When Kobalt Tools gets into the power tool business, it’s going to draw attention. This for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious is because Lowe’s already has some excellent value tools already within its walls (Porter-Cable comes to mind). On top of that, Kobalt is billing its new tools as being “tougher than dinner with your mother-in-law”. Now, I like my mother-in-law, so I probably would have went with “tougher than dinner with your soon-to-be-fiance’s father”, but you get the implication. By setting the bar high – and making “toughness” the primary focus, the new Kobalt 18V Li-ion 4-tool combo kit was something we really were looking forward to getting our hands on. Of course, the press event was scheduled and held at an art museum… so I guess what Lowe’s is communicating to the tool world is that their new power tools are tough AND pretty. In either case, just what can you expect from the new tools? Lots, if our hands-on experience with them has anything to do with it.
Kobalt 18V Li-ion 4-tool Combo Kit
Behind the scenes, it was interesting to hear the development story of the new tools, which took place over the course of about 2-years. Kobalt basically set out to build tools that could provide tough performance, but at a price point that appealed to the DIYer. This sounds familiar – as it was the same mentality they applied to their mechanics tools. In any event, we found out that they basically bought the competitions tools and tore into literally 100s of pieces, examining switches, motors, batteries, electronics and more to see how they ticked. While I wouldn’t want that put into writing, it’s pretty obvious that this stuff goes on, and the company didn’t make us swear ourselves to secrecy – so there you have it. The end result was that Kobalt was able to work with its manufacturing partner to decide on the right combination of features and build quality that would make for the best tool given their parameters. Taking the competition and placing it all into a grid of features and specs, Kobalt developed their system to be competitive in the segment. The first thing they did to steal the market was to include one of the nicest tool bags we’ve ever seen for a combo kit. It has compartments on each end for the batteries and charger, and you can section it off internally to actually, you know, organize your tools. It’s a brilliant bag and one that should cause the rest of the industry to hang their heads in shame. Seriously, this is the best cordless tool bag we’ve seen with any kit at any price – period.
The Kobalt 18V Li-ion 4-tool combo kit is powered by the company’s new Lithium-ion sled-style battery system. We’ll “geek out” into the specifics of that later, but for now, let’s go through the new tools one by one, starting with the new Kobalt Tools 18V Drill-Driver.
Kobalt 18V Lithium-ion Drill/Driver (K18LD-16A)
This new Lithium-ion Power Drill/driver comes with the expected two-speed control and variable speed trigger. The two ranges are 0-450 RPM (high torque) and 0-1600 RPM (high speed). Speaking of torque, the new tool will put out 455 in-lbs, which is a significant amount and very competitive with other tools at this price. Particularly, Kobalt seemed to really be trying to best Makita and Milwaukee in several spec areas like torque. The 18V Drill/Driver uses a 1/2″ all metal, ratcheting keyless chuck – and we liked how easy it was to grab and change bits. The ratcheting action really gives you a secure feel that the bit is seated and it’s easy on the hands. The clutch has 24 stop positions, with the last being the drill-mode. The internal planetary gears are kept within an aluminum housing, so it’s also got some durability inside as well as out.
Physically, the tool is gray and black with the Kobalt Blue accent colors used on the front and back of the handle. These bright colored areas are the rubberized grip and they are nicely textured with micro-hexagons (very similar, in fact, to a competitor’s Hex Grip pattern) to give a completely slip-free grasp on the tool. The drill feels good in the hand, from both an ergonomic standpoint and also because it has a great power-to-weight ratio. Nothing is off-balance and the driver feels like you could hold it overhead for a considerable amount of time before getting tired.
An LED, which is trigger-activated, sits just above the trigger and did a great job of lighting up the work area without casting a dramatic shadow. It’s also quite bright and was a handy feature when the place you’re drilling or fastening isn’t well lit. It comes on when you squeeze the trigger and goes off immediately upon release. You can also gently apply pressure and activate the light prior to engaging the motor. The battery slips in from the front of the tool and was easy to remove and install. Also, the Kobalt 1/2″ Drill/Driver includes a 2-bit storage adapter and belt clip that can be fastened to either side of the tool. The angle of the tool’s drivetrain is a tad old-school, opting for the up-angled alignment as opposed to the more popular (and more compact-looking) design where the drivetrain is parallel to the ground.
We used this tool on a couple projects. When driving 3-inch coated screws into 2x4s it could easily sink them using high speed. The bit stayed securely into the fastener and overall, the drill seemed “sure” of itself. Some drills simple have a clumsy feel – but Kobalt’s tool, possibly because of the balance and the speed, really worked well. We also slapped on a 1/2″ bit and drilled through a couple 2x4s during a construction project and found it to be pretty consistent in its ability to get the work done. Torque seemed to drop off a bit with the compact battery, particularly after it had drained a couple of bars. For high torque applications, we’d recommend sticking with the high capacity extended-run battery.
Kobalt 18V 6-1/2″ Cordless Circular Saw (K18LC-16A)
Kobalt Tools’ Cordless 18V Li-ion Circular Saw spins at 4500 RPM and features a cast aluminum shoe and blade guard. This is excellent and reflects a definite step above the stamped steel shoes and glass-filled nylon or plastic guards we see with a lot of entry-level cordless saws. Overall, the tool felt solid, like it might be able to live up to the “tough” moniker Kobalt had assigned to it. You know the kind of feel we’re talking about… like you can drop it off a ladder and expect it to bounce off a step or two only to brush it off and keep going. You don’t feel as if you have to be “dainty” to these tools – and unless your tools come in pink or have flower patterns on them, you really shouldn’t. As you’d expect, the bevel control is located on the front of the tool, and was easy to set. The saw bevels 0-50°, so it will handle just about any type of cut you can throw it at. The depth-of-cut can be adjusted from behind the blade guard and is simpler to secure and release than many other tools in this category (these controls tend to stick).
Like the Cordless 18V Drill/Driver, the Kobalt Circular Saw had its accent colors on the rear handle overmold and also the plastic/nylon bevel and blade depth locks (along with the blade guard handle). The front handle had black overmold and was positioned perfectly to give you excellent control. The tool also securely stores the blade removal hex wrench just above the shoe so you don’t have to go find it when its time to swap out the blade. The other thing we wanted to note about the tool is that the groove marked in the shoe didn’t work as expected – it lines up the blade with the center of the notch rather than cutting at the inside of a straight edge as most circular saws are set up to do. Since there was no means of adjusting the guide, we had to get used to its cutting style – which could be a concern if you are jumping back and forth between saws or don’t stick to this one tool.
Testing the circular saw was fun and we quickly found a use for it cutting and ripping 3/4-inch plywood for a new porch roof. This involved longer 8-foot cuts down the length of the wood as well as trimming up ancient 3/4-inch tongue-and-groove boards that were used on the portion of the roof we weren’t replacing. In each case the Kobalt K18LC-16A tore through the wood with ease, never binding up – despite the fact that we were using the included Kobalt blade. In fact, we cut over 60 linear feet of 3/4″, and did about 8 cross cuts through 2×6 and 4×4 lumber and the battery still showed it had half it’s life left (2 bars). That seems like pretty good run-time to us.
A front-mounted dust blower takes some of the natural air generated by the spinning blade and focuses it on the work material, naturally clearing a line of sight as you cut. It’s very well designed and it works great in actual use. Stick a better blade on this saw and it will likely perform even better.
Kobalt 18V Orbital Reciprocating Saw (K18LR-16A)
Kobalt went and did something really cool with their 18V Lithium-ion Reciprocating Saw: they gave it some impressive specs and features. First off, it has a 1-1/8″ stroke, which is almost unheard of. Most are 7/8″ or 1-inch at best. The Kobalt 18V Lithium-ion Reciprocating Saw also has the coveted, and rare, orbital mode that can be engaged and disengaged at-will thanks to a side-mounted rotary switch. The saw operates at up to 3000 strokes per minute (SPM) and speed is controlled by the variable trigger. An adjustable shoe means that you can get better control over your cut, but you also get the added benefit of being able to use more sections of your blades – giving your accessories longer shelf life before having to be replaced. Speaking of accessories, the Kobalt 4-tool Combo Kit comes with a 6″ bi-metal reciprocating saw blade that worked well for general cutting, but we found ourselves quickly using our own blades.
The rubber overmold on this tool is black and thick, helping reduce vibration and also delivering a protective and grippy surface to hang onto when using this tool to tear through demo work, cut PVC, or anything else you can think of. There is no other vibration control technology in the saw apart from the padding. Aside from that, about the only feature we didn’t see on this tool was a front-mounted LED worklight – something we find nice, but certainly not necessary for this type of saw.
The adjustable shoe worked great, as did the variable trigger – allowing us to start cuts slowly and then ramp up the speed. About the only problem with a 1-1/8″ stroke is that the tool is rather violent. It’s nearly impossible to plunge cut with it and you can really feel it reacting with the work material when you go to slice through objects like 3/4″ metal conduit or PVC. On the positive side, a longer stroke means that the tool will do more work per stroke, so we can more or less classify this tool as primarily targeting demo work – and it certainly excelled at that once we put a decent blade on it. It took out several nearly petrified 2×4’s that had embedded nails. It didn’t feel very good when we hit the nails, but it certainly got the job done. Basically, when you crank this puppy up, just hang on and enjoy the ride.
Now, that’s not to ay that all it does is demo. With the right blade we also found that it did well for more sensitive work. In fact, we used it to trim up some 1 x 6 fascia boards used to repair the aforementioned porch roof. On that 1x material we were able to use a proper blade and the variable speed to control the saw well and power through the cut in a way that gave us a straight and smooth edge.
Kobalt 18V LED Worklight
The LED worklight in this kit takes the “more is more” approach to LED illumination and uses 5 billion LEDs to light the work area (we’re kidding, there are only 4.2 billion LEDs). Despite the number of LEDs (fine, we’ll tell you – there are 24) you can run the worklight for over 7 hours using the compact Lithium-ion battery. If you slap the extended-run battery in, you press the rear-mounted button and go almost a full day (not just a work day either, we mean 20 hours). We liked the dual-axis nature of the light. You can shine it just about anywhere because it has a 180° pivoting head plus a 270° rotating head. Put them together and there’s no location you can’t quickly and easily flood with ample amounts of light.
Kobalt Lithium-ion/NiCd Battery Charger
OK, we promised we’d geek out over the new Lithium-ion technology and here we are. What’s cool about the new “Multi Chemistry” system is that, not only do the batteries give you the remaining charge status on the bottom (using 4 green LEDs), but the system itself is smart. And not just “under-the-hood” smart. No, Kobalt decided to put a bumper sticker out that told everyone they had a “gifted student” charger. How so? Well, for one this charger includes an LCD screen. That screen is used to actually tell you both the battery status and also a countdown timer to let you know how much time is left to charge the battery! Why is this cool? Because you know how much time you have left on your battery to get it back up and running. Why is it not cool? Well, because because, due to the nature of how this lithium-ion system works, the Kobalt charger will take 20-30 minutes whether a battery is completely empty, half empty, or 3/4 of the way full. In that sense, it’s more of an egg timer, but at least now you can pop on a battery and know exactly how long to make your water break.
Kobalt’s new Lithium-ion/NiCd Multi Chemistry charger is, as you might have guessed from the name, compatible with Kobalt’s 18V lithium-ion batteries as well as their 18V NiCd batteries. But you want to know what else is perplexingly, potentially cool? All of the tools are compatible with Kobalt 18V Lithium-ion AND 18V NiCd batteries. That’s kind of weird, but also handy if you happen to pick up both sets or want to interchange tools or batteries. We don’t think that will happen much, but it’s still interesting. And it’s a 2-way street for both batteries and tools. The NiCd tools will take the Lithium-ion batteries, and the Li-ion tools will take NiCd batteries. The way this is possible is that while Kobalt’s Lithium-ion tools are not blessed with tons of “smart” electronics inside, the batteries are. In this way, the batteries monitor the status of power draw and heat. So, let’s say you put a Li-ion battery onto a “dumb” NiCd tool. If the battery wasn’t smart you could potentially overdrive it and do some damage. Instead, the battery can tell if it’s being pushed too hard or getting too hot, shutting down the tool if necessary and forcing you to reset it by ejecting and re-seating the battery.
That’s just cool.
These new tools come with a 5-year “hassle-free” guarantee on the power tools and a 3-year “hassle-free” guarantee on the batteries and charger. What does that mean? Well, according to Kobalt, if you bring in a tool to Lowe’s (they are exclusive to Lowe’s by the way), they will swap it out, no questions asked, for 5 years. Same goes for the batteries, but for 3 years. If this is anything like their tools, then that means there is also the potential benefit of getting upgraded to the latest tools if the company replaces its current models in the next 5 years and you have a tool break. That’s certainly not official, but it would stand to reason.
So is this the next big combo kit to watch out for? We think it just might be. The real determining factors will be durability and long time use along with Lowe’s committing itself to the warranty, particularly that “hassle-free” part. If you can pick up these tools for $269 and know for certain you’ve got tools that will work for 5 years and batteries that will last for 3, then it’s going to be VERY hard to pass up. It will also be fun to see what Kobalt does next. We have it on good faith that an 18V Lithium-ion Impact Driver is just “months” away, so we’re excited about that. Will they release a hammer drill? How about a portable vacuum cleaner or jigsaw? The possibilities are endless and it will be neat to see how wide this series of tools can, and will, get. As for the Kobalt 18V Lithium-ion Cordless 4-tool Kit, we gave it an above-average 6/10 for Performance and an exceptional 7/10 for Value. This is a real no-brainer that combines ergonomics, features, and a superb warranty into one very attractive package.