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Cost vs. Quality: Cordless Drill/Drivers

Filed Under: Tools, Know-How

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What's the difference between a $30 drill and a $300 drill? Our DIYer digs in to find out.

I recently set out to drill through five sheets of Plexiglas for a colorful wall hanging I was making. I borrowed a cordless drill/driver (which functions as both a drill and a power screwdriver) from a contractor I know who readily admits to being a tool snob. His drill was made by Festool, a German manufacturer that many of us American DIYers have never heard of.

But, oh man, that finely-tuned instrument bored into that tough Plexiglas like a hot knife through butter. The sensation of using a superior, precision drill -- with its exquisite balance and power -- was so pleasurable I actually considered starting another wall hanging just so I could do more drilling!

That's the difference between working with a finely engineered and manufactured tool and a cheap and shoddily made one. The former makes you look forward to the work; the latter makes you dread each task.

Of course, you already know the primary downside to the premier tools: enormous price tags. While the least expensive drill/driver you can find at a big box store will run you a slim $30, a Festool cordless drill costs about $350 or more.

The good news: there is a middle ground when it comes to power drills. For instance you can buy Consumer Reports' most highly rated cordless drill/driver (for general, at-home use), the Panasonic Model # EY6432GQKW, for about $200. It's a 15.6-volt model, which is about mid-range.

When you set out to purchase a new cordless drill/driver, be aware there are two general grades for the at-home DIYer (excluding heavy-duty drills designed for industrial-sized jobs):

cordless drill/driverThe Panasonic #EY6432GQKW, a contractor grade tool, retails for about $200. The Black & Decker #SS18SB-2 sells for about $80. Photos: Panasonic; Lowe's

-- Contractor Grade: These are the best quality, more expensive drills; the brands you'll likely find on a professional job site. Manufacturers include Hitachi ($80-$130), Porter Cable ($100-$170), Milwaukee ($190), Panasonic ($185-$200),
Makita ($110-$270), and DeWalt ($140-$300)

-- Consumer Grade:
These are lesser quality, less expensive drills designed for household use. Manufacturers include Ryobi ($30-$200), Craftsman ($40-$120), Black & Decker ($60-$110), Skil ($60-$110), Ridgid ($140)

(Note: These are the price ranges of cordless drill/drivers reviewed by Consumer Reports.)

So why the disparity in prices? Consider the differences between the least expensive car you could buy (such as a Hyundai Accent for about $11,000) and a more expensive car (such as a BMW 5-Series sedan starting at $50,000). While the cheaper cars will get you from point A to point B, you usually get there with a lot of road noise, uncomfortable seats, and maybe without the benefit of air conditioning and a sound system. It's the same with luxury tools: they generally work better, feel better and last longer.


You don't have to buy top-of-line power drill/drivers to experience great performance, but you do have to draw the line at some point if you want to prevent frustration, a short shelf-life, and shoddy results. Consider these factors when deciding what to spend on your cordless drill:

1. Speed
In general, the more speed your tool has, the better the performance. At the very least, the power drill you buy should have high and low speeds. The high speed is for drilling and the low speed is for screwdriving. The speed is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A healthy rpm is 1,300 or more. Drills with 800 or less can be frustrating to operate; they may not bore easily through a surface or not tighten a screw properly.

The power available for your cordless drill/drivers is measured in volts (V). The least powerful tools on the market are about 6V, while the most powerful are about 24V. My favorite small drill/drivers, which fit nicely in my hand yet pack a lot of juice, are around 9.6V. Mid-power drill/drivers are around 14V, while the beefy models, the kind you might find in the hands of a framing carpenter, would be 18V -- probably too much power for the occasional or novice DIYer. Anything less than 9.6V is likely not worth your money. (Beg to differ? Defend your power drill in the comments below!)

3. Batteries
When it comes to cordless tools, the battery makes all the difference. First, find out how long the batteries hold their charge during the kinds of jobs you will do. If you're planning on hanging a couple of curtain rods, or putting together a picture frame, any model will hold a charge long enough for you to get the job done. But if you're doing a bigger job, like installing rain gutters to a large house, the battery might not go the distance without having to be recharged. Granted, most cordless drills come with two batteries so one can charge while they other is in use. If you plan to do a lot of work with your drill/driver over a long period of time, check out the cost of new batteries. Some high-end tools require batteries that cost way more than $100. Decide whether the convenience of a longer-lasting battery is worth the extra cost. And bear in mind that certain batteries can make cordless tools heavier than equivalent corded tools. For drill/drivers, 3.5 pounds is considered light, and 5 pounds or more is considered heavy.

4. Hand Feel
This may be the least-considered issue by DIYers and others, but it's among the most important. All hands are different, it's fair to say, and some tools that fit and feel perfect in in one person's hand may feel totally awkward in someone else's. Hold any drill/driver you're considering -- with the battery installed, so you'll have a more accurate idea of the tool's weight -- at shoulder level for a minute or so to test it. For women, a smaller tool may feel better. Hand feel is about more than comfort; it can affect the outcome of your project significantly. So, if you need to pay a little more for a drill that feels better in your hands, consider it worth the investment.

5. LED Light
This is a fairly new development in the industry that directs an LED light right where you're drilling or driving a screw. If you've ever crawled inside a cabinet to attach it to the wall, you know how life-changing a light on your drill/driver would be. Depending on your needs, this convenient feature might be worth the extra cash.

Tip: Good places for reading user reviews include the websites for The Home Depot and Lowe's. You can also talk to contractors and craftsmen or peruse contractor chat rooms. Here are a few more ideas:

Remodeling Magazine
Tools of the Trade
Consumer Reports (subscription needed)
Journal of Light Construction Forums These are designed as peer-to-peer forums for construction professionals. As homeowners, we can read contractors' comments about tools, but we cannot post or ask questions. Even with that restriction, this is a valuable resource for getting an insider's view of construction issues, including tools, materials and processes.

  • Jason

    Uh Hello !!!!!! RIDGID as consumer grade ?? Not here buddy. I am a professional communications technician and own RIDGID tools which I use day in and day out on large commerical jobsites. In fact the only cordless tools you will see are Ridgid, DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee and Ryobi. That just cracks me up, Ridgid consumer grade,lol. Oh thats right, your in a nice cool office, lol.

  • Bob Kovner

    I have to agree with you sir! Rigid is ands always has been the biggest name in PROFESSIONAL tools but you may have to ask a plumber to understand and most consumers only know there tools from magazine ads and the occasional use of putting a drywall screw into every fix. either way the most important thing about any cordless is the warranty since Rigid is the only tool that offers a lifetime warranty on every tool and every battery and charger I no longer purchase anything else ,I own a bunch of dead Makita and Milwaukee tools since the batteries died and the replacement costs are equal to the cost of a new rigid every thing I find myself replacing them with is Rigid and the last tools I will ever have to buy since they are truly life time .THANKS Rigid ,no more headaches you made the choice easy! So so much for thias artical and the writer whom is getting paid to spread the BS about over priced tools that truly are about name not function and dependability ,Think warrenty and compare ,compare , campare before you buy just dont go by name when you buy unless its Rigid!

  • mike

    I have a professional Hitachi cordless. very nice and works well, built in light. I only have one thing to say about any tool...don't buy Black & Decker or DeWalt. Both Black and Decker companies. Black and Decker put 5000 people out of work here, and moved the factory to Mexico where they don't have to pay benefits and the quality is poor. KEEP IT American......

  • Don

    Hitachi is hardly American.

  • Dex

    And your Hitachi is made where? Is a Japanese company "keeping it American"?

  • mike

    In 1994, Hitachi Power Tools U.S.A. was renamed Hitachi Koki U.S.A. to denote the addition of manufacturing to the United States.

  • Ty

    B&D also likes to overcharge for replacement parts, often costing the same or more than the original purchase price of the tool.

  • Bobby

    I'm not familiar with the "festool" drill mentioned in the article but with any tool the accessories are the main player. You can take a top quality electric saw with a dull sawblade & have to burn your way through the material you're cutting. Always let the tool work for you instead of you working for the tool with sharp bits & blades. An extra battery pack also helps as well...

  • eagle0527

    A sharp drill bit or saw blade can make the difference in a homeowners grade drill or saw. Using th eright tool for the job also make a big difference. If you plan on working like a professional for just a weekend job do you need a professional grade tool. I think you can get away with a homeowners grade but jsut plan on it taking a little longer. Keep in mind that the cost diffence between say a high end Ryobi and Porter Cable professional grade is some what minimal.

  • mike

    In 1994, Hitachi Power Tools U.S.A. was renamed Hitachi Koki U.S.A. to denote the addition of manufacturing to the United States.

    My drill was made here in the USA

  • Tom

    Milwaukee all the way!

  • Linda

    My husband has a beautiful Dewalt cordless drill. ,with the extra battery . He can use one while the other one charges, so that we are never stuck with a dead battery.. Some jobs can be difficult and a pain to do with a corded drill. This was a present I bought him several years ago, and it was worth the money. I like using it too.

  • MalindaAntonette

    I am a 'do it yourself' kinda woman. A senior without anyone to help me, and I need a good inexpenive cordless drill/screwdriver. My old screwdriver fell apart on a small job. I been looking for one over the internet, and can not find one and would appreciate any advice on where and what to get, since I am on fixed income, need to get the best for my money. Thanks. MalindaAntonette

  • Wayne

    Don't be so fast to dismiss batteries below 9.6 volts. I have been using a Metabo Powergrip II for a long time and love it. It uses 7.2 volt Lion batteries and has tremdous torque for such a small unit. The set includes the powergrip II, 2 batteries, charger, right angle adapter, allen wrench, screw on adjustable chuck (to replace hex quick change chuck), a set of hex drivers and a molded carrying case.

    I have several other drill/drivers in the 9.6 to 24 volt range which I use when the job requires that power but I grab the Metabo first for most jobs. It is smaller, lighter and fits into tight spaces. The batteries hold a charge for a very long time in spite of their small size..

    The downside: somewhat expensive and drill the chuck is limited to 1/4 inch shanks.

  • paul

    In 1980 I was working for a US company that was just bought out by a German Company.... Our business was MACHINERY For DRILLING structural steel.... GERMANS had far superior DRILL BIT TECHNOLOGY... its not the driver, but the cutter.....the laymans drills are not sharpened properly, and are of inferiof cutter material....

  • TNewt

    The accompanying article is obviously written by a person, in this case a female, who is charmed by the accomplishment of drilling a hole. She offers some lousy information. As earlier comments have stated, it's the accessories that give the quality and ease of function in drilling a hole. Whatever it is that the author of this article really knows is what she should stick with.

  • Lewis

    I personally have 2 Craftsman drills and both are same power and everything, except one has the LED light. I have had them and use them almost daily for the past 3 years. Battery life is a little short, specially with the drill with the light, but in overall performance i have yet to be unable to use them. Of course some may be wondering why two of the same one. Well my assistant needs one also. I was working on a job about 30 feet up other week dropped the drill hit the concrete below, went down picked it up and still working nothing broken just a few scratch's. I have used dewalt and several other high dollar brands but to me never really noticed a great different. And again I use a drill every single day

  • steve

    nothing is said about what the batteries are made of, just thier cost. I am a mechanic at a factory service center for a brand I wont mention, because I dont want to debate which brand is better than the other.
    Ni-Cad batteries are cheaper, heavier and actually have a shorter life expectancy when they are not used much. The average homeowner who uses this type battery once a month or so, will see a shortened battery life. Litheon, lithium-ion, Li-Ion batteries do not lose thier charge when sitting unused for long periods like a Ni-Cad battery will.
    I talk to people every day who say they that they have had thier tool only a year or two, and hardly ever used it, but the batteries wont charge, very typical of Ni-Cad. That is why this article did everyone a disservice by not mentioning the difference between battery types, only cost.
    They also dont mention that a 36v Li-Ion weighs about the same as a 18v Ni-Cad, not to mention way more power and run time.
    The old Ni-Cad batteries still come with inaccuarate information, such as they have a memory and need to be drained all the way. Ni-Cads today do not have a memory, and actually react the same as a car battery that has been drained too far, individual cells die. Ni-Cads are made up of 1.2 volt cells, this is why batteries are 12v, 14.4, 15.6, 18v, etc. Running Ni-Cads too far down and your 12v battery might only hold 7.2 or 9.6 volts. This is not the case with the new Li-Ion batteries, these batteries are more expensive up front, but from what I have seen, less expensive over the long run.
    Most people will still buy the cheapest tool they can anyway, but at least they should have accurate information before hand, this article did not do that.
    Hope this helps

  • Maggie

    I'm a professional renovator and do all my own work so have gathered just about every tool there is. I use mostly Ryobi 18 volt cordless tools and have the drill, circular saw and also their flashlight. I found the 2 original battery packs lasted for 5 years during which I did about 6 major renovations. The trick is to have 2 so one is always charging, and to buy good bits and always have sharp saw blades. The battery packs for more expensive tools also cost more and I got 2 new Ryobi packs for $50; have had no problem with the tools and especially like the circ saw -- I hardly ever get out my old corded Skilsaw anymore.

  • Maggie

    You are so right; using words like "exquisite balance and power" when drilling through a few namby pamby sheets of'd think she was building the Eiffel Tower for Pete's sake. Drills do one thing and that's spin around in a circle; the only thing that matters is how fast they do it!

  • 22 Comments / 2 Pages

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