After using 16 drills to drive 1,669 3-inch screws and bore 345 1-inch holes, we’re convinced that the best one for around the house is the Bosch PS31-2A 12-Volt Max Drill/Driver. Not only is it the lightest, most compact drill we tested, but it’s also among the strongest, and it completely blew away the competition in terms of battery life. Starting from a full charge, it drilled twice as many holes as the second-place drill and drove almost 50 percent more screws. It consistently drove the screws completely into the wood and barely struggled at all when going through dense knots, unlike many of the other drills we looked at. This superior performance comes at a price that’s easily comparable to the competition. Even though it’s a smaller, 12-volt tool meant for around the house work, it performed as well as many of the larger 18-volt tools we tested, offering enough power for occasional use on ambitious projects.
We’ve also spent hours testing drill bit sets. See our complete guide to for our recommendations.
Since 2001, I’ve been using and evaluating tools on a daily basis. I spent 10 years in construction as a carpenter, foreman, and site supervisor, working on multimillion-dollar residential renovations in the Boston area. I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools for nine years with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, This Old House, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Science, and Tools of the Trade.
To gain more insight on drills, I spoke with Timothy Dahl, founder and editor of the home improvement site Charles & Hudson and family DIY site, Built by Kids. Dahl, an editor at Popular Mechanics, has been writing about tools since 2002 and has been running Charles & Hudson since 2005. I also spoke with Harry Sawyers, Sweethome editor, formerly with This Old House and Popular Mechanics. Sawyers has been writing about tools since 2005, including putting together a 12-volt drill test for Gizmodo.
I also read everything that I could on the topic of drills. The cordless-tool industry (drills in particular) is a fast-moving target, so most of the rundowns from established reviewers are outdated. This Old House’s Tool Test: 12-Volt Drill/Drivers is from 2010 and 12-volt Cordless Drills: We Test 13 of the Best was published in the Popular Mechanics in late 2011. Likewise, the Consumer Reports round-up on drills is missing too many current models to be fully relied on as a primary source. To truly get a sense of each one’s power and run time, we decided we’d have to test them ourselves.
The 12-volt pick is a kitchen drawer drill. It’s good for a lot of things around the house—putting up hooks, installing baby gates, swapping out light fixtures, minor drywall repairs and maybe straightening a saggy gutter. It’s a drill for a homeowner who wants to zip through Ikea furniture builds, help a kid make a nice science fair project, and build a bookshelf. It’s not the perfect tool for constant heavy-duty use, but it can certainly replace a few rotted deck boards or help with the framing needed to install a new window. The size works well if you’re storing it indoors, and the battery lasts long enough that you can usually pick it up and use it after a few weeks without needing a recharge.
If you’re a rabid DIYer with plans to build a deck, a doghouse, and a tree house this summer, we recommend the stronger 18-volt drill. This one offers longer battery life and more power. It’s designed for constant heavy-duty use and is something that would be seen hanging off a pro carpenter’s tool belt. It can handle all but the most aggressive jobs (like mixing mortar with a paddle or repetitive drilling into concrete). It’s a bit bigger and better-suited for storage in a garage or shed, and some folks might find its size and weight a little harder to manage than a smaller, 12-volt tool. On average, 12-volt drills are 6 to 7 inches in length and weigh less than 2½ pounds; 18-volts average a length of 7 to 8 inches and weigh around 3½ pounds (and have much bulkier batteries).
For work around the house, our experts were unanimous in recommending a 12-volt drill kit that comes with a pair of lithium-ion batteries. These drills offer a combination of power, maneuverability, and run time that makes them the ideal choice for smaller, home-oriented jobs. In his Gizmodo piece, Sawyers wrote, “[12-volt drills] can drill and drive anything in your house—and they’re small enough to stow away in a kitchen junk drawer.” Dahl echoed this, telling us, “I use my 12-volt for 90 percent of the tasks around the house.”
The voltage of a drill is generally what determines its overall capabilities; drills can range from tiny 4-volt screwdrivers all the way up to the concrete-crushing 36-volt tools. The two most popular (and useful) voltages are the 12-volts and the 18-volts.1 The bigger 18-volts have long been the standard, but in the past 10 years or so, 12-volts have become impressive in their power and run time as lithium-ion batteries have evolved and replaced nickel batteries as the default technology.
Drills also come with any number of convenience features, all of which are nice, none of which are essential. At this point, every quality drill (including all of the ones we tested) comes with an LED that shines at the front of the drill. But other optional features include a battery indicator light, a belt hook, and onboard bit storage. While we’d never choose a drill based strictly on these features, these smaller touches are nice when they’re present, and in our case, proved to be one of the factors that pushed the Porter-Cables above the rest.
In looking for models to test, we scoured retailers like Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. We also checked in with all of the major drill manufacturers such as Milwaukee, Bosch, Craftsman, and DeWalt. For the most part, we discounted any tools that come with only one battery, such as the Ryobi HJP004. It’s just not worth it to be stuck in the middle of a project, no matter how small, waiting for a battery to charge.2 We made three exceptions to this rule. Both the Craftsman 17586 12-Volt Drill/Driver and the Black+Decker BDCDD12C 12-Volt Max Drill are priced so low that purchasing a single battery kit and one additional battery still puts them far below the $100 mark. We also looked at the Black+Decker BDCDE120C 20-Volt Drill/Driver with Autosense Technology. This tool has a unique clutch system that automatically stops the drill once it is flush with the wood.
There are also a few notable 12-volts that we did not test. Both the DeWalt 12-Volt Max Cordless Drill/Driver Kit and the Makita FD02W 12V Max Drill/Driver Kit are consistently priced well above $100 and thus out of our range.
We did not look at any brushless tools this time around. These newer items are currently becoming popular with pros because they have a high-efficiency motor that offers better performance and durability. For most homeowners, for now anyway, the technology is still cost-prohibitive, with most brushless models starting at over $200 for a two-battery kit. Second, they offer benefits that will probably be lost on the non-professional. As Dahl told us, “Brushless is still too much money for the average homeowner who won’t see the benefits.”
We spent two days testing 16 drills by driving screws and drilling holes on a pile of lumber in rural New Hampshire. For the driving test, I saw how many 3-inch drywall screws each drill could sink into a doubled-up 2-by-10 piece of Douglas Fir (a total of 3 inches of wood) on a fully charged battery. This simulated the process of framing, as if someone were building a tree house or a partition wall. I rested the drills after every 14 screws to prevent overheating.
For these tests, I set the drills to the faster of the two speeds and switched over to the slower speed (with higher torque) when the drill stopped being effective. In the lower gear, I was usually able to continue on for a bit until the battery was completely drained. For the drilling test, the 12-volts usually could handle only a few holes before I switched over to the lower gear with the higher torque needed for the difficult task.
I also used the drills in more unstructured settings as I worked on various projects—I built a wall, repaired a chicken coop, fabricated two bookshelves, put down a floor, and outfitted my workshop with shelving. I also recently moved, so the drills were used for countless around-the-house projects like adjusting cabinet doors, hanging heavy mirrors, and putting up mudroom hooks.
The drilling test yielded similar results with the PS31 far ahead of the pack. While the other five 12-volts bored between eight and 12 holes, the PS31 drilled 25, two to three times more than the other drills. This wasn’t an easy task for any of the 12-volts, and they all had to fight their way through the process with significant amounts of stalling and binding, but the Bosch worked through it all and just kept on going and going.
In both of these tests, the 12-volt PS31 actually achieved higher numbers than many of the larger 18-volts that we tested. It drove more screws than seven of them and drilled more holes than four. We need to emphasize that these drills aren’t even in the same class, so this is like a middleweight scoring punches on a heavyweight. The smaller PS31 took quite a bit longer to do these tasks, but these impressive numbers still display the overall abilities of the tool.
With this small size, it’s no surprise that the PS31 is also very light, weighing only 2 pounds, 2 ounces (with a battery). The Black+Decker and the Craftsman are both just a whisker heavier at 2 pounds, 3 ounces. The rest are at least 2 pounds, 6 ounces, with the Milwaukee as the heaviest at 2 pounds, 10 ounces. The good news is that while the PS31 is lightweight, it feels very solid, not cheap and plasticky. It feels durable and it didn’t even flinch the few times I accidentally knocked it off the table.
During unstructured testing is when the PS31’s diminutive size really came in handy. It’s such a small, light, easy-to-handle tool that my afternoon spent hanging window blinds above my head was no problem at all. The size was also beneficial as I reconfigured some drawer slides in a cramped kitchen cabinet. I also had to unscrew a ceiling access panel that had a built-in bookshelf directly underneath it. With the extremely tight clearance, the Bosch PS31 was the only drill that could fit in the space and remove the screws.
For additional features, the PS31 has a battery life indicator. This consists of three lights on the side of the tool that light up accordingly any time the drill is activated. The design of the lights is nice because once the tool is activated, it’s easy to check the battery life with a simple glance. On many of the other drills, namely the 18-volts, a button needs to be pressed to get the indicator lights to activate. This requires stopping what you’re doing.
Another benefit to the Bosch PS31 is that it is part of an expansive battery platform. Bosch offers many other tools, from saws to radios to oscillating tools and even heated jackets, that run off the same 12-volt battery. With the PS31 (and its two batteries) in hand, these additional items can all be purchased “bare tool,” meaning, without the battery. Depending on the tool, this can save anywhere from $40 to $60, making this an economical approach to expanding a tool collection.
The PS31 has received praise from many reviewers. Stuart Deutsch of ToolGuyd wrote that the PS31 “can handle many if not most of the jobs 18V drills and drivers are used for.” He continued, “It lacks the mass, size, and power to be used in high-torque or heavy duty applications, but it plows through smaller holes and can be used for most screwdriving applications as well.” He wraps up his review calling the PS31, “highly recommended.”
Much of the same sentiment can be found in Clint DeBoer’s review of the PS31 at Pro Tool Reviews. He tested the PS31 by driving 3-inch screws into a pressure-treated 4-by-4. He drove 51 screws (before running out), then removed 45 of them. As DeBoer wrote, “that’s a very respectable amount of work.” He “also felt that the Bosch Drill/Driver didn’t seem to be very finicky about knots or whether the PT wood was soft or hard—it just drove screws. This tool can do some heavy-duty work.”
DeBoer also installed a lock set with the PS31, which requires the use of a hole saw (an item for cutting wide-diameter holes). Even though this took longer than it would with an 18-volt drill, he noted that “it was good to know that a reasonable amount of heavy-duty work could be expected from this tool, but that it also sufficed for smaller jobs where a full-size tool is simply overkill and cumbersome.”
In a couple of other reviews that directly compared the Bosch PS31 to other 12-volts, it didn’t do so well, but there is a reason for that. The round-ups at This Old House and Popular Mechanics (and likely Consumer Reports) date from 2010/2011 and used the original version of the PS31, which came with an older version of its 12-volt battery. Purchasing the items today, it comes with an updated battery that offers longer run time and additional power.3
Consumer Reports has the PS31 ranked in the middle in their “light use drill/drivers” ratings. We suspect that the test was done with the older battery, but beyond that there are a few other odd aspects to their rating system. First, they don’t take into account the tools’ weight. Three of the drills that have a higher ranking weigh more than 4 pounds. That’s more than any of the 18-volt drills we tested and not a characteristic that we would consider to be part of a “light use drill/driver.” Consumer Reports also factors in “noise at ear” in their drill ratings, and the Bosch gets a lower ranking than most. The noise created by any power tool is something to be aware of, but for a drill it’s not a realistic criteria (unless it’s really, really bad). In my days spent testing these 16 drills, I wouldn’t have called any of them out for being too noisy or annoying.
The PS31 is sold in a few different packages. The simplest (and least expensive) is with two batteries and a zippered soft case, which is what we recommend. It’s also currently available with a Bosch L-BOXX (part of Bosch’s modular click-together storage system) or bundled with a cordless radio and a Bosch L-BOXX. Lastly, the PS31 can be bundled with Bosch’s PS41 12-volt impact driver.
The position of the PS31’s LED is less than ideal. It’s located just above the trigger so it shines parallel to the front of the tool, casting a large shadow above the driver tip or drill bit. This gets a little annoying, but the simple fact is that this is the design found on the majority of the 12-volts. Of the ones we tested, only the Black+Decker BDCDD12C has the LED positioned at the base of the handle, which lights upward at the tip and casts less of a shadow—an arrangement we think works a little better.
The Bosch PS31 is also missing a couple of the convenience features that are found on some of the other drills. There is no spot for onboard bit storage, but more important, there is no belt hook. My experience is that the belt hooks are very useful, particularly for such a small grab-and-go tool. Without it, I’m constantly setting the tool down, sometimes on a nice, finished surface, which can cause damage. To deal with this, the body of the PS31 has strategically placed pieces of rubber overmold along the sides. These pad the tool and hold the hard plastic off of the surface it’s placed on. It’s also worth noting that the PS31 is small enough to be wedged into a loose pocket (or tucked into your waistband like a Hollywood gunslinger). Obviously, this shouldn’t be done while it’s holding a drill bit, but with a driver tip it can be a solution.
Last, the handle of the PS31 is definitely comfortable, but not as much as some. Bosch opted to make its 12-volt batteries in a “canister” style, so the entire width of it slides up into the handle. The other battery styles, found on the Hitachi and the Black+Decker, either have only a small stem that enters the handle or they don’t enter it at all. These battery styles allow for a grip that is thinner and more contoured to fit the hand. This is apparent holding the tools side by side, but we doubt that anyone picking up the PS31 is going to call it uncomfortable. Even with the bulkier design, the handle easily and comfortably fits in the hand.
For the specifics of our test, the Porter-Cable 12-volt drove 76 screws and drilled 12 holes. The screw number was on the low side when compared with the rest, but the drilling number was on the high side. The Porter-Cable definitely struggled to get all of the 3-inch screws to sit flush with the wood and because of this, we can’t give it as strong of a recommendation as the Bosch if you’re planning on dipping into more advanced projects. It can handle the small stuff with ease, but its upper threshold is lower than the Bosch’s.
Of the other tools, the Hitachi and Milwaukee are consistently priced much higher and the Craftsman and Black+Decker cost a little less, but are lacking any additional features. The Porter-Cable is unique in that it offers both features and cost.
The 12-volt Porter-Cable is one of two 12-volts that come with a belt hook, and it’s the only one that has onboard bit storage. As we said earlier, these may not be essential features, but they’re certainly nice to have. The bit storage consists of a magnet at the top of the drill. Bits are held firmly, but come out easily when needed.
By choosing an 18-volt over a 12-volt you’re getting more speed, more power, and more runtime. To demonstrate this, we drilled five 1-inch holes with the 12-volt Bosch PS31 and five with the larger Bosch 18-volt. Both drills completed the task, but the 18-volt did so in 30 seconds while the 12-volt took 1 minute and 19 seconds. During the test, it was obvious that the 12-volt was chugging away near the top of its abilities. So while the PS31 is capable of these tougher jobs, it’s really not what the tool is designed for. The 18-volt, on the other hand, didn’t strain at all and felt right at home drilling the large diameter holes.
In our tests, the Bosch 18-volt drove 154 screws and drilled 45 holes. This screw number is second only to the Black+Decker Autosense (which drove 163). But that drill didn’t do nearly as well during the drilling test. The Bosch’s 45 drilled holes represented the most of any tested tool and was 15 more than the number-two spot (the runner-up Porter-Cable). The Bosch really combined the best results from both tests and also comes with features that we like.
The 18-volt Bosch has a belt hook and a battery life gauge. The gauge is actually positioned on the battery itself, which is handy when you need to quickly check your spare battery without having to attach it to the drill. We also like that the LED is positioned down at the base of the handle and not up at the nose like many of the other drills. This casts a more even light around the tip of the drill with fewer shadows.
Rob Robillard, a licensed contractor and editor of A Concord Carpenter, wrote his review of the DDS181 after using it on a job site for several months. He discussed liking the balance, the grip, and the LED, but also noted, “What impressed us the most was the battery life. A 30-minute lithium-ion charger quickly charges the batteries and we could not use up one battery before the other was fully charged, which means no waiting between battery uses.”
Like the smaller Bosch, the handle is comfortable, but there are others that are more comfortable. The design on most of the 18-volt drills is that the handle continuously tapers as it gets to the base (where the pinky finger wraps around). On the Bosch, it tapers, but then gets slightly thicker at the bottom. This is a small point and really only noticeable holding the drills right next to one another.
The Porter-Cable sunk 134 screws and drilled 30 holes. In both instances, it’s behind the 18-volt Bosch and the 18-volt Ridgid (which is more expensive and heavier). In fact, numerically, the test results of the 18-volt Porter-Cable are similar to that of the 12-volt Bosch—but that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and for a heavier workload, we would always choose it over the 12-volt Bosch. This comes down to how easily each drill does the work. The 18-volt Porter-Cable is designed for more power and more torque, so it’s a more efficient tool that strains less than a 12-volt on longer screws and wider diameter holes. It also operates much faster than the 12-volts, so it’s better suited for repetitive work like installing a deck or large amounts of framing. You’ll pay more for that performance, with the 18-volt Porter-Cable usually $30 to $50 more expensive than the 12-volt Bosch.
But as an 18-volt, it’s a deal. Priced consistently lower than most of the others in the category, the Porter-Cable was one of only two 18-volts to come with a full set of features. It has an LED, belt hook, onboard bit storage, and a battery gauge. The LED is positioned above the trigger, so it’s not as easy to see as the Bosch’s light. And the battery gauge is on the tool (not the battery itself), so to check the life of a spare battery, you have to click the battery into the tool.
As for comfort, the Porter-Cable is very nice. Unlike the Bosch, the handle tapers all the way down, making for a perfect fit in the hand. The tool is also well-balanced. It weighs 3 pounds, 9 ounces (an ounce more than the 18-volt Bosch). Both tools land in the middle of the weight range of the tested 18s.
Robillard reviewed the 20-volt Porter-Cable at A Concord Carpenter, and his findings are consistent with ours. He wrote, “This drill driver is not as heavy duty as some of the more pricier models out there but you cannot deny the price vs. value. In my opinion this drill driver is an amazing value for what you get and what you pay.”
We tested a number of other 12- and 18-volt tools. While the majority of them work fine and have good features, none of them offered the consistent power and battery life of the Bosch drills, or the great value of the Porter-Cables.
On the 12-volt side, the Craftsman 17586 is the most similar to the runner-up Porter-Cable. It drove a few more screws, but drilled a few fewer holes. It only comes as a one-battery kit, so a second purchase of a stand-alone battery is necessary. For total cost, this puts it a little under where the Porter-Cable normally is, but the Craftsman is short on features and doesn’t have a belt hook or onboard bit storage.
The Milwaukee 2407 placed second among the 12-volts in both the drilling and driving tests, but it is almost always more expensive than the Porter-Cable and the Bosch. For overall power and strength it was right up there with the Bosch, but with a battery life that was closer to the Porter-Cable, it’s tough to justify the added cost. The Milwaukee has an all-metal chuck, which we like for durability, but it’s also very smooth and at times we found it difficult to grip. Other pluses include a battery gauge and a belt hook. It was also the heaviest 12-volt we tested at 2 pounds, 10 ounces, which is 8 ounces more than the Bosch, and 4 ounces more than the runner-up Porter-Cable. This drill does tend to go on sale, so if you find it priced the same as the Porter-Cable, consider it. Sawyers has used a Milwaukee 12-volt for years at home and says, “You won’t be disappointed.”
The Hitachi DS10DFL is like the Milwaukee in that it has similar battery life to the Porter-Cable (drove more screws, but drilled less holes), but it also usually costs more. The Hitachi is very light on features. It doesn’t have a belt hook, a battery gauge, or onboard bit storage. Hitachi uses a stem-style battery, rather than the canister style, so it has a very comfortable handle, but that alone isn’t a reason to choose it over the more powerful Bosch or the less expensive, feature-heavy Porter-Cable.
The Black+Decker BDCDD12C is the other 12-volt that comes with only a single battery. Its performance was similar to the Porter-Cable and due to the battery design, it also has the fully tapered handle. It’s the only tested 12-volt that has the LED down at the base of the handle, which sheds better light and casts less shadows. On the downside, the Black+Decker doesn’t have a belt hook, onboard bit storage or a battery gauge. It also only has one speed, which is just a little faster than the low speeds of the other drills. In practical terms, this means that it’s not a quick drill to work with, especially with smaller screws that are normally driven at high speed.
For the 18-volt drills, in addition to the two we’re recommending, we tested eight others. Of those, the Craftsman C3 17560X, Milwaukee 2606-22CT, and DeWalt DCD780C2 all produced similar results in our testing, each driving 70 to 90 screws and drilling 20 to 25 holes (remember, the 18-volt Bosch DDS180 drove 154 screws and drilled 45 holes, and the Porter-Cable runner-up drove 134 screws and drilled 30 holes). These three drills each had one additional feature, whether it be the belt hook (DeWalt), battery gauge (Milwaukee), or onboard bit storage (Craftsman), but none had more than that. The DeWalt and Milwaukee are on the higher end of the pricing scale and were more powerful than the Craftsman. The Craftsman is priced closer to our runner-up 18-volt Porter-Cable, but doesn’t match it in features or abilities.
The Makita XFD10 did a little better by driving 100 screws and drilling 24 holes. We liked the nicely contoured handle, but the Bosch simply out-distanced it in performance. We also had an inconsistent showing from the batteries, with one of them able to drill only nine holes (we ran the test four times with the battery).
The Ridgid R86008K2 came in just behind the Bosch 18-volt in both tests. It drilled 32 holes and drove 140 screws. It was the only drill we looked at that comes with a secondary handle to give added control in high torque scenarios. The downside is that at nearly 4 pounds, it’s a big, heavy drill (the heaviest that we tested). It’s also priced consistently higher than the smaller, lighter Porter-Cable, which was so close to it in performance that the results may as well have been the same.
While the Hitachi DS18DSAL weighs the same as the 18-volt Bosch (3 pounds, 8 ounces), it doesn’t come close to matching the Bosch’s power or endurance. It drove 92 screws and drilled 28 holes, less than the runner-up Porter-Cable model. The Hitachi also lacks bit storage and a battery gauge. It’s sold only in a kit with a cordless worklight, but the light has an incandescent bulb and isn’t very bright.
The Black+Decker BDCDE120C 20-Volt with Autosense was a champ at driving screws, gaining the top spot in that test. It didn’t do as well in the drilling test, managing only 25 holes, which put it in the middle of the pack. It was by far the smallest 18-volt we tested and its size makes it look more like a 12-volt. It also only has a ⅜-inch chuck (the rest of the 18s have ½-inch chucks), which limits it with larger bits. In addition, it’s a single speed tool. All of the others have two speeds.
The test results for the P1811 Ryobi 18-Volt Drill/Driver were on the lower end of the scale. This drill is similar to our upgrade pick from our previous guide. In that version, we set a price limit of about $100, and this is still a nice choice for a very strict budget (although for $30 to $40 more, the Porter-Cable is much more powerful). The Ryobi is easily available at Home Depot, and there are a lot of tools in the company’s 18-volt lineup. For this drill specifically, we like that it has a large magnetized area that can hold screws or other bits of hardware for use during work.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: January 29, 2016