Choosing a Saw
For this test, we selected top models of 7-1/4-in. sidewinder saws from the most popular brands and compared them. With one exception, the saws all have 15-amp motors and spin at 5,200 to 6,200 rpm. The saws range in price from about $60 to $150.
To test the saw, we assembled five staff members with about 80 years of combined carpentry experience, gave them a big pile of lumber and proceeded to turn the boards into kindling. We crosscut, ripped, and then tried the ultimate torture test: a 45-degree by 45-degree compound angle cut across a 2x10.
After comparing comfort, balance, features and cutting ability, we chose a few saws to receive Editors' Choice awards for Best Overall and Best Mid-Priced Saw.
How Does It Feel
All of these saws performed well when fitted with the same 24-tooth carbide blade. Beyond the specific set of features you're looking for, one of the most important considerations in buying a saw is how it feels in your hands. Unfortunately, you don't have the luxury of 13 saws lined up in front of you like we did. But you can still visit two or three stores and get a good idea of which saws you find most comfortable. Despite the fact that the DeWalt saw has a simple grip with no added rubber or other enhancements, we all think it's one of the most comfortable and well balanced saws in the group. If you work in a cold climate, be sure you also try out the saws with a pair of gloves on. Some of them may not have enough clearance around the trigger for gloved hands.
Aluminum or Magnesium Shoe
Steel shoes are common on less expensive saws, and they have a few downsides. First, they can bend if you drop the saw. And a bent shoe can cause your saw to cut poorly. Also, the rolled edge on a steel shoe can be a problem if you're using a thin straightedge like a rafter square for a saw guide. The saw can slip over the top of the guide and ruin the cut. We prefer aluminum or magnesium shoes with crisp, square edges. The more expensive saws in this group all have excellent shoes.
Extra Bevel Capacity
With the exception of the Black & Decker, all of these saws cut bevels beyond 45 degrees. It's rare that you would need to cut such steep bevels unless you built a lot of hand-framed roofs. But it's a nice feature to have. Many of the saws have included detents, or stops, for common angles like 22-1/2 and 45 degrees. On some saws these features actually get in the way of normal bevel setting. But Makita has what we think is the perfect system. You can set a positive stop by rotating the knob to either 22-1/2 or 45 degrees. Otherwise, there are no detents to interfere with the smooth operation of the bevel adjustment.
Easy Depth Adjustment
Changing the depth of cut on a circular saw requires you to loosen a lever and move the shoe up or down. There are two depth-adjusting features worth comparing in this group of saws. First, some saws have what we're calling an “outboard” lever; that is, the lever is located to the left of the handle where it's more accessible. We like this feature. Also, while most of the saws have some type of cutting-depth scale, the Bosch, Craftsman, Makita, Ridgid and Skil saws have exceptional scales that are easy to read. Bosch has gone one step further and included detents at common depth settings, making it quick and easy to go from cutting a 2x4 to cutting 1/2-in. plywood while maintaining the perfect blade depth.
If you're young and can still see well in dim light, you may not care about this feature. But we liked the work lights on the Craftsman, Makita and Kobalt saws. The LED lights illuminated the cutting area enough to allow us to follow the line easily even in dim light.
Laser Cutting Guide
We're not big fans of lasers. The Craftsman and Ryobi saws include lasers, and we experimented using them as an aid for lining up the saw and following a line. If you're not an experienced carpenter, you may find this feature helpful. But we wouldn't factor this into the decision when considering one saw over another.
Onboard Blade Wrench
When it comes time to change your saw blade, it's nice to have the wrench handy. The Black & Decker, DeWalt, Kobalt, Makita, Ridgid, Ryobi and Skil saws have wrenches or Allen wrenches stored on the saw or attached to the cord. We like saws that also allow you to use an Allen wrench to change the blade. Allen wrenches engage better, reducing skinned knuckles from a blade wrench that slips. With the exception of the Black & Decker, all the saws include a spindle lock to prevent the motor shaft from rotating while you loosen the blade nut—an essential feature, in our book.
Best Overall: Makita 5007MG
Cost: $150 Weight: 10.3 lbs.
When we tested the saws, we ranked each one in several categories including bevel and height adjustments, comfort, quality of cut and so on. This saw was the hands-down winner. From its ingenious bevel stop setting to its work light, the saw includes every feature you could want. The handle and levers are large and comfortable. The bevel detents are perfect, and the depth-of-cut scale is easy to read. Of course it's also the most expensive saw in the group. But if you can afford it, you can't go wrong with this saw.
Best Mid-Priced Saw: Porter Cable PC15TCSM
Cost: $80 Weight: 9.4 lbs.
In the middle of the price range, this Porter-Cable saw is lightweight and comfortable. It has an outboard height-adjust lever and nice bevel detents at 22.5 and 45 degrees. The saw has a magnesium shoe. Overall, it's an excellent saw at a great price.
Black & Decker CS1015
Cost: $60 Weight: 9 lbs.
Like most inexpensive saws, this saw has a steel rather than aluminum or magnesium shoe, and basic bevel and height adjustment features. Instead of a spindle lock, this saw requires a proprietary two-prong wrench to change the blade. Luckily, the blade-change tool is stored on the saw. Just don't lose it. This saw is comfortable to hold and cuts well.
Cost: $99 Weight: 10.7 lbs.
This Bosch saw was obviously designed with the pro framer in mind. It includes a built-in hook for hanging your saw from framing members, and a rafter-angle guide printed on the motor housing. Plus, it's a powerful, smooth-cutting saw with tons of nice features.
The blade depth scale is easy to read with detents at 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 2x. And the depth is easy to adjust with the large outboard lever. Our only quibble with this saw is the bevel detents. They restrict the free travel of the bevel adjustment just enough to be a slight hindrance. But other than that, we love this saw.
Cost: $90 Weight: 9.9 lbs.
Here's another great mid-priced saw. It has a large bevel lever with bevel detents at 22-1/2 and 45 degrees. The depth control lever is inboard and the scale is a little difficult to read, but these are minor complaints. If you're looking for a comfortable, lightweight saw, this one is worth checking out.
The saw includes a laser, an LED work light, a huge outboard depth-adjust lever and an easy-to-read depth scale. There are no angle detents on the bevel adjusting scale. To go beyond 45 degrees, you simply swing out a small hinge stop. We think this is a good solution. This saw has a great set of features at a competitive price.
Cost: $120 Weight: 9 lbs.
This is a no-frills saw that feels and sounds great. It's the lightest saw of the bunch with a very comfortable grip, and is noticeably quieter than many of the other saws. There's no outboard height-adjust lever, depth scale or work light. But the saw does include an aluminum shoe, a special “tough cord” feature and nice bevel detents. We highly recommend this saw for its comfortable feel and smooth-running motor.
Cost: $80 Weight: 10.8 lbs.
The first things you notice about this saw are the large metal bevel and height-adjust levers. They're very comfortable to use and add a quality feel to the saw. I'm sure you would learn how to overcome it, but the saw has one feature we found annoying. If you're not careful, at 45 degrees the adjusting lever drops into a slot that allows you to go beyond 45 degrees. Then you have to fiddle with the lever to get it out of the slot to return to a square cut. The saw includes an outboard depth adjust lever but no depth scale.
Cost: $150 Weight: 11 lbs.
Milwaukee has a reputation for making industrial-quality tools, and this saw is no exception. It has a unique Tilt-Lok feature that allows you to slide the handle up or down for the most comfortable work position. There are no bevel detents, but the bevel and height-adjust levers are large and comfortable. For an additional $30 or so, you can get the upgraded model No. 6394-21 with a removable Quick-Lok cord and electric brake.
Cost: $90 Weight: 9.5 lbs.
This Kobalt saw has a large outboard height-adjust lever and a depth scale on the side of the blade cover. The depth scale is a little difficult to read, though. The saw has a 12-ft. cord, 2 ft. longer than the closest competitor's. The saw also includes a work light and onboard blade wrench storage. But it has the same annoying “drop in past 45 degrees” slot that we found on the Hitachi.
Cost: $75 Weight: 7.6 lbs.
Given this saw's economy features like a steel shoe, small plastic knobs and a plastic blade guard, we didn't expect much. But we were surprised at how comfortable the saw was to hold and how well it cut. If you're looking for a lightweight basic saw and don't want to spend a lot of money, this Ryobi is worth checking out.
Cost: $99 Weight: 11 lbs.
One of the best features of all Ridgid power tools is the lifetime warranty. This saw also includes easy-to-read bevel and height-adjust scales, an onboard wrench and a sawdust blower. It's one of the heaviest in the group, but if you don't mind the weight, it's a great saw for the price.
Cost: $129 Weight: 9.4 lbs.
This lightweight magnesium saw has a precise bevel scale with easy-to-read markings and a unique stop at 45 degrees. To go beyond that, you push a spring-like lever. The depth gauge is easy to read. This was one of the few saws on which the blade guard retracted smoothly for making a 45-degree compound miter cut. This is a great saw that we highly recommend.