If you’ve watched enough late night television, you’ve probably seen the commercials for a universal socket. They most commonly look like a typical socket and have movable pins inside that conform to the size of the head on the nut or bolt. While the idea to make a flexible socket that can fit any fastener at any time is a novel one, there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to using universal sockets for an automotive enthusiast.
Whether you are managing an automotive production line or working on a car, the attraction to main universal sockets is the concept of a universal one size fits all tool. Making a universal socket reduces the need for different tooling, which in turn reduces tool changes and ultimately reduces the complexity of the task at hand. There is obviously some benefit to a professional or amateur mechanic as less frequent tool changes means that the job gets done faster. Additionally, the need to have socket organizers or toolboxes full of sockets of all sizes and shapes is less important when you only need one universal socket (or perhaps a few universal sockets) that can do what a full set of normal sockets does. Another thing to note is that the cost of tooling is reduced when you have to buy only one or two universal sockets instead of buying a full set. Finally, universal sockets will mate up with all of your existing wrench extensions, wobble extensions, etc so they are typically plug and play into your existing tool arsenal. However, and this is a very big however…while this all sounds well and good, universal sockets have some very big drawbacks that make using them in lieu of a good set of normal sockets frustrating enough to not be worth the trouble in our opinion.
While a jack of all trades socket may sound fantastic, there are some shortcomings of that make them less desirable to use in reality. Plain old sockets are pretty simple, and they don’t have moving parts. That simplicity makes them very reliable and they pretty much last forever. A universal socket needs to have moving parts in order to accommodate the fastener size variations and thus loses the advantage of simplicity. The moving parts in universal sockets will wear faster than a normal socket, but even worse, they get easily gunked up with oil or grease which often renders universal sockets completely useless until they are thoroughly cleaned. Additionally, the moving parts do not have as much surface contact between the socket edges and fastener surfaces. As such, a universal socket typically won’t be able to impart the same amount of torque as a set of normal shallow or deep sockets, and when the torque exceeds what the socket can reasonably handle, the fastener starts to get rounded off (stripped) or damaged, which makes the fastener unusable in the future (as well as gives you good reason to swear liberally as you drill out a hardened bolt with an EZ-Out). Lastly, we should also note that universal sockets cannot replace spark plug sockets or oxygen sensor sockets.
The utility of a universal socket really comes down to the situation they are used in and the reliability you need from them. Universal sockets rarely live up to the demands of routine automotive use. The limited sizing flexibility and high risk of stripping bolts makes them pretty much a no go, unless you spend most of your days assembling low torque items such as Ikea furniture. Unsurprisingly, universal sockets are rarely designed to handle the long term repetitive use and abuse of a professional shop setting, and even a hands-on car enthusiast will eventually put them through their paces until they fail. That said, we will admit that they can be great to stick in your tool kit in the trunk of your car for when you find yourself in a pinch on the side of the road because they are smaller in size and will be easier to store than a complete socket set.
Overall, we suggest you skip the universal sockets in favor of a nice set of regular or impact sockets to keep life easy. Happy wrenching!