By Rex Cauldwell
As both a master plumber and master electrician, I drill more holes for pipe and wire in a day than most tradesmen might in a week. It seems like I've got a drill in my hands most of the day, and more often than not it's a cordless tool. Using cordless drills improves convenience, safety, and speed for most of my jobs, and unless I'm drilling large-diameter or very deep holes, my cords stay in the van.
Tool manufacturers sell the most cordless drills in voltages between 14.4 and 24. For my needs, 14.4-volt models are a little underpowered and 24 volters seem a bit heavy, so I tested 10 tools with batteries of 15.6, 18, and 19.2 volts. I tested the Hilti SF 150-A and Panasonic EY6432GQKW 15.6-volt tools. At 18 volts, I tested the Bosch 33618, Craftsman 27124, DeWalt DW987K-2, Hitachi DS18DVB, Makita 6347DWDE, Metabo BST18 Plus, and Milwaukee 0622-24. I also tested the lone 19.2-volt model, the Porter-Cable 9984.
I tested the tools on my jobsites and then in my shop running some speed and duration tests. I compared each model's balance, weight, and comfort. I also evaluated how easily I could reach and operate the switches. But the two most important test criteria for me were chuck quality and the number of holes I could drill at high and low speeds.
A tool that's easy to move and position makes a big difference over time, especially if you spend a lot of time reaching between joists to sink holes. Tool size, handle thickness, balance, battery exchange, and battery orientation all affect a tool's feel. So do placement and movement of switches.
Size. Compact tools can feel lighter--even if they're not--and they're easier to maneuver and use. All the drills in this test, except the Craftsman model, are lean and compact and roughly the same size. The 15.6-volt Panasonic is the most compact of the bunch and is good for tight spaces or small hands.
Another handle feature that makes a tool easier to use is a non-slip surface. Most of the tools have comfortable non-slip surfaces that provide a better grip. Hitachi's handle is made up almost entirely of non-slip materials, so it's good for gripping. Metabo's all-plastic handle has no gripping surface, which makes it a bit tougher to hold when you're tired or if your hands are sweaty.
Balance. Once a drill/driver gets over 14.4 volts, battery location, orientation to the motor housing, and handle length can affect a tool's feel and balance. The motors on the DeWalt, Panasonic, Porter-Cable, and Craftsman models are parallel to the horizontal battery and each, except the Craftsman, has fine balance. The Craftsman's balance gets thrown off by its large battery, which is way out at the end of its long handle. The Bosch, Hilti, Hitachi, Makita, Metabo, and Milwaukee tools cant the battery down, creating an angle between the motor housing and battery, which provides a little better balance for me; I find those tools more comfortable to use.
Battery Exchange. Metabo wins the blue ribbon for easy battery exchange. Depressing one large button on the back of the handle with your palm releases the battery, which then literally falls out. Nothing is easier. Craftsman's and Milwaukee's front-slide batteries exchange nicely, too, and Milwaukee's battery is reversible. Porter-Cable's system is a rear slide-in that takes some practice to get right.
The 18-volt Hitachi and 15.6-volt Hilti use long vertical batteries. The extra-long Hitachi release tabs are easy-to-reach and the battery slides out nicely. The short Hilti tabs are hard to reach from underneath, so you must access them from the rear of the tool, making battery exchange slightly more difficult. The Panasonic, Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita have the typical "pinch-and-pull" system that has worked well for years.
Switches. All of the trigger switches felt secure and solid. I prefer large triggers, which are easier to use when wearing gloves or in awkward positions. All but the Hitachi model provide nice oversized triggers.
The reverse switches on all the drills were located at thumb level. The Bosch, Milwaukee, Hitachi, Craftsman, and Porter-Cable switches are big and easy to press. The DeWalt, Makita, and Panasonic are a little too small for my liking, but are pretty easy to press. The Hilti switch is tapered to match the tool body's curvature. It worked fine, but I didn't feel like I had solid contact with it when I used it. The Metabo switch was too far forward, making it hard to reach.