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You never know when issues are going to crop up with project cars. They could be behaving perfectly fine, even running and driving noticeably better after doing some minor fixes, like fixing vacuum leaks or replacing spark plugs. But overall improvement isn't a perfectly straight ascending line, and it always dips down along the way.
That can really mess with one's emotions, especially if you're like me and have been on a quest to get a 2002 Audi S4 running right.
But for the past two months, those knee-jerk reactions that are any degree of "Oh c'mon, what now!?" have been quickly dampened, thanks in part to Autel AutoLink AL629 diagnostic scan tool, also known as an OBD 2 reader.
Initially, I reported that it seemed quick and easy to use, and I didn't realize how much that'd really help with calming my temper whenever the Audi's acted up. Or, when my immensely more normal BMW 128i started exhibiting some odd symptoms. Here's how it's held up, as well as why it's been refreshingly easy and straightforward to operate.
A Quick Bit About the Brand
This isn't me shilling for the brand: Any number of YouTube mechanics have uttered some form of "so I grabbed the Autel to see what was going on" while diagnosing issues on their projects. This is mainly because the brand has a massive catalog of OBD 2-reading units, ranging from tens to thousands of dollars. And as you ratchet up in price, the amount of fine-tuning you can do increases, as does the amount of monitoring. It's become a household name because of it.
Autel does a lot more with automotive electronics, too. It's gotten into the market where OBD2 codes presumably aren't as prevalent: EVs, particularly charging. It recently introduced its Home Smart line of intuitive, at-home level 2 chargers. They're compatible with all manufacturers and feature app connectivity, all-weather protection, and other features to make powering up in the driveway as painless as possible.
The Physical Unit
Back to battling dead-dinosaur-fueled doohinkuses: I previously mentioned that I dug the AL629's size and layout, and that hasn't changed. The size feels sturdy and its few buttons are nicely laid out for even the dullest of dullards (me) to quickly operate.
It feels a bit light for its size, but I'd like to think it'd stand up to a drop from waist level, which could also be workbench height. But come on. This is a review. There's no earnest "I'd like to think" in these graphs. So, as a final test, I dropped it from above-waist height onto hard concrete several times. I flipped it up in the air, dropped it screen-first, and more, and though its rubber casing got scuffed, it survived just fine. I kept the plastic film on the screen initially, but then ripped it off and shanked it with a key à la a scene in Blood In Blood Out. It held up just fine against stabs and scratches, and only faintly shows its wounds.
There's no denying this is a tough unit. All signs point to it holding up to getting jumbled around in a gear bag, tossed around in a trunk, and more, quite well. My only concern would be its pins at the top that the cable plugs into—they're well in there, but the right stab from a small object would probably mess them up. But then, I bet that's par for the course with any wired OBD 2 reader, no matter the retail price.
My only gripe here had to do with screen resolution, as direct sun washed it out. This might not be a big deal for most, but it could be an annoyance for anyone stuck on the side of the road on a sunny summer day, already annoyed with having to deal with a bum ride.
Respectable Diagnostic Menu Size
What impressed me most about the AL629 is its ability to read what seems like all manufacturer-specific codes. Ask any Volkswagen Group or BMW enthusiast: not all readers will do this, nor will they necessarily tell you what's stored, or infrequently acting up.
This was no more apparent than when I scanned my BMW 128i while it exhibited some odd noises. It gave me several very specific codes that had to do with the electric water pump, which did not trigger the check-engine light, and revealed that it was dying a slow death.
Then, while figuring out a new boosting issue on my 2002 Audi S4, it gave me a code for every component that was affected by it. While it can be annoying to have a bunch of codes that point to a single issue, in this case, it helped pinpoint exactly what was acting up: The N75 valve, which had a loose vacuum connection. Fun fact, I then found out that the S4 decided to, somehow, shed a nut on each of its rear engine mounts. Stay tuned for a future Project Car Diary that'll cover that definitely-not-annoying development.
Further, the AL629 provided real-time readings of many sensors, which could help keep an eye on things, as well as help narrow down issues. While it doesn't let you set emissions readiness—only certain dealer-level software will do that, like VCDS—it will reveal if emissions readiness is set, which is nice to keep an eye on if you've recently disconnected the battery are are due for emissions inspection. Finally, to help you keep track of what you've already gone through in its menus, it blues the text so you know what you need to check next, such as going from the ECU to the body control module, and then to the ABS/SRS system.
Moving through each feature isn't lightning-swift, but it's still amply quick. It took no more than 10 seconds to scan through my BMW, which takes the BimmerLink app and OBD 2 dongle several minutes. Not bad at all. It'll take a few seconds to load up sensor readings, but it doesn't get laggy. Once again, if you're stuck on the side of the road and seeing red mist, the screen's terrible glare might annoy you, but the unit's quick-enough action will keep you from taking your anger out on it.
For anyone looking for something that'll read and clear all the codes, clue them in on emissions readiness, check signal readings, and all in a sturdy package that can get tossed around, it's hard to beat the Autel AutoLink AL629.
It won't perform all of the dealer-level operations like BMW's INPA or ISTA, or Volkswagen Group's VCDS, but that might not be needed for most folks. In fact, utilizing the quick, simple, and portable AL629 for initially figuring stuff out, and then breaking out the laptop for any heaving lifting thereafter could be another strategy. Plus, it will record and playback all that sensor data coming from the ECU, which could prove very useful for the diagnostic process.
The screen can be hard to read in the sun, and it's no legitimate tablet like Autel's other units, but it gets the job done for its size and price point. There are certainly plenty of competing units out there from both known and completely unknown brands, but this basic and effective, sub-$200 unit is a well-made and compelling option for the price.