This week our old cordless drill died, and it’s time for a replacement. But with so many new technologies and so many almost (but not quite) identical units on the market, selecting a cordless drill/driver can be challenging. Gone are the days where there were only two drills on the shelf to choose from; your average Home Depot stocks over 40 of them!
We’ve waded through the specs, battery systems, and hype to offer you this massive comparison of over 100 units to help you find the one that’s right for you. (More after the jump, including a downloadable Excel spreadsheet of 100+ drills and their specs.)
Let’s consider some of the information manufacturers give you about their drills:
Clearly this is one of the manufacturers’ biggest selling points for many cordless drills as it’s usually printed in large letters on the drill and box and it’s almost always the first piece of information provided in the name.
Why does it matter?
Direct current (DC) motors have two unique characteristics: the motor speed is proportional to the voltage applied to the motor, and the output torque (that is the force producing rotation) from the motor is proportional to the amount of current the motor is drawing from the batteries. In other words, the more voltage you supply to the motor, the faster it will go; and the more torque you apply to the motor, the more current it will draw. (Miles, Pete, and Tom Carroll. How to Build Your Own Combat Robot. Berkeley, CA: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002.)
In short, with everything else equal, higher voltage should run the motor faster and provide more torque. Of course, everything else is not equal. The 18v drill you’re looking at likely has a different motor than the 14.4v and 19.2v drills you’re comparing it to, and different battery systems offer different current-draw limitations. So, your mileage may vary.
The most common voltages seen on the market today are the 9.6v, 14.4v, 18v, and 19.2v, though Hitachi now offers 24v tools, Milwaukee offers 28v tools, and DeWalt even offers 36 volt (!) tools.
While an 18v or 19.2v drill will potentially offer more speed/torque, it’s possible that a 14.4v drill with a more efficient motor and a more current-friendly battery will outperform it. Luckily, most manufacturers also provide no-load speed and maximum torque specs for their products, so you really don’t have to bet on potential alone.
If you’re looking for the ultimate in speed and torque, there’s no doubt you’re going to find it in the high-voltage category. Hitachi’s 24v DV24DV is rated at 1700 RPM and 576 in-lbs of torque. Milwaukee’s 28v 0724-24 V28 is rated at 1800 RPM and 600 in-lbs. Though DeWalt’s interestingly doesn’t list the maximum torque specs for their 36v hammerdrill, we suspect they’re high enough to lead it to round out our top three. These are also some of the most expensive drills on the market.
However, if you back off to the 19.2v and 18v drills — and even some 14.4v drills — you’ll find a lot of performance overlap. Be sure to read those specs before you buy.
There are three types of rechargeable batteries commonly used in today’s cordless drills: Nickel Cadmium (NiCd), Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH), and Lithium Ion (Li-Ion). Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.
Nickel Cadmium batteries are the “original” rechargeable, and they’ve been around long enough for pretty much everyone to have run into their disadvantages. Specifically, they provide good current flow on demand and they’re inexpensive.
Most NiCds can provide up to 1000 charging cycles in their lifetime, but they’re somewhat sensitive to patterns of use. NiCds should never be completely drained, and they can’t be charged immediately after discharge; they require time to cool first. Short use is also counterindicated. In a perfect world, NiCds should be drained 70% each time.
It’s probably also worth noting that Cadmium is extremely dangerous to the environment.
Nickel Metal Hydride batteries are said to be less sensitive to charge/discharge cycle patterns, but the real drive behind the development of NiMH batteries started in Europe where they were mandated to limit release of Cadmium into the environment. You’ll note that the biggest manufacturers of NiMH-powered drills (Hitachi and Makita) depend on Europe for a large portion of their sales.
One concern we’ve seen expressed about NiMH batteries is their short life. They’re often good for less than 1000 charges, and based on your cycle habits and use duty, sometimes much fewer.
While Li-Ion batteries found their way into cell phones and other portable electronics years ago, they’ve only made inroads into cordless power tools in the last year or so. Li-Ion batteries offer higher power density as well as less sensitivity to charge cycle patterns and temperature during charging. Besides their very high cost, there’s little downside to their use.
But wow, that’s some cost. The least expensive Li-Ion-powered drill in our comparison checked in at around $300 (street). This is definitely pro gear.
If you can afford the Li-Ion lines, they’re great. Otherwise, you’re best off sticking with good old NiCd. While they’re not the perfect solutions, manufacturers have had a long time to perfect their use. They offer a reasonably long life span, their deficiencies are well known (and avoidable), and they’re a lot cheaper.
Many manufacturers offer a variety of cordless tools that can be powered by the same, interchangable batteries.
Why does it matter?
If you’re planning on buying other cordless power tools, selecting tools with compatibe batteries can save you money, time, and shelf space. You’ll only need one charger, and sometimes you can even score package deals for hundreds of dollars less than individual purchases.
Recently, manufacturers have begun to give their battery-matched lines names and really push them. Some examples:
Milwaukee’s V28: This 28v Li-Ion system features an integrated LED “fuel gauge” (read: charge meter) and a quick charger.
DeWalt’s XRP: XRP stands for “Extended Run Time/Performance.” They’re NiCd batteries, and DeWalt offers two XRP lines — 18v and 36v.
From DeWalt’s site:
The 36-volt cordless battery platform was developed to provide professional contractors with the performance needed to complete high-powered applications that were previously only possible with corded tools. By partnering with A123 Systems — a developer of a new generation of lithium-ion batteries developed at and exclusively licensed from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — Dewalt’s 36V line of tools are equipped with a unique Nano-Phosphate lithium-ion design. These revolutionary batteries offers a high level of power, long run-time and durability when compared to conventional lithium technology. In fact, this technology delivers a battery with a maximum life of over 2,000 recharges and no frustrating battery memory. With this breakthrough innovation, this 36-volt tool is sure to live up to Dewalt’s commitment to providing Guaranteed Tough products for the professional end user.
Metabo Li-Power: Metabo has taken an interesting tack by offering a line of Li-Ion batteries that are actually backwards compatible with a number of their existing tools — specifically, any of their cordless tools utilizing their “air cooled charging technology.” Furthermore, their batteries are all designed with integrated cooling channels through which air is pushed during charging and even during tool use.
While some of these battery systems do offer unique features, we feel that the question you should ask — if you’re considering this as a deciding factor anyway — should be, “What other tools do they offer?” Most “systems” consist of at least a drill, circular saw, reciprocating saw, and shop light, but it’s worth checking.
There are a few other features you’ll want to consider when selecting your next drill:
Variable Speed/Speed Range Settings
While you’ll probably pass on drills without variable speed triggers, you’ll notice that many modern drills offer more than one “speed range.” It’s currently common for drills to offer a low-speed range (0-400 RPM or so) for screw driving and a high-speed range (0-1200 RPM or so) for drilling. Some high-end drills offer three speed range settings.
Chuck Size and Type
3/8″ drills are best for use around the house while 1/2″ drills serve well in the shop or house. Most cordless drills these days offer a keyless chuck, which means that you don’t have to worry about losing the key. Some of the more powerful (and more expensive) drills come with metal keyless chucks, but most of them are plastic.
While most cordless drills offer a clutch that allows you to limit the drill’s torque for different applications, some offer more settings than others. If you use your drill in a torque-sensitive environment, this may be a concern.
This is a simple feature that allows you to lock the drill’s spindle in place to simplify changing drill bits. This appears to be a feature that’s more used in larger drills, and it’s only offered on a few of our 113 featured drills.
The Down And Dirty: What’s Out There
The good news: There are a lot of cordless drills available now. The bad news: There are a lot of cordless drills available now. Though we found 113 for our comparison, they tend to fall into three groups: mini, standard, and heavy duty.
As you’ve seen here on Toolmonger, the competition for the “smallest drill/driver” is heating up. These units tend to be 9.6v or less, low-torque (the best in the comparison just barely topped 80 in-lbs.) units designed for light duty use. Their selling points are size — some claim to fit into cartridge slots on a tool belt — and life.
Mini-drills seem to be priced like food in Vegas — either almost-free-cheap or very expensive. Representative examples are Black & Decker’s 7.2v 9099KC (selling for $20 street) and Metabo’s 4.8v PowerMaxx (selling for $160 street). There’s very little inbetween.
Honestly, unless you have a very specific use for a small drill, give the mini-drills a pass. If you do have a use, we recommend seeking one of the new high-end Li-Ion-powered drills as most of the low-end drills we saw lacked critical features such as variable speed.
This is where 99% of drill buyers shop. We found that these drills fell into two categories: drills designed for shop use (and home use), and drills designed solely for light-duty home use. 3/8″ chuck drills are best suited for home use only, while 1/2″ drills serve well in either environment.
In our study, we observed that prices tend to hover around three points in terms of standard drills: $100, $200, and $250+.
In the $100 range you’ll find an imperial ton of drills with torque specs all across the board. Looking at the spec chart, you can see that it’s possible to obtain up to 420 in-lbs. of torque in this price range, but you’re going to be limited to NiCd or NiMH batteries. Li-Ion is just too expensive for this group.
Bumping up to the $200 range gives you some additional options including some of the smaller Li-Ion powered Metabos. In general, adding $100 to the $100 drills buys you additional torque and possibly Li-Ion batteries.
Stepping into the $250 range, in terms of standard drills, effectively buys you Li-Ion power and a bit more torque. However, the advantages are meager considering the price difference.
If you’re looking for a drill for around the house use, there are plenty to be found in the $100 range. Expect to receive at least 300 in-lbs. of torque, two speed ranges, and 16-24 clutch settings. One factor to consider in this price range is weight. If your drill will spend a significant portion of its time in small hands, or just drilling holes in the drywall, you might consider a lighter, less powerful drill. For shop use, you’ll want one of the 1/2″ chuck units with all the torque you can afford.
Heavy Duty Drills
Here are the monsters. 500+ in-lbs. of torque is the norm in this category, and cost is (essentially) no object. These drills are for pros with deep pockets.
Summary: Our Final Recommendations
We’ve carefully avoided telling you which drill to buy in this article; We believe that the drill that’s right for us isn’t necessarily the drill that’s right for you. Instead we’ve tried to provide you with some insight into how to decode the mess of specs available to make your best seletion.
We recommend the following basic process:
- Ask yourself where and how the drill will be used. Will you use it for production work in the shop? On the jobsite? Or just around the house and garage? This will help you narrow the list down by quickly eliminating drills that are way above or way below your needs.
- Next, ask yourself how much you’re willing to spend. You can eliminate another large set of drills by culling those that are beyond your means.
- Finally, review the specs to find the best match. You’ll want as much torque as you can find, but be sure to consider weight and battery type.
We hope this helps, and we’d love to hear about your cordless drill shopping experiences.
Oh yeah: If you’re wondering which drill we bought, it was the Craftsman 19.2v DieHard Cordless Drill/Driver (model 11542) from Sears. We were looking for a 1/2″ chuck drill for shop and home use and really wanted to spend in the $100 range. The Craftsman offers two speed settings, 24 clutch settings, and 420 in-lbs. of torque, and it’s priced at $99 now (including a free matching worklight). Yep, we were suprised, too.
toolonger – 2006-05-18 – Drill Driver Comparison Chart.xls [Excel Spreadsheet]