Today's cordless drills are significantly better than the ones I used four or five years ago — they have more power and greater runtime, and take less time to charge. Many of them are lighter, too. The most obvious change has been the move from nicad to lithium-ion batteries, with lithium-ion becoming the de facto standard for pro-grade tools. But it's not just the batteries that have gotten better; now motors are smaller and more efficient, and chargers charge more effectively, because they communicate with the batteries.
For this article we looked at compact and heavy-duty cordless drill/drivers with 1/2-inch chucks. I evaluated these tools by using them myself and by sending them out with my remodeling and deck-building crews.
I didn't perform runtime testing, but the editor of this article did; the results can be found in the sidebar .
All the drills we tested are 18-volt models, except for the Hilti, which is rated for 21.6 volts. We included it because it's not any bigger than an 18-volt tool.
A compact 18-volt battery pack contains a string of five 3.6-volt cells wired in series (5 x 3.6 = 18) and is typically rated at 1.5 amp-hours (Ah). Full-size 18-volt packs contain two such strings wired to each other in parallel, a configuration that increases the storage capacity to about 3.0 Ah without affecting voltage. A 21.6-volt battery contains more cells — there are six cells in a compact version and 12 cells in a full-size pack.
Some contractors are very focused on runtime, but it's rarely an issue for us. I keep plenty of spares around, and in the time it takes to drain a battery there is nearly always time to charge a spare. It might be different if we drilled hole after hole or drove lag after lag, but that's not how we work. If you're doing the kind of production work where you can outpace the charger, then you'd do well to stick to corded tools.
For me, one of the most important things about a battery is the number of tools it works with. I regularly use cordless drills, impact drivers, recip saws, circular saws, hammer drills, and angle grinders, and it would be hard for me to buy into a battery system that did not include those tools. Your list of must-have tools may be different; before you buy into a system, find out which tools are in it.
With their large motors, heavy-duty gearing, and — in most cases — all-metal chucks, heavy-duty tools weigh more than compact models, even without batteries. Compact tools come with smaller batteries and typically have plastic chuck sleeves (meaning the gripping surface is plastic).
The small drilling and driving tasks that I perform on a day-to-day basis — installing cabinet hardware, driving drywall screws, drilling small holes, and so on — can usually be done with a compact drill. But if I need to use a large-diameter hole saw, spade bit, or auger, I'll go with a heavy-duty drill, even though it means handling more weight.
Speed and Power
While most 18-volt drills have two gear settings, the DeWalt DCD980L2 and the Makita BDF451 have three, which allows you to better match power to the task at hand. I like this feature, but it wouldn't greatly affect my purchase decision.
I found myself gravitating toward the tools with the highest maximum rpm, because they drill noticeably faster with twist bits and small spade bits. Both DeWalts top out at 2,000 rpm; their nearest competitor is the Hilti, which tops out at 1,800 rpm. Many models are significantly slower.
Rpm and other information can be found in the spec boxes for the tools (Go to specs). We did not include a torque specification, because manufacturers don't adhere to a common test standard, and their published specs frequently bear no relation to how powerful a tool actually feels. For example, Bosch's compact model is rated at 600 inch-pounds of torque, and Ridgid's at 535 inch-pounds — yet the Ridgid feels more powerful. We noticed this a lot in our testing: The published torque specs weren't a reliable indicator of how the tools compared to each other in use.
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.
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.
All of the drills have cases, though I rarely used them because most don't have space for the drill bits that need to be with the drill. The only hard case that provides a reasonably large space for storing bits is Metabo's. Don't assume that a larger case has more storage space: If the case is blow-molded, much of its space could be inaccessible. In fact, if I had to choose a hard case, I'd probably end up getting the smallest one possible because it would take up less room.
The only case I really like is the soft bag that comes with the Hilti. It's big enough to hold a drill, a charger, batteries, bits, and even some other tools.
If your line of work requires frequent use of big hole saws, augers, and spade bits, you'll need the power of a heavy-duty drill. Heavy-duty drills typically include side handles so you can better control the tool in high-torque applications. Every heavy-duty tool except the Festool ships with a side handle.
Of the compact models, only the Ridgid includes a handle, which is not absolutely necessary but sometimes comes in handy. If I knew I'd be drilling a lot of big holes, I would definitely want a side handle.
Most drills have a single chuck that's permanently attached to the tool. The Festool's standard (three-jaw) chuck can be removed without tools and replaced with a right-angle chuck, an offset chuck, or a proprietary (Centrotec) bit holder. The chucks are included in the price of the drill and make it possible to drill and fasten in locations where standard drills simply won't fit.
The Bottom Line
I had a hard time choosing favorite models because every drill in this test is a capable tool. My favorite compact models are the DeWalt DCD780C2 and the Ridgid R86008K. The DeWalt has a comfortable grip, is very compact, and has a higher top speed than any other tool in its class. I like the Ridgid because it feels quite powerful, has a light that can be activated automatically or manually, andis the only compact model that comes with a side handle.
My favorite heavy-duty models are the DeWalt DCD980L2 and the Milwaukee 2610-24. The DeWalt has a powerful motor, excellent ergonomics, and a three-speed gear box that allows it to spin faster than other tools of its type. The Milwaukee feels very powerful and — in spite of its greater-than-average weight — very comfortable to use. And the included metal side handle is stiffer than the plastic handles that come with many other drills.
Greg DiBernardo owns Fine Home Improvements of Waldwick in Waldwick, N.J
Every pro-grade lithium-ion drill has a reasonable amount of runtime, but some have more than others. To compare the runtimes of the tools listed below, I counted the number of holes each could drill through 2-by Douglas fir per charge with a 1-inch self-feeding auger bit. This task was well within the capabilities of the heavy-duty drills but was a stretch for some of the compact models, especially when their batteries neared depletion.
Each tool had a new bit and was run in low gear. I avoided knots and touched up the bits with a sharpening stone partway through the test. I ran the batteries to exhaustion (or until the electronics stopped the motor), but to avoid overheating them, I switched to a different drill after every eight holes.
I performed this test five times per drill and made use of both batteries. When the testing was done I threw out the high and low scores for each tool and averaged the remaining numbers. The results can be found in the chart below.
It's worth noting that most carpenters will never drill this many 1-inch holes in a row with a cordless tool, and that under normal conditions they could most likely work all day on a pair of batteries.
— David Frane