Here’s a scenario you might be familiar with. You are driving in the middle of the road. Then suddenly your car experiences shake and bumps. The Check Engine Light (CEL) turns on telling you something is wrong with your car but can’t seem to exactly fathom where. Worse, the engine starts roaring as it hesitates to accelerate. You then went to the car shop, only to find out the gas cap wasn’t close properly. What a waste of time and money.
We’ve all experienced our fair share of car troubles. Like people, vehicles can also experience hiccups which means that they also need a health check-up to get back on track. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a tool that troubleshoots the problem instead of guessing what the glowing light in the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL) means. This is where the best OBD2 scanner comes in handy. From the simple issue of a loose gas cap and faulty exhausts down to the major engine and emission issues, the best OBD2 scanner is a powerful tool in pinpointing what system in your car is malfunctioning.
In this article, we will tackle everything you need to know about the OBD2 scanner — what is it, how it works, the usage basics, your buying options, plus an in-depth review of the best OBD2 scanners available in the market.
- Our Top Picks for the Best Professional Automotive Diagnostic (OBDII) Scanner
- A Quick Understanding of How On-Board Diagnostics and Scanner Works
- What is the difference between OBD1 and OBD2?
- How do I connect to OBD2 Scanner? And how do you read and understand the DTC?
- What are my options for OBD2 scanners?
- Types of Connection
- Helpful Key Features You Need to Look for in The Best Car Code Reader
- Our Best Pick
Our Top Picks for the Best Professional Automotive Diagnostic (OBDII) Scanner
Considering that OBD2 scanners are really expensive, then it’s just proper to opt for the brand with the best quality standard. Investing in a quality brand can make a difference in supplying you with sufficient information about your car’s condition and alerts you of early deterioration, saves you tons of money that you would have used on vehicle checks and repairs.
Of course, there will always be those times you will need to seek the services of a technician, but since OBD2 scanners give you more control over your car, unnecessary calls to the repair shop will be greatly induced which in the end will make your investment worth it. Here are the best
OBD2 scanners for that.
Through Bluetooth connectivity, this high-end OBD2 scanner turns your iPhone, iPad, and Android into a powerful scan tool. But first, you will need to download the BlueDriver app on iTunes or Google Play free of charge. Then the installation will start automatically once you connect the device to your car, no other additional software is required.
The time-consuming googling for your car’s error codes explanation ends with BlueDriver’s professional scan tool. The reader gives you a detailed report on the problem as well as how to fix it. You got that right, it will help you fix your car woes! It is powered by Identifix which draws information from a huge database of 30 million solutions by certified auto mechanics.
Besides generating a DTC report, it also captures live data when you are driving, takes a snapshot of the vehicle when the Freeze Frame code was stored and a Smog Check to get your vehicle ready for an emission test. Even better, it’s built-in with an advanced mode of 6 data readings. So next time you are playing the mechanic, be sure that it’s this BlueDriver professional tool that is in your hand for that ultimate diagnostics reading.
- A reliable and detailed report on the DTC
- Programmed to run through all emission tests
- Interactive graphing of live data
- Compatible with iOS and Android
- Saves your car information from the dropbox
- Access stored data and customize your dashboard from your smartphone
- Free app updates
- Lightweight and compact
- 24/7 customer support
- Not compatible with window phones
- Data stored on a smartphone will be zeroed out once it goes to sleep or is turned off
- Poor compatibility with some car models including BMW, VW Golf, Volvos and Hyundai
Some people shy away from OBD2 scanners that have a wide range of functions as this could mean more bucks to spare. But even if you are a little bit tight on budget, you still can get a full-featured diagnostic tool in AutoLink AL319 by Autel. Among the notable features is a patented One-Click I/M Readiness Key and a data storage that doesn’t only keep a record of vehicle info but also lets you retrieve generic and manufacturer-specific codes as well as pending codes. It’s also built-in with a freeze-frame to help you diagnose system failures including SRS and ABS errors.
You don’t have to hassle about staring in a glaring module trying to read the on-screen info. The bright color-coded LED and DTC color screen are very eye-friendly with a bonus of a built-in speaker to let you communicate with your device easily.
It’s also worth mentioning that this OBD2 scanner is ‘Plug and Play’ which eradicates the use of computer or tablet connection — another bonus for beginners! All the information from the basic metrics down to monitor errors is displayed on the screen. It’s also quite portable and can be easily carried around, truly a combination of ease and affordability.
- Provides a very simple process of reading codes
- Great on-screen info, graphic-display, LED backlight
- Lets you connect through the internet via USB for updates
- With live and freeze time data for accurate diagnosis
- Vehicle-powered; no need for battery and charger
- Rated for a wide range of temperature
- With USB cable and user’s manual
- Affordably priced
- No extensive information about OBD codes
- Cable too short
This may be the cheapest out of the list, but its compatibility with some of the smart apps like Torque Pro, Torque Lite and OBD Car Doctor presents a broad spectrum of features and detectors supported, including DTC reports, alongside numerous widgets and plug-ins, giving the device more functionality. This is quite a bargain, to say the least.
It works through Bluetooth pairing which you can connect with phones, tablets and other gadgets that have the Android operating system. Once it’s hooked up to your phone, it reads and displays a range of parameters including vehicle speed, engine RPM, oxygen sensor voltage, ignition timing and more — given any point in time, whether your car is at a stop, on the move, or breaking.
Like any other scan tool, it also clears and reads error codes and detects car troubles. No more guessing what that MIL alert means!
- Supported by some of the primary apps use in advanced car diagnostics
- For quick and easy DTC scanning
- Compatible with most 1996-built cars and latest gasoline vehicles
- Lets you work conveniently through your Android gadget
- Can be left safely in the port
- Most praised customer service
- Best at its price
- Doesn’t work well with hybrid trucks and car run by diesel
- The device can be easily misplaced since its too small
To kick it off, Innova is at the forefront of in-vehicle troubleshooting devices. All their diagnostic tools are backed up by years and years of research which have a huge follower on a global scale. Their 3160g code reader is one of their top-rated. It boasts of a color display screen that eases readability. It transfers data either via USB or Bluetooth which you can connect to any PC or smartphone.
The combination of several sensors gives a precise trouble code reading in freeze-frame diagnostics. It also gives a display of the engine conditions as well as an overall data status of all your other vehicle components that many conventional code readers doesn’t show.
If you are a tech-savvy mechanic you will like some of the enhanced features that record, graph and display data in real-time. On top of that, it can also re-configure error codes including ABS and SRS which further enable the OBD2 coding easier. The device also checks your vehicle’s battery status and even initializes the charging system.
Without a doubt, Innova 3160g is more than your typical error code reader. It’s quite pricey as compared to its counterparts but considering all the benefits you can reap from this device, you will get more than what you paid for.
- A more accurate and reliable diagnostics
- Gets rid of data link errors including ABS and SRS
- Records and stream live data
- Keeps battery sufficient
- Reset oil lights and figure out what’s causing it
- Bluetooth App compatible
- A trusted brand by mechanics and technician
- The software cannot be updated at the moment
- Quite expensive
The unique selling point of this scanner is perhaps its range of connectors and cables that suit the needs of OBD1 and OBD2 vehicles. It’s also a contender among scanners with a huge database; once you press the ‘CodeConnect’ option, you will be linked to a 26 million validation fix which is sourced out from highly qualified ASE technicians. In addition to the function of the ‘CodeConnect’ is a presentation of the status of many vehicle metrics. It is displayed on a large, colored LCD screen that presents a clear picture of the data.
As with other technically advanced scan tools, Actron CP9690 lets you record, playback and check live data graphing with the bonus of being able to print the data — all in a highly intuitive and user-friendly interface. It uses a freeze-frame feature to let users determine which components or systems of the vehicles are involved in the illumination of the CEL.
- Compatible with both OBD1 and OBD2 ports
- User-friendly colored screen and trilingual menu
- Huge database approved and tested by experts
- Maximum powertrain and ABS coverage
- Monitors battery system
- Covers a wide range of vehicle metrics
- Livestream and records engine data
- Computer printing function
- Doesn’t support Bluetooth pairing
- High-end price
A Quick Understanding of How On-Board Diagnostics and Scanner Works
You may not know it, but your car components are made up of computer inputs. An On-Board Diagnostics System or OBD makes it easier for vehicle owners and repair technicians to gain the status of the vehicle emission, transmission operation, ignition, and other various vehicle subsystems.
To get a grasp of what’s going on with the vehicle, the OBD system is engineered with Electronic Control Unit (ECU) which relies on various sensors to monitor the actuators (or those electric motors and electric valves responsible for controlling your car’s mechanism). When the OBD system identifies there was something amiss, the Check Engine Light turns on and then stores a trouble code known as the Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC). These car error codes can be accessed using an OBD scanner tool via porter or in the automotive term, it’s known as the Diagnostic Link Detector (DLC).
Each code corresponds to a vehicle component or system that’s not operating fairly. For instance, when codes from P0001 to P0099 appear in the reading, then your car is having an issue with the Fuel and Air Metering or Auxiliary Emission Controls. Most OBD scanners will give you a translation of the DTC but you can also use an OBD car diagnostic software to translate and get more information about the other codes.
What is the difference between OBD1 and OBD2?
When you’re buying a car diagnostic scanner (or vehicles for that matter), it’s likely that you’ll come across two confusing terms; the OBD1 and OBD2. These scan tools come with a cord that can be connected to the port although each differs in performance.
Classic cars from 1980 to 1998 uses OBD1 port to run diagnostics. The tool is much simpler and uses sensors to detect emissions. However, the OBD1 system limits users of data as it only focuses on the emission control systems of vehicles. Moreover, OBD1 also has its shortfall because it really wasn’t that effective in letting the drivers pass the emission tests. With the advancements of technology, the improvement in the OBD system materialized. It was mandated in 1996 that car manufacturers must engineer their vehicles with OBD2 port which paved the way in providing better results for vehicle parameters when used in emission system tests.
In addition to monitoring emissions, the OBD2 scanner can also access a range of parameters and sensors in the Engine Control Unit (ECU) in addition to forecasting other useful data such as the mileage, speed, coolant temperature, road speed among many others.
How do I connect to OBD2 Scanner? And how do you read and understand the DTC?
As mentioned, an OBD2 scan tool detects the error code of your vehicle, predominantly. Additionally, the tool is also programmed to check pending codes and provide an extensive information, set up OBD modes and PIDs, customize a list of parameters and so on. The extension of the functionality will depend on the model.
In this category, we will focus on the OBD2 scanner’s primary function — and that is to check and read error codes. Following is a step by step guide on how to connect to the OBD2 scanner. In addition, we have also put up a comprehensive guide on how to decode the DTC or OBD2 trouble codes to make the most of your OBD2 scanner.
1. Make sure that the power of your vehicle is turned off first. Connecting the scanner while your ignition is on will corrupt the OBD2 software.
2. Locate the port. This 16 pin connector is usually a trapezoidal block commonly found under the bottom of the center console or at the base of the left-hand side of the dash next to the steering column. Note that the port has several data exchange protocols namely CAN (ISO 15765-4), ISO9141, PWM, VPW, and KWP2000. If you have trouble finding your link connector, you may refer to the owner’s manual or car’s model and year.
3. Connect the OBD2 Scanner. Always be gentle when plugging it in as the pin is extremely delicate and may bend if you plug it carelessly.
4. Now you can turn your ignition on but not the engine. Turn it to the first notch, enough to turn on dash lights, radio, and the diagnostic ports but not the car. Some scanner models require the user to press the scanner’s power button to start the initializing process while some may require a default pin number to connect. Always refer to your scanner’s manual if you are unsure. Once the device starts booting up, a message may appear on the screen indicating the initialization of the data transmission (phrases like ‘searching for protocol’, ‘establishing data transmission link’ or the like).
5. Key in your vehicle information and all the data required. Again the process varies according to the model. Some may require information about your Vehicle Information Number (VIN), car’s model and type as well as the engine type.
6. Initiate a ‘read’ or ‘scan’ command to start the diagnostic. The instruction should be in your scanner’s manual. For most OBD2 scanners, the code button is typically found in the main codes menu while some scanner models may command you to go through a series of manuals.
7. Allow the device to run diagnostics. This should just take seconds. Some models may also present your systems to check including the engine, transmission, airbag and many more. If you click one of the options, two or more types of codes may again appear.
8. Understand the codes. This is a crucial part of the process as it is a bit complex. Each OBD code consists of a letter alongside four or five digits that corresponds to the fault of the car. First, let’s decode the 4 possible letters that appear in the first section of the code.
- P-code stands for Powertrain. This is the largest set of codes that present status about your engine, transmission, ignition, fuel system and other subsystems associated with the drivetrain.
- B-code stands for Body. This includes accessories that are normally found inside and in the passenger compartment. Things such as sea airbags, power seat and even seat belts. This letter code functions to provide the driver with safety as well as comfort.
- C-code stands for Chassis. This category covers things that are found outside the passenger compartment. It includes a mechanical system such as steering, suspension, brake fluid, axes and more.
- U-code stands for undefined. This covers other systems that don’t fall in the previous categories. These are normally the module failures and shortfalls on Network and Vehicle Integration. Unfortunately, only the dealership scan tools will be able to decode this category.
The rest of the characters are numbers. The first digit in the code basically functions to determine whether your car is generic (the same for all manufacturers) or manufacturer specific (codes that are own by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) or a particular manufacturer). These first digits are normally a single number from 0 to 3
- The number 0 means generic or global codes. Codes with 0 as the first digit meant that the car is OBD2 standard compliant and is common among most manufacturers.
- The number 1 means specific or enhanced code. It means that the codes are unique to a specific car model and are normally doesn’t used by a majority of manufacturers.
- Both numbers 2 and 3 are controlled by the manufacturer. Such a case also depends on the system. Some codes that involve B2xxx and C2xxx, P3xxx for instance, are manufacturer-controlled while some codes like P2xxx are generic. Meanwhile, some are reserved and are not in use like the B3xxx and C3xxx.
The second digit is a single from 0 to 9 and is initially the subsystem of the codes. Revisions were done in 2012-16, however. The groupings have been removed and change into functional areas.
The last two to three digits, on the other hand, are a pair of numbers from 00 to 99 which corresponds to a particular problem with your vehicle and is defined separately. Unfortunately, there’s no formula to interpret these last batch of characters automatically.
Your OBD2 scanner, together with your scanner’s manual, should help you in decoding. Some models provide a single description while some advanced tools are designed to provide extensive information about a particular trouble code.
9. Once you’re done with the decoding, you may keep a record of your car’s DTC. This will help you troubleshoot your car in the future. You can write them down but scanner models that are compatible with a USB cable or Bluetooth will make the transfer of data to your laptop or smartphone easier.
10. You may now turn off the ignition and carefully unplug the scanner. You may also reset your ‘Check Engine Light’ if you don’t want to see it for a while. Most OBD2 scanners will help you reset it from the main menu through the CEL selection button.
Note that codes that appear on your scanner are only the starting point to really determine your car woes. It will not 100 percent tell you what the problem is nor will it tell you how to fix it. Rather, it will just give you a clue on where the issue lies and you should use this as a guide.
Take P0455 trouble code as an example. Your scanner may relay a message about a detected leak on the Evaporative Emission System. This basically means that you have a leak somewhere in your EVAP system. Common leak issues are found in car lines or gas cap but the scanner will not tell you this and it’s up to you to find where the leak is.
It is also advisable not to replace any part or components with only a reference to the DTC unless of course, you have a lot of experiences with diagnosing codes. This is why it is necessary to get an understanding of the basic mechanisms of the codes before attempting repairs on your own.
Your scanner’s manual may also have a list of codes with explanations that are really helpful. For a full breakdown of the codes, please refer to the OBD Auto Doctor Software. This diagnostic software contains over 18,000 DTC codes.
What are my options for OBD2 scanners?
There are two available types of the OBD2 scanner in the market that you should be aware of before purchasing one. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to each and to help you simplify the selection process, here’s a breakdown of the types.
The Code Reader Type (We recommend the Innova 3160g)
This diagnostic tool has the basic functions of clearing and reading codes. An advanced feature of this type may display code name and real live-data. Other than that, it really restricts access to some information but is great for those who are looking for a car code reader that is fairly simple and no-frills. A code reader OBD2 scanner is also less expensive in comparison to the other type. They are ideally used for OBD codes that are generic in nature.
The Scan Tool Type (We recommend BlueDriver OBDII)
This may cost you more than the code reader but that’s because you are paying for additional features including advanced troubleshooting information. The purpose of this tool is to further diagnose the problem with your car and gain wider access to the status of the vehicle system. An advanced feature of this type lets the user reprogram and control the vehicle’s module.
Types of Connection
In addition, you may also choose an OBD2 scanner according to the format of the connection.
Using your smartphone or tablet, this type of scanner can be paired with a Bluetooth receiver to initialize and interpret OBD codes. All you need to do is download the diagnostic app that corresponds to the tool’s Bluetooth receiver before connecting it.
Most companies have developed software that can accommodate the end-users and assist them in accessing the information from the ECU. OBD2 scanners that are software-based are prepackaged with the external device, cable or hardware, and the software CD. You can troubleshoot or gain information from the ECU by plugging in the device. Note that this type of OBD2 scanner makes use of PC power so you will also need to install the software from your laptop or computer to operate the device.
This type of auto scanner is commonly used by mechanics and professionals that are in need of a clearer picture of the car problem. Hand-held scanners allow its users to gain access to a wide array of systems and other advanced features that commonly helps diagnose engine, transmission failures, and brake. The device comes with a data cable, power and power supply, battery pack, and more.
Helpful Key Features You Need to Look for in The Best Car Code Reader
Of course, every model of car code scanners has varying features. The best OBD2 scanners, however, share common features and it helps to know what these aspects are to increase the likelihood of getting that full-functional best OBD2 scanner.
View Data Menu or Dashboard
This feature allows you to check basic areas of your vehicle such as the oxygen sensor, engine load, air and water temp, mileage among many others. Such a display of information lets you keep in check with your car and makes it easier to figure where the potential trouble areas may be.
When you are driving, this feature shows real-time data about engine sensors, transmission, coolant temperature, speedometer and odometer and more — all helpful in monitoring your car performance.
These are the information and diagnostic codes right on the screen to keep you track with what’s going on. The advanced version includes graphics that make the interface easier to use.
Data Storage or Logging
The storage feature keeps a record of the car information in the memory you can retrieve anytime. This very helpful for technicians that scan multiple cars a day as they can have a record they can view anytime and keeps data in an organized format. For owners, data storage helps to find out if their car has been tampered.
Inspection and Maintenance Menu
Once you reset the CEL, the car code reader will give you the option to inspect and get your vehicle ready which is the purpose of this feature. An OBD2 system that has been self-checked before emission will give you a more honest and accurate emission test, thus a better chance of passing.
Our Best Pick
BlueDriver Bluetooth Professional OBDII Scan Tool will give you more confidence to be your own car’s technician. It’s the ease of use and the astonishing amount of information you can get from its repair reports together with BlueDriver’s enhanced and additional features that will save you time, money and effort from having a dealership for your car’s OBD readings. Plus it gives you the convenience of accessing your data and customize some settings anytime and anywhere through your smartphone
This BlueDriver’s scan tool is a result of automotive users’ increasing demand for faster and more reliable car troubleshooting, developed by a team of Professional Engineers in North America. While the cutting-edge features might cost you more, BlueDriver OBD2 is still less expensive as compared to other high-end professional scanners.