Being able to ‘summon’ a car or send it off to park itself – who wouldn’t like that? It’s like living in a real-life sci-fi adventure. But what happens when things go wrong? Like when your car refuses to start? Or when the dash warning lights start illuminating like a Christmas tree? Do you need one of the best OBD2 scanners to diagnose it?
It’s nice having a car that’s packed with technology. Some of it is a lifestyle, but a great deal of it is there to make sure the car is as efficient as possible. And due to the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) legislation, it’s only ever going to increase.
Decades ago, a car had a big V8 and a carburetor that had a thirst bigger than John Wayne. It had poor brakes and even worse suspension. The only electronic control would be on the radio.
These days, however, we have suspension ECUs (Electronic Control Unit), gearbox ECUs, engine ECUs and anywhere between 75 – 300 electronic sensors fitted as standard. What happens when just one sensor fails?
Sometimes, a failed sensor could make no real difference in how a car drives. The external sensor air temperature for the dash readout, for example. But, what about the air temperature sensor for the engine?
Yeah, the ECU is clever enough to still run the engine by allowing a default ‘safe’ setting, but it won’t be as efficient. And in some cases, on an earlier injection system, it could just be enough to stop the engine from running.
OBD2 & OBD II
On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) has been around for about 50 years (Volkswagen had a rudimentary OBD facility fitted to their Type 3 models in 1968.) But, they only became mandatory in 1996, and ever since then, the functionality has increased.
The system uses a standardized set of Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC) to identify any problems that the ECU may have found. In some cases, it’s possible to reset the fault (if the problem was temporary. for example.) But, at the very least, a quality OBD2 diagnostic tool can at least give you a trouble code.
It’s worth noting that even with a DTC to tell you what’s happening, it may not be as easy as you hope. It’s entirely possible that a DTC doesn’t relate to a failed component, but has happened as a direct result from another failed sensor. It then goes on to affect other systems. That’s why you pay heavily for shop diagnostics. It’s as much about user knowledge and experience as it is equipment.
Every car manufactured since 1996 has an OBD port fitted. However, the practice of standardizing the fitting hasn’t happened. This means that the OBD port could be anywhere in the car. However, you can usually narrow it down to the front. It’s usually under the seat, in the center console, under the dash, in the glove box, or near the fuse box.
If you’re having difficulty locating the plug, you can sometimes find the location in your user manual. You could also give the dealer a call or check online.
See also: Where is my OBD port?
Once you’ve found the OBD2 port, you just need to plug the automotive diagnostic scanner in and switch the ignition on. Some car diagnostic scanners have their own protocols and processes. But typically, there will be an option to scan the vehicle for faults. This is the first step.
Once you’ve identified the fault (and logged it) you need to try and clear the fault. However, be aware that it could come back again instantly. In this case, you’ll need to start swapping out components. Having said that, don’t just immediately assume that the fault logged is down to a faulty component. This is where the experience of automotive systems is invaluable.
10 Best OBD2 Scanners For Car Diagnostics
Some auto diagnostic scanners are standalone systems. Others work through an app on a smart device. The choice really is what works best for you and how much you want to spend. We’ve tried and tested numerous scanners over the years. Here are ten of the best-rated OBD2 scanners available right now.
BlueDriver tells you that this OBD2 diagnostic scan tool has been developed by professional engineers, and looking at the functionality, you’d have to believe them.
This little Bluetooth scanner device will read and clear standard CEL codes and Enhanced codes. It will give you a live data stream (with so many variants that you really need to be an auto engineer to make the most of them.) It even gives you vehicle-specific repair reports – the code definition, possible causes, and reported fixes.
Unlike some scanners, you don’t need to remove it once you’re done. You can leave it plugged in constantly monitoring the vehicle. It’s been officially certified and licensed by Apple and Android, so there shouldn’t be any glitches between devices.
It also uses the ‘Identifix’ database, which is used by a number of professional repair shops. This gives you access to over 6.6 million fixes, all verified by professional auto techs.
It’s perhaps one of the biggest features for users that don’t have a full grasp of potential trouble spots. It means that as well as locating the fault, it can help you make sure that it’s the correct fault and the best ways to effect a repair.
Cheap enough to be bought and tucked away, clever enough to get you out of a lot of trouble!
This is our number one choice for the Bluetooth OBD2 scanner.
If you don’t have a need for OBD I, then even putting aside the price point (which is low), the Autel AL519 is definitely one of the best OBD2 scanners on the market. It communicates with a vast array of vehicles – domestic, Asian, and European.
It also supports all ten modes of OBD2 tests and has a patented ‘One-Click’ readiness key for checking whether your vehicle is ready for the state emissions test.
The reader itself reminds me of an older Snap-On style code reader. It has a sort of rubberized protective case in case you drop it (easily done). It features a color TFT screen and built-in speaker.
It’s capable of reading and clearing most generic or manufacturer specific fault codes, including engine, transmission, ABS and SRS codes. It’s also updateable via an internet connection (connected to a PC) so the database should never go out of date.
It also has thousands of troubleshooting tips – all related to each specific code. So, even if you’re not 100% sure of what’s happening, the Autel can help you diagnose and fix. At this price, it’s definitely worth purchasing one of these, even if you only use it once a year.
Yes, it’s expensive, but the Launch X431 is the equivalent of a professional diagnostic tool, rather than a code reader or scanner. Just a few years ago, you’d buy something similar to this from a tool dealer and you’d be paying thousands of dollars.
The difference between this and some of the other OBD2 scanners here is that this does so much more. It’s a diagnostic tool that’s capable of activating systems, reprogramming components and servicing or resetting management functions.
The kit comes with 14 different connectors, either for older OBD I vehicles, or for accessing further systems on the newer cars. It can perform such functions as:
- ECU coding – reprogramming keys
- immobilizer matching
- recoding fuel injectors
- steering angle calibrations
- adjusting and resetting the Throttle Position Sensor
- Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) regeneration
- ABS brake system bleeding
- Electronic Park Brake reset
And of course, it can read & clear fault codes from all the systems – fueling, engine, transmission, emissions, body, and powertrain.
If that’s not enough, it also has Wi-Fi functionality and Bluetooth. That allows you to view what’s happening under the hood while still connected. Should you find yourself with a little downtime, it’s capable of being used as a generic tablet. You can use it to take pictures, surf the internet, and even stream movies.
Yes, it’s a standalone scanner, with some nice features but it must be said that some of those features aren’t 100% correct. Streaming to a Windows computer is a neat function, but won’t work with Win 10, for example.
However, it does have free updates via an internet connection. However, this is for the firmware, not car database, so any bugs could potentially be ironed out, if Innova feels it’s worth their time to create a fix.
The unit itself works well. It has a 3.5″ color screen, which is just about big enough if you don’t want to hook it up and use the live-stream function while driving. It will read and clear fault codes on most domestic and foreign vehicles that use the OBD2 protocols. However, you should check on the website if your vehicle is a little more specialized.
The Innova comes with the RepairSolutions database also, which gives you verified fixes, typical costs, and ‘how-to’ videos.
The one final touch that is simple yet brilliant is the lighted OBD2 plug. Often the socket is located in some dark recess and actually being able to connect can be difficult. The plug with the Innova has a built-in LED light – brilliant!
The Actron is a great diagnostic tool that comes with all the gear to connect with OBD I and OBD 2 vehicles. It has 6 plugs in all and a separate power lead, but it can also be powered by batteries.
The coverage of vehicles (and years) is good: most 1996 – 2013 GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai vehicles, 1996 onwards for OBD2 and CAN-bus network, 94 – 95 OBD2 and 1984 – 1995 GM, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota OBD I cars. It’s pretty comprehensive.
The unit itself looks well made and has big, rugged buttons which is a great touch – especially when you’re wearing gloves or your hands are covered in oil. It has a usable color screen, but just like the Innova, if you’re looking to read live data while driving, it’s a little small. However, it does record and playback. You can also print the information to a PC.
Before we get too excited about OBD I compatibility, in my experience, most scanners that offer that functionality can only show limited data or perform limited tasks. It won’t give you the same information as a newer OBD2 vehicle.
An honorable mention goes to the CodeConnect database, which has over 26 million verified fixes for the most common problems, so diagnosing problems gets a whole lot easier.
The ScanTool 426101 says that it works with every vehicle from 1996 onwards that’s sold in the USA aside from hybrids and electric vehicles.
What you’re buying is essentially a plug that fits into the OBD2 socket. Then, you download an app to your Android or Windows device. It won’t work with the Win 8 phone, but it’s also capable of working with other third-party Android apps such as Torque, Dash Command, and obdCANex (which actually allows for remote starting on some vehicles).
It supports all 5 OBD2 protocols, along with the SW-CAN (GM) and MS-CAN (Ford). While it works with hundreds of different vehicles, it seems that Ford and GM are the preferred brands. Some later GM models allow for control of the windows and door locks, and as previously mentioned, there’s a remote start facility.
Capable of reading and clearing fault codes, along with streaming, logging, and exporting real-time data, there’s even the option for sharing through DropBox. There’s no need to remove it after use. After two hours of inactivity, the unit goes into a sleep mode, which means there’s no drain on the battery.
Small, portable and cheap enough to leave in your glove box, just in case. A great Android OBD2 code reader.
OK, this isn’t the most comprehensive OBDII reader, but for the money, it definitely gives you the most bang for your buck. Designed to work with Android apps and Windows, you’ll need to download the relevant app.
Nothing comes with it as standard, but it will work with numerous apps such as Torque, Piston, Carista, Dash Command, Scan Master, and others. You’ll need to view their sites for a full list, but it’s guaranteed you’ll find something you like.
Speaking of guarantees – BAFX guarantees that this device will work with any vehicle purchased in the USA that’s been manufactured since 1996, including hybrids. (However, that excludes commercial vehicles.)
It won’t work with supplementary systems such as ABS or SRS, only with the engine management. However, it can read a wide variety of sensors with the live data stream – O2 sensors, fuel trim, all temperature sensors (oil, water, and air), air to fuel ratio, DPF temperature and fuel pressure are just a few.
It has a 2-year warranty. If you just need basic functionality and engine fault code clearing, this is the cheapest OBDII reader available to buy.
Another OBD2 code reader for not much money and this has been designed for the home user, so it’s pretty intuitive to use.
It doesn’t skimp on functionality. It’s model-dependent, but some of the live data inputs include: long and short term fuel trim, calculated engine load, coolant and intake temperatures, O2 sensors, vehicle speed sensor, fuel level input, barometric pressure, intake manifold absolute pressure. The list goes on, but suffice to say, it has pretty much all the functionality you need.
It works with both generic and manufacturer-specific fault codes, and includes built-in DTC definitions and look-up library. It should define the code but also allows you to look for a specific code to understand exactly what that means.
The Foxwell NT301 only has a 2.8″ color TFT screen which is OK when stationary, but it can record & log and then send the information to print through a PC. So, the smaller screen isn’t the end of the world. It works with nearly every vehicle with OBD2 protocols (pretty much anything manufactured since 1996).
Ancel is pretty clear. This will work on MOST post-1996 US cars and post-2000 European and Asian cars, but they can’t (don’t) guarantee compatibility. This is a standalone unit. The price is low, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t much use. It all depends on your needs.
Sure, the AD310 won’t do the other systems (SRS, ABS, fuel, etc) like some of the more expensive readers, but that’s not what this tool is for. If your Check Engine light is on, there’s a good chance that this scanner will be able to diagnose it. And because it has a built-in definition library, it will give you solid information to fix it and be certain of what the problem is.
The Ancel AD310 supports all OBD2 and CAN protocol, comes with a 2.5ft cable (which is handier than it sounds.) It has a backlit screen for those dark evenings and comes with a three-year warranty.
The second most expensive tool here, but the same as the Launch X431 PROS. This isn’t just an engine management OBD2 scanner. It’s a full diagnostic tool that is capable of interrogating all the systems fitted to anything post-1996 American and post-2000 for Europe. That includes fuel, ABS, SRS, engine, transmission, brake, emissions, lights, wipers – any electronic system.
It also has quick links to online repair manuals, giving you the information to find & fix issues. You can reprogram keys (and lock any lost keys), and service a TPMS system, including registering new sensors and display the IDs of the fitted sensors.
Wi-Fi compatibility allows for over the air updates, but a word of caution. You get one year’s free access to updates, and then they’re paid for, and they aren’t cheap.
All in all, it’s a great alternative OBD2 diagnostic tool. It’s just about cheap enough for the home user, but it will happily work in a professional environment too.
There’s a huge difference between being able to read and clear a fault code and being able to activate or monitor live systems, recode injectors or keys and interrogate other control systems. That’s why you’ll see that some of these car scan tools can be picked up for under $100 while others will cost you hundreds of dollars.
Pricing isn’t everything. Some of the cheaper models can still do around 85% of the work that their more expensive counterparts do. It all depends on just what you want to do. A professional reader or diagnostic tool is only super useful if you have the need for that last bit of functionality. If you don’t, why pay the extra?
As I mentioned earlier, scanners that are capable of OBD I connectivity will always offer limited functions. That’s no fault of the scanner, but of the OBD I ability. We’re talking control systems from the eighties and they were just nowhere near as complex or technical as the later stuff.
If you really need OBD I compliance, you may be better off finding a vehicle-specific system second-hand. At least that way, you’ll be able to do everything that the system is designed to do.