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Cheap Cordless Drills Buying Guide

Drill Size, Drill Power

People buy cheap cordless drills to make holes or drive screws with speed and minimal effort. How much you spend on a cordless drill depends largely on how you plan to use it.

Bigger holes or screws need bigger bits, which require more torque, which means more power, which in turn leads to a higher price tag. That said, there's not much difference in price between a 14.4V cordless drill and an 18V or 19.2V model, so if you think you'll ever need more power, you might as well step up from the get-go.

Power in a cordless drill is determined by the voltage, which may be as low as 6V or as high as 36V. A small 6V cordless drill that runs on AA batteries costs less than $20 and is good enough to hang a few pictures or put together a piece of mail-order furniture. But if you do any kind of maintenance around the house, you'll need at least 12 volts of power. We focused our research on cheap cordless drills that offer this kind of versatility and expanded the scope to also include cheap 18V and 19.2V cordless drills, which just about make the grade for the professional trades. Prices vary widely for each voltage, ranging from about $35 for a cordless 12V drill up to nearly $200 and from $90 or so to about $400 for a 19.2V cordless drill. The best cheap 12V cordless drills start at about $75 and the best cheap 18V or 19.2V cordless drills start at about $100.

Cordless drill size is denoted by the size of the chuck (the end of the drill that holds the bit). Common chuck sizes are 3/8" or 1/2", which is another way of saying that the chuck can hold bits as large as 3/8 inch or 1/2 inch, respectively. In most cheap cordless drills, the chuck size coincides with the voltage. That is, 12V drills almost always have a 3/8" chuck and 18V and 19.2V drills almost always have a 1/2" chuck.

One of the major complaints lodged against cheap drills concerns batteries that don't recharge well or hold their charge for very long. This is important because consistent, even power is critical. If the battery is dying or dead, you can't drill a hole or drive a screw properly. The newest and best cheap cordless drills, however, contain quick-charging, long-lasting lithium-ion batteries instead of the older, heavier, and less efficient NiCAD (nickel-cadmium) and NiMH (nickel-metal-hydride) batteries. The charge on lithium-ion batteries also holds though long periods of inactivity and the charge capacity doesn't diminish if you don't fully recharge the battery. Not surprisingly, lithium-ion batteries are pricier than the alternative battery technologies.

Experts at J.D. Power and Associates give top grades to brands like Bosch, Makita, Milwaukee, and Craftsman Professional for drill performance, battery performance, ease of use, versatility, warranty, and overall user satisfaction. Other well-regarded names in the power drill market include Hitachi, Porter Cable, Ryobi, and Ridgid. Most of these companies make cordless drills in a variety of voltages that sell at a variety of price points targeted for different segments of the market.

Our research into the best cheap cordless drills turned up several 12V and the more powerful 18V and 19.2V models that are well-priced given their capabilities. Our top picks incorporate the new lithium-ion battery and garner strong user reviews. At the head of our list sit the 12V Ryobi 3/8" HJP002K (starting at $79) and the Craftsman 17310 19.2V C3 (starting at $100) for their overall performance and value pricing. Next on our list are the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 Cordless Compact Lithium-Ion 12V 3/8" Drill (starting at $90) and Ryobi 18V P815 Lithium-Ion Cordless Compact Drill (starting at $150), which perform well but not quite at the level of our first two choices.

Two cheap cordless drills we would bypass are the Skil 12V 2240-01 (starting at $51) and PowerGlide 19.2V 2186955 (starting at $41), both of which incorporate the older NiCAD battery and just don't make the grade when stacked against the top four despite their lower prices. User reviews indicate the PowerGlide, in particular, suffers from problems with the battery and charger.

As you shop for the cheapest cordless drill that suits your needs, you've got a few additional options. A complete drill kit, like those that we researched, comes with one or two batteries (one to run the drill and one as back-up for long jobs) plus a battery charger. A less costly "bare tool" is just that -- a drill packaged by itself that uses batteries from another complimentary tool; bare tools cost less than the full kit. You can sometimes find real bargains on reconditioned models of upmarket brands, like DeWalt or Bosch, but read the warranty carefully to make sure you aren't getting stuck with someone else's problem. And watch for drill manufacturers and vendors trying to offload NiCAD battery cordless drills for bargain prices -- no disrespect meant for the tools themselves, but you may not get the same customer service from manufacturers that have moved on to the newest battery technology.

Drill Size, Drill Power

Drill Size, Drill Power

As you sort through the available options, keep in mind the old saying: "You aren't buying a drill, you're buying a hole." So answer the following before making your selection: How often will you use the drill? How wide and how deep do you want the holes to be? What kind of materials will you be drilling into? What size screws will you be driving, and into which materials? How much power do you need to make all this happen?

Review continues below

Drill Size.

A cordless drill's size is denoted by the largest size bit it can hold; the bit is held in place and rotated by the chuck. Cheap cordless drills that are useful for a variety of home maintenance chores and DIY projects come in two standard sizes: 3/8" and 1/2", and the specs will say something like 3/8" chuck or 1/2" chuck. Most 12V cordless drills, like the Ryobi HJP002 Compact Drill (starting at $79), Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 Cordless Compact (starting at $90), and SKIL 2240-01 (starting at $51), come with a 3/8" chuck. Larger 18V cordless drills and 19.2V cordless drills, like the Craftsman 17310 C3 (starting at $100) and Ryobi P815 Lithium-Ion Compact Drill (starting at $150), typically come with a 1/2" chuck. The PowerGlide 2186955 (starting at $41) features an odd combination of small 3/8" chuck and powerful 19.2V battery.

Older drills need a type of key to unlock the chuck to change the bits. Newer models, including all the cordless drills we researched, are keyless -- you can open and close the chuck with your free hand, or, depending on the model, with the handle trigger. Occasionally the chuck on a cheap drill wears out; eHow provides instructions for replacing the chuck instead of buying a new drill.

Drill Power.

The denser the material you're drilling or driving into, the more power you'll need. Higher voltage drills generally produce more torque. So, if you need to drill one medium-sized hole or drive a lot of little screws in material like drywall, a small 12V cordless drill like the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 or Ryobi HJP002K should do the trick; the Bosch PS21-2A Pocket Driver (starting at $105) also works well for quick and easy jobs. But if you're building a deck or a tree house, you'd be better off with a more powerful drill. An inexpensive 14.4V or 16V cordless model might suffice, but most knowledgeable DIY-ers turn to 18V drills like the Ryobi P815, Craftsman 17310, or Hitachi DS18VF3 (starting at $116).

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