The impact driver, once reserved for professional builders and mechanics, is a popular part of many DIY tool boxes thanks to its unique ability to drive screws and bolts.
Battery technology fuels the uptake of this tool: where once you needed an air compressor or miles of cable to operate an impact driver, you now can enjoy the convenience of a cordless drill.
All of the top tool companies offer impact drills, but which is right for you?
To find out, the BestReviews lab team considered a wide range of impact drivers from all of the leading manufacturers. Some pretty good tools didn't survive the cut. After much deliberation, we present the five top impact drivers that made our elite shortlist:
An impact driver is a tool that rapidly drives screws of all lengths and sizes. But that's not all: it also delivers some serious drilling capabilities — more than that of same-sized cordless drills. And although an impact driver can produce “rip-your-arm-off” torque, it's a relatively light tool that's compact and, considering its power, surprisingly easy to control.
So why don't we use impact drivers all the time? Our expert contractor, Dale, summed it up well: "The perfect job for these impact drivers is either siding or a wooden or metal fence project that involves continuous driving of self-tapping or similar types of screws . . . but the torque setting may not offer the finesse you desire."
In light of this, fine woodworkers should probably stick with standard drills for making holes. However, some manufacturers recognize these shortcomings and have developed features that allow much greater control than was previously possible.
All of the cordless impact drivers we tested share a number of features.
They all drive rotary force (as a drill) and employ percussive action (the “impact” part). In effect, they twist the screw and simultaneously pulse the rotational force.
The extreme speed at which they do this makes them highly efficient and far less likely to strip screw heads than an ordinary driver.
They all have progressive triggers that control variable-speed motors. The harder you squeeze, the greater the power. Most models automatically increase power when they meet resistance.
Each has a ¼-inch quick-release hexagonal chuck.
The versatility of each tool could be further extended by a wide range of add-on accessories (for example, a socket adaptor). Many add-ons cost just a couple of dollars.
To remove personal bias from the equation, each impact driver passed through the hands of four different testers. While this often led to some lively debate in the BestReviews lab, it ensured balanced overall results. Here’s what our testers looked for:
At BestReviews, we don't accept products directly from the manufacturer. We order and pay for products just like you would. When each impact driver arrived, we unpacked and weighed it. (Manufacturers supply weights in their documentation, but it's not always clear whether this is with or without battery.)
Each tester shared their views on how it felt to actually use the products, evaluating balance, handle cushioning, and control placement.
All of our finalists use lithium-ion batteries. While slightly more expensive than NiCad, they deliver more usable power for their weight and don't suffer from the "memory" effect that can dramatically shorten working life.
Actual capacity varied among the products tested, so we were interested to see how this affected performance. We also drained each battery completely, then monitored recharging times.
Torque, or twisting force, is not a true differentiator with these products, as they all have more than sufficient power for any conceivable home project. We did note claimed maximums (where given) and any other technical details of interest. We also looked at those extras that manufacturers add to tempt you, from simple belt loops to complex, multiple-speed motors.
To evaluate noise output, we placed each product in an isolated control room, drove screws into a store-bought two-by-four, and measured noise levels from three feet away. Three readings were taken for each tool and averaged to find total decibel output.
While decibel readings vary, all of these products are loud. The percussive mechanism makes a rapid banging sound as the metal parts connect. To the uninitiated, an impact drill sounds like a standing drill in the process of badly stripping a screw head. Users should wear ear protection when these devices are on. In fact, users should protect their ears when exposed to any sound over 80 decibels — and every impact driver here exceeds that limit.
All the products on our shortlist are excellent tools. Cost is always a consideration, but there's not a vast price difference across our five finalists. In summing up each product, we assess overall value while taking both owner feedback and BestReviews test lab data into consideration.
Richard is a seasoned small business owner in the hardware industry. He also owns a pool maintenance business and serves as an advisor on groundskeeping committees for a number of prominent organizations. He’s a regionally renowned safe cracker/locksmith expert, and in his spare time, he renovates and repairs vaults, safes, appliances, and a number of other products.
The Good: Excellent torque. Brushless motor. Easy for pros and amateurs to use.
The Bad: Catches are sharp and could be a safety hazard if user is not careful.
The Bottom Line: A powerful, heavy-duty drill with versatile applications.
Straight out of the box, the DCF887D2 MAX XR reinforces DeWalt's reputation as a superior manufacturer of hand-held power tools.
The battery slides easily into place, giving it a weight of 2.8 pounds. Although there are lighter impact drivers around, it doesn't feel heavy, and our testers were extremely impressed with its comfort and balance.
They were equally pleased with the battery, which charged in just 19 minutes. One tester commented that the charge period gave him just enough time to grab a quick bite. (We had to point out that there are two batteries, so no break required!)
Thanks to its 20 volts of power, the DeWalt is one of the strongest performers on our list. Its durable brushless motor loses less energy to friction than some other motors, requires no maintenance, and offers a longer working life. Nobody would call it quiet at 87.9 decibels, but it is the least loud impact driver on our list.
Three work lights shine around the DeWalt's chuck (rather than under it), resulting in precise illumination. The lights stay on for 20 seconds after you've released the trigger, giving you the chance to check your work. The chuck's quick-release collar is particularly easy to operate, especially for those with reduced finger mobility. The batteries include useful gauges to indicate charge level.
The DeWalt also offers three speed choices. You can select torque as low as 240 in pounds or as high as 1,825 in pounds. Our expert contractor suggested that most impact drivers don't offer the finesse you need for delicate jobs, but this one definitely does!
You get a belt clip, two batteries, a rapid charger, and a tough carrying case with this purchase. Some of our testers thought the catches were sharp enough to cut your fingers if you weren't careful, but after our extensive lab trials, that's the only real complaint our team could come up with!
The DeWalt currently costs $195. A thorough review of owner feedback underlines our own findings: virtually every professional and DIY user thinks it's a powerful, durable, well-balanced addition to their toolbox. One or two had issues with battery life (faulty units should be replaced under the three-year warranty), but that aside, it's just about flawless.
The Good: Powerful and affordable. Variable speed and impressive torque.
The Bad: Heavier and bulkier than some competitors, and not as easy to maneuver. Just one battery is supplied, and there is no charge indicator.
The Bottom Line: Made by a reputable hand tool manufacturer, this is a strong, affordable tool with a few flaws that may or may not affect your purchasing decision.
Though all of these tools are quite compact, the Makita is the heaviest on our list at 3.4 pounds. The battery is also quite bulky, making it feel like a larger tool. That shouldn't suggest that the balance is poor, but it's not quite as maneuverable as, for example, the DeWalt. Having said that, it certainly feels robust, and build quality is excellent.
Recharge time is also very good at just 18 minutes. Unfortunately, there's only one battery supplied, and it doesn't have any kind of charge indicator. In our opinion, that's a bit of an oversight — especially since Makita targets this model at professionals as well as amateurs.
The variable-speed Makita XDT042 delivers an impressive maximum torque output of 1,420 in pounds. The 18 volts of power makes it a top contender in its class, and our testers were impressed with its consistent driving ability. Furthermore, it's not as noisy as some at 98.7 decibels.
The kit has almost everything you'd expect: charger, belt hook, work light, solid case. This is a good tool from a top manufacturer, and with a current price of $129, it's a deal worth considering—although we think the lack of a second battery is a serious drawback if you plan to use your impact driver often.
This is a tremendously popular cordless impact driver, and feedback from owners is overwhelmingly positive. It may be a bit basic, but the Makita does what it's supposed to do, and it keeps on doing it.
The Good: Slim and lightweight. Brushless motor.
The Bad: Not as comfortable, balanced, or stable as some competitors. Only 12 volts.
The Bottom Line: A decent tool with good torque and a few known flaws.
The first thing that grabs you about the 12-volt Milwaukee impact driver is its slim design. With the battery integrated within the handle, it weighs just 2.28 pounds.
Our lab testers' initial reaction to the Milwaukee was mixed, but its visual appeal soon lost out to several practical concerns. First, the Milwaukee doesn't feel as balanced as a traditionally styled model. Second, it keeps falling over. (Normally, a cordless impact driver battery also acts as a stand. But with the Milwaukee, you have to keep picking it up. If you use your tool a lot, this could be frustrating.)
The problematic battery has its own charge indicator, which is a plus, but it can be difficult to remove from the unit. Its 40-minute recharge time isn't particularly impressive, either, when you consider that this is a 12-volt tool.
We're also not overly impressed with the drill's single LED light. The LED does its job adequately, but the single-light offering is hard to overlook when a manufacturer like DeWalt provides three lights. And, a bit surprisingly, this 12-volt machine actually made the most noise in the test lab with an average output of 108.8 decibels.
We do like the fact that the motor is brushless, because that means almost all of the power is transmitted through the chuck. We also like the Milwaukee's two fastening modes which deliver a maximum torque of 1,200 in pounds. Adjustment between the modes is made from the top of the drill; our testers found this to be quick and easy.
For $146, the Milwaukee includes a kit with a belt hook, two batteries, and a charger in a hard case. The warranty lasts an impressive five years. That apparent durability is underlined by owners, the vast majority of whom think it's a tough, powerful tool.
We take no issue with the Milwaukee's performance, but we do have concerns about its ergonomics. Nevertheless, overall customer satisfaction ratings are high. If you're looking for a small impact drill, the Milwaukee is a worthy contender for your cash.
The Good: Great torque. Good ergonomics.
The Bad: Heavier than much of the competition. Recoil may be too much for frail users. Less-efficient brush motor.
The Bottom Line: A powerful, user-friendly alternative for those who don't want to spend a large amount of money.
At 3.12 pounds, the Porter-Cable is one of the heaviest impact drills we tested. In use, however, the majority of our testers really liked its ergonomics. It felt comfortable in the hand, and most thought its good balance did much to offset its weight.
Like the DeWalt, this cordless impact driver is a 20-volt model. Interestingly, we were able to charge in just 23 minutes, whereas the documentation says it should take 35-100 minutes. We found several anomalies like this in the manual, but nothing that would affect the Porter-Cable's actual performance.
The batteries fit easily into the drill and charger. Each has a charge level indicator — an valuable feature, indeed — and incorporates a belt hook.
The kit is much like those offered by competitors: standard work light, two batteries, charger, soft case. And although the one-speed motor isn't brushless (it's the less efficient "brush" type), it produces an impressive 1,450 in pounds of torque and 105.9 decibels of sound.
The Porter-Cable PCCK640LB will set you back $134. What you get for your money is an uncomplicated tool that delivers excellent power. So much power, in fact, that our lab testers commented on its noticeable torque reaction, or “recoil.” We doubt it's enough to cause problems, though people with lower arm strength or wrist injuries might have issues with it.
Truth be told, owners love the power delivery. Actually, they love everything about the Porter-Cable. We did find two examples of motor burn-outs in our consumer research. Given the reliability usually associated with this manufacturer, that surprised us. But the product does come with a five-year warranty, and we suspect that these few occasions were exceptions to the rule.
The Good: Compact and lightweight. Decent torque for an amateur tool.
The Bad: Poor balance, long charge time, and several other minor inconveniences.
The Bottom Line: A decent tool from a reputable manufacturer, this small impact drill provides a viable solution for some home users.
Weighing just 2.18 pounds, the Bosch PS41-SA impact driver is certainly light. Indeed, Bosch claims that it's the most compact driver in its class.
While at first glance the tool's sleek design seems a smart idea, our testers found it to be anything but. The problem isn't just balance; our testers had a terrible time removing the battery. It was so tightly in place, it actually hurt the tester's hands. In fact, the BestReviews test lab became a stage for comedy at one point as two people were needed to pry the battery and drill apart!
It took this cantankerous battery one hour and 23 minutes to charge—far too long when compared to its competitors. If you've got time for a snack while the DeWalt charges, you've got time for a five-course meal while the Bosch juices up. Granted, a second battery is included with the package, so you probably wouldn't need to take that long of a break. But if you're hungry, there's time!
The Bosch's 12-volt power will never compete with the 18- and 20-volt cordless impact drivers out there, and this shouldn't be mistaken for a pro tool. However, it is a direct competitor of the Milwaukee on our list. Even though it offers only one setting, it yields decent torque (930 in pounds).
Other useful features include three LED lights (similar to the DeWalt), a battery charge gauge, and a collar for the chuck that makes operation considerably easier. We would like to see a belt hook on this tool (the Milwaukee has one), but that feature is absent from the Bosch.
Priced at $109, the Bosch comes with a 12-month warranty, two batteries, a charger, and a soft case. As you would expect from the reputable Bosch company, owners rarely log criticisms about build and component quality. It's one of the quieter tools on this list (89.7 decibels), and it's small and fairly easy to use. In the lab, it wasn't among our favorites, but many people love it.
The best impact drill is the DeWalt DCF887D2 20V MAX XR. In spite of how good the others are, there's just no contest when it comes to the DeWalt.
This impact driver has it all: superior performance, flexibility, handling, and features. It's only marginally heavier than the 12-volt models on our list, and it's quieter than most.
After extensive lab testing, the DeWalt was the tool every one of our testers agreed they would go back to without hesitation. You pay a small premium for the privilege of owning one, but with its powerful, trouble-free brushless motor, your investment will be returned many times over.
Our Best Bang for Your Buck award goes to the Porter-Cable.
In some ways, this tool is a bit of a throwback: it's an old-style, pro impact driver with a battery attached, yet it takes a very uncomplicated approach—and that's its main advantage. This durable tool will thump in screws and bolts today . . . and tomorrow . . . and the day after that. And, ergonomically speaking, your hand will stay comfortable the whole time.
There's no denying the quality of the Makita, but you'd have to buy an extra battery to get the same convenience this of dual-battery package. When you compare prices, it's easy to see why the Porter-Cable is such a good deal. In terms of money and value, the Porter-Cable clinches this title.
In this comparison, we looked at impact drills. But there are three basic drill types that you may encounter when shopping for a cordless drill:
Basic driver drills are the most common and versatile of these three types of drills. But as your toolkit expands, you may want to consider an impact driver next, and then a hammer drill if you have a specialized need for its capabilities.