What a difference three years can make. In 1997, we rounded up seven portable table saws typically found on job sites at that time. Most of those models had small cabinet bases and lightweight locking fences. While some of these models are still perfect choices for lightweight work, they've been eclipsed by a new generation of saws with features only hinted at three years ago.

As a result, several of the saws in this roundup really don't compare in the most important categories: functional ability, innovative design, and portability. They deserve to be in our test because they're still used on the job, but these saws are rapidly being rendered obsolete by the new kids on the block.

Here's how the 10 portable table saws in our test shake out. For starters, all of them come with 10-inch, carbide-tooth blades. But bigger doesn't always mean brawny--thinner blades cut a narrow kerf, a strategy often used to maximize the power of an under-achieving motor. And not all saws with 10-inch blades can cut through a 4x4 in one pass, as you might believe. The only saws we tested that can do this are the Makita and Ryobi models; both cut 3 9/16 inches when set at 90 degrees.

We divided the saws in our test into three groups for comparison. The first group includes what might be called the new portables. These saws have distinctively large yet lightweight plastic bases, highly innovative features and accessories, and forward-thinking design. They include the DeWalt DW744S, the Bosch 4000, the Makita 2703X1, and the Ridgid TS2400.

The second group represents the previous generation of utility saws. They are capable, well-made tools, but their familiar features have changed little over the years. All are relatively heavy to lift and, when fitted with optional stands and required attachments, none are very convenient to move from job to job. These saws are the Hitachi C10RA2, the Jet JTS-10DD, and the Ryobi BT3000SX.

The final group includes three lightweight portables with less-powerful motors. These saws really belong in the bench saw category, especially now that the new portables have raised the standard so far above them. However, these saws have proved themselves on many construction sites over the years, and are worth comparing here. They include the Delta 36-540, the Powermatic 411, and the Skil 3400-08.

Tables and Fences

Perhaps the most important feature of portable table saws is their table and fence setup.

When DeWalt introduced its DW744 saw late in 1997, it established a benchmark, that competitors would be forced to follow. DeWalt's innovations included a larger table and base footprint for greater stability, but its most significant design coup was a fence and guide-rail arrangement that extended beyond the table to allow accurate rip cuts up to 241/2 inches wide.

Bosch and Ridgid (a brand now made only for Home Depot by Emerson Tool) recently produced all-new saw designs with features similar to the DW744S, including larger bases and extendable tables for ripping 4x8 sheet materials in half. The DeWalt table extends via a cog-wheel and toothed-track mechanism that moves the fence rails; the fence locks in position at the end of the rails. The Bosch and Ridgid saws have short table sections that pull out along with the rails to increase cutting width, and the fences on both units may be repositioned anywhere along their rails. The aluminum rails on the Bosch are somewhat sturdier and are less prone to flexing under a heavy sheet of plywood, while the Ridgid's rails and fence are even more impressively solid.

The only other table saw in our group with a cutting-width capacity to match--and exceed--this trio is the Ryobi BT3000SX, which merits its own discussion. This saw has a 33-inch cutting width, an extendible fence for long rips, quick-change table inserts for mounting a router-shaper or inverted jig saw, and a unique sliding miter table similar to those on high-priced European commercial saws. But the features that make this saw so useful also add considerable size and weight to an already hefty package; calling this unit a portable stretches the term.

Two other saws, the Jet and Hitachi units, also failed the weigh-in test. With its cast-iron table and twin extensions, the Jet saw is so heavy that it is difficult to move, and carrying it up stairs or loading it into a vehicle is a problem. Even though it has a cast-aluminum table, the steel-jacketed Hitachi C10RA2 weighs more than one man can conveniently handle, especially when the unit is bolted to its steel stand. Both saws have wide table surfaces, but only the Jet can rip a sheet of plywood in half.

The three bench saws in our roundup--the Delta, Powermatic, and Skil units--offer workmanlike features and perform most of the tasks of the bigger, fancier saws at half the cost. They are also lightweight and compact, so they can be set up and moved around easily. The Delta and Skil saws have old-style, cast-aluminum tables with simple cam-locking fences. Powermatic's has a large, brushed-aluminum table with two extensions that mount quickly and accurately. However, except for price, these saws don't compete on the same playing field as the bigger, newer saws.

Motors and Mounts

When comparing any of the saws or features within each group, it's important to note their differences as well as similarities. For example, the three bench-size saws all have 10-inch blades, but are powered by 13-amp motors that don't match the cutting ability of the other saws' 15-amp motors. DeWalt's DW744S also has a 13-amp motor, but its gearing provides more torque than some of the larger motors.

Equally important is the way the blades and motors are mounted. The bench saw motors are mounted on a single side-bracket that pivots to raise and lower the blade. Heavy loading--for example, pushing a wet 2x10 or slab of glulam through the blade--can deflect this bracket enough to spoil the cut or make the blade bind. (Note: Except for Ryobi's belt-drive setup, the blades on most portable saws are fixed directly to the motor spindle, as on sidewinder circular saws.)

All of the larger saws have blade/motor carriages that raise and lower on symmetrical tracks or guide rods. This is a much sturdier setup that also reduces blade and motor vibration for more accurate cutting. However, most of the saws have loose-pivoting angle adjustments--when you unlock the adjustment lever or knob, the motor carriage or bracket swings freely until you lock in the desired angle. This not only restores the potential for vibration, it's also an imprecise way to set the angle you need.

The Makita and Ridgid saws improve on this setup with toothed-cog adjusters mated to their height-adjustment wheels. The Ryobi and Hitachi models each have a single push-pull handwheel, but the Hitachi saw's plastic gear and track are questionable. The super-solid Jet saw has the best arrangement with separate handwheels for height and angle, although the heavy geared-screw mechanisms contribute to its weight.

Accessory Features

To be truly portable, a table saw should be ready to roll--and rip--right out of the box. All of these saws can do that to some degree, but some need more help than others.

Makita offers an accessory stand that increases the saw's cut-width capacity to 49 inches, but it's cumbersome and requires setup time. Ryobi has a large optional steel cart (with optional wheels), and an extension table that are fine for shop use but also limit, rather than help, its mobility. The Jet, Hitachi, Makita, Powermatic, Delta, and Skil saws all have universal steel leg-type stands that add weight and must be assembled and bolted to the units.

The three top innovators in our group--DeWalt, Bosch and Ridgid--each offer stands that are as smart as the saws themselves. They're easy to transport, set up, and use. The Bosch and DeWalt stands snap open and fold flat in one quick motion, and provide excellent saw platforms for job-site use. If they included adjustment legs for uneven terrain, they'd be even better. Ridgid recently introduced a rolling stand that folds into a convenient hand-truck for transporting stand and saw.

Favorites

It's obvious we have some bias towards the DeWalt, Bosch, and Ridgid new portables trio, but they're not necessarily the best saws in this group, nor the saws readers would choose for their own needs. What makes them category leaders in our roundup is the fact that they offer the best portability and the most useful features at a reasonable price.

Although I've owned or worked with several saws in this roundup (and would happily work with them again), my pick of the litter is the Bosch 4000. Its overall design and operation is almost identical to that of the DeWalt DW744S, but the Bosch unit includes some significant innovations. Most important are the 15-amp motor and electronic torque control. The saw not only generates more power, it also regulates its own output to match the workload. This means it doesn't have to work as hard--especially during difficult cutting--and should enjoy a longer service-life. I also like the Bosch saw's beefier fence rails, smooth-operating fence, and the fact that a section of table pulls out when the fence extends to provide more support for wide materials.

I must point out that the saws mentioned above are among the most expensive saws we tested, and that buyers can shave nearly one-third off their price tags and still get a professional quality saw by purchasing the Makita or Hitachi units. Over the years, both have earned their place as top choices on and off the job. And budget-minded builders who don't need a full-featured, high-priced saw can also opt for any of the bench models, which have good reputations among tradesmen and will handle most table saw tasks.

Based on portability, useful features and overall operation, I rank the other saws in the following order: DeWalt, Ridgid, Makita, Hitachi, Ryobi, Jet, Delta, Powermatic, and Skil.

Michael Morris, former editor of Home Mechanix magazine, is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.