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Compact cordless drills provide lots of power in a small package

Forget that hefty electric drill. Compact cordless drills with lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have plenty of power for most users.

Both professional comparisons and user reviews name the DeWalt DCD780C2 (Est. $170) as a top performer in the compact drill/driver category. In side-by-side tests, the DCD780C2 displays plenty of power, ranking high in torque tests and speed trials. With two speeds and 15 clutch settings, users say its versatility is well-suited for a variety of tasks. Speed selections give you the option of drilling quickly or slowing the drill down for tougher jobs, like when you're driving through thick material. A drill with multiple clutch settings lets you disengage the drill's transmission at a specific resistance; this prevents stripping screw heads or overdrilling in drywall.

The DCD780C2 isn't without some downsides. One independent tester that otherwise rates this compact drill highly describes run time as "limited." In a test at Tools of the Trade, the drill finishes 7th (out of 10) in compact cordless drills in that regard. But otherwise, reviewers have nothing but nice things to say. "The DeWalt has a comfortable grip, is very compact, and has a higher top speed than any other tool in its class," writes Greg DiBernardo at Tools of the Trade. One plus, another reviewer notes, is the fast (30 minute) recharge time, which takes a little of the sting out of the shorter than ideal run time.

Oddly -- or perhaps a reflection on the difference between real-world use and testing intended to stress batteries -- battery life is seldom voiced as a negative by users. Quite the opposite, in fact, as one of the oft-cited pluses of the DeWalt DCD780C2 is its long run time between charges. User reviews aren't as extensive as for some other cordless drills, but there's enough of them in enough different places, including Amazon.com and HomeDepot.com, to paint a picture of high satisfaction overall. Note that while this cordless drill is marketed by DeWalt as 20-volts "max," many reviewers point out that's its slim batteries are actually rated at 18 volts under normal usage.

The chief negative voiced by most is price. If the cost is a concern, the 18-volt Hitachi DS18DSAL (Est. $130) makes an excellent second choice. It gets strong expert reviews and is adored by hundreds of users posting at Lowes.com, Amazon.com, and elsewhere.

One expert reviewer notes that despite its light, 3.4-pound weight, the Hitachi DS18DSAL is "is nearly as fast and powerful as heavy-duty models. Chris Baylor at About.com concurs, calling the DS18DSAL "impressively powerful, yet lightweight." User reviews are equally enthusiastic. As an example, at Lowes.com the DS18DSAL draws a rating of 4.6 stars following nearly 450 reviews, with 93 percent saying that they recommend the drill. Though not everyone agrees, durability seems to be excellent. "It's landed in manure, dirt, mud, & even on the concrete, but I just can't seem to kill this thing," writes one Lowes.com customer. During testing, Baylor notes that he knocked his drill from his work table to a concrete floor. Concerned at first, he is relieved to note: "because the external shell of the drill appears to be made with a semi-pliable material, there wasn't as much as a scratch on the unit."

The Hitachi DS18DSAL is certainly versatile, and reviewers say that there's plenty of power for most tasks. There's a two-speed motor, a 22+1 clutch (22 drive settings plus one drill setting) and a variable speed trigger for maximum control. It's powered by a 1.5 Ah lithium battery. The DS18DSAL comes in a kit that includes two batteries, a quick charger (about 40 minutes according to tests), an accessory 18V UB18DAL compact flashlight and either a hard or soft case.

For light-duty, household use, the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 (Est. $90) is worth considering. It's named "The Best Drill for Common Household Projects" by TheSweetHome.com -- a conclusion reached by consulting many of the same resources we use, plus hands-on testing by Doug Mahoney, who also owns the Tool Snob web site. In another, independent review, it's considered a Best Buy among light duty cordless drills. The short run-time between charges is more than offset by its light weight, quiet operation, fast recharge times and low price. Popular Mechanics also grants it Best Buy status among the 13, 12-volt cordless drills it tests. There aren't a ton of user reviews, but Amazon.com hosts more than 100. The overwhelming majority (nearly 90) grant the drill a 5-star rating.

While Mahoney recommends the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 for someone who only needs it on occasion, he steers others away. "This recommendation is not for the rabid DIYer who has plans to build a deck, a doghouse and a tree house this summer," he says. The power is good for this class of drill, but power falls short of the drills above -- not a surprise given that this is a 12-volt drill; makers sometimes play games with specifications, but the voltage rating is a good indication of a drill's relative power You'll also find a 3/8-inch chuck compared to the 1/2-inch chuck of the DeWalt and Hitachi drills above. That might not sound like much of a difference, but a 3/8-inch chuck can't accept many heavy duty bits and attachments. Still, if your need is for a drill to do the odd repair or small project around the home, the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 looks tough to beat in terms of performance and value.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Reviewed cordless drills
Editors discuss the different types of cordless drills, and alternatives such as cordless screwdrivers and cordless impact drivers. Top performers and top values are named.

Cordless Impact Drivers
Is an impact driver a better fit for your needs than a cordless drill? Editors look at the considerations and name the best models.

Cordless Screwdrivers
If a cordless drill or impact driver is overkill for your budget and your needs, consider a cordless screwdriver instead. We look into the details and make our recommendations.

Buying Guide
Not sure what you need to consider before buying a cordless drill, impact driver or screwdriver? This guide will help make finding the right tool and model easier.

Our Sources
There are lots of expert and user reviews of cordless drills and similar tools. Editors used these to help identify the best choices. Reviewers are ranked by their helpfulness.

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DEWALT DCD780C2 20-Volt Max Li-Ion Compact 1.5 Ah Drill/Driver Kit
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $219.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Hitachi DS18DSAL 18-Volt 1/2-Inch Drill/Driver
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $350.00 $139.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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PORTER-CABLE PCL120DDC-2 12-Volt Max Compact Lithium-Ion 3/8-Inch Drill/Driver
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $160.64 $84.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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