Car care and repair can be expensive, especially if you don't know what the problem is. While you can take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem, having some automotive expertise and a DIY attitude can save you money and time by locating the issue yourself. To do this, you need an onboard diagnostic II (OBD-II) scan tool. This automotive tool will communicate with a car's onboard computer system to see what issues the sensors and computer detect. To help boost your automotive detective skills, here’s our car owner’s buying guide for the best OBD-II scanners you should check out.
A great, affordable OBD-II wireless scanner that’s perfect for first-time DIYers.
Small in design, the body is easy to plug and leave in the OBD-II port. Reads a number of fault codes and can monitor a variety of sensor data in real time.
Requires a dedicated app to work properly. Devices with iOS installed, like an iPad, will require the WiFi version since the Bluetooth scanner is compatible only with Android devices and Windows computers.
A top-quality code scanner that gets close to being a true professional-grade purchase for your car care.
The large full-color screen is easy to read. The scanner offers more diagnostic trouble codes, clear code capabilities, and monitoring features than most sub-$100 models. Controls simple functionality like the Check Engine light and certain sensors.
Limited compatibility with some makes and models. Live data monitoring is more limited than true professional options.
Diagnose common problems quickly. There are many things that can go wrong with a vehicle, especially with the engine. That is why all modern cars have onboard computers and sensors to monitor the health and efficiency of the vehicle. Since the OBD-II scanner communicates with this system, it can download and process some of the most common issues the system detects.
Access other information. There are a number of stats and specifications each modern car has that influence its overall performance. Beyond the standard issues, OBD-II scanners can also keep track of the real-time data car tracks while running. This information often relates to the powertrain, drivetrain, and/or interior features.
Change certain settings. In addition to monitoring information, many scanners can also control some basic functions in the vehicle. For example, the mysterious Check Engine light that comes on for a variety of reasons can be reset with the push a button. More advanced scanners can also control things like built-in tire pressure gauges, temperature sensors, and more.
Types of OBD2 Scanners
Most OBD-II scanners plug directly into the OBD port with a cable connected right to the device. This is a great option for a simple scanning setup since battery power isn’t required. On the other hand, however, it won’t allow you to move around the vehicle when working on the engine bay. Most wired scanners also come with a USB cable to connect to a computer for translating codes.
If you want to cut the wire and free yourself up to monitor a car anywhere, wireless connectivity is your best bet. Wireless code scanners use Bluetooth or a WiFi network to connect the scanner to another display unit or app. This can be difficult to set up initially, but the mobility convenience is hard to beat when working on a vehicle.
Top Brands of OBD2 Scanners
Foxwell is a name-brand player in the automotive industry, making a number of diagnostic products used by amateurs and professionals alike. The company specializes in data logging devices that make finding and fixing automotive problems easier. One of its most well-known scanners is the NT301 model.
Known as OBDSPACE Technology Co, LTD., this company makes a number of OBD code readers, battery testers, jump starters, and more, under the brand Ancel. The company specializes in basic automotive products, offering a number of helpful, simple functions without getting bogged down by the larger, more complex feature sets of competitors. Its Enhanced Vehicle Scanner is one of the best options to consider for DIY first-timers.
Based in Irvine, California, Innova Electronic Corporation is a top supplier of diagnostic and testing equipment in North America. Uniquely, Innova has experience with both diagnostic products and services. In addition to great devices like the 3100J, the company maintains a network of certified repair technicians.
OBD2 Scanner Pricing
$50 and under: OBD-II scanners in this range are bare-bone models with basic features such as trouble code detection. Some will translate codes into basic explanations, but most will only present the code itself.
$50-$100: In this range, more advanced OBD-II tools and auto-scanners, especially wireless models, are common. Extended functionality, such as live data monitoring, is present on some of the higher-end options in this range as well.
$100 and above: This is the range where most professional scanners are found. At this level, you can expect the scanners to have a plethora of monitoring and control features. Unfortunately, it is easy for the price tag to skyrocket with more advanced functionality.
The most basic function that any good OBD-II scanner should have is the actual scanning capability. This is somewhat of a misnomer since the scanner itself doesn't actually monitor the car. Instead, it communicates with the onboard computer that has access to various sensors to monitor issues. With that said, the information that OBD-II scanners can receive vary from model to model. Some can only access basic trouble codes, while others have a larger range of settings and information available.
It's a common assumption that OBD-II scanners present trouble codes in plain language wrapped up with a nice solution. While high-end scanners do get close to this, almost all options, especially basic/budget versions, only spit out the information the car provides. These trouble codes rarely make sense unless the scanner translates the code or you go online to find the information yourself. For convenience, higher-end scanners that translate codes and offer solutions are the better investment.
A diagnostic scan tool can be a great thing to actually fine tune and control specific settings in the vehicle. To do this, the scanner must have the ability to access different settings, monitor various stats, and generally do more than just present trouble codes. A high-quality code reader should control warning lights and certain sensors.
Most OBD-II scanners connect directly to the OBD-II port in the vehicle with a cable. This has certain advantages since these scanners don't require battery power to work (they draw power straight from the battery). For convenience, wireless scanners that come with a separate plug and display unit/app allow you to keep the scanner plugged in or move around the vehicle as you work.
Car Age/Type: It's important to understand that not all cars can use OBD-II scanners. Anything made after 1996 will have the correct port that works with modern code readers. Older vehicles, however, will likely have an older port or lack the system altogether. In these cases, diagnosing issues and monitoring performance are both more difficult. Many Asian and European cars have their own type of diagnostic scanner port as well.
Provided Information: An OBD-II scanner is only as useful as the information it provides. Since basic scanners only spit out trouble codes you have to research, they may not be as useful in diagnosing issues quickly. This means the amount and quality of information the scanner provides directly influences how quickly you can get the vehicle up and running again. On the other hand, higher-quality information increases the price tag. This type of information comes in the form of understandable issue descriptions, solution recommendations, maintenance reminders, and online data access for more information.
The Ancel AD310 is a basic OBD-II scanner that's perfect if you want to keep the tool in your vehicle without taking up interior space. Using a wired connection to the car's port, the scanner can collect and clear basic trouble codes involving the Check Engine light.
The design of the AD310 is the highlight of the product. Featuring a large, colored LCD display, it's easy to read in poor lighting conditions. The controls are also easy to use while navigating the simple menu layout. Since it connects directly to the car, it doesn't require any batteries to work.
Unfortunately, the scanner is limited in a few important ways. First, it doesn't have a large trouble code range to detect. Certain issues like bad spark plugs and ignition coils (things most car sensors can detect) may not be read by the scanner.
The BAFX Wireless Scanner gets our best value spot for one simple reason: it's not every day you can get a wireless scanner for a very low price. This scanner is all about convenience when scanning for codes.
The device itself is nothing more than a simple plug for the OBD-II port. It reads the data just like other scanners but lacks a dedicated display. This means you'll have to download the separate app to access the information. Once it's set up, it will read a number of trouble codes and monitor things like air fuel ratio, oil temp, coolant temp, etc.
Since it requires a dedicated app, it's not the most convenient to set up right out of the box. The Bluetooth version only works with Android and Windows devices. For iOS devices, you will have to buy the WiFi version, which has a more limited range.
The Foxwell NT301 OBD-II scanner is the option to check out if you want more functionality out of this automotive tool. In addition to checking normal trouble codes, the device is capable of controlling settings like the Check Engine light and sensors and providing live data while the vehicle is running.
The design and build quality of the scanner is a step above a lot of budget options. The full-color display is large enough to clearly see important information and trouble codes it provides, especially when monitoring live data. The controls are also easy to learn and use due to the big buttons on the surface.
Despite being marked as a professional-grade scanner, the NT301 lacks some of the more advanced features that true professional models offer. For example, the live data monitoring is limited to just battery voltage. Information like O2 data is not available for all vehicles. In fact, compatibility is an issue with certain makes and models.
The BlueDriver LSB2 is a bluetooth-powered, two-part OBD2 scanner. The device plugs into your OBD2 port to read information from your vehicle, while the other part—an app on your Android or iOS phone—receives the diagnoses for why your check engine light has turned on.
Ease of use is the major selling point of the LSB2. It’s an extremely simple plug-and-play solution. The app is user-friendly even if you aren’t a digital native, and it’s also capable of providing live information while you drive.
But there’s one other reason to go with this product, and that’s the extent of the information available. BlueDriver really digs deep to get important data out of the cracks and crevices. On a wide range of vehicles, the enhanced diagnostics keep you informed about things like your airbags and anti-lock brakes that other scanners leave out.
One small downside is that enhanced diagnostics aren’t available on all vehicles, though the list still includes most cars. More annoying is the fact that it won’t work with third-party OBD2 apps. The biggest tradeoff here, though, is that the LSB2 will let you change settings. This isn’t a mechanic’s tool; it’s strictly for reporting and diagnostics.
Like the BlueDriver LSB2 above, the Autel AutoLink AL319 is unabashedly an end-user product. It’s not going to give you control over your car’s onboard diagnostic system. The AutoLink AL319 has one goal—to be a cheap, usable tool for figuring out why your engine is smoking. It succeeds with flying colors.
The AL319’s main function is to read and display diagnostic codes, which it can do in seven languages, including English, Spanish, French, and Japanese. To enhance its picture of what’s going on, it can also read live data feeds and freeze-frame data. It can also test your car’s readiness for state emissions tests, and read out vehicle information based on your VIN.
Its interface is incredibly simple, with only four buttons for all the features. Diagnostics can be shown on the screen, or read out loud so you can get live information without taking your eyes off the road. All in all, it’s about as far as you can get from frantically Googling the problem.
The only drawback is the arcane software updating process. It’s not compatible with current versions of Windows, nor with most hardware, since it plugs in with a mini USB connector.
The Veepeak OBDCheck is another app-powered diagnostic scanner. It has an advantage over scanners like the BlueDriver LSB2, however, since it supports a wide range of popular apps, including the acknowledged best software, Torque Pro.
Veepeak’s OBD2 scanner connects to iPhones, iPads, or Android phones via short-range Bluetooth, which avoids draining your battery with Wi-Fi or chewing up your money with data. Setup is as easy as plugging it in and downloading the app of your choice. Once installed, Veepeak can do all the usual tricks: reading diagnostic codes, interpreting frames and streams of data, and turning off your check-engine light and other indicators.
It’s also able to conduct smog tests. Furthermore, in a more unique touch, it can judge your gas mileage and give you an estimated travel range. Yet Veepeak’s best touch is probably how well it deals with you updating your phone. After an iOS or Android update, Veepeak is back in touch almost right away.
Unfortunately, updates to the device itself don’t go as well. It sometimes ships without the Bluetooth being updated, which drove us nuts as we kept losing our connection. It’s also slow to update information in the connected app.
The Foxwell NT201 is the younger sibling of the NT301, which we placed higher up on this list. Compared to that scanner, the NT201 is cheaper, but lighter on features. The data it displays isn’t as complete and can’t be printed from a computer, nor can you look up codes in a library.
OK, enough about what the NT201 can’t do: Let’s talk about what it does. In every other respect, this is a complete consumer-grade OBD2 scanner, able to read and erase codes, check for the location of an engine misfire, and conduct engine component and emissions tests. It can also monitor limited live data, such as your engine coolant and RPM.
We really like the user interface here, especially compared to other scanners with their own digital control panels. The NT201 has a knack for giving you the exact codes you need to bring into the dealership.
The NT201 is a great scanner, so long as you understand that it will not tell you what the error code means. You have to take it in and give the code to a professional. This can be frustrating, but you’re still saving money on a diagnostic inspection.
The Launch CR319 is an OBD2 code reader with an interactive screen. It takes several design cues that are distinct from all the others, resulting in a dongle that’s not afraid to look old-school if that means it's easy to use.
This is by far one of the cheapest scanners available. The question is, does it feel cheap? It’s certainly not missing any key functions. After plugging it in, you can clear warning lights, use I/M monitors to see if you’re ready for your emissions test, and get real-time information about your engine. It’s nice that it defines codes for you, instead of just giving you information to relay to your mechanic.
The CR319 runs off your vehicle battery, so it never needs to be charged. The interface is straightforward, with very few controls. Without looking at the manual, we were able to look up codes in the library.
However, you get what you pay for with this scanner. It’s incompatible with a lot of current cars, even if they’re on the OBD2 standard. Also, it’s not able to clear all codes, and sometimes glitches and restarts instead of turning off the light.
The OBDLink MX is the recommended scanner of the team behind FORScan, one of the pre-eminent vehicle diagnostic apps. That’s a feather in its cap, but there are a lot of reasons to recommend something, so we decided to test the OBDLink MX on its own merits.
What we found was a fairly standard Bluetooth OBD2 scanner with some good points and a few flaws dragging it down. To start with the good: It works with basically every app, not just FORScan. OBDLink does have its own app, OBDWiz, but it’s awful. We strongly suggest any other one.
The speed is another nice touch. Apps are noticeably faster with the OBDLink MX than with other Bluetooth scanners. We’re also happy to see them paying attention to security, which other scanners sometimes overlook. And speaking of oft-missed frustrations, this scanner also does a great job of not draining your vehicle battery.
We did mention flaws, and here’s the big one: Not every car gets the same data. Some makes just don’t supply the same amount of information, and it’s hard to know what will happen before you’ve paid. Especially in an older car, your diagnostic dashboard might be upsettingly empty.
We’re closing out the list with another OBD2 scanner related to one we’ve already introduced. The Autel AutoLink AL519 is the more expensive alternative to the AL319. For a lot of extra money, you get a lot of extras that make your scanning experience less of a headache.
The big change is an onboard warning code library. Instead of trying to look up the code, or bringing it to the dealer and trusting them to tell you the truth, you can find out for yourself what each one means. The larger screen lets you view data in graph form.
The AL519 is a more diligent companion as you try to get back on the road, offering you hints and tips on what to do once you’ve figured out your engine issue. Of course, it can also turn off lights, read freeze-frame data, report real-time information, help you with emissions test readiness, and do everything else you’d expect from an OBD2 scanner at this point.
However, this scanner is pricier than the others, so it’s up to you whether the additional features are worth it. One other flaw to note: It can’t read extensive diagnostics. This is a scanner for engine problems only.
Get a scanner that matches your automotive skills. Advanced scanners are only effective if you have the skills to recognize and potentially address the issues the scanner provides. If you don't have much automotive repair experience, start with a basic scanner and build up over time.
You don't have to fix issues to take advantage of a scanner. Many models can create basic "health" reports you can take to a mechanic. These reports can speed up the mechanic's job by lightening the workload, saving you time and money as well.
Q. Where is the OBD-II port?
A. Most ports are somewhere near the steering wheel on the driver's side of the vehicle. This varies from brands like Ford, Toyota, Chrysler, and Nissan, but it’s a good place to start. You may find it on the left of the wheel somewhere underneath the dashboard. A few cars may have it on the other side near the passenger. Refer to the owner's manual to find its specific location.
Q. Will an OBD-II scanner tell me what's wrong with the vehicle?
A. It depends on the scanner and the issue. If the vehicle can detect the issue directly, the scanner will display the correct fault code. Other issues, however, tend to get hidden in layers of random symptoms and signs that require some investigating to identify. Newer cars also have manufacturer-specific codes and car code definitions.
A. Yes and no. While car health monitors, like the FIXD monitor, have similar features as scanners, they are designed to monitor a vehicle constantly, so they will notify you of problems before they become major complications. OBD-II scanners, such as the Bluedriver Bluetooth scanner, are mainly used when problems come up after the fact.
Q. Can I use the same OBD-II scanners as mechanics use?
A. Of course. There are plenty of professional-grade scanners available. These models have a number of advanced features to diagnose issues, fine-tune general performance, and more. Be prepared to pay more for these functions, however.
Q. Where should I keep my OBD-II scanner?
A. It's helpful to keep the scanner nearby, ideally in the vehicle itself. Most scanners are small enough to fit in a glove box or center console.
Our top pick for the best OBD-II scanner is the Ancel AD310. With a great, easy-to-learn feature set, it's hard to go wrong with its capabilities and price tag.