Compact 18-volt lithium-ion drill/drivers first hit the market a decade ago. I've always viewed them as a good choice for woodworkers and serious do-it-yourselfers, but the ones I’ve tried in the past lacked the portability of the 12-volt subcompacts and the muscle, speed, and runtime that builders often draw from their larger 18-volt heavyweights.
When DeWalt sent us its latest 20V MAX XR compact drill/driver (model DCD791) earlier this year, I was mostly interested in checking out its unique new 3-mode, base-mounted LED headlight. And hey, it’s great. It can project a low or medium beam with a 20-second afterglow, or a much brighter 60-lumen spotlight that stays lit for around 18 minutes after you squeeze and release the trigger, then flashes twice and dims to signal that it will shut itself off in two minutes. This welcome feature essentially adds a standard jobsite flashlight to the tool.
After drilling and driving with the DCD791, though, I’m surprised. Thanks to the latest generation of brushless motors and lithium-ion batteries, 18-volt compacts are clearly evolving into a practical category for builders and remodelers.
The DCD791 is 6 7/8 inches long, and it weighs 3.4 pounds when equipped with a 2-amp-hour battery from the kit I tested. That’s an inch shorter and 1.6 pounds lighter than DeWalt’s new full-size 20V MAX XR model DCD991 equipped with its 5-amp-hour battery and side handle. And although the DCD791 weighs .5 to 1.4 pounds more that the current 12-volt subcompacts, it’s actually shorter than some models. The upshot? The DCD791 hangs easily from belts and pockets, can tuck into my tool pouch, and can navigate tight spaces.
But the compact build is just part of the story. According to the specs, the DCD791 is 27% more powerful than its compact predecessor and almost as powerful as the full-size 20V MAX DeWalt from five years ago. It also delivers a top speed of 2,000 rpm, which is significantly faster than any subcompact.
To put the rubber to the road, I ran the new compact through my usual trials. Equipped with a 1-inch spade bit, it consistently powered through 2-by Douglas fir in about 5 seconds. A 1 1/2-inch spade bit took about 10 seconds. It also easily bored through the material with a 1-inch and 1 1/4-inch Irwin solid-center auger bit, a 2 1/8-inch self-feed bit, and a 3-inch hole saw. Raising the bar, I tried running a 1 1/2-inch solid-center auger bit and a 4-inch hole saw through the material. There seemed to be ample power for the job, but compact drill/drivers don’t have side handles and I couldn’t prevent snags and kickbacks. DeWalt says the tool can power a 2 9/16-inch self-feed bit through 2-by SPF in a pinch, but I didn’t try that. Like all the full-size 18-volt drill/drivers I’ve tested, the DCD791 could sink Simpson Strong-Tie’s .22-inch by 10-inch Strong-Drive SDWS structural wood screws into an LVL/LSL/PSL sandwich without pilot holes, though it felt like a bit of a stretch.
To put this performance into perspective, it was helpful that I recently tested the latest full-size Milwaukee M18 FUEL hammer drill for the July issue of JLC, and in fact often ran that tool and the new DeWalt compact head-to-head. Although they both have a top speed of 2,000 rpm, the Milwaukee’s higher torque often translated to significantly faster drilling speeds. For instance, it drilled my spade-bit holes up to about 70% faster than the compact DeWalt. And the Milwaukee’s side handle was indispensable when drilling big holes. For the most demanding tasks, you’ll definitely want to switch to a full-size model.
As for runtime, equipped with an Irwin 1-inch solid-center auger bit, the DCD791 drilled an average of 115 holes per charge though 2-by Douglas fir when I tested it with each of the included 2-amp-hour batteries. It took 57 minutes to recharge a depleted battery with the kit’s charger.
THE BOTTOM LINE
- A 12-volt subcompact drill/driver and a full-size 18-volt hammer drill can team up to comfortably handle almost any drilling job I encounter. If I were upgrading my tools right now, though, I’d consider substituting a brushless compact 18-volt drill/driver for the 12-volt subcompact. So far, I like everything about DeWalt’s compact DCD791, from its surprising power and runtime to its bright LED spotlight and metal-sleeved ratcheting chuck. I’m guessing it could handle at least 90% of my drilling chores, leaving the rest for my heavy-duty 18-volt hammer drill.
Tool weight: 3.43 pounds
- Length: 6 7/8 inches
- Rpm: 0-550/0-2,000
- Price: $200 (includes two 2-Ah batteries, charger, belt clip, plastic case)
- Warranty: 3 years, 90-day money-back guarantee
Bruce Greenlaw is a contributing editor to JLC and Tools of the Trade