If you are an auto dealer or a mechanic, you know that the Onboard Diagnostics II (OBD-II) system provides a wealth of information on the status of a foreign or domestic vehicle. With a powerful OBD2 code reader, you can quickly assess performance and identify problems, determining the overall health of a vehicle and what needs to be done to repair any issues. But you also know that not all OBD2 scanners are equal in terms of the information they can report or the ease-of-use they provide, which can make selecting the right one a challenge.
OBD2 scanners are useful not only to industry professionals, but to vehicle owners as well. If you are thinking about purchasing an OBD2 scanner but are not sure where to begin, consult our comparison table below.
Still not sure which engine code reader is the best fit for your needs? Read on to learn everything you need to know about OBD2 scanners.
What is a OBD2 Scanner?
An OBD2 scanner is a small device which can read data from OBD-II systems. OBD-II has been built into vehicles since 1996, originally implemented to help ensure vehicles met California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations.
Previously, vehicles used OEM-specific OBD-I systems, which varied from one manufacturer to the next. OBD-II systems use the same protocols and connectors universally.
This means that any OBD2 scanner can read data from OBD-II systems for all common makes or models manufactured from 1996 onward.
Questions to Ask When Shopping for a OBD2 Scanner
Do you need a screen-based or app-based scanner?
A screen-based scanner has its own onboard screen which displays information. An app-based scanner is more compact, because it lacks an onboard screen. Instead, it sends the information to your smartphone or tablet, where it displays through an app. Obviously you need a compatible mobile device to use an app-based scanner.
What is the difference between a code reader and a code scanner?
These are the two main types of OBD-II scanners you will encounter. Code readers are inexpensive. They lack the bells and whistles of code scanners, but they can provide and clear basic information; these are ideal for home use. Scan tools on the other hand cost more, but they can provide data on manufacturer-specific codes which code readers cannot. They also can provide you with advanced troubleshooting guidance. Scan tools are a better option for industry pros.
Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a OBD2 Scanner
Compatibility with mobile devices
If you purchase an app-based device which is only compatible with iOS systems and you are using a smartphone with Android, obviously you are going to be out of luck when it comes to actually using the OBD2 scanner.
So make sure that the app-based scanner you are thinking about buying is going to be compatible with your mobile device.
Compatibility with vehicles
This is a feature which is easy to overlook, since you might think that your scanner should naturally be compatible with all vehicles produced from 1996 onward.
While in theory this is true, really basic OBD2 scanners may only work with the most common models of vehicles. If you should happen to encounter a rare vehicle make and model, you might very well find that the scanner cannot provide you with the information you need.
A higher-quality professional OBD2 scanner may cost you more, but you can rest assured that it will work on uncommon models of vehicles as well as more popular models.
Obviously if you are just shopping for a device for home use, this may not be important, and you can go with a budget scanner.
A cheap handheld scanner will allow you to carry out the most basic functions of an OBD2 scanner: reading codes from the engine and erasing them. But they will not be able to diagnose less common problems, and also will not be able to provide you with detailed troubleshooting tips.
For this reason, the more basic models are best if you are trying to diagnose really simple problems or just double-check something a mechanic has said. But if you require detailed information for your own use, you will need to invest in a more expensive professional OBD2 scanner.
A bulky OBD2 scanner can be a hassle to use, so if you can, you should shop for a reasonably compact design. The easiest way to do this is simply to shop for an app-based device instead of a screen-based device. But if you hunt around, you will discover there are plenty of streamlined screen-based options as well.
Sturdy build and weatherproof design
Especially if you are going to be using your OBD2 scanner professionally, it is important to shop for a rugged device which can stand up to daily use. As a mechanic or salesman, you may be running around out in the parking lot with the device, which means you will be subjecting it to rain, dust, heat and humidity. So look for a scanner which includes some weatherproofing.
In order to use your OBD2 scanner, you will need a number of accessories, including a translation manual which tells you what all of the codes mean and a cord. Look to see if these items are included with your purchase, and if not, where you can buy compatible accessories and what they will cost you.
You should also pay attention to what customers say about the user manual for the scanner. OBD2 scanners can be a challenge to find your way around if you are unfamiliar with how they work, so a great manual can really speed up onboarding for yourself or any colleagues or employees who will be using the device.
Now you know the most important features to look for when you are shopping for an OBD2 scanner, and you are familiar with the different types of scanners on the market. Scroll back up to our comparison chart to view prices and features for top-selling models!
BAFX Products 34t5: Very basic, but inexpensive and easy to use
This scanner is very popular on Amazon because it’s super cheap and user friendly. If all you want to do is clear that annoying check engine light, the 34t5 by BAFX is a good deal. All you have to do to get started with this basic scanner is plug it in, turn it on and connect to the free Torque app.
- Just plug it in and scan away. Even people who know nothing about cars will quickly figure out how to use this device.
- Very popular on Amazon. Currently, the 34t5 is Amazon’s #1 best selling auto code reader.
- Works with Windows Phone. In addition to iOS and Android, the 34t5 is also Windows Phone compatible.
- Saves you money. If you get this device, you’ll never have to pay a mechanic $150 to switch off your check engine light ever again.
- Excellent instructions and support. In addition to a well-written instruction manual, you also get a helpful DVD.
- Compatible with the Torque diagnostic app. The basic version of Torque is free and works great with the 34t5.
- Doesn’t use much electricity. More expensive scanners will drain your car battery if you leave them plugged in, but this one will not.
The 34t5’s extremely limited array of capabilities will frustrate gearheads that are used to using full featured OBD2 scanners.
BlueDriver: An pricey but powerful code reader with tons of features
With BlueDriver, you get all the diagnostic tools that professional mechanics use to diagnose car problems. Few other scanners are capable of grabbing live data, but BlueDriver allows you to data monitor your automobile’s performance in real time. Once you’ve identified an error code, you can use BlueDriver’s repair reports database to look up a fix.
- Comparable to professional OBD2 scanners. The BlueDriver can do everything your mechanic’s scanner can do and then some.
- Powerful data analysis. Hook the BlueDriver up to your car to view real-time interactive graphs of performance data.
- Huge repair reports database. The BlueDriver database contains over 4.3 million verified fixes.
- Prevents you from getting ripped off. Before you buy your next automobile, you can use the BlueDriver to determine if the seller is trying to hide any facts you should know.
- Export to SMS or email. The export feature allows you to quickly save information for later.
- 24/7 support. BlueDriver’s support staff are knowledgeable and friendly.
- Clears enhanced codes. Low-end scanners can only handle basic codes, but BlueDriver can analyze and clear just about anything.
In order to gain access to certain advanced features, you have to pay an extra fee to unlock them.
Innova 3100i: Designed to help drivers understand their cars
Most OBD scanners require you to figure out confusing menus, but the Innova 3100i sports a color display that’s equipped with convenient hotkeys. It’s a handy little car gizmo that allows you to easily turn a check engine light into an error code– and the 3100i’s built-in error database provides a short definition of what that number means.
- Color display. The Innova 3100i’s user friendly color screen is one of this device’s most unique features.
- Easy to use. Its’ interface is well-designed and logical.
- Built in data storage. Once you get the info you need, just plug the 3100i into any PC or Mac to analyze the data.
- Get more info out of a check engine light. Quickly translate a vague check engine error into a number.
- Perfect for DIY mechanics. Even beginners that have never used an OBD scanner before will easily figure this device out.
- Software works with both PC and Mac. Most scanners aren’t compatible with both computer platforms.
- Comes with a carrying pouch. The 7” x 9” carrying pouch prevents your Innova 3100i from getting nicked up in your glove box.
The Innova 3100i is handy, but it lacks features found in professional scanners. There’s no way to grab engine temperature, RPMs, oxygen sensor data, and other types of data you need to diagnose advanced issues.
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