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Affordable Self-Leveling Lasers, Continued

Dot Lasers

LeveLite Pro

The LeveLite Pro ($420) projects three dots: one horizontal and two plumb. An adjustable-height foot allows the instrument to sit on the floor and project a downward dot. This unit gives a sharp 1/8-inch dot at 20 feet; at 50 feet, it was still sharp — earning a rating of 8 — and only slightly bigger, at 3/16 inch. At both the 20-foot and 50-foot distances, the dot was right on target. The Pro has fair dampening action and no pendulum lock. With the unit shimmed to 5/16 inch, the dot blinked but remained level on target.

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A thumb dial raises the built-in elevator foot of the LeveLite Pro, allowing you to read the downward plumb dot with the unit resting on the floor.

LeveLite Tri Lite

This tool ($550) has almost all the requisite dots — one horizontal, one right-angle, and one plumb dot up — but lacks an important one: It won't shoot a plumb dot down. An easy-to-lose plastic accessory tool must be used to locate and transfer the position of the plumb dot to the ground. The locating tool can be used only if the instrument is positioned on the ground, not on a tripod. The Tri Lite's dot also isn't nearly as small or clear as that of other units; at 20 feet, the 3/16-inch dot was blurry. The dot grew slightly to 1/4 inch at 50 feet. At a distance of 20 feet, the level was right on, and it was only 1/16 inch off at 50 feet. The dot rated a 5 for clarity; dampening action was poor. The Tri Lite has no pendulum lock. The unit blinked when shimmed out of level by 5/16 inch, but the dot remained level.

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Instead of projecting a downward plumb dot, the LeveLite Tri Lite relies on a plastic locator tool to indicate plumb center. This feature works only with the tool resting on the floor.

PLS-3

The PLS-3 ($395) projects three dots: one horizontal and two plumb dots (up and down). The unit's base is offset to allow dot projection on the floor with the unit placed on the floor. This tool doesn't have a right-angle dot, but it makes up for that minor shortcoming with its small, clear dot and dependable accuracy.

I understand that the original PLS can be tilted and used to shoot a sloped line for stair railing or other angled layout. But none of the tools I evaluated could be used for that purpose, due to their "anti-tilt" safety feature. The PLS-3's dot didn't vary from its 3/16-inch size at 20 feet or at 50 feet; at a distance of 20 feet from the target, the dot was right on, and it was only 1/16 inch off at 50 feet. The unit has no pendulum lock, but has good dampening and a dot clarity of 8. Tilted with a 3/16-inch shim, the unit blinked and shut off, but the dot remained level.

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Pacific Laser Systems's PLS-3 features three dots: one level and two plumb. The PLS-5 adds two more dots at right angles.

PLS-5

This tool ($595) is the Cadillac of multi-use lasers and fits all the necessary requirements for general trade use. As indicated by its name, it has five dots: one horizontal dot plus two more at right angles, and two plumb dots. The instrument's base is elevated to provide on-the-floor downward dot projection. The right-angle horizontal dots are offset 1 inch from the plumb dots. The dot is small, clear, and accurate, even over a 50-foot projection. The pendulum dampening on this instrument is good. The self-leveling feature is another story: With a 1/2-inch shim under the base, the laser shut off, but not before allowing the dot to drift off level by 5/16 inch at 20 feet. The manufacturer claims that the instrument will self-level each time it is set up. But if you bump or tilt the instrument after initial setup, I wouldn't count on its accuracy. Instead, I'd cycle it off and back on, forcing it to self-level again before continuing. The dot rated an 8 for clarity, and maintained its size of 3/16 inch at 20 feet and 50 feet. It was dead on target at 50 feet. The PLS-5 has no pendulum lock.

Robo Laser

The Robo Laser ($350) has only one dot, but the dot can be gradually moved from point to point by means of a small remote control device, which is especially handy for laying out cabinets, wainscoting, or other continuous level lines. Although the Robo Laser isn't a true "rotating" laser — that is, it doesn't cast a continuous line around a room — when used with an elevator tripod, this instrument can save an enormous amount of layout time. The dot was a consistent though fuzzy 1/4 inch at both 20 feet and 50 feet. Dot clarity rated a 7. The dot was 1/16 inch off at 20 feet and 1/8 inch off at 50 feet. The unit features fair dampening and a pendulum lock. The dot blinked with a 1/4-inch shim but remained level.

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The Robo Vector (above) and Robo Laser (left) can be purchased as a kit to handle a variety of layout applications. Though not a true rotating laser, the Robo Laser's dot can be moved slowly by remote control.

Robo Vector

This unit ($250) features five dots: One horizontal, two more at horizontal right angles (left and right), and two plumb dots (up and down). The base of the instrument swivels to allow it to rest on the floor while projecting a downward plumb dot. The Robo Vector is affordable and has all the necessary dots, but is a poor performer when it comes to dot size: At 20 feet, the dot measured 1/4 inch, and at 50 feet, almost 5/16 inch. The dot was off by 1/8 inch at 50 feet, but it was difficult to ascertain because the dot was so big. I gave this unit a 3 for dot clarity. After shimming the unit out of level by 3/8 inch, the dot still seemed level (but, again, hard to tell). The dot blinked when the shim exceeded 3/8 inch. The Robo Vector offered poor dampening — when my dog walked by on the wood-framed floor, the dot bounced around for a while before stopping.

Stabila Compact Laser

This instrument is in a category by itself because it features one dot and one line, and has an optional detachable prism. With the rotatable prism attached, the dot can be split to shoot right angles. However, the dots shot through the prism are not level to each other or to the original dot. Therefore, the prism can't be used to shoot 90-degree level lines, nor is it calibrated to shoot plumb points. Aside from these limitations, the Compact Laser ($350, $430 with prism) is an accurate level with a small, clear dot — 3/32 inch at 20 feet and at 50 feet — and has the best dampening system (both dot and line) of any of the instruments evaluated. But the vertical line is no replacement for plumb dots, and the visibility of the line is also the weakest of the three line lasers I tested.

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Stabila's Compact Laser projects both a level dot and a vertical line. An optional prism splits the dot into a 90-degree beam.