Portrait Photographer | Wedding Photographer | Callahan FL | Jacksonville FL
 
'tis better to have tools you don't need than to need tools you don't have

Posted: 12/8/09
Updated: 12/12/09 - rewritten with correct Dewalt model, added Ryobi; 12/13/09 - added comments on Milwaukee warranty, Rigid battery availability issues; 12/14/09 - added comments on Makita warranty and impact driver; 12/20/09 - Added section allowing drills to continue driving lags after first stall, notes on runtime degradation over time; 12/28/09 Updated "winner" section; 1/14/10 - updated with current prices; 7/5/10 - new prices; 8/19/10 - minor changes to a couple comments to improve search engine matches; 11/23/12 Updated prices

Update: Two of the drills from the original review (Rigid and Porter-Cable) are no longer available. Given that they were the two worst drills in the bunch, that's not surprising. All the others are still available, although the prices on all but the Makita have dropped some. Why has the Makita gone up 25%? I have no idea, it's not like it's worth it ...

Review: Seven Popular 18V Lithium Ion Drills

A head-to-head competition to replace my old Ryobi NiCad!

Well, my faithful old Ryobi cordless drill is slowly dying. Actually, the drill itself is just fine, it's the batteries that're on their last legs. As I'm sure you know, replacing batteries is pretty expensive. So, since I have to shell out so much money, I may as well get a new, lightweight drill and also upgrade to lithium-ion in the bargain.

So, in my search for the best 18V drill, I began reading reviews and comments in forums. And became more and more confused. It seems that everyone had a different idea of the "best" drill would be. So, I was able to get my hands on seven of the most popular drills (according to my perceptions based on various forums) and give them a try.

I set up some formal measurements like weight and size, performance tests like battery life, and subjective measurements like build quality and balance. I also did several projects around the house, swapping drills as I went to see how they felt in real use.

And so, our seven contestants, in order by the best price I could find, are ...

Porter-Cable
PCL180DRK-2
Ryobi
P815
Makita
BDF452HW
Milwaukee
2601-22
Bosch
36618-02
Rigid
R86006
Dewalt
DCD760KL
No longer available $129.00 from
Home Depot
$230 from
Amazon.com
$150 from
Amazon.com
$179 from
Amazon.com
No longer available $219.00 from
Lowes

The most expensive, the Dewalt, is more than double the price the least expensive Porter-Cable. As far as I know, none of these were special sales but normal retail prices in early December 2009 (updated as of 7/5/10).

What I found is that none of these drills are a clear winner. Every one had some good points, some bad ones, and many in-between. So I'm just going to run through the tests and show you how each drill performed, then give a quick mini-wrapup of each one and finally outline which one I kept and why.

Size

All these drills are considerably smaller than my old Ryobi. The Bosch, Ryobi and Milwaukee are comparably sized, but the Bosch feels much smaller than the others, perhaps because of the smaller battery. And while the Rigid isn't that much larger, it feels huge in my hand.

The Ryobi is the shortest, but only barely beats out the Milwaukee. The Bosch would be the shortest if the drill's upper section didn't have such an upward tilt. The other four drills are taller and approximately the same height.

A short length can be helpful for getting into tight spaces. Here, the Milwaukee just beats out the Makita and Dewalt. The Ryobi is a bit longer and the Bosch longer still. The Rigid is by far the longest-bodied of this group.

In this table, you can see each drill photographed exactly the same way so you can compare their size. Click on any one for a larger view with an outline showing the size of the Bosch and my old Ryobi NiCad

 

Overall fit and finish

Here I looked at each drill looked and felt. Overall, none of the drills felt junky. The Rigid looked and felt a little cheap, as did the Makita. The Porter-Cable and Ryobi were fine overall, except for the chucks which didn't seem up to the same quality level. The Milwaukee seemed fairly well made through-and-through. The Dewalt seemed fine except for the chuck and battery. The Bosch was clearly the top of the class here, it felt very solid and substantial.

It's a minor consideration, but the lime-green color of the Ryobi is eye-searing. To me, only the Porter-Cable, Dewalt and Bosch look like they belong in a professional shop.

Balance and feel

It's important to me that a tool feel "right" in my hands. This is really tough to explain and definitely impossible to measure. The Bosch felt extremely well balanced and comfortable. The Dewalt and Ryobi were a step down, but also felt nice in the hand. The Milwaukee is slightly top-heavy and the Makita even more so, making them feel off-kilter. The Porter Cable was sort of average, while the Rigid was by far the clunkiest and clumsiest. Maybe if you have extra-large hands, the Rigid would feel fine.

I also liked the Bosch's soft start, it makes driving screws easier.

All the drills were within just over a half-pound of each other, although that difference is very noticeable. The Makita and Bosch were the lightweights of the group at 3.7 and 3.9 lbs. It was interesting that the Makita and Bosch were almost the same weight, yet the Bosch felt much more solid and robust. The Rigid and Milwaukee were the heavyweights in the group at 4.3 and 4.2 pounds. Although, after spending so much time with these drills, my old 5.6 pound drill feels like a boat anchor.

One thing that interests me (and probably should be described as a pet peeve) is how stable the drill is without the battery. When I need to set the drill down after removing the battery, I want to set it upright. All the drills would remain upright if set down carefully. The Milwaukee is front-heavy, without the battery all it takes is a very tiny bump to pitch the drill forward on its chuck. The Rigid is very irksome, since the base is stepped, so if you set it down without making sure the front is down it will flip forward. The Dewalt is absolutely the worst, it has small ears that protrude down to hold the battery and these keep the drill from setting flat. When combined with being very front-heavy, the Dewalt is impossible to set down without it pitching forward unless you're extremely careful.

Chucks

Chucks on all the drills were one-handed, toolless, and generally fine. The Porter-Cable and Ryobi chucks were the only ones without a ratcheting mechanism and the PC was the only one to loosen up during use. Runout was .005 or less, except for the Milwaukee at .010.

The Porter-Cable chuck also emits a really loud "clunk" sound when stopped from high speed. The Ryobi also does this, but not nearly as loud. The Dewalt makes a similar sound, but much worse. It sounds like something's about to come flying off!

Clutches

Generally, the clutches worked fine and were easy to turn except for the Ryobi, which was really stiff. Also, the Porter Cable clutch felt a little flimsy.

The number of clutch positions varied from 17 to 24 (including the "locked" position)

Porter-Cable Bosch Ryobi
Makita
Milwaukee
Rigid
Dewalt
23 21 24 17 23 23 18

Sound

The Ryobi, Makita and Porter-Cable were quietest at 77 dB, with the Bosch just behind at 79. The Dewalt and Milwaukee were one step up at around 84 dB. Way up on the sound meter was the Rigid at 91 dB. Keep in mind that decibels (dB) is a non-linear measurement, e.g. a 2 dB difference is more than twice loud as a 1 dB difference.

Another point to recall is that 1 dB is the smallest difference a human ear can detect, so you really shouldn't give much weight to a 2 or 3dB difference. However, a 10 db difference "sounds" twice as loud, so while the quietest drills were just a little louder than normal conversation, the Rigid is actually uncomfortable and approaching hearing damage volume.

Simple volume doesn't tell the whole story, though. Not only was the Ryobi one of the quietest, it also had a tonal quality that made it seem even quieter. This quality was largely shared by the Bosch, so that for overall sound I'd have to rank the Bosch second behind the Ryobi. And while the Milwaukee was only moderately loud, it has a harsh, irritating quality to the sound. The Rigid is a big loser on both counts, managing to be both very loud and very obnoxious.

One very strange thing was the Dewalt at low speed. When the drill is running very slowly, it gives off a very loud, very high-pitched squealing sound. Extremely irritating. I've been told, but cannot verify, that the sound is caused by the transisitors of the speed control and that it's always there but masked by the motor noise at higher speed.

Controls

None of the drills' controls were bad. All of the triggers were at least a little "sticky", i.e. it was hard to move through the speed range smoothly. The Makita and Bosch were the worst (but not bad), the Dewalt, Ryobi and Porter-Cable were the best (but not perfect). The speed selector on the Milwaukee is the oddball in that it moves side-to-side and the Bosch's selector was extremely stiff.

All the forward/reverse selectors were the same type, a switch that slides though the body just above the trigger. However, some drills are easier to move from forward to reverse with one hand. The Milwaukee's switch was positioned far enough back that I could push the reverse switch with my thumb without shifting the drill in my hand. The Rigid and Bosch were much further up, forcing me to turn the drill quite a bit before I could reach it. The other drills needed a minor shift to reach the switch, although the Makita came very close to matching the Milwaukee.

Both the Milwaukee and Dewalt would sometimes get "stuck" between high and low gear. The Milwaukee would continue to operate in the closest gear. The Dewalt, however, spins with no torque and emits a horrifying noise, I thought the chuck had broken!

Bit storage

While I don't consider this a major factor like some people, I do like to be able to store at least a combo screwdriver bit on the drill. Makita's omission of a bit holder makes it an oddball in this group. The Milwaukee has room for two or three bits, the Bosch two, and the others only have one.

The Bosch's bit holder is different. While the other are spring steel clips, the Bosch's are soft rubber ears. I found it somewhat difficult to insert the bit and it didn't seem very secure.

The Porter Cable is the other extreme. The holder gets a death-grip on the bit and it's really hard to get out.

Built-in lights

This is another feature that people seem to get worked up about. Only the Ryobi lacked a light. Personally, I don't find any of the lights useful since they don't shine in the right place. See the photo? All the lights tested here were blocked by the chuck, so that screw you're trying to remove will disappear when you get the drill close. And if you're trying to put a screw in, your hand holding the screw blocks the light completely. The only way these lights are useful would be with a long bit extension (or if you need a really poor flashlight).

On the other hand, Makita's impact driver (which is available in a kit with the drill) has a short enough body that the light will actually illuminate the end of the bit.

One thing I did like about the Makita light is that it stayed on for about 10 seconds after releasing the trigger, so you could tap the trigger and the light would stay on. With the other drills, you had to hold the trigger slightly in to keep the light on and

you had to be careful not to start the motor. The Rigid was the worst, there was no way to turn on the light without starting the motor.

Batteries

All the drills have 1.3-1.5 amp-hour batteries except for the Dewalt's 1.1 ah battery. Theoretically, a higher amp-hour rating should equate to longer battery life, but since we're talking about batteries of different designs, using different quality components, and driving completely different motors, it's easy to read way too much into this rating.

The batteries attach in a variety of ways. The Dewalt and Ryobi slide in from the bottom, the Porter Cable slides on from the rear, while all the others slide on from the front.

I found the Ryobi battery to be very easy to remove, you just press two buttons on the side and pull down. The Dewalt and Milwaukee have side buttons, as does the Rigid. The Bosch and Makita have a single front release button, while the Porter-Cable has a rear latch you pull down.

The Dewalt's buttons were very stiff and squeaked.

The Rigid battery was a bit of a pain to insert because of high resistance the last 1/2 inch or so. I think this is because of high friction as the battery pins go into the connector. Several times I thought the battery was in but it was actually stuck a fraction of an inch short. The drill will run but battery can fall off. The clumsiness continues to putting the battery on the charger.

Removing the Rigid battery is also a little difficult. The release buttons also move fingers that push the battery off the drill instead of using springs, so they're very stiff. They don't push it all the way off the pins, so you still have to pull the battery off. Not a big deal, but it became irritating and feels rough and cheap.

I really disliked the Makita button. The angle is such that it's clumsy to hold and hard to press. The button is also slick and my fingers would slip a lot. I could do better by switching hands and using my right hand, but that was irritating, plus my pinky would keep getting caught in the belt clip. If the battery came out downward like the Dewalt I think it would work a lot better.


I also found the Porter-Cable system clumsy. There was something about putting the battery on from the back that felt awkward and the release latch just felt wrong. Of course, with time and practice I think the PC system would start feeling "right". But another thing that bothered me was the very strong springs used in the battery, you really have to push to get the battery in, at which point it makes a really loud and cheap-sounding "clunk".

The Milwaukee batteries have a built-in LED meter for battery life, pressing a button causes up to four LEDs to light up. However, all four LEDs stay lit for quite a while, I'd guess that the first LED doesn't go out until the battery is well below 50%. When charging, the LEDs also light up, but again all four LEDs were on after only 12 minutes of a 40 minute charge.

The Ryobi's optional high-capacity batteries also offer a battery life meter. Ryobi also sells a "Fuel Gauge" that clips onto any of their One+ batteries to instantly show the remaining charge.

Ryobi's batteries are also completely compatible with their previous One+ tools and batteries. In other words, you can use any lithium-ion battery in their old tools that originally shipped with NiCad batteries and also use the old NiCad batteries in the new tools. This is a huge plus for current Ryobi owners (like me).

To test battery life, I wanted to put the drills under a easily controlled load. Not wanting to spend hours drilling hundreds of holes or driving hundreds of screws, I instead chucked up a hex bit in my metal lathe and attached each drill to it. The lathe was in gear, so the drill had a moderate load as it turned the mechanisms and the motor. I ran the drill in low gear until the drill stopped, except for the Bosch. The Bosch dropped far below any usable speed well before it stopped, it was under about 20 rpm for around a minute before stopping completely.

The best battery life by far was the Ryobi at almost 11 minutes, followed by the Milwaukee at almost 9 minutes and the Makita at just over 8 minutes. The Bosch and Porter-Cable both averaged just over 6 minutes. The Rigid and Dewalt were the worst, although not by much at 5:45.

One interesting trend emerged from the runtime tests: Almost all of the drills showed significantly shorter runtimes after several discharge/recharge cycles. For example, the Ryobi's runtimes dropped by 12%, the Milwaukee 16%, and the Makita's dropped 20%. Only the Dewalt did not show this trend. Note that even when you discount the best drills early runtimes they still outperform the other drills, but not by such a significant margin. The question remains, however, whether they retain any advantage over a longer time.

One thing to note is that the Milwaukee became quite hot during hard use. The upper body just behind the clutch measured 110-120°. No other drill showed this kind of heat.

Chargers and recharging time

There's not a whole lot of difference in the chargers. The Makita has the option to play a tone or a little tune when charging is done, which is nice. However, the Makita also runs its cooling fan all the time, regardless of whether the battery is hot or it's even charging at all. The other chargers only run their fans if they need to cool down the battery before charging. The Dewalt charger has no fan, it just waits for the battery to cool off by itself which added almost 20 minutes to the charge time if the battery was hot.

One thing I really disliked was the way the Ryobi batteries lock to the charger just like they do to the drill, which means you have to squeeze the buttons (and hold the charger down) to get it out. I simply don't understand why they do this, is there really some danger of the battery flying out of the charger?

Recharge time was measured after the battery was run to exhaustion during the battery life test. It's not clear how most of the chargers are figuring their advertised charge times, although some admit their charge time is based on a battery that's only 75 or 80 percent discharged.

The fastest charge times were posted by the Porter-Cable system, consistently finishing in 20 minutes every time. The Makita took second place, averaging 23 minutes. The slow group included the Dewalt averaging 35 minutes, the Milwaukee and Rigid at 40 minutes, and the Bosch last with a very consistent 45 minutes.

The Ryobi was the oddball. Although both batteries gave approximately the same runtime, one battery would always recharge in about 25 minutes, while the other would always take a little over 40 minutes.

Assuming the Ryobi's 25 minutes times are a fluke, the Makita would seem to have the best battery technology with third-best battery life but second-fastest recharge time.

One thing to note about recharge times: I did not count any time the charger indicated it was cooling the battery. Only the Makita and Dewalt did this, adding 20-25 minutes to the time needed to for a recharge.

Torque

To test the torque of each drill, I cut four pieces of 4/4 ash, then clamped them together and held the edges in a vise to ensure the drills couldn't just push the layers apart or split them. I drilled a 1/8" x 1" pilot hole, then drove a 3/8" lag screw into the ash until the drill stalled. I then waited a few seconds and started the drill again to allow it a second chance to push further. If the drill made significant further progress, I would continue pressing the trigger a couple seconds apart until the drill stalled completely.

The Makita was the winner in this area, driving the lag about 2-1/4" on the first try. It was also the only drill to make any notable progress on further tries, eventually driving the lags to about 3 inches before getting stopped cold.

The Ryobi came in second at 2", with the Dewalt coming in third at 1-3/4". The other drills all averaged right around 1-1/2". Keep in mind that the torque would probably not be a linear increase, so the power increase to go from 1-3/4" to 2" would be less than what's required to go from 2" to 2-1/4"

Warranties

The Makita has the shortest warranty at only one year for both drill and batteries, while the Ryobi has 2 years for both. The Rigid, Porter-Cable, and Dewalt all have 3 year warranties on the drill and 2 or 3 year warranties on batteries. The Milwaukee has the best standard warranty at 5 years on both drill and batteries.

The Bosch also has a one-year warranty on the drill but two years on the batteries. However, if you register with their free Provantage program, Bosch will extend the warranty on the drill to three years.

Rigid also has an option for a lifetime warranty, including lifetime battery replacement! As far as I can tell, there is no extra cost for this warranty, you just have to register. However, I've been told by two owners that you can't just walk into your local Home Depot and grab one. You have to get them directly from Rigid, which can take a while. I haven't been able to confirm this, so if you're considering the Rigid check out how the replacement system works.

Bosch and Ryobi have a 30-day money-back guarantee while Porter-Cable, Rigid, and Dewalt are 90 days. Note that some stores (such as Lowes) have a 90-day return policy that would also apply to the Bosch and Ryobi.

Update: I've been told that Makita actually has a three-year warranty. And, sure enough, right on the box it says "Three Year Warranty". However, in the actual owner's manual it clearly says one year.

Miscellaneous stuff

  • All the drills had nice little instruction booklets except the Dewalt, whose instructions are one huge sheet. Trying to fold this back up was just like fighting with a map. Remember, this is the most expensive drill in our roundup! (view photo)
  • The directions for the Makita drill were perfectly fine. The charger directions, however, were apparently translated from Taiwanese by someone not completely familiar with English.
  • The Ryobi includes a bubble level built into the handle, which has come in handy several times on my old Ryobi. However, they have not included the plumb level built into the end like the old model, which I really like. (view photo)
  • The Makita impact driver is nice but extremely noisy. Since it uses rapid taps instead of continuous power, it doesn't try to turn the driver in the opposite direction nearly as hard as the regular drill and you don't have to fight it. You should note, however, that while it makes driving high-torque fasteners easier, it's far slower and doesn't drive them any further.

Overall impressions

Dewalt DCD760KL
Originally, I got the NiCad version of their 18V cordless drill by mistake. It was very nice and I liked it a lot. The only reason it wasn't my #1 choice was the size and weight. So I was excited to try out the lithium-ion version which was smaller and almost a pound lighter. I was terribly disappointed in the new version. Along with with the lighter weight, I also got poorer battery life, less power, and a far cheaper-feeling drill. Even if this drill were 1/2 the price, the horrible low-speed screech would rule it out for me.
 
Ryobi P815
The battery compatibility with my old Ryobi tools would be a real advantage. The battery charging strangeness has me spooked, however. If the batteries charged consistently and the clutch was easier to turn, this would probably be my choice even though I don't care much for the chuck.
 
Milwaukee 2601-22
Another nice drill, very well constructed, but a little top-heaviness makes it feel just a bit awkward. I could live with it, but it wouldn't be my first choice. I don't think the heat would be a real issue in everyday use, but it concerns me. When using all the drills during the test projects, the Milwaukee stood out for being a good drill but with irritating noisiness.
 
Makita BDF452HW
On paper, this is the overall winner. Places first or second on just about every test, but with a mid-range price. However, it simply feels a little cheap and flimsy. Also, the degradation of the battery life concerns me. Despite the good performance, it just doesn't feel on par with the Dewalt or Bosch in quality. I could definitely live with it, though.UPDATE: Now that the price has gone from $180 to $230, I no longer think it's all that great a value.
 
Rigid R86006
A decent tool, but definitely the worst drill in this group. However, the lifetime warranty including replacement batteries makes this a great deal for the occasional user.

Bosch 36618-02
While it didn't excel on paper, the Bosch does everything pretty well and simply feels wonderful to use. The soft start is very nice. At several points, however, I really needed more torque than it would provide and had to reach for another drill.
 
Porter-Cable PCL180DRK-2
Definitely a second-tier drill. It has a slightly cheap feel, especially the chuck. And the battery situation, with the hard springs and loud clunk on insertion, make it a drill I'd rather not have.

And the winner is ...

In the end, there was no winner amongst these tools. All of the drills were disappointing in some aspect. However, none of them are fatally flawed to the point where they wouldn't be somebody's winner. If I had to pick one of these drills for my own use, four of them wouldn't quite make the grade while three of them would be mostly satisfying. Let's start with the quartet of not-quite-there contenders ...

  • The Rigid simply isn't what I want in a drill. The size and clumsiness were a constant irritant. Yes, it has a lifetime warranty, but that means I'd be stuck with a noisy, second-rate drill for the rest of my life.
  • The Porter-Cable is OK, but the only real factor in its favor is a low price. For a few dozen more dollars, I'd rather have a really good drill. This isn't one.
  • I had high hopes for the Milwaukee, but all the little nitnoid failings added up. When you factor in the irritating noise, it's not for me.
  • Likewise, as I noted above, I was acutely disappointed in the Dewalt. It's not bad, but being the most expensive drill for no particular reason isn't good.

And now for the three that came very close to earning a place in my shop ...

  • For sheer performance, you have to like the Makita. I just have my doubts about it's long-term survival, which are reinforced by (possibly) the shortest warranty of any drill in this group. And the downward trend in battery life worries me. Despite the cheap feeling, it's probably something I could live with and be pretty happy. UPDATE: With the huge recent price increase, I would move this to the "Not Quite There" category
  • The Ryobi is very tempting. Excellent if potentially shortening battery life, good torque, compatibility with the five other One+ tools I already own, decent quality. I just wish it felt as good in my hand as the Bosch. And, holy cow, that color is awful ...
  • I really like the size, weight, and quality feel of the Bosch. It's only serious downfall is the lack of torque. And for 90% or more of people, this isn't really an issue. Therefore, the Bosch is my Nerd's Choice among these drills.

I began this little adventure searching for the best 18V lithium ion drill out there. And even though the Bosch was the best of this bunch, it doesn't live in my shop. So, what was the ultimate winner of my drill search? The Festool T15+3 @ $550. Check out my review.


This review would have been much harder without the excellent (and free) Apimac Timer

 

    Questions? Comments? Offers of free cash? Email me at