The best cordless drills and drivers make your job easier
When you're halfway up a ladder trying to bore a hole through siding, or down on your hands and knees driving countless screws through the boards of a new deck, it's a real nuisance to be held in place by an extension cord. That's why experts at Popular Mechanics call the cordless drill/driver "by far the most popular portable power tool of all time."
Cordless drills range in power from as little as 7.2 volts to 20 volts or more, but the most popular models are either 12 or 18 volts. In general, the more voltage a drill has, the more speed and torque (turning force) it can deliver. Most 18-volt drills can also run longer between charges than their 12-volt competitors. However, a drill's voltage isn't the only factor in its performance. In expert tests, performance among 18-volt drills varies widely, with some models – and not always the priciest ones – driving an extra 100 screws or more on a single charge.
Moreover, some top-performing 12-volt drills can actually hold out longer than the average 18-volt model. You can get a decent 12-volt cordless drill for $150 or less, while 18-volt drills can cost anywhere from $100 to $400. In addition, 12-volt drills are lighter, usually between 2 and 4.5 pounds, compared to 3.5 to 6 pounds for an 18-volt drill. So if you only need a cordless drill for light jobs around the house, like repairing drywall or replacing a light fixture, a 12-volt cordless drill is probably your best bet. But hard-core DIY jobs, such as carpentry and remodeling, probably require the greater power and speed of an 18-volt model.
For some jobs, a cordless drill isn't actually the best tool at all. If you have to drive a lot of screws, one after another -- for instance, to build a deck or hang tile backer board -- you're probably better off with a cordless impact driver. This tool does only one job – driving screws and other fasteners – but it does it fast and easily. They work by combining bit rotation with percussive force, giving them two to three times the torque of a drill/driver, according to Popular Mechanics. They can drive long screws and hefty lag bolts through hard wood with no need for a pilot hole and even fasten and unfasten lug nuts on a car tire. However, they can't bore holes unless you equip them with a special hex-shank bit for the purpose, and even then, they're much slower than a cordless drill. Impact drivers are also louder than drills, so you can't generally use them without hearing protection.
On the other hand, if your screw driving needs are limited to minor tasks, like assembling furniture and hanging items on walls, you might be just fine with a cordless screwdriver. Cordless screwdrivers typically cost $100 or less and weigh only 1 to 2 pounds, and their compact size is handy for getting into tight spaces. However, they lack the power of an impact driver and the versatility of a drill. If you can handle the extra weight, you can spend the same amount for a compact cordless drill/driver that does two jobs instead of one.
If you're going to be doing both a lot of drilling and a lot of driving, consider getting a combo kit. These include both a cordless drill and an impact driver, together with batteries and a charger that work with either tool. Buying a combo kit is often significantly cheaper than buying the individual tools separately. However, at around $200, these kits are still pricier than either tool on its own, so don't spring for one unless you're really sure you need both.
Finding the best cordless drills
Numerous publications, including ConsumerReports.org, Popular Mechanics, and TheSweethome.com, put cordless drills and impact drivers through rigorous comparison testing. We consulted these sources to see which drills have the power, speed, and battery life to handle the toughest jobs. We also considered what professionals and owners had to say about the tools' handling, charging time, and features. Reviews from retail sites such as Lowes.com, HomeDepot.com, and Amazon.com provided useful information about long-term durability. We factored in all this information to name the best cordless drills for both heavy and light use, cordless impact drivers, cordless tool combo kits, and cordless screwdrivers.
18-volt cordless drills can handle nearly any DIY job
For most drilling and driving needs, a cordless drill/driver is the most practical tool. These tools have a chuck that can accommodate a variety of different bits, both round and hex-shank (hexagonal), for drilling holes and for driving or removing screws. Cordless drills also come with an adjustable clutch that regulates the torque, or twisting power, applied to a screw for delicate projects.
We found the most recommendations for 18-volt cordless drills, which have the power to handle just about any drilling or screwing job a homeowner can throw at them. The top performer in this class, based on both professional tests and user reviews, is the DeWalt DCD780C2 (Est. $180). This drill has a maximum voltage of 20 volts, but reviewers say its batteries are actually rated at 18 volts under normal usage, and tests show the drill's power is comparable to other 18-volt models. Two professional tests give the DCD780C2 top marks for speed, and one says its power is also excellent. Greg DiBernardo at Tools of the Trade also approves of the drill's compact size (around 3.5 pounds) and comfortable grip.
In terms of battery life, professionals find the DCD780C2 somewhat less impressive. In a test at TheSweethome.com, the DCD780C2 can only drill 20 to 25 holes or drive 70 to 90 screws before its battery gives about -- a middling performance for a drill this size. However, owners don't appear to consider this drill's battery life a problem; in fact, many of the 150-plus reviews at Amazon.com praise this drill for its long run time between charges. This could simply reflect the difference between real-world use and testing designed to stress batteries to the max.
Users agree with DiBernardo that the DCD780C2 is light, compact, and very comfortable to handle. They like its features, including two speeds, 15 clutch settings, an LED work light, a belt clip, and a "smart" charger that can restore the battery to full power in 30 minutes. Many owners also appreciate the fact that this DeWalt tool is assembled in the USA. The most common complaint we found is that the drill's chuck has a tendency to wobble, impairing its precision -- a problem that shows up with most cordless drills. Some reviews say replacing the Jacobs chuck that's standard on most drills with a pricier Rohm chuck can fix the problem. You can buy a compatible Rohm chuck directly from DeWalt for about $45.
Another downside of the DeWalt drill is its relatively high price. If that's a concern for you, we found two less expensive 18-volt cordless drills that also get very high ratings from both professionals and home users. Compared to the DeWalt, the Bosch DDS181-02 (Est. $125) fares better in some professional tests and worse in others. One source says the Bosch can run longer on a charge than the DeWalt, but it's noisier and somewhat less powerful. But Doug Mahoney of TheSweethome.com, by contrast, actually recommends the Bosch as an "upgrade" drill that can handle the toughest jobs. In his drilling test, the Bosch is the top performer, boring 33 percent more holes on a charge than its nearest competitor, and it places near the top in the driving test as well.
At 3.4 pounds, the Bosch drill is even lighter than the DeWalt, and Mahoney says it's very comfortable to hold. It has most of the same features as the DeWalt, including the two-speed operation, smart charger work light, belt hook. It also has one handy feature the DeWalt lacks: a battery life gauge to let you know how much charge is left. This is particularly important with the lithium-ion batteries found on most cordless drills, since sometimes after being fully drained they can no longer be recharged. Users at Amazon.com appreciate the features of the DDS181-02, as well as its lightweight, compact body, good balance, and comfortable grip. The one feature they wish it included is on-board storage for extra bits. We also saw the usual smattering of complaints about the chuck wobbling.
The Hitachi DS18DSAL (Est. $120) also gets mixed reviews from professionals. Mahoney says it "doesn't come close to matching the Bosch's power or endurance," even though they weigh exactly the same. Yet another professional test names the Hitachi as the top pick out of all 18-volt cordless drills, with top marks for both speed and power. It has the same two-speed operation, work light, and smart charger as the Bosch and DeWalt drills, but it's a little slower to recharge – about 40 minutes instead of 30. Also, it doesn't come with either a battery gauge or onboard bit storage.
Most users at Amazon.com describe the Hitachi as light, powerful, and very ergonomic. They're a bit miffed at the lack of a battery gauge, and they don't like the fact that the drill comes bundled in a bulky case with an incandescent flashlight that most consider a useless encumbrance. A bigger problem, however, is that several users say either the batteries or the charger stopped working within a year after purchase.
A lighter cordless drill for lighter jobs
Although 18-volt cordless drills have the most oomph, experts say a lighter 12-volt drill is powerful enough for most homeowners' needs. In this class, the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 (Est. $120) is a Best Buy pick by one professional reviewer and a runner-up choice at TheSweethome.com. Both sources say this drill is only middling in terms of speed and power, and it can't go nearly as long on a charge as its 18-volt competitors. Also, it has only a 3/8-inch chuck, rather than the 1/2-inch size that's standard on 18-volt drills. However, it makes up for that with its quiet operation, feather-light weight (just 2.3 pounds), and comfortable handling.
The PCL120DDC-2 has several features found on pricier 18-volt drills, including two speeds, an LED work light, a handy belt clip, and a smart charger that can replenish the batteries in 30 minutes. It doesn't have a battery life gauge, however. Users at Amazon.com say this drill is light, well balanced, and remarkably powerful for its size. The main complaint we saw is that bits have a tendency to drop out of the chuck when it's not running. Also, while there aren't that many complaints about breakdowns, some users say that getting repairs under Porter-Cable's 3-year warranty is a hassle.