The good news is that the air compressor models being sold today benefit from considerable improvements in design, manufacturing, materials, and even ergonomics and aesthetics over those of even just a few years ago.
There are very few bad choices available, and it’s hard to make a real mistake. That said, it’s still well worth a few minutes of your time to choose the model that is best suited for your particular needs.
Before focusing on specific models, you can start by figuring out which TYPE of air compressor is best based on your needs. Once you’ve narrowed it down it will be easier to choose the specific model that will serve you best.
Separating the Air Compressor Market into Three Segments
Basically, air compressors fall into three groups: shop compressors, portable compressors, and trim compressors.
In each group of comparable models, there will be a tradeoff between tank size, compressor size, noise, portability, and price.
Some models will have larger tanks and smaller compressors. These are good for uses where you can work some, and then take a moment while the compressor cycles back up to pressure. These tend to be better for continuous use tools like drills and sprayers, while still being cost effective. Other models will have smaller tanks and larger compressors. These tend to be good for burst type tools, like impact drivers and nail guns.
Shop compressors are not intended to be moved. Generally they have larger tanks such that you can draw a sustained consistent high air supply without emptying the tank. This is necessary when spraying, grinding, chiseling, or other uses where the air tools will need a lot of air volume over a long period of time.
Shop compressors basically are either vertical or horizontal, which refers to how the air tank cylinder is arranged.
Horizontal compressors have the tank laying flat. They generally are less tall, but take up more floor space. Many models will fit under a work bench, saving valuable space in a smaller workshop.
Vertical compressors are made to stand upright. They will take up less floor space, but will take up more vertical space instead. Also, the largest capacity compressors usually have vertical tanks, as a big tank takes up less space when set on end.
Shop compressors also may or may not have wheels. Some shop compressors that have wheels and can run on an extension cord, can cross into the portable compressor line, provided you don’t mind their size and bulk when moving them.
We have organized our Workshop Air Compressor Recommendations for easy comparison.
Quick Recommendations for the Best Shop Compressors
Horizontal Shop Compressor with Wheels: GMC SYCLONE 6310
Vertical Shop Compressor with Wheels: DeWALT D55168
Heavy Duty Shop Compressor without wheels: Quincy #2V41C60VC
Portable compressors are generally medium sized units that are made to be as versatile as possible. They tend to have larger tanks and compressors so they can serve light shop duty, while having wheels so you can drag them out to the job site too. If you only have the money or the space for one compressor, and you don’t need the sustained CFM of the big work horses, then a portable compressor will be perfect for you.
You can think of some portables small shop compressors with wheels, while you can think of some others as larger heavier trim compressors that can also work in the shop.
The real deciding factor is how much CFM you need for the kind of work you expect to do. If you use short burst type tools then the large trim compressor is going to be ideal. If you use long sustained work type tools, like sanders and grinders and chisels and hammers, then the larger units will be necessary even though they are less convenient to move around.
A lot has changed in the compressor market in the last 10 years, and there are a lot of light, portable, efficient, and even quiet portable compressors available.
We have organized our Portable Air Compressor Recommendations for easy comparison.
Quick Recommendations for the Best Quiet Portable Compressors
In this group we have a couple fantastic units and you really can’t go wrong with either. It all depends on what your preferences are.
Mini or “Trim” Compressors
Trim compressors are ultra portable units generally used for finish carpentry where the nailers don’t require much air, for airbrushing and spraying on small projects, and for other uses where ultra portability is more important the all out capacity.
While mini compressors represent a relatively recent addition to the compressor market, they are where all the innovation has been, and there is a full crop of highly capable units to pick from.
If you want the maximum portability and flexibility, and are don’t need the sustained air required for continuous use tools, then a mini compressor is an excellent choice. In fact, I’ve always had big compressors, but when I let my old faithful go along with the sale of a recent project, I ended up replacing it with not one, but TWO compressors… one quiet portable that stays in the workshop, and one ultra-portable that I can take where I want it
The new generation of trim compressors should really give you a reason to stop and reexamine all your assumptions about what a compressor should be. At an affordable price point, they sure beat dragging 200′ of air hose around!
We have organized our Mini and Trim Air Compressor Recommendations for easy comparison.
Quick Recommendations for the Best Mini and Trim Air Compressors
Three of the mini compressors really stand out as great units, and it’s just a matter of preference for which one’s best for you.
The Makita MAC700 is a little heavier and a little bulkier, but it’s ultra quiet and still has the mustard to drive an impact or a full size nail gun, and it should quite literally last forever.
The DeWALT D55140 is a professional grade trim compressor in a compact format that doubles as a stool.
The Porter Cable C1010 is similar to the DeWALT that it really just comes down to whether you want yellow or red.
So now that you have a short list to choose from you should be able to pick your air compressor with ease.