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Cordless drills

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Which cordless drill is the torque of the town?

We’ve tested cordless drill/drivers and screwdrivers, and uncovered great options for everyone from aspiring tradies to the most reluctant DIYers. Find out which products rated best for battery life, torque and speed drilling. We’ve also covered different drill types and the features to look for.

From our test

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Drill types

New homeowners searching for their first drill can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed during a stroll down the tool aisles. The drill family consists of numerous similar-looking tools, each designed for different applications.

Drill/drivers

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Drill/drivers are the most versatile option and can quickly drive screws and drill holes into most materials. But they can falter and stall when attempting to loosen over-tightened, rusted bolts or driving heavy-duty screws into dense materials, while their bulk makes them unwieldy in tight spots.

Impact drivers

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Impact drivers apply up to three times more torque (rotational force) to screws and bolts than standard drill drivers, while subjecting your wrist to less strain. They achieve this by repeatedly winding up and releasing a heavy cylinder on a spring which delivers rapid rotational concussive blows to boost the torque at the drill bit. This affords exceptional control as the tool does all the work with no counter-balancing force required from your wrist.

They can effortlessly fire most fastenings into dense materials, and are ideal for loosening over-tightened screws as they have less chance of stripping the head. However, their speed control isn’t as deft as a standard drill/driver so they’re not the best option for sensitive jobs where precise screw-depth is crucial, and they’re overkill for light drilling and driving tasks.

Note: manufacturers often sell drill/drivers and impact drivers as a set which offers considerable savings compared to buying the tools separately.

Hammer drills

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Hammer drills apply a whacking force straight into the material you’re drilling. Using one is like wielding a mini-jackhammer, making them ideal for ploughing through masonry, but unless you do lots of concrete work you can probably live without one. Some drill/drivers feature a hammer setting for light masonry drilling.

Cordless screwdrivers

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Cordless screwdrivers are the breakout star of this year’s test and a great option for speeding up tasks you’d normally accomplish with a screwdriver, like assembling flat-pack furniture. They’re much lighter and smaller than drill/drivers, and therefore easier to handle, making them ideal for assembly tasks as they can get into small spaces. They can handle some light drilling, but for anything where you need to drill a decent number of holes into quality timber, you’ll need a drill/driver.

What to look for

Battery drills are versatile and they free you from the nuisance of a power cord. Here's what to look for.

  1. Gearbox and torque settings: Almost all drills now come with a two-speed gearbox. The first gear is high-speed/low-torque (0-approx 1200rpm) for quick assembly driving; the second is low-speed/high-torque (0-approx 400rpm) for tough drilling. Most models also offer various torque (clutch) settings allowing for precise adjustment of speed vs torque, useful for delicate work and to avoid stripping the heads of small screws. You change gear using a slide or rotary knob — so make sure this operates smoothly and without excessive force.

  2. Keyless chuck: Look for a sleeve that gives a good-sized grip, without sharp ridges or grooves. Look for a chuck that can be tightened or loosened with one hand.

  3. Chuck size: This limits the size of the drill bit that the chuck can hold. Cordless screwdrivers are limited to 6.5mm, which is sufficient for small screws. Cheaper drills have 10mm but 13mm is the benchmark for tackling a range of jobs.

  4. Torque limiter/clutch: Lets the drive slip once the set torque is reached. Useful for flush-driving countersunk screws. The final position locks the drive for drilling.

  5. Handle, balance and ergonomics: In the store, pick up the drill and hold it at a variety of angles while pulling the trigger and assessing for balance, weight and handle comfort. Some models are well-suited to those with big paws but hopeless in smaller hands. A rubber insert will cushion vibration and increase grip.

  6. Variable speed trigger: The more you squeeze the trigger, the faster the drill goes. Look for a smooth easy-squeeze action.

  7. Hammer action: Substantially speeds the drilling of masonry by vibrating the drill-bit in and out as it turns. Requires a lot of power. Usually found only on higher volt (18+) drills.

Motor and battery

Consider how much power you'll need to get the job done, and make sure any batteries included in the kit have enough fuel in the tank. But if you're only an occasional DIYer don't pay for more drill than you need: you can get away with mid-range power and smaller batteries, which will also make for a lighter unit.

  • Brushless vs brushed: You’ll sometimes see “brushless” in the model names of high-end drills — this refers to brushless electric DC motors, which are electronically controlled and more powerful, durable, energy-efficient and lightweight than the “brushed” motors traditionally found in DIY power gear. They’re slightly more expensive than their brushed counterparts but we think it’s worth the cost for the increased power and longer tool life.

  • Voltage and amp-hours: There are two main battery voltages on offer for cordless drills: 12V and 18V (and one 20V tool). 18V tools are the most common and the best performers. Amp-hours (Ah) refers to how much fuel a battery has in the tank. Choose kits with batteries of 2.5Ah and upwards if long run-times are a priority. Most manufacturers sell kits including two batteries, which is handy for reducing downtime.

  • One-battery systems: All cordless power gear is sold as part of a family of products from a particular brand powered by the same battery. Once you’ve invested in a kit including batteries you can save money by just buying bare tools (the “skins”). We’ve been impressed by most offerings from Ryobi’s One+ 18V range, while the Makita LXT 18V family also boasts some excellent DIY and garden gear.

Extra features

These features may also be useful in a cordless drill.

  • Spare battery: A spare keeps you working: one charges up while the other is in use. Li-Ion batteries are lighter and more environmentally friendly than the older NiCad ones.
  • Charger: A one-hour charger lets you recharge during lunch — and even get a substantial top-up during a shorter break. One-hour chargers pump quite a heavy current into the battery, which causes heating. Make sure the charger has protection against overheating.
  • Wrist strap: Handy and safer when working in high places.
  • Warranty: A trade-use warranty tells you about the maker’s view of the tool: it suggests the drill has been better constructed and is more durable than DIY versions.
  • LED light: Lets you see what you’re drilling in dark areas.
  • Speed range: A range of high speeds is more suitable for drilling smaller diameter holes (up to around 5mm in metal and 10mm in wood) while a low-speeds range is for larger diameter drilling and driving screws.

About our test

Our overall scores comprise performance (70%) and ease-of use (30%).

Performance is equally weighted between the following three tests:

  • Battery life: we drill a 10-12 x 25mm cabinet screw into MDF, screw it back out, then rinse and repeat. On average, the drills in our test drove 332 screws before giving up the ghost, with the top model managing 642. The cordless screwdrivers drove just over 100 on average into pre-made holes in MDF.

  • Torque: we drive heavy-duty 14g, 10 x 75mm timber screws into three sheets of MDF. If a drill drives the screw head flush with the MDF with no slowing down it’s awarded 10/10 for torque; penalties apply if it slows down or is unable to drive the screw flush.

  • Speed drilling: we time how quickly we can drill 10 holes with a 13mm spade bit through 45mm spotted gum.

Ease of use for drills is highly subjective, so we employ a panel featuring:

  • one right-handed man with large hands,
  • another man with large hands but left-handed, and
  • a right-handed woman with smaller hands.

Our ease-of-use scores are equally-weighted between the panellists’ assessment of weight, balance and handle/control ergonomics.

Assembly is assessed for cordless screwdrivers only and refers to their performance (speed) when drilling screws into pre-made holes, for example when assembling flat-pack furniture.

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