Compact Cordless Drills

No longer a luxury, these tools prove invaluable in the shop, home, and job site.

Although you can buy larger (and smaller) drills, a compact 18- or 20-volt tool handles any job in the shop with ease. These tools have plenty of power, yet come in a size much easier to use building projects than bulkier full-size models. To find the best of the compact cordless drills, we tested 16 popular models head-to-head in the WOOD® shop. Spoiler alert: Even the lowest-ranked drill will perform adequately in your shop, but several models really stand out.

RUNTIME DOMINANCE

Dial up the power

Battery voltage tells you the rated power of each drill, but there’s more to it than that. Brushless motors generally deliver greater power output and battery runtime, while generating less motor- and battery-killing heat, than standard carbon-brush motors. Eleven of the 16 tested drills use brushless motors. (Download the full comparison chart for our 18-and 20-volt cordless drill shop test.)


All of the test models have enough power to drill holes in hardwood and drive screws, but some pack more power than others. To compare each tool’s torque, we drove successively larger-diameter 2"-long lag screws into pressure-treated pine 4×4s. All the models easily seated a 14 " lag, and only two failed to drive a 38 " lag to full depth (Festool T 18+3 Li 3.1 I-Compact and Ryobi P1811); another failed to seat a 12 " lag (Hercules 56534). At the top of the range, six models proved capable of fully seating 58 " lags: Bosch GSR18V-535CN, DeWalt DCD791D2, Makita XFD12R, Metabo HPT DS18DBFL2, Milwaukee 2801-22CT, and Ridgid R86009K. You might never need that much torque, but it’s good to know they’re capable of it.

Each model has two speed ranges and a variable-speed trigger. You’ll get the most torque in the lower range, which is best for driving screws and drilling holes 112 " or more in  diameter. The high-speed range works best for drilling smaller holes and powering accessories, such as wire wheels and sanding flap wheels.

Most tools run on and on

Several factors determine a drill’s runtime per battery charge: battery amp-hours, motor efficiency, electronic controls, and the strenuousness of the task being performed. The units we tested come with  battery packs ranging from 1.3 to 4.0 amp-hours each; we tested all drills with their supplied packs only. Each model will also run on larger battery packs within that company’s voltage platform, giving you longer runtimes.


To gauge runtime, we drilled 1" full-depth holes in 2×6 pine boards, using a new spade bit for each test, drilling until the battery gave out. (See the chart below.) The Skil DL529302 topped that test with an average of 67 holes per charge, followed closely by the Metabo HPT. Long runtimes are important, especially on a job site where outlets can be scarce. But in a woodworking shop, you really only need enough runtime so that you don’t run out of juice before the second battery pack is charged. Longer runtimes may also mean longer battery life, assuming you can get only a certain number of charge cycles on each pack. (Most come with two packs, but the Skil comes with one pack. The Bosch GSR18V-535CN and Hercules sell as bare tools with no battery packs.)

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Number of 1" holes drilled in 2x6 pine per battery charge, average of three tests.

Battery charge times vary. The Makita packs charged fastest at 24 minutes, almost challenging you to expend a pack before a second one recharges. The Milwaukee 2606-22CT and Festool packs also charged in 30 minutes or less. By contrast, the Metabo HPT and Porter-Cable PCC608LB packs needed 99 and 109 minutes, respectively, to charge fully. For many of us, a full charge could last a week or two, so charge time might prove less important to you.

Our favorite drills have a charge-level indicator on the battery pack (below), so you can check it without installing it on the tool. Eleven models have this feature. The Metabo HPT indicator is located on the drill, so the pack must be attached to read it. Festool has indicators on both the battery pack and drill. Disappointingly, the Bosch DDB181-02, DeWalt DCD708C2, Porter-Cable, and Ryobi have no indicator at all.

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Charge-level indicators on the battery pack (shown on the Bosch Core 4.0 amp-hour pack) prove easiest to gauge. Five LEDs give a more refined reading than three- and four-cell indicators.

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A USB port on Skil’s battery pack allows you to plug in and charge a cell phone or similar device, with the battery pack attached to the drill or not.

Clutches vary in ergonomics


Each test drill features an adjustable clutch for varying the degree of torque applied at the chuck to prevent stripping out fasteners. Set it to a low number to drive small screws (especially brass), and adjust up as needed for larger screws. For drilling, set the clutch at the maximum setting. Each clutch performed its job well enough, but the best clutches rotate easily with good grip points and easy-to-read increments. We found the clutches on the drills  with brushless motors more difficult to operate, as shown below.

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Clutch position determines its ease of use. On models with carbon-brush motors, the clutch ring sits forward of the handle and trigger. But on brushless-motor models, the clutch ring is farther back, where the handle and trigger interfere.

Festool’s clutch dial, our favorite, adjusts from the rear of the tool and automatically changes motor speed as you adjust the clutch. The Bosch GSR18V-535CN has antikickback protection built in, preventing the tool jerking your hand unexpectedly should the bit bind.

Discover more drill details

■ Switches and controls. We found no significant issues with the power triggers on any of the drills. But the speed-range selectors on the Craftsman, DeWalt DCD708C2, and Milwaukee 2606-22CT models operated stiffly.

  Task lights. Each drill has at least one LED to light up the area in front of the chuck, below. We like lights mounted near the battery, rather than those mounted beneath the chuck and clutch.

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LEDs located beneath the clutch assembly cast a chuck shadow in the work area, sometimes blocking light from exactly where you want it.

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LEDs mounted on the drill base better illuminate the work area without shadows. This DeWalt has three brightness settings, with the brightest staying on for 20 minutes (so it acts as a flashlight).

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Ridgid’s drill has a trigger for the LED that activates when you grip the tool. The LED stays on for 10 seconds after you release the trigger.

  Warranty. Except for the Hercules, all of the  drills offer at least a 3-year warranty for the tool itself. The Metabo HPT has a lifetime warranty for the drill; Ridgid offers a lifetime service agreement upon registration for the drill and batteries. All but two models have 2- or 3-year warranties for their batteries, a big plus for the part most likely to fail.

  Accessory chucks. Festool’s drill comes with two chucks (below): a 3-jaw chuck for drilling, and 14 " hex chuck for driving screws. You can also buy three optional chucks for specific screw-driving applications: right angle, offset eccentric, and depth stop.

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Festool’s drill uses a quick-connect system for swapping detachable chucks.

■ Storage cases. Seven drills come with a plastic storage case, and six have a canvas bag. The Bosch GSR18V-535CN, Porter-Cable, and Skil models have neither.

 Belt hook. Thirteen of the test drills provide a removable belt hook, handy when working on a ladder or job site.

  Wireless connectivity. The Bosch GSR18V-535CN provides the option to add a Bluetooth connectivity module ($40) to monitor the tool and affect some controls via a smartphone app, a feature more beneficial for pros on a job site. Festool’s battery packs can trigger their Bluetooth-connected dust extractor.

How to spend your drill dollars

Three drill/drivers rose to the top of this talent-rich pool: the DeWalt DCD791D2 ($200), Makita XFD12R ($170), and Milwaukee 2801-22CT ($200). They share Top Tool honors. 

If you’re looking to save a few bucks, consider the Skil DL529302. It’s a great performer, but comes with just one battery pack for $130. For our money, the Bosch DDB181-02 at $100 (with two battery packs) is our Top Value. 

DeWalt DCD791D2

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Makita XFD12R

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Milwaukee 2801-22CT

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Bosch DDB181-02

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Build a handy storage shelf for your cordless drills and chargers.

Download the full comparison chart for our 18-and 20-volt cordless drill shop test

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