What every best cordless drill has

  • Adequate power: Compact models are capable of top speed and torque. You'll get better performance and be more satisfied with a compact 18-volt cordless drill over 12-volt drills because they offer more power and a longer battery life.
  • Battery life: The best cordless drills use Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, a more expensive (but better-performing) option to nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. They're available in compact 1.5 Ah or larger 3.0 Ah sizes, and battery size affects weight and run-time, but not power. Expert tests show that run time varies widely between voltages and brands, with the best cordless drills outlasting the competition in both drilling and driving trials.

    Li-ion batteries weigh less, last longer and hold their charge better than nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Despite their higher price, reviewers say cordless drills with Li-ion batteries are better investments in the long run.

  • Recharge time: Look for a cordless drill that can be recharged in one hour or less. Some drills that use 1.5-Ah Li-ion batteries can be recharged in just 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Convenience features: Reviewers say extras like a battery gauge and a trigger-activated LED light (to illuminate the work area) can make using a cordless drill a little easier. Also important: The warranty should cover both the drill and the batteries. A built-in level can help you drill accurately, while storage in the handle offers a convenient place to store your bits.

Know before you go

Cordless drill/drivers are best for most homeowners. The most common type of cordless tool, these use bits for drilling holes and driving or removing screws. An adjustable clutch regulates the torque, or twisting power, applied to a screw for delicate projects.

Cordless screwdrivers are good for light tasks. Lighter and more compact than cordless drills, these can replace your handheld screwdriver for many projects, but they aren't recommended for drilling holes or installing large fasteners called lag screws. See our separate report on cordless screwdrivers.

Cordless impact drivers are for heavy-duty jobs. When an impact driver turns, it uses momentum from the motor to deliver extra torque in a series of taps, striking about 50 times every minute. With about three times as much twisting power, you can use impact drivers for construction or mechanic projects for which a drill/driver wouldn't have enough power.

Cordless hammer drill/drivers are best for drilling in concrete or brick. These are more powerful, but they are also heavier and louder. They have a specially designed clutch that allows the drill bit to punch in and out while it's spinning for additional driving power. You can disable the hammer action for general use.

Single-sleeve keyless chucks can be tightened with one hand. Most drills have this feature or accept hex-shank bits that click into place. Some reviewers prefer an all-metal chuck, but some soft trim can protect surfaces from damage if your drill or driver slips. Some newer drills have chucks designed to keep tightening themselves as they spin.

Buying Tactics and Strategies

Try tools in person if possible.  A good cordless drill should feel balanced, not front-heavy, as you hold it. The trigger should be responsive without being overly sensitive or difficult to depress. Be sure you can easily remove and replace the battery, too.

Consider a cordless drill combo kit. Experts say you can save money by buying a cordless tool kit that shares the same batteries and charger. For instance, you'll want at least an 18-volt battery to get satisfactory performance from a cordless circular saw or reciprocating saw. Reviews say the Milwaukee 2691-22 (*Est. $260) is one of the best combo kits because it includes a versatile cordless drill and a powerful impact driver for around $40 more than the impact driver alone.

Watch prices before you buy. It's a fact that prices fluctuate at online retailers like Amazon.com daily, like the stock market. These changes can be substantial, too. During impact drill testing, editors at TheFamilyHandyman.com "watched prices during a six-week period and saw prices drop on one out of every four models they watched. The discounts, sometimes sales, sometimes permanent price cuts, were in the 10 to 20 percent range."

What's to come

A couple of features are appearing on newer cordless drill models. Cordless tool manufacturers are phasing out nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which are heavier, bulkier and not as environmentally friendly, in favor of Lithium-ion batteries.

Manufacturers like DeWalt and Milwaukee are starting to use brushless motors in their cordless tools. Experts say these motors are hardy and efficient, squeezing more power and runtime out of their batteries.

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