Best compact tools for your money

12-volt technology powers latest drills, drivers, saws

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12-volt technology powers latest drills, drivers, saws

Paul Bianchina
Inman News™

Ultra-compact 12-volt lithium ion batteries have become extremely popular in recent years, and they've found their way into all sorts of tools and other products.

Several of the top tool manufacturers have embraced this technology and have introduced entire lines of tools around this powerful and lightweight battery platform. Some of these tools are easily recognizable, and some are, well, maybe not quite what you'd expect.

A number of different products utilizing these great little batteries have come my way in recent months, so I've had the opportunity to try some of them out. This seemed like a good time to give you a roundup of some of the better choices, both for your own toolboxes and, with the holidays upon us, as gift-giving possibilities as well.

Drills and drivers are always popular in the 12-volt line, because compact batteries make for compact tools. Bosch, for example, has its "Pocket Driver," with the lightest weight in its class. It slips easily into a tool belt and gets into tight spots, but with 265 inch-pounds of torque, it's still a tough little workhorse for a number of jobsite applications. The one I tested (Model PS21-2A, $129) included a carrying case, charger and two batteries.

Larger and heavier is the right-angle Craftsman Nextec (Model 17562, $99.99), with a powerful 700 inch-pounds of torque. Like the Bosch, it accepts 1/4-inch shank bits, has an LED work light, and has a nice balanced feel to it. It comes with a soft case, charger and a couple of bits, but unfortunately only one battery.

Going in a different direction is Dewalt. While most 12-volt batteries are basically round and slip into the end of the tool like an extension of the handle, Dewalt has opted for a square, flat-bottomed battery that slides into the end of the handle from the side. The result is a tool with great balance that also stands up on its own when you set it down. Dewalt has a winner of an idea here.

I tested its 1/4-inch Max Screwdriver (Model DCF610S2, $139), part of a whole lineup of MAX 12-volt tools. It features a clever, one-hand-loading chuck system, plus a 3-LED ring light for great visibility. The only thing Dewalt should change would be the massive, road map-style instruction sheets. Includes a soft bag, charger, two batteries and a belt clip.

Oscillating tools, with their ability to make fast, side-to-side saw cuts in wood and drywall in ways that are difficult for other tools to do effectively, have really become popular. Dremel, in a departure from its normal line of rotary tools, has introduced the Dremel Multi-Max (Model 8300-01, $149) cordless oscillating tool, which cuts and sands very effectively. It's variable speed, and also has a soft-start feature, which is nice for more delicate cuts. Includes a hard case, charger, two batteries and several accessories.

Porter-Cable also has a line of 12-volt lithium ion tools, and, like Dewalt and Dremel, it also likes the name MAX. One of Porter-Cable's unique tools that I tested was the 12 Volt MAX ClampSaw (PCL120CRC-2, $169.99). This is a compact reciprocating saw that lets you get into tight spaces, and with the press of a button you can rotate the saw's head to three different positions -- 0, 45 and 90 degrees -- giving you additional cutting comfort and versatility.

The other unique feature, and what gives the saw its name, is its ability to clamp onto pipes, tubes, rods and other round objects while cutting, to reduce vibration and drift for a much smoother cut. Also features a tool-less blade change, LED work light and variable speed trigger. The kit includes a soft bag, charger, two batteries and two blades.

Lest you think it's all about work, Milwaukee has its M12 12-volt AM/FM radio available (Model 2590-20, $99). At only 10 1/2 inches and 3 1/2 pounds, it's definitely compact, but it gets great reception and puts out some very nice sound from the weatherproof aluminum speakers.

And if you don't like the tunes on the radio, feel free to plug in your MP3 player, and protect it inside the special weather-sealed compartment. The M12 features a shock-absorbing ABS polymer housing, and also comes with an AC adapter.

Incidentally, in addition to the radio and a nice lineup of drills, drivers and other 12-volt tools, Milwaukee also just introduced a jacket -- heated by the same 12-volt lithium ion batteries!

I'll round out this review with another truly unique entry in the 12-volt lithium ion lineup: the Ridgid JobMax (everyone loves Max, don't they?). Ridgid approached things by creating a single Power Handle that houses the motor assembly, and then developing several different interchangeable heads that lock onto the end of the handle.

Each head snaps in place easily, and is held there securely on two pins. The head can be installed in any of four positions, for even more versatility.

The fully assembled tool is a little heavier and bulkier that a comparable single-use tool, but it's not too bad, and it's really not much of a tradeoff considering you can get more tools in your toolbox with less money out of your pocket.

Begin your collection with the Multi-Tool Starter Kit (R82235, $99), which includes the JobMax Power Handle; a Multi-Tool Head, which is basically an oscillating tool and sander; charger; one battery; a soft case; and accessories for the oscillating tool. The downside is that even though it's a starter kit, the case has no room for storing any additional heads.

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