A drill/driver is to a tradesman what a six-shooter is to a gunslinger: a constant companion and everyday tool. So we tested the latest premium drill/drivers—18-volt models, because that's the most common battery platform; and brushless, because that type of motor represents the state of the art. For this article, I got ahold of the six brushless models available at the time of testing (the summer of 2013).
Brushless drill/drivers are relatively new and there is no standard size class. Different brands followed different paths to their latest models, so this test includes compact, mid-size, and full-size tools.
The DeWalt is the only compact; the Metabo and Milwaukee are full-sized brutes; and the Makita, Festool, and Hitachi (listed in increasing size order) fall somewhere in between. Makita's tool is a hammer drill/driver, so it is slightly outside of the test criteria, but we included it because it's the only brushless drill/driver that Makita sells in the U.S.
The capabilities of the tools are scaled to the size of their motors, gearboxes, and batteries, so this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. For that reason I decided to forgo torque testing and concentrate on finding out what the tools could and could not do.
Brushless motors offer several advantages over standard (brushed) motors. They are more compact, they have no brushes to wear out, and they are more efficient, so they can do more work per charge. And because they are electronically commutated, it's easy to integrate advanced control features. (For a more detailed look at brushless technology, see "Brushing Up on Brushless," Winter 2013.)
To test the limits of these tools' power, I used them to perform progressively more difficult drilling and driving tasks in both high and low gear (see table, facing page). The tougher tasks were more challenging than what you would normally expect an 18-volt cordless drill/driver to be able to do.
I tested runtime by drilling 1-inch holes through 2-by Douglas fir framing lumber with single-flute auger bits until the batteries were depleted. To avoid overheating the drills, I rested them after each set of eight holes. This is the same protocol used in Tools of the Trade's last 18-volt drill/driver test (Spring 2012), but the numbers are not directly comparable because while the bits were the same, the wood was not. For example, the same Festool model was included in both tests, but it drilled 21 fewer holes in mine—which I attribute to the wood. The earlier test was performed in California with relatively green lumber; my test was performed in Colorado, where extreme low humidity causes wood to get dry and hard very fast.
Each tool was tested with its supplied battery, which varied in power from a 2.0-amp-hour (Ah) compact pack to a full-size 5.2-Ah pack (that has yet to be released in this country). The tools in between were tested with 3.0-Ah or 4.0-Ah packs. Therefore, the results do not provide a straight comparison; instead they give a sense of what to expect with the supplied battery. Where an upgrade is available, you can increase runtime by purchasing a higher-Ah pack. The results from the runtime test (with the specified battery) are as follows:
DeWalt (2.0 Ah), 44 holes/charge
Hitachi (3.0 Ah), 66 holes/charge
Makita (3.0 Ah), 66 holes/charge
Festool (3.0 Ah), 73 holes/charge
Milwaukee (4.0 Ah), 111 holes/charge
Metabo (5.2 Ah), 133 holes/charge
Like other drill/drivers, the tools in this test have variable-speed triggers, two speed ranges, drill or drive modes, and a clutch to regulate the driving force. However, the internal electronics make for some differences.
Optical trigger. Hitachi uses an optical trigger that is said to be more durable and provide smoother speed transition than traditional mechanical ones.
Speed control. As with other models, high and low gear are controlled by a mechanical slide switch, but Hitachi added an electronic control that limits max rpm to four steps within each gear. This feature makes more sense on its brushless impact driver; with a drill, it's simpler to reduce speed by feathering the trigger or using low gear.
Electronic clutch. Most drill/drivers have friction clutches, which give way at a certain level of resistance. The Festool and Metabo tools, however, have electronic clutches that are coupled to the trigger. Instead of disengaging the chuck from the still-spinning motor, they immediately stop the motor. These electronic clutches are very precise—a little too precise for driving in wood. A friction clutch will still drive fasteners the last little bit while slipping, but electronic clutches are more abrupt; they stop and start at a particular torque and there's no outsmarting them. As a result, when working in wood, I tend to leave them at the highest setting or in drill mode.
Mode switch. The usual arrangement for a drill/driver is for it to have a drill-mode setting at the high end of the clutch ring. Makita and Milwaukee equipped their tools with separate mechanical mode-changing rings. Besides being quicker, this allows you to switch between drilling and driving without changing clutch settings. Festool and Metabo rely on electronics to bypass the clutch—a switch on the former and a push-button on the latter.
For years, Metabo has offered what it calls the "impuls" pulse mode. When you hold the trigger down in this mode, the tool rapidly cycles on and off like a slow impact driver. I don't find much use for this feature in my work, but the action is supposed to help when you're starting drill bits in metal or backing out screws with stripped heads.
Although not particular to brushless models, higher amp-hour batteries are often associated with them. When used together they make for incredible runtime; in fact, it's difficult to tell how much of the increased runtime of these tools is attributable to the higher efficiency of their brushless motors versus the larger fuel tank of higher amp-hour batteries.
As recently as last year, the average cordless system topped out at 3.0 Ah for full-size packs and 1.5 Ah for compact ones. For most tools, the current maximum for these sizes is 4.0 Ah and 2.0 Ah respectively. Metabo is premiering a full-size pack with a 5.2 Ah rating—an astounding number and the highest we have seen to date in an 18-volt tool.
Battery Fuel Gauges
It was a long time coming, but this is the first test I have done where every model had a fuel gauge. As with cellphones, more bars mean better service. I prefer the distinct accuracy of battery gauges with four bars (Metabo, Milwaukee) over those with three bars (DeWalt, Festool, Makita) and especially over the uncertainty of a two-bar gauge (Hitachi).
It's nice to have a little bit of juice left when the battery shuts down at the end of the charge. That way, you can restart the tool and finish removing a fastener or reverse an auger bit out of a hole without changing batteries. This is not the case with the Milwaukee, which drains every allowable milliwatt out of its battery and then leaves you instantly immobilized. The Makita also occasionally does this.
Festool, Makita, and Milwaukee put their lights in the usual place—just above the trigger. On the DeWalt and Metabo, the light's on top of the tool base where it will not be eclipsed by the chuck. Because of its low angle, the DeWalt's LED does the best job lighting the head of a screw or tip of a drill bit. The twin lights on the base of the Metabo are a good idea but they're aimed so far out that unless you're using a really long bit, they're worthless except as a flashlight.
There are spaces molded into the base of the Hitachi for a switch and light. Its brushless hammer drill/driver contains those items, but for some reason this drill/driver does not.
Belt hooks are standard issue with most drill/drivers. Of the tools tested, only the Milwaukee does not come with a belt hook. You can get one as an accessory but it requires a troublesome special order.
Most belt hooks consist of a large steel hoop that can attach to either side of the base alongside the battery. Festool attaches a double-sided hook to each battery, but the hook's small size and plastic attachment tab make me question its long-term durability.
It helps to have a removable side handle when you're drilling large holes or driving lags, because you want a good two-handed grip. This will not only protect your wrist; it may also prevent you from getting hit in the jaw with the butt end of a drill. The Hitachi, Metabo, and Milwaukee include side handles; the others do not.
The Bottom Line
The drill/drivers tested represent different size subclasses within the growing category of 18-volt brushless tools, so the best choice depends on the work you need it to do.
The DeWalt is currently the only compact, and I found myself reaching for it constantly for my everyday pilot-hole drilling and screw-driving tasks. At the other end of the scale are the Metabo and Milwaukee, the only models capable of driving a 2 9/16-inch self-feeding plumber's bit through framing lumber without slowing down. I give the nod to the Milwaukee because it's currently available in the U.S. The Metabo was just released in Germany and is scheduled for U.S. release in early 2014. If I didn't want to go compact or large, the mid-size Makita is a practical choice for most tasks.
DeWalt 20V MAX DCD 790
Includes: Two batteries; charger; plastic case
Comments: Lighter-duty tool with comfortable compact size and weight
Pro: Lightest and smallest in the test—both benefits that make a compact tool the preferred type for average tasks. Able to easily upgrade performance by using a full-size battery—a 4.0 Ah battery in this tool provides a bit more power and a lot more runtime. Most effective LED headlight.
Con: Less powerful than other brushless models. Compact battery had the shortest runtime.
Includes: Two batteries; charger; Centrotec bit holder, offset bit holder, right-angle bit holder/chuck mount, Systainer case. Less expensive drill kit available without accessory attachments.
Comments: Surprisingly strong tool with versatile attachments, but at quite a price
Pro: A mid-size tool that performed in the stronger half of the testing despite brand's reputation for refined woodworking shop tools. Even displayed great power in high gear. Chuck detaches easily without tools to allow the drill/driver to fit other attachments. The accessory ends in the kit tested provide a lot of versatility. Forward-thinking battery compatibility with all 18-, 15.6-, 14.4-, and 12-volt batteries from the brand.
Con: Very expensive compared to the competition. Exacting electronic clutch fussy to use. Belt hook not large and robust enough.
Includes: Two batteries; charger; side handle; plastic case
Comments: A medium-capacity tool with a few hidden frills
Pro: High-tech optical trigger that handles no electric current, said to last longer than mechanical trigger. Side handle comes in handy for high-torque work.
Con: The only tool lacking a headlight—the space used for the headlight on the brand's similar impact driver is just a blank on this tool. You constantly have to check if the electronic control is set to full power, because it's easy to bump the adjustment button inadvertently and set the tool to a lower power mode. The clutch ring suffered from a stiff action and an indistinct feel while setting at a detent. Imprecise two-bar battery fuel gauge.
Includes: This tool is being released first in a combo kit (XT248) along with an impact driver but will be available by the end of the year in a stand-alone kit with two batteries, charger, and plastic case or as a bare tool.
Comments: Mid-size, medium-duty, and lightweight—includes "bonus" hammer-drill function without a weight penalty
Pro: The lightest intermediate-size tool. Solid performance, useful features, and comfortable form factor make it a practical choice among the mid-size tools.
Con: Has noticeable play in the chuck/clutch/mode selection ring assembly that became apparent during heavier use. Weak clutch settings—won't drive medium to large screws unless set to drill mode. Shows one bar out of three on battery gauge when run completely down, making it difficult to judge the end of the charge.
Metabo BS18LTXBL Quick
Includes: Two batteries; charger; side handle, plastic case
Comments: Powerful, fast, exotic, and expensive, but with a few perplexing features
Pro: Very high power, the fastest in most of the trials, and the highest amp-hour cells we've ever tested provide the longest runtime. The unique pulse mode can aid in metal drilling and powering out stuck or stripped screws. Changing the electronic clutch setting automatically switches the tool to driver mode. Cool, high-tech innovations, like a motion-activated headlight that stays on as long as the tool is moving and a motor brake that returns electrical energy back into the battery. Chuck detaches easily without tools to allow unit to fit optional attachments. Side handle comes in handy for high-torque work.
Con: Exacting electronic clutch fussy to use. The center of the headlight is set to align with the tip of an 8-inch bit so it misses the mark for most common uses. The headlight's motion sensor is too sensitive—goes on with the slightest bump near the unit, which is distracting.
Milwaukee Fuel 2603-22
Includes: Two batteries; charger; side handle, plastic case
Comments: Heavy-duty, full-size tool—a strong performer
Pro: Very high power and long runtime (and a decent price) are an attractive combination. Arguably the strongest in the test with great power even in high gear. Side handle comes in handy for high-torque work.
Con: Heaviest in test. Only one without belt hook. Sudden battery cutoff can leave you stuck halfway through a task.