these LDMs can measure lengths down to about 2 to 4 inches, but three of them needed more than a foot of separation to record a measurement.

Accuracy

According to Stanley Tools, short FatMax tapes are accurate to 1/16 inch, not counting sag or temperature fluctuation. Long tapes are typically less reliable, declining to 1/2-inch accuracy at just 33 feet. By comparison, nine of the LDMs are supposed to be accurate to 1/16 inch, and four to 1/25 inch.

Some manuals recommend that you periodically verify the accuracy by setting up a fixed target at a known distance from the meter (Hilti recommends about 3 to 15 feet) and measuring the distance 10 times to check for deviation. I clamped a 2-by stop to one end of a kitchen island and used my FatMax tape to position a hardwood block 11 feet away to serve as a target, then took 30 shots with each model. I repeated the test another day with a white target plate. All 13 models passed the tests, straying within limits only occasionally.

Units of Measurement

All 13 models can measure in fractional inches, feet and inches, decimal feet, and metric units. The Leica Disto E7300 and E7400x and the two Stanley models also display decimal inches, while the Bosch GLM 80, Hilti PD 5, and Spectra Precision QM75 and QM95 can show decimal inches and yards. For finish carpentry, I appreciate the models that display fractions down to 1/32 inch. Six of the models do that, while the rest go down to 1/16 inch.