From its beginning, the story of cordless portable power tools has seemed a lot like an arms race. Competing manufacturers offered one tool after another, each with more power, bigger batteries and performance features that increasingly rivaled comparable corded tools. But users paid the price in bulkier, heavier, often more awkward tools. Today, new technology may be reversing that trend.

Major power tool manufacturers have capitalized on new lithium-ion battery technology to develop smaller, lighter tools that offer surprising performance for their size. This new class of tools is typically powered by compact and lightweight 10.8-volt battery packs, and we suspect many professionals overlooked these tools thinking they must be anemic compared to industry standard 18-volt ni-cad-powered workhorses. Now, a number of these compact tools are being marketed as “12-volt-max” units because the 10.8-volt battery packs can develop 12 volts of peak power. So, is this just a marketing gimmick, or can you get professional performance from a compact tool? To answer that question, we took the new DeWalt DCF610 12v cordless screwdriver for a spin.

DeWalt enters arena 

The new cordless screwdriver from DeWalt is just one of a small family of compact power tools all powered by the same 12-volt maximum power lithium-ion battery pack. Professional users of DeWalt’s full-size cordless line will smile when they see the size of these new tools, which are all dwarfed by their 18-volt brethren. But before we dismissed the tools as something for the DIY market, we couldn’t help but notice some intriguing features.

First off, the DeWalt tools stand on their own – literally. Most of the 10.8-volt/12-volt max tools on the market have battery packs in the grip, making it necessary to lay the tool down on its side. The DeWalt’s battery is at the bottom of the hand grip. Not only does that mean the driver stands upright, it also seems to improve balance and makes for a smaller, more ergonomic handle, especially if you have smaller hands.

More light 

Many tools now come with lights, but often they are shadowed by the chuck and don’t really put illumination where you need it. DeWalt figured out a way to put three LED lights around the chuck, so there are no shadows and three times the light compared to single-LED units.

The chuck itself is improved with a one-handed feature that makes it a snap to remove or install a bit with only one hand. And when you don’t have any hands to spare, a belt clip makes it easy to hang the tool from your belt.

Plenty of power 

OK, it’s got whistles and bells, but can it shoot screws? The answer is yes, indeed. With 15 clutch settings plus full power coupled with surprising speed and battery life, this tool clearly outperformed previous 10.8-volt units we’ve used and made us seriously question why we needed to carry the extra weight of a conventional 18-volt unit to do the same job.

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