Cordless Power Tools: Which Brand(s) Should I Choose?

Hilti DrillsBy Will Mears

Today’s market is saturated with cordless tool brands, with a seemingly endless number of innovations in recent years, including power tools that many thought would never be practical without a cord. From well-known household brands like Black & Decker (B&D) to established professional brands such as Milwaukee, and even ultra-premium but lesser known brands like Festool, cordless tools are a common sight online and in stores and have rapidly overtaken their corded counterparts in popularity.

With so many brands, a homeowner may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of platforms available. Should they invest in a 12v (10.8v) system or an 18v/20v system? Would a niche brand like Bostitch’s 18v offerings (available primarily at Walmart) be sufficient, or would a much more prolific and more widely available system such as Milwaukee’s M-series (M12 and M18) or DeWalt 20v Max be the better choice? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of choosing one brand over another, while finding out exactly what suits our needs and budgets. Before we begin, however, keep in mind that this article is intended to be a general guide as opposed to a detailed examination of each brand.

Do I Need More than the Basics?

The majority of homeowners make do with a drill, with other popular choices (usually available in kits) being a work light, circular and/or reciprocating saw (e.g. Sawzall), and impact driver. Before choosing which brand to invest in, you should first determine your current and future needs. If you want only to hang up pictures and maybe one day build a work bench, then almost any of the major brands will work, and there may be no need to pay more for a professional or prosumer brand.

Wait, what? Okay, for the purposes of this article, we’ll classify brands into four distinct types: homeowner, DIY/prosumer, professional, and premium. Homeowner brands are exemplified by the likes of Black and Decker and Ryobi; DIY/prosumer brands include Ridgid, Porter Cable (PC), and Kobalt; professional brands are represented by DeWalt, Bosch, Makita, and Milwaukee; and Festool is a prime example of a premium brand. While there is a lot of overlap between these general categories (for instance, both DeWalt and Milwaukee offer entry-level drills at highly competitive prices, and brands like Ryobi are commonly seen in the hands of professionals), we’ll use these terms to denote things such as price and perceived quality. Premium tool brands will be mentioned only in passing, due to their cost and lack of widespread availability in most areas.

Ryobi Cordless Circular Saw ReviewWith that out of the way, let’s get back to the question at hand: do you need more than the basics? A drill will drill holes (imagine that), drive fasteners, and can even be used with a wire brush for light polishing or cleaning applications. A circular saw will make quick linear cuts in dimensional lumber and plywood, a reciprocating saw may be used to cut everything from wood to metal with the right blades, and an impact driver will make short work of driving fasteners in even the toughest of materials and without transferring torque to the user’s hands and wrists. Just about every major tool brand offers these basics, but if you feel the need to own all four of these tools in the cordless format, ensure that you do your homework before committing to any given battery platform. Besides convenience, corded saws may be the better choice for many people anyway, with driving tools and a couple of batteries sufficing for general projects.

Brands such as Ryobi, DeWalt, and Milwaukee all offer a large variety of tools, many of which are specifically designed for certain tasks (and thus are not essential to many DIY’ers). This is where future projects should be considered, though. While a drill or impact would work for hanging drywall, a specialty tool such as a screw gun would make the job much more efficient, especially if coupled with a collated screw adapter. A hammer drill may work to drill into brick for a couple of downspouts, but a rotary hammer would be much more capable for repeated drilling into concrete for a larger project, and could even handle light demolition work). Similarly, consider the demands that will be placed on your tools. Nearly any drill will work for the homeowner that uses it once or twice a month, but ergonomics, power, and battery life should be considered if a drill will see a lot of use. A 12V platform will be perfect for projects which are small in scope, but less than ideal for demanding jobs, while an 18V platform will handle most projects but could prove unwieldy and cumbersome to use for small tasks such as furniture assembly. Some companies produce chargers and accessories that work with both 12V and 18V class batteries, enticing some tool buyers to buy into both systems.

Cost vs. Value: What’s the Difference?

Ridgid Drill and Impact Driver Kit ReviewSo, let’s consider what many of us might deem most important when considering which tool system to invest in: its cost and overall value to the consumer. Say you’ve decided that you need only a drill for the time being, but you are considering buying a multiple tool combo for not much more. A homeowner grade brand will likely work perfectly, but should you buy the standalone drill kit for $70, or spend another $100 for an impact driver, saw(s), light, and additional battery? Before making a final decision, look at all of the brands and consider any additional incentives such as Special Buys and sales. You might just find a prosumer or professional brand for little more initial investment, especially if a free tool or battery is included. Another thing to look at is the included tool(s) and batteries in the combo. Some companies include kit-specific tool models that lack some of the features of their bare tool offerings; DeWalt, for example, has both circular (DCS393) and reciprocating (DCS381) saws included in most combos as opposed to the better-featured bare tools (DCS391 and DCS380, respectively). One brand may offer a drill with a free extra higher capacity battery (4.0Ah seems to be the most common offering these days) for around $100-$130, while a combo may include an extra tool or two but low capacity batteries (1.5Ah is generally the smallest battery size available with new tools, but there are still some 1.3Ah kits around). It is common knowledge that tool companies practically give tools away for the sake of getting people invested in their batteries, so it’s wise to go with the best battery value. While compact packs do have their merits (less size and weight), keep in mind that 1.3 and 1.5Ah batteries usually have the same size factor as 2.0Ah and even newer 3.0Ah versions. In a similar manner, the older 2.6 and 3.0Ah batteries are usually the same size as 4.0 and 5.0Ah packs.

Some stores have recently released new brands which are compared to established brands. While interesting and tempting to some, keep in mind that these brands are largely unproven as of yet and that they do not yet offer some of the tools that are available elsewhere. Depending on your location and the availability of retail establishments, you might also want to consider the brands that are locally available to you. For example, if you live in a town with a Home Depot and the nearest Lowe’s is 50 miles away, you might consider Ryobi over Kobalt, or Ridgid over Porter Cable. If Walmart is your only local option, the aforementioned Bostitch 18v tools may be the best value. DeWalt and Milwaukee are widely available in both big box and local hardware stores. All of this is factored into the value of a tool brand: a $99 tool gets expensive fast if you must drive 100 miles to get a replacement battery or add a bare tool. If you prefer shopping online, however, this point is invalidated.

One final thing to consider when it comes to cost is the time of the year, clearance pricing, and pure luck. Each year, holiday pricing becomes more and more common; while Black Friday deals used to be available only during that time, similar prices now may be found during “Spring Black Friday”, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Christmas/New Years, and other times throughout the year. One thing is certain, major tool retailers usually have a sale or Special Buy event going on at any given time. Clearance pricing requires a combination of timing and luck. Simply put, stores lack the shelf space to stock leftover merchandise, so the first quarter of the year is usually when unsold holiday specials usually make their way to the clearance rack. This is highly subject to sales volume and management policies in your area, though. Finally, pure luck may play a role in your choice of brands. Many big box stores periodically place no longer stocked, returned, or display tools on a clearance rack for as much as 75% off. Even if you decide you only need a drill, why buy a homeowner brand if you can get a pro brand for less? Without inside knowledge of the store, however, such sporadic clearance tables are virtually impossible to predict in my experience.

The overall value of a purchase includes more than the sum of its parts, however. A low price and outstanding bang for the buck in the way of additional tools or batteries are quickly forgotten if the brand does not stand behind its products, or if the system has been or will soon be replaced. Check the warranty and carefully scour reviews for known and recurring issues. Also try to stay abreast of news such as product releases and the age of the system. While many manufacturers support older systems by continuing to offer batteries and parts (and third-party manufacturers offer batteries of varying quality), you can quickly grow disillusioned with a brand if it ceases development of new tools after you commit to that system. A case in point here lies in the still-serviceable yet rapidly aging DeWalt 18v XRP line; it is still a very good system that sees heavy usage, just don’t expect to buy newly designed tools for it.

Low cost does not always equal value, so do careful research on any pending purchase by reading both consumer and professional reviews (Tools in Action is a great place to start!). Plan around your budget, but do not forego considering a few different brands before making a purchase.

But Which Brand(s) SHOULD I Choose?

Milwaukee M12 Drill and Impact ReviewAgain, this article is not intended to recommend any specific brand as each of you know your needs and—perhaps more importantly—likes better than I do. Also, note that you don’t have to commit to a single brand if your needs, wants, or even luck makes owning more than one an option. I started with drills from Black & Decker, beginning with a 7.2v Ranger back in the 90’s before moving on to a 14.4v model in the early 2000’s; all these years later I still own both, though the old UniVolt batteries for the former no longer charge. I upgraded to Porter Cable 18v near the end of its effective lifespan (around 2012; those tools still work fine, by the way) before deciding to upgrade to DeWalt 20v Max in 2016. Along the way I picked up a couple of Hitachi tools (in 12 and 18v), most of the fairly miniscule DeWalt 12v Max line, a Bosch 12v drill, and am now also heavily invested in Milwaukee M18 and Ridgid 18v tools which complement my DeWalt collection with minimal overlap. Granted, this number of systems is far too impractical for most of us (maybe I’ve got a bit of a problem…), but it’s nice to have the right tool for the job, just as it’s great when I can run a few different types of bits or blades without having to constantly swap them out. My experience with all of these tools has been great, though the modern tools make my ancient B&D drills and even the somewhat newer PC tools seem primitive. This post is not about my wants and needs, though. It’s about yours. You may find an inexpensive brand preferable to a higher end brand, just as you may be well served buying a single cordless drill and sticking with corded options for other tools. My neighbor, for example, runs an electrical contracting company and relies on a single Ryobi drill for all of his drilling and driving needs, using corded tools (or his employees) for everything else.

Sometimes it simply boils down to what you want. Have a little disposable income and love red or yellow? Want to get a lot of neon green tools without paying an arm and a leg? Want to drill, route, and sand with some orange tools? DeWalt, Milwaukee, Ryobi, and Ridgid are all excellent choices with many fans who are both tradesmen and everyday homeowners. Simply want a platform that gives you the basics with a few yard tools thrown in? Maybe you’re more a fan of blue or conventional green? B&D, Kobalt, Bosch, Makita, or Hitachi might be more up your alley.

All of the brands mentioned here, along with some notable exceptions, are worth considering. Ultimately, it boils down to what you can afford and what appeals the most to you. Notice a recurring word here? You. What works for me, the carpenter down the street, or the plumber that fixes your sink may not be optimal for your budget, needs, or personal preferences. So get out there, do your homework, and enjoy your purchases. We aren’t here forever, and can’t take anything with us, so just start doing. Build, repair, invent, or improve something…and use those hard-earned tools.