Buyer’s Guide: Cordless Drills
Get the lowdown on the crucial features and useful extras to look for when choosing a cordless drill—and don't miss our roundup of top-favorite picks!
Just as cellular technology freed the telephone, the advent of lithium-ion batteries forever altered the landscape of power tools. Gone were the limits of the extension cord’s reach. Now, with their tools running on powerful, long-lasting batteries, handy homeowners can roam free, enjoying total flexibility and range of movement when tackling projects on their to-do lists.
Of course, the corded electric drill had always been a homeowner favorite, but its battery-powered cousin has become truly ubiquitous. If you own any power tools whatsoever, chances are you have a cordless drill for small jobs around the house.
The popularity of these extremely handy power tools has brought a dizzying cornucopia of models to the market. With so many to choose from, how can you be sure to pick the right cordless drill for your needs? Keep reading to learn how to navigate the selection process and to find out why the following are our top favorites:
- BEST OVERALL: Makita 12V MAX CXT Lithium-Ion Brushless Cordless Driver-Drill Kit
- BEST VALUE: Meterk 20V Cordless Electric Drill Driver
- BEST FOR LIGHT DUTY: Memphis Tools Brushless Cordless Drill Set
- BEST FOR HEAVY DUTY: DEWALT 20V MAX Cordless Drill / Driver Kit
Cordless drills start at 7.2-volts and max out at 20 volts. While drills in the upper voltage range were once used almost exclusively by construction pros because their higher-voltage batteries were once much heavier, today’s batteries pack a powerful punch at smaller sizes and lighter weights. Cordless drills in the 12- to 18-volt range are still popular, especially for smaller household projects, but many of today’s new cordless drills offer powerful 20-volt batteries. The higher the voltage, the stronger the drill’s twisting power, or torque. Twisting power comes into play when inserting different size screws into different types of wood. For example, more torque is needed to insert large screws into hardwood beams than is necessary to insert thin finish screws into a baseboard.
The more powerful 20-volt cordless drills on the market today require something to temper some of the torque they produce—a clutch. Just as stepping on the clutch pedal in a stick-shift car disengages the car’s transmission, so does the clutch on a cordless drill disengage the drill’s spinning force. Why would you want this? Well, when the screw you’re inserting reaches maximum depth, two things can happen: The force of the spinning drill bit can strip out the head of the screw, or worse, the drill bit can catch in the head of the screw, causing the drill to jerk violently in your hand, which can result in a dropped drill or a wrist injury. Virtually all of today’s drills feature clutches that can be adjusted to the level of torque resistance you want—when the screw is fully inserted and stops moving, the clutch disengages the spinning force. Look for a cordless drill with at least 10 clutch settings, so you can adjust it just the right amount of resistance necessary for a wide variety of screw-insertion tasks.
Over the years, cordless drills have gotten only lighter and more compact. It’s not unreasonable to focus your search on tools that come in under five pounds. But weight isn’t the only determinant of comfort. Equally important is the power tool’s balance. To test the balance of a cordless drill you’re considering, grip the handle firmly in your dominant hand, then lift it toward the wall as if you were going to drive a screw. The drill chuck should point straight at the wall without your having to fight to keep it from tilting up or down.
Older cordless drills run on nickel-cadmium (NiCd) or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Today’s best cordless drills, however, run on lithium-ion batteries. This type of battery weighs less, lasts longer, and recharges more quickly than its predecessors. The only downside to note is that, for all the power it brings to your drilling jobs, a lithium-ion battery comes in at a higher price to replace.
Different cordless drill packages come with different features and accessories. Depending on how you intend to use the power tool, one or another of the following features may be worth pursuing in a kit:
- interchangeable battery that works with a number of power tools from the brand
- extra battery
- “smart” battery charger (capable of recharging in 15 to 60 minutes)
- battery-charge indicator
- more than one speed setting
- built-in work light and/or level
- warranty for cordless drill and battery
Our Top Picks
1. BEST OVERALL: Makita 12V MAX CXT Lithium-Ion Brushless Cordless Driver-Drill Kit
For reliability in a light-duty drill, consider Makita’s 12V cordless drill. At just 6.5 inches long and 2.3 lbs., with an ergonomic grip to boot, the drill is great for getting into tight spots where larger drills simply won’t fit. The Makita offers 12 volts of lithium-ion battery power—plenty for everyday tasks, such as drilling holes to hang pictures—and it comes with a 20-setting adjustable clutch, battery, battery charger, and a hard case for safe storage. The tool seems to deliver just as much power as higher-voltage models and additionally, it boasts long battery life and superior balance.
2. BEST VALUE: Meterk 20V Cordless Electric Drill Driver
We love the power and the price tag of the Meterk 20V Cordless Drill. The drill packs 20 volts of power, and it comes with a battery charger and two lithium-ion batteries, so you can charge one while you’re using the other. It has 21 clutch settings, a soft-grip handle to reduce hand fatigue, as well as an LED light to help you see where you’re drilling in poor lighting. The Meterk proves you really don’t have to spend a great deal of money to get a great cordless drill.
3. BEST FOR LIGHT DUTY: Memphis Tools Brushless Cordless Drill Set
Small drills often lack the power to handle tough jobs like inserting decking screws into joists, but that’s not the case with the Memphis Tools Brushless Cordless Drill Set. This 20-volt drill is powerful enough to drive large screws yet compact enough to maneuver in restricted areas, making this Memphis Tools model a versatile rarity.
4. BEST FOR HEAVY DUTY: DEWALT 20V MAX Cordless Drill / Driver Kit
From one of the most respected names in professional power tools comes the DEWALT 20V MAX Cordless Drill / Driver Kit, boasting enough torque to work on large framing products, 16 clutch settings, and a comfortable ergonomic grip. Packaged with a charger, 20-volt lithium-ion battery, and a storage bag, this is a popular option well worth considering.