Lighter lithium-ion cells are helping cordless drills shed some bulk. Our top picks weigh as little as 2.3 pounds and start at just $90. One top-scoring drill includes an impact driver with added torque, or twisting force, for roughly half what you'd pay if you bought both tools separately.
Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries power more and more drills and drivers. Added power and run time per pound over the familiar nickel-cadmium (NiCd) cells are the major talking points. Greener design is also a plus, since Li-Ion batteries don't contain toxic cadmium, which can leach into ground water if spent NiCd batteries are thrown into the trash instead of recycled. But Li-Ion cells could die an early death if you aren't careful. Several lithium batteries from multiple brands couldn't be recharged after we ran them down to full discharge. That makes using every last minute of run time a potentially expensive mistake, since replacement Li-Ion cells can cost $100 or more.
Although all the advantages and added cost of Li-Ion batteries also apply to nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries, Li-Ion cells are quickly becoming the hot items in the industry. But NiCd-powered tools still make up most of the market, thanks to their lower cost and decent performance for most needs.
How to choose
Not everyone needs maximum power and run time. Nearly any drill will do for hanging pictures and other easy tasks. Decide how much speed and power you really need. And don't buy strictly by voltage. Some 14.4-volt and 15.6-volt models had more oomph and staying power than some 18-volt models.
Drills priced under $100 make up most of the market and typically have smaller, ¿-inch chucks. If you're more serious, a contractor grade drill trades some lightness for the extended run time you'll need for decks and other large projects. For special jobs, impact drivers have more torque than regular drills but are slower and louder. Cordless screwdrivers are ultra-small and light.
Hold it in your hand
Besides checking the drill's weight, check its balance by gripping it firmly and lifting it to a wall as if to drive a screw. The drill's chuck should point straight ahead and not tilt up or down.
For kits, check all the tools
Most cordless tool kits include a drill, reciprocating saw, and circular saw for $300 to $500. But while cordless circular saws have improved, some of those and reciprocating versions have been unimpressive and proved to be slow and weak -- especially those in lower-priced kits.
Weigh the pros and cons of specialized drivers
You'll also see more Li-Ion impact drivers and small, lightweight cordless screwdrivers that weigh 1 pound or less. But our tests revealed some notable drawbacks.
Impact drivers add twisting power using an internal hammer that pulses the chuck and bit back and forth as it spins. But that process has made impact drivers loud enough to require hearing protection. And as appealing as a pocket-sized cordless screwdriver may be, most have been slow and shy on power. Our advice: Spend $10 or so for a good set of old-fashioned hand screwdrivers.
Unless you're handling strictly light-duty tasks, you're likely to be disappointed with the least-expensive models. Here's a guide to the types of cordless drills and drill kits to consider.
These are best for fast drilling and most screw-driving. NiCd-powered models can handle most jobs, but Li-Ion and NiMH tools performed best in our tests. The 18-volt drills (typical these days) weigh about twice as much as 9.6-volt models.
Cordless impact drivers
These are best for driving long fasteners or loosening stuck ones, thanks to their added torque, or twisting force. Most can handle the lug nuts on car wheels and other tough tasks without twisting out of your hands. But they typically require hearing protection. They also require special hex-shank bits for drilling holes, and have been slower than most cordless drills in their drilling mode.
These models are small enough to fit in your pocket and typically weigh 1 pound or less. Bendable power heads make them convenient for tight spaces, and the lithium-ion batteries in some offer added efficiency. But cordless screwdrivers are typically adequate only for the lightest of tasks. You'll find more-capable, if larger and heavier, drills for the same or less money.
Cordless tool kits
Along with a drill, reciprocating saw, and circular saw, many kits include a work light and, for some, an auxiliary tool. And all share the same battery, which helps to make kits less expensive than the tools, batteries, and chargers would be if bought individually. But our tests revealed significant differences in performance, especially when the price dips below $300. Indeed, you could wind up with a collection of sub-par tools.
The most capable drills and drivers have long run times, letting you do more work with fewer pauses to charge or change batteries. Recharge times of 30 minutes or less are another advantage. Some manufacturers offer a variety of tools without batteries and chargers so that you can power them with the ones you might already have. Here are the cordless drill features to consider.
All but the least-expensive drills come with two batteries so you can use one while the other is charging. Craftsman and DeWalt are among the brands that let you use lithium cells with some of their nickel cadmium tools. And several brands let you buy drills, saws, and other tools without batteries and chargers, saving you money by letting you share both among multiple tools as you would with a cordless kit.
A "smart" charger on many models can recharge the battery in 15 to 60 minutes, compared with three to five hours or more for conventional chargers. It also helps to extend battery life by adjusting the charge as needed. A few models can charge two batteries at once, which is handy for big projects. The box typically lists the recharge time.
More models now have a meter that indicates the remaining charge. This feature is especially helpful with lithium-ion batteries, which can be damaged if you allow them to run down fully before recharging.
Many cordless drills have a low speed range with more torque, or twisting force, for driving screws and a high-speed range with added speed for drilling. All have a variable-speed trigger to make starting a hole easier, and most have an adjustable clutch that reduces maximum torque to avoid driving a screw too far into soft wood or wallboard. All are reversible, which is handy for freeing a stuck drill bit.
Many cordless drills have a 3/8-inch chuck, but heavier-duty models have a 1/2-inch chuck for larger, 1/2-inch drill bits. Note that large-diameter bits are available with a reduced shank to fit smaller chucks.
Some models have a second, side handle so that you can hold the drill with two hands, which is helpful for counteracting twisting force when tightening or loosening.
Built-in LED work light
This can be handy in dark places, flooding the work area with light. Many kits include a separate work light.
Most makers bundle their drills with other tools in kits that typically include circular and reciprocating saws and a flashlight in a carrying case. Some kits are a good deal, while others are a collection of mediocre tools.
Black & Decker and Craftsman are the major brands. Like Ryobi Skil, and Porter-Cable they're aimed primarily at homeowners. Bosch, DeWalt, Hitachi, Makita, Milwaukee, and Ridgid offer more expensive drills designed for pros and serious do-it-yourselfers. Use these profiles to compare cordless drills by brand.
Black & Decker
Black & Decker is one of the leading manufacturer and marketer of cordless drills. Black & Decker cordless drills are geared to the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weight, and voltages. Black & Decker cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe's and Walmart.
Bosch cordless drills are geared to the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Bosch cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe's.
Craftsman is one of the leading brands of cordless drills. Craftsman cordless drills are geared to the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Craftsman cordless drills are available in NiCd and Li-Ion battery types. Craftsman drill drivers are sold at Sears and Kmart and online at Sears.com.
DeWalt is one of the top manufacturers and marketers of cordless drills. DeWalt cordless drills are geared to the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. DeWalt offers multiple lines, including the Heavy Duty and Compact lines, and models powered by lithium-ion batteries. Dewalt cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at home centers like Lowe's and Home Depot.
Hitachi cordless drills are geared to the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Hitachi cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe’s.
Makita cordless drills are geared to the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Makita cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Home Depot and Lowe's.
Panasonic cordless drills are geared to the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights and voltages. Panasonic cordless drills are available online and in hardware stores.
Ryobi is one of the leading brands of cordless drills. Ryobi drills are made by TTI, which also makes the Rigid, Craftsman and Milwaukee brands. Ryobi cordless drills are geared to the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Ryobi is known for the One+ rechargeable battery that can be used among a variety of products. Ryobi cordless drills are available in NiCd and Li-Ion battery types. Ryobi and Rigid drill drivers are exclusive to Home Depot.
Skil cordless drills are geared to the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights and voltages. Skil cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart.