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It would be hard to find any tool category in the history of this industry since the advent of the electric motor that has grown as fast as cordless lithium-ion (LI) tools. Since Milwaukee's official launch of the category two years ago, we've seen every major brand quickly enter the market with expanding lineups and with no slowdown in sight. The speed at which these brands have all entered the market indicates how close everyone was with their product development when the floodgates opened.
Are LI tools worth buying into now? It really depends on your jobsite needs, the condition of your existing cordless tool arsenal, and your addiction to chasing new technology. There's much that remains to evaluate about the technology of these tools, including claims of runtime, life cycles, and charging characteristics, let alone performance in the field. And because you will pay a high premium to buy into LI systems, calculating the balance between enhanced performance and increased costs is even more complex. Half of the brands are trying to soften the blow with cross-platform systems that allow the use of nicad batteries in the LI tools or even the opposite.
On paper at least, the power- and runtime-to-weight benefit offers LI's greatest advantage. Simply put, this is the ability to pack more energy into the same size battery or put the same amount of energy into a smaller battery-saving bulk and weight. The charge-anytime characteristic of these batteries is a great advance as well. Extremely long life cycles in the thousands of charges also are being promised by manufacturers, which should help offset the high initial cost.
We say "on paper– because it will be a long time before anyone can verify the real value of these new batteries. It takes manufacturers months to conduct their own sophisticated tests that, without industry standards, are impossible to use to compare claims between brands or to discern between hard facts and hype. Even some battery voltage naming seems creative based on the 3.6-volt cells inside. Each company can still make its own claims and, of course, can and does argue why its competitors are exaggerating theirs. What we do think is most true about lithium-ion tools is that they represent the cutting edge, not just in terms of a more efficient fuel source, but also refined designs and advanced features, developed for and found only in LI models, such as new, higher-voltage platforms never before available in smaller tools and various sizes of batteries available for the same tool.
With this category moving so quickly we'll surely be testing these tools on a regular basis. But with so many tools already available, we figured it was time to take things into our own hands-literally-and test-drive as many tools as we could get into our shop. So we collected every pro LI tool available, along with some soon-to-be-released models, from Bosch, Craftsman, DeWalt, Hilti, Hitachi, Makita, Metabo, Milwaukee, Panasonic, and Ridgid. Combined, our collection includes 59 tools: 10 brands, 15 categories, nine voltages, and 21 battery styles.
As you'll see from our comments for each tool in every category, it's hard to separate the tool from the fuel. Ergonomics, functionality, features, and overall performance are still more important selection criteria than the power source alone in our opinion, and there's a wide range of performance between tools in the same category that has nothing to with lithium-ion.
On the following pages you'll find our impressions for each tool in the 15 categories we tested, along with the features that impressed us–or not. Circ saws get our "most improved category– award. While these models won't replace corded versions as the cutting-station tool of choice for framing crews anytime soon, they're finally getting a lot closer to offering real power, speed, and pro features. Recip saws are ready for prime time. Rotary hammers are taking advantage of the power LI can bring without adding weight. Most of these bigger tools are headed toward corded performance. The new compact drill/drivers prove a smaller tool can do real work and be a joy to hold; the same can be said for the growing number of impact drivers. One trend we'd really like to see continue to accelerate is bringing cordless convenience to tools where the cords really are a problem, such as jigsaws and portable planers.
We also like where lithium-ion product development is leading manufacturers in terms of their batteries and chargers. First, we think every cordless battery for a pro tool should have a built-in gauge indicating state-of-charge. Bosch, Craftsman, Hilti, Metabo, Milwaukee, and Ridgid offer this now; the others require you to place their batteries in the chargers to find out. We also like the trend that Bosch and Makita have set offering two sizes of batteries within the same voltage, so you can shed some weight (at the cost of runtime) if you choose.
The price listed is the kit price for a tool with a case, charger, and one or two batteries. Some companies sell just the tool and those are listed as tool-only prices. And in one instance a tool is only available in a combo kit and therefore has no individual price.
Sources of Supply
Thanks to Irwin for providing the blades and bits for this test. 800-464-7946. www.irwin.com