If you care about the health of your vehicle, there is no reason not to buy one.
Our vehicles are not infallible, and when something inevitably goes wrong, you may struggle to figure out the problem without a car diagnostic tool. Well, you could just call roadside assistance or your trusted mechanic and wait around helplessly for however long it takes. But, for all you know, the problem could be something as minor as a blown fuse, or more serious engine trouble that requires professional intervention.
This simple, high-tech, tool can interface with your car's computer system to check all the electrical components to find out exactly where the problem lies. These scanners detect 'error codes' or 'trouble codes', making it easy to isolate and attend to a problem area. If you have a little know-how, this may even be something you can fix yourself, which could save you a lot of time and money you'd otherwise spend on the experts having to physically check and diagnose the problem.
There is a variety of car diagnostic tools and software out there, but quality products need to be weeded out from those that would be a waste of money. Most of these tools are relatively simple, plugging into the diagnostic port or connecting via Bluetooth so that you can easily access information on the internal operations of your car. However, there are some things you will need to know before making a purchase of an on-board diagnostics (OBD) tool.
Knowing the difference between OBD-I and OBD-II is vitally important, since neither are universal or interchangeable. OBD-I tools only work on specific makes and models from before 1996, while the OBD-II models work on all modern vehicles that have the newer car diagnostic computer software introduced after that date. The main advantage of the latter is that an OBD-II unit works on every type of car rather than being model-specific. There is also a difference between a code reader and a scanner. Whereas readers only report error code, scanners give you a broader scope of data.
The best professional car diagnostic software can pick up a large number of problems. While you don't need to be a programmer to read them, knowing what the associated codes are will be the key to knowing where the problem lies. In general, there are four categories that an OBD-II tool can assess, with numerous sub-systems under each:
Vehicle diagnostic software is packaged in a variety of different ways. You could go for the more independent car diagnostic scanner tool, which is able to both scan your vehicle and relay the results directly to you. However, there are numerous apps you can find for your phone, whether it be Android or iOS, that work in tandem with a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth-enabled tool to scan your car and then turn your mobile device into a reader for that information. Similarly, you could use an iPad or tablet to review the results of the testing.
Modern cars generally use some form of the OBD-II tool mentioned above. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the mobile applications all work on the same principles. Combining an OBD-II tool with your smartphone turns your car into a smart one, too. Standard features on most of these apps also allow you to export reports as pdf files to be reviewed later, or you can email them directly to the manufacturer or your mechanic to work out a repair plan.
There may be compatibility issues with some phones, though, or even with the electric components of the car you are trying to scan. This is sometimes because the installed protocols fall out of date, which is more common for premium apps if you go the free-to-use route. Updating to the latest version often solves the problem, or you can contact the developer for help. This is usually a lot easier than it would be to contact the manufacturer of a handheld scanner if you run into similar problems.
Many of these scanners and apps use top car diagnostic software compatible with either Windows or Mac computers, so you can email the report or compare them with online searches to determine the best way to fix any potential problems.
So, now you know what to look for in a diagnostic tool and with engine diagnostic software. But the real question remains how exactly you use the nifty little device. Regardless of whether you are using a self-contained tool or a mobile app linked to a scanner, the steps remain similar.
Everyone's experience with a product differs, so what many people say is the perfect choice may not be the device you prefer. Still, there are a few brands that have proven themselves and should be worth considering. These include Autel, Launch, Actron, and BlueDriver. Specific models will offer different functions and corresponding price tags.
Since there are so many to choose from, prices vary quite a bit. Also, if you are buying a scanner separately to work alongside a mobile app, you will need to do the math for the total price. You can most likely expect to spend between $20 to $100 for a fully independent scanner, while modular scanners carry similar price tags depending on their quality and functions. Many mobile apps are free, but some will ask you to pay a fee to unlock their premium features.
Simply turn off your vehicle, attach the diagnostic scanner to the port (check your manual for the location), and turn on the ignition. Some cars won't need you to start them completely before they start feeding information to the device. You then take the codes it gives you and cross-reference them with their explanations, often found in the corresponding manual or online, to determine the exact problem and potential fix. Some may give more information than others.
Using a self-bought scanner, you will usually get a report on the critical systems within a few minutes but a proper scan could take between one and three hours. Some tools are actually designed to stay connected while you are driving, giving you up-to-the-second updates so that you always know the health and condition of your vehicle.