Best OBD2 Scanners: Diagnose and Solve Automotive Troubles Quickly
Find those tricky automotive issues with these great OBD-II scanner options
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Car care and repair can be expensive, especially if you don't know what the issue is. While you can take it to a mechanic who should have the right tool 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 will 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.
Why Buy an OBD2 Scan Tool
- 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 a 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 like 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.
Best OBD2 Scanners Reviews & Recommendations 2019
Best OBD2 Scanner Overall: Ancel AD310
The Ancel AD310 is a basic OBD-II scanner that's perfect if you want to keep the tool around 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.
Best Value OBD2 Scanner: BAFX Products Car Diagnostic Tool
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 any other scanner 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.
Best OBD2 Scanner Honorable Mention: Foxwell NT301
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 thanks 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.
- 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.
Q. Are car health monitors the same as OBD scanners?
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.
Save some money and free yourself up to move around with the BAFX Products Car Diagnostic Tool. It's by far one of the most affordable wireless scanners available.
Give us a shout out in the comments below and share some of your OBD-II scanner preferences or experiences.
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