18V Cordless Lithium-ion Impact Driver Shoot Out
As I write, I am in the middle of renovating two 90-year old homes that do not have temporary electrical service installed at either location. Almost a year ago I was brought on as the Director of Neighborhood Services at Parker Street Ministries and have had the chance to oversee the neighborhood stabilization work that is happening for a particular rundown section of Lakeland, Florida. As a contractor working in the inner city on jobs like this, I have found myself in many situations where cordless power tools are the only way I’ve been able to make repairs. For me, this impact driver shootout is testing what has been my go-to tool for both fastening and light drilling. It’s been easy to fall in love with impact drivers for both the variety of bits that fit their 1/4″ chucks and the mechanism that puts almost no torque on the user and instead, puts all of the power into driving the fastener.
Editor’s Note: Read our updated 2016 Best 18V Impact Driver Roundup article.
With many major manufacturers having produced several generations of tools, we’re now starting to see a new trend: decreasing size and increasing power. Now, with brushless motor technology and lithium-ion batteries, more is possible in a smaller platform. I’m often asked for recommendations on what tool works best, so when I was given the chance to do an impact driver shoot out of each of the current 18V lithium-ion powered impact drivers on the market, I jumped at the opportunity to see and experience what each of these tools could really do.
Each of the eleven tools in our impact driver shoot out share the standard features of most impact drivers. Each came with a 1/4″ quick-change chuck, operated on a nominal 18V battery platform, and remained in the standard drill style configuration – meaning, right angle impact drivers weren’t included. The selection was also limited to current models that either came with or can utilize 18V extend-run time batteries. While most manufacturers offer kits that include the tool, two batteries and a charger, some of the products in their original configuration were only available with slim pack batteries or even as bare tools. To level the playing field, I decided to always use extended-run time batteries in order to demonstrate the top potential from each manufacturer. Sometimes this involved obtaining the batteries separately.
Impact Driver Shoot Out Test 1: Run Time!
The objective of this impact driver shoot out test was to see how many fasteners a single tool could install with a fully charged battery. The first consideration in our testing method was creating a trial I would be able to replicate with some degree of accuracy for all tools. For this reason, I chose 3/4″ sub-flooring plywood as the test material. The alternating layers of the plywood eliminated the issues with voids, cracks, knots, and consistency. This material is also widely available and varies little from one manufacturer to another. I decided against pressure treated wood, which could present different qualities depending upon moisture content, the likelihood of knots, and even the type of wood. To make the test pieces I laminated three layers of the sub-floor together to get a piece of material 2-1/4 inches thick. My fastener of choice was the Grip Rite 2″ long, 8-gauge coarse thread drywall screw. I chose these screws thinking I would use fewer of them since they’re longer than the more common 1-1/4″ and because they’re widely available. On the top surface of the laminated test pieces, I marked out a 1/2″ x 1/2″ grid so that I could install the screws in an easy-to-count pattern. A number of the new impact drivers have selectable speeds, and some even have different impact modes. In order to keep things fair for the less sophisticated tools, the speed and impact settings were configured for the highest levels for all testing. All the tools came standard with variable speed triggers. At the start of this test, each tool and battery were brand new in the box, which were then fully charged before each use.
Now, I figured that with twenty-five pounds of 2” screws on hand, I’d have enough to run the trials on every tool: that was my first mistake. Even with predicting a few hundred screws per tool, I was dumbfounded when one of the first drivers tested consumed almost a quarter of the bucket. The final tally: over 665 screws installed by that tool alone. When I started out, I admit that I had some ideas as to which tools would use the most screws. Altogether, the results at the end of it all were not what I had expected. The spread between the most and fewest screws installed was 599. And what’s more ironic was that there is a less than a five-dollar price difference between those two particular impact drivers! The Ryobi was the champ that put in a whopping total of 949 screws. This was a 149-screw lead over the next highest impact driver, which was the Makita with 800 screws. In looking at the results, there was a clear difference. On the whole, the tools with brushless motors tended to install more screws than the models that had conventional brushed motors. Brushless motor technology provides longer run times due to a more efficient way of operating the motor. There are no real consumable parts in a brushed motor; no commutator brushes which create friction and heat. This is not only more efficient, it prolongs the tool’s life and provides more user comfort.
For full disclosure, Ryobi was the only tool in the group working with a 4.0 Ah (amp-hour) battery. The extra 1.0 Ah capacity gave a very clear indicator that, all things being equal, the number of screws installed has a direct correlation to the battery capacity – brushless or conventional. Many manufacturers, in fact, are starting to develop higher Ah batteries. At the time of our testing, however, only the Ryobi Company was able to supply us with the higher capacity battery for testing. All in all, over 60 pounds (7400 screws) were installed, taking nearly 20 hours to complete. If you do the math, that’s roughly equivalent to one screw every 4 seconds for an entire shift.
Impact Driver Shoot Out Test 2: Torque!
Sure, I could have just used an electronic torque meter to verify the manufacturers’ specifications on their tool’s torque, but where’s the fun in that? After all, I set out to really prove something with this impact driver shoot out. What the specs say on paper is helpful, but what happens in the real world can paint quite a different picture. The inspiration for this test came out of my experience installing ledger lags screws and deck building. Driving large size lags is probably the ultimate test of real power, torque and durability for impact drivers. To take this a step further, I decided to drive my test lag screws without any pilot holes. At the start, I wasn’t completely sure of the driving capability of the tools so I began with 1/4″ lag screws. I then moved up through 5/16″ and 3/8″, finally settling on 1/2″ x 6″ as the size of lag screw I’d use to run these trials. I wasn’t concerned with the number of lags that could be installed ; rather, I just wanted to see which drills could fully seat the screws most consistently. For our test material, I stuck with the laminated 3/4″ sub-flooring. This time, however, I laminated nine layers together to get a slab that was almost seven inches thick. I kept score with a trusty tape measure and some basic math – calculating the average percentage of each lag screw that was installed. I was also careful not to use any rear pressure or push down on the tools as I drove in the screws. Instead, I let the tool do all the work.
Within the test results, I found that most of the tools were not able to fully seat the oversized 1/2″ x 6″ lag screws. This doesn’t represent a failure as much as a testimony of just how hard it is to drive these monsters. After all, if I kept going up in size – eventually I’d theoretically hit something that even the biggest impact wrench in the world wouldn’t seat. Since the most powerful tools in the test were barely able to fully drive the screws, I felt I had a good baseline from which to compare the others. As I worked my way through the impact drivers, one thing that stood out was that many of the tools that demonstrated stellar run-times, installing vast numbers of screws, were not necessarily the top performers when driving the lags. Most of the tools that did the best job in this test had one major design feature in common: their brushless motors.
To revisit, brushless motor technology makes for higher efficiencies and lower heat build up in the motor, thanks to fewer moving parts. All of the tools with brushless technology have to rely on complex circuitry and programming to operate and control the motor. This circuitry is able to sense the load and monitor the battery in order to provide the maximum power for the task at hand. Out of all the tools, the Milwaukee was the one to “time out” when it sensed that there was either too much load on the motor or too much draw on the battery (or some combination of both). This happened when one of the lag screws was 94% installed. This is a feature that protected the tool and, unlike all the other tools in the test, kept it from trying to drive the fastener until the motor started to smoke or the trigger was released. I actually did experience slight smoke or the stench of burning electronics with some tools, though I always tried to stop the test before that occurred. The objective of this test, of course, was not to burn up motor windings but to show how far the impact drivers could send the lag screw home before stopping and/or over-stressing the tool.
While it’s neat to drive huge lag screws into laminated pieces of plywood, the reality here is that if you were driving large lag screws into dimensional lumber you would likely have pre-drilled to avoid cracking and splitting the wood.
Impact Driver Shoot Out Conclusion
With the eleven tools in this round up, there is hardly a clear winner that takes all categories, but it’s not exactly a level playing field either. I found it interesting that not a single tool was able to take the lead in both run time and torque. This left me both a little disappointed and more than a little perplexed. Isn’t a tool shoot out supposed to crown a winner? What I found was that the “winner” depends on your preferences. Do you want the most torque? Do you value run-time above all else? Are ergonomics and weight the most important? How about features and the ability to step down both the speed and torque of the tool? Or, if you are already invested in a particular brand and platform of cordless tools, do you want to sacrifice a little bit of performance in order to have the ability to continue to share batteries? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can at least highlight the leaders in each of the categories so that you can choose for yourself.
Bosch 25618 Impact Driver
Considering the quality of the tools that Bosch manufacturers we can easily recommend that this is a worthy purchase. In evaluating our test results it’s interesting that even with the 2.6Ah batteries (which were the lowest Ah of those tested) the Bosch 25618 still managed to fall into the middle of the pack for overall performance. Had we been able to test with their new 4.0Ah battery (which has already been announced overseas) we’re fairly confident the results would have been even better. The Bosch features replaceable brushes, tons to rubber overmold and a very balanced feel that makes it a great choice.
Pros: Price, Quality feel, Nice tool case
Cons: No fuel level gauge, Only 1 year warranty
The DeWalt DCF895 scored the highest in our torque testing and came in with the shortest overall length. In fact, it’s about 1/4″ shorter than the next closest driver thanks to recessing the chuck into the face of the tool. Around the chuck are three LED lights that are not only bright but also provide a shadow free look at the fastener and bit tip. This is also the only tool in the lineup that had a sliding mechanical-electrical switch to allow the user to select from three different speeds while providing positive feedback and being easily used with gloved hands. Last but not least, DeWalt scores big for the most compact, yet usable hard case.
Pros: Shortest overall length, Highest torque test score, Three speed selectable
Cons: Difficult to remove 1″ bit tips
For the the craftsman requiring a lot of control for the installation of special fasteners, the Hitachi WH18DBDL impact driver should be your tool of choice. This impact driver has four speeds and two levels for the impact mechanism, offering the most user control out of all the tools tested. In our Run Time test, this tool came in third with the most screws installed, showing that it’s also a workhorse as well. Hitachi also has 4.0 Ah batteries just coming to market which would improve the already great runtime even further.
Pros: Versatility – 4 speed and 2 impact levels, Lifetime tool warranty
Cons: Tiny buttons are hard to press with a gloved hand
The Kobalt K18ID-16A is Lowe’s house brand’s first shot at an 18V lithium-ion impact driver and we’re actually pretty impressed. Sure, on our Run Time test the score was in the bottom three, but in our Torque Test, it was among the the top four best tools. This tool uses a brushed motor and is running on a pretty standard 3.0 Ah battery. If the next generation of this tool includes a higher amp hour battery and a brushless motor, the competition better watch out! If you purchased a Kobalt combo kit that didn’t include an impact driver, this should be the first add-on tool you pick up.
Pros: Fast charger, Compact size, tons of torque, Low bare tool price.
Cons: Not sold as a standalone kit
There are some guys out there that pay attention to details and one of the details that we noticed about the Makita is that, out of all the tools tested, it is the only one that is assembled in the USA. The Makita LXDT08 was a solid performer coming in with with the third most screws installed in our Run Time test. Also, the overall size of the tool rivals that of many 12V options on the market, making it both compact and lightweight. This is just a solid all-around tool.
Pros: Made in the USA, Fast charger, Auto load chuck
Cons: No Built in Fuel Gauge
If you can imagine the difference between a Chevy and a BMW; with one there is a hollow sheet metal sound when you close the door and with the German automobile there is a solid thud when doing the same. This is the case with the German-made Metabo SSD18L. There’s just a certain solid feel to the tool that gives the impression of quality and durability which was demonstrated in our Torque Test where it secured the number three spot. It’s also funny in how there seems to be a correlation in the lack of cup holders in Germany’s automotive products and the fact that Metabo was the only tool in the group not to include a metal belt clip.
Pros: 3-level speed selection
Cons: No belt clip, Pricey
Similar to Makita, one of the wonderful reasons to choose the Milwaukee is the plethora of other 18V tools that run on the same battery platform. The Milwaukee 2653-20 was the second shortest overall tool and also the second strongest tool in our Torque Test. What is amazing is that the tool, battery notwithstanding, isn’t much bigger than its little M12 siblings. The Milwaukee has three speed control rubber push buttons that are easy to use even with a gloved hand. The Milwaukee was also the only tool in our testing that showed off its built-in overload protection. When the going got too hard for some tools, they would start to smoke or have an electrical burning smell. Not the Milwaukee. Before it ever got to that point, the electronics kicked in and protected both the battery and tool.
Pros: 3-level speed selection, Good Warranty
Cons: None to report
Most folks associate Panasonic with household electronics, appliances and car audio. Truth be known that Panasonic has their hands in many other markets including power tools. The Panasonic EY7550 came in as the second best tool in our run time test and was the lightest weight tool in the bunch. One of the most interesting aspects of this tool is its IP56 rating which means that only a small amount of dust is permitted to enter the tool and it is also protected against water. While you won’t want to dunk it in a pool, it can be raining or super dusty and you aren’t likely to damage the internals. Panasonic just announced a new impact driver, the EY75A1LS2G, which includes two of the company’s new 4.2Ah batteries. If you thought the run-time was good on the EY7550, the new model should be even more impressive.
Pros: Compact, Run time, IP56 rated
Cons: Price, Limited availability
Now some might look at our test results and think this tool underperformed. The truth is, it depends on the type of projects you plan on doing and whether or not you already own Porter-Cable 18V li-ion products. This is the first generation lithium-ion tool for Porter Cable so in all fairness, they are just getting started in this area as compared to some of the other competitors. Since this tool is available in a budget-priced combo kit or as a bare tool, there are a lot of ways you can add it to your collection. Porter-Cable also just announced new 20V Max Impact Driver (see inset) though we didn’t test this tool because it only ships (at present) with a 1.5Ah slim pack battery (see inset).
Pros: Price, Spring loaded battery eject
Cons: No built-in fuel gauge, Only 1-year warranty
The Ridgid has a lot to offer, especially if you’re adding this $99 driver to an existing set of Ridgid 18V tools. With plenty of torque, you shouldn’t have any trouble driving most fasteners. While run time could have been better, the good news is that your down time is minimal since Ridgid offer the fastest charge time of only 25 minutes. The body of the Ridgid is only a half inch longer than the shortest impact driver in the test, making it very compact. The overall feel of the R86034 is quality and attention to detail as seen in features like the ample rubber overmold, which even extends to the battery.
Pros: Fastest charging battery, Compact size, Quick load chuck, Lifetime service
Cons: None to report
The Ryobi was the underdog in our impact driver test. We didn’t verbalize our thoughts on how each tool was going to preform but we did have our doubts. When we looked at the $69 dollar bare tool price we admit that we weren’t expecting much. To our amazement, the Ryobi P236 took first place in Run Time by a significant 15% lead over the next closest tool. Talk about the Energizer bunny, this driver just kept going and going (we even had to get a second test board!) In looking at our results, we noted that the Ryobi was the only tool that was was available with a 4.0 Ah battery. It’s obvious (now, at least) that this higher capacity battery had a lot to do with the results in our Run Time test. For obvious reasons, the Ryobi is a great choice if you’re looking for a low cost, high productivity solution. in terms of your bang for the buck you likely will not do better than this tool.
Pros: First place in Run Time test, Quick load chuck, Three LED’s, High Amp Hour Battery
Cons: Larger size, Heavy, Slow charger
Festool TI15 Impact Driver
While the Festool TI 15 impact driver wasn’t part of our 18V Impact Driver round up, it’s certainly worthy of being mentioned. Many tradesmen may not be familiar with the Festool name but to woodworkers, Festool makes some of the finest precision tools and tool systems around. For those professionals, we wanted to include the Festool TI15 impact driver because it has a number of great features. Once we received the tool and spent some time with it we felt it was better left for a future full length review. This is for several reasons. Firstit’s actually a 14.4V tool and second, it is not just a dedicated impact driver. Festool figured out a way to make the chuck and impact mechanism adaptable to a variety of different configurations. This makes the TI15 more versatile and adaptable to the needs of professional cabinet and furniture makers. Just for fun, we did do our run time test on this tool and it installed a respectable 435 drywall screws which actually put it in the middle of the pack of the 18V tools we tested. Not bad for 14.4V!