With each passing year, cars are getting more and more complex due to the number of new comfort options and extras installed in them. That is beneficial to the end-user as cars get safer and more advanced in terms of technology but when it comes to diagnosing and fixing issues things get harder unless you have equally advanced equipment for the job. For the last 20 years cars have been coming with an option for you to plug directly into their on-board computer and see what exactly isn’t right. That requires a tool called an OBD2 scanner. Most models will provide you with the most basic diagnostics information you need but more expensive models will give you a deeper insight into your vehicle’s current issues. We are here today to help you pick the best OBD2 scanner that will make your life easier and save you all the money you’d waste by going to the repair shop just to get a few error codes deleted.
Before we dive deeper into what OBD scanners actually are, let’s first see a chart with the top five models for this year which we picked for you.
Top OBD2 Scanners Comparison Chart
|Autel AutoLink AL319||Yes||Yes||$$$$$||4.5/5|
|BlueDriver Bluetooth Scanner||No||Yes||$$||4.5/5|
|Maozua V7.7 Creator C310+||Yes||No||$$||4.5/5|
|Foxwell GT80 MINI||Yes||Yes||$$$$$||4.5/5|
Best Scanner Overall – FOXWELL NT301
First on our list is a very special model – the Foxwell NT301. It attracts tons of customers mainly due to the reason that it’s perhaps the only advanced engine diagnostics tool at this price point. It also packs tons of other “premium” features in a far cheaper price than the scanners for which these features are a norm. There is a colored LCD display which helps you navigate through everything easier. To help you with navigation there also are 9 rubber buttons which are very tactile and once learned provide fast ways to access information. The body of the uаnit is super sturdy and has a rubber surrounding which absorbs falls and shock well. The only downside is that this scanner won’t read other trouble codes coming from other parts of your vehicle such as the ABS module or other internal components. To learn more about it and see it’s interesting quirks and features, check our full review about it.
Autel AutoLink AL319 OBD2 Scanner Automotive Engine Fault Code Reader
The AutoLink OBD2 scanner by Autel can clear, reset, and read codes for a wide range of SUVs, Trucks, and cars. It also allows you to access important freeze frame information, and both generic and manufacturer specific codes for a more accurate diagnostic process. Compact, lightweight, and easy to use, this is a very reliable, beginner-friendly scanner that will come in handy the next time that check engine light turns on.
The Smartest Choice For iPhone Addicts – BlueDriver Bluetooth Professional
What BlueDriver have achieved with this small piece of technology is nothing short of amazing. Even though their scanner isn’t capable of advanced diagnostics features, it still packs plenty of options enough to satisfy the needs of most modern drivers. It operates via a two-part system consisting of a dongle and your mobile device running BlueDriver’s specific app. The app itself is the heart of the operation and packs all the features a budget OBD scanner has today. It is compatible with most vehicle brands and can pull brand-specific error codes along with their meaning. On top of that, you will get a couple of solutions to fix the issue in case you don’t want to go to your mechanic. The biggest advantage (and selling point) of this scanner is that you can carry it around basically anywhere, including auctions, and check almost any car in a matter of seconds. To read more on its features, head over to our full review of it.
A Great Choice For BMW Owners – MAOZUA Latest V7.7 Creator C310+
Maozua Latest model Creator V7.7 C310+ is a product catering to a narrow audience, more specifically – the BMW drivers. It is a brand-specific OBD2 scanner which is compatible with every BMW model since the year 2000. If your BMW is older, for example, an e39 from 1998, you will need a 16 to 20 pin adapter to be able to plug this scanner in your car. Once plugged in, you will be able to read trouble codes, delete them, check VIN information, and observe nicely made live data graphs. When it comes to practicality and convenience, this scanner is among the best. It is lightweight and sturdy enough to endure falls to the ground. The vibrant display combined with tactile rubbery buttons make navigation through it a breeze. All in all, for the price you’re paying there isn’t a better tool for your BMW and with this in your trunk you will never have to worry about going over to the authorized dealer and paying 50 bucks just to get an error code cleared. If you want to learn more about the C310+ and find out what its main quirks and features are, head over to our full review on it.
FOXWELL NT630 Elite OBD2 Scanner ABS SRS Code Reader
The NT630 OBD2 scanner is so much more than just a code reader. This model takes code reading to a whole new level by giving users the ability to control ABS and airbag indicator lights, or use the scanner to aid in the brake bleeding process. It’s also one of the leading scanners for use in professional garages, mainly due to it’s compatibility with a wider range of manufacturers, although the fact that it’s incredibly reliable also gives the pros every reason to buy.
OBD2 Scanners Buyer’s Guide
A Look Into The Past
In order to understand how OBD scanners work better it will be best to start with a brief history of this interesting and useful invention. An interesting fact is that at first, these scanners were primarily used to check the vehicle’s emission control systems. Signals from the emissions were sent to the car’s PCM and from there data was compared with the vehicle limits. They began to gain traction almost 30 years ago with the earliest mass-produced modest seeing light at the beginning of the 90s. It took just a few years for the US government to put a law into place which led to all vehicles built after 1996 having an OBD port. Since then, more and more systems have been unlocked to be diagnosed with an obd scanner (such as the ABS and SRS ones).
Note: In this guide we will often refer to OBD2 scanners as just OBD scanners as it is widely accepted to be the same thing.
On-board diagnostic systems actually date even further back in time and were present in some of VW models with fuel-injection systems. These cars were quite simple in terms of engineering, though, so they lacked the opportunity to self-diagnose complex issues. That meant that pinpointing the exact issue was often a hard task. The first computerized systems which could read multiple error codes stemming from the car was created in America’s car factories. And, as we mentioned, by 1996 OBD2 systems became a global standard in the automotive industry, with USA and Europe leading the advancement in this technology.
At first, the primary things that the on-board diagnostics system monitored were:
- Ignition system performance
- Emission system efficiency
- Engine performance
- Transmission performance
An issue with any of those systems triggers check engine and other warning lights on your dashboard. On top of that, the car’s computer will create an error code which will then be read by the diagnostic tools used by your mechanic or you.
As cars started getting more and more complex, so did the issues that can with them. On-board car systems began covering a wider array of systems and issues. Sooner, the need for quick self-diagnostic tools was apparent and thus the modern OBD2 scanners were born. These are (at least now) small devices that are either Bluetooth operated for the newer cars or have a cable to plug into your OBD port which is most often located under the steering column.
Sometimes false issues and codes were misdiagnosed by your car’s obd system. In these cases, obd scanners are used to find and delete the harmless mistake and stop the dashboard light from turning on.
Now, let’s dive deeper into all the possible features of a scanner you should look for, see how we can diagnose cars without one, and learn more about all the different code types your car can generate.
Features That Define A Good OBD Scanner
The basic feature of a scanner/reader is to be able to reset diagnostic trouble codes and turn off the malfunction indicator lamp (otherwise known as the “check engine” light). On top of that, the new tools offer you a great variety of more sophisticated and modern features. Let’s discuss some of them…
ABS/SRS Code Interpretations And Reading
As we mentioned, the entry models will only show you the DTC codes and in the best case scenario will be able to turn off the MIL. With the higher price tag comes a feature which enables the scanner to read codes from your breaks and your airbag systems. Usually when a tool has this option it is heavily marketed towards showing that so you will see it on top of the label or the online description. Trust us, it is worth paying a few extra bucks to get these, as some cars often throw error codes regarding exactly these two systems. For example, if you have to work on your window regulators, you will have to detach and then re-attach your side-wall airbag. This will automatically generate an error code when put back in its place. You can remove it only with a scanner that supports SRS code reading.
Code Explanation And User-Support
Most modern models can not only diagnose the error code but also show you what it means and maybe even how you can fix it. This is one of the newest and most advanced scanner features which is present only in the top-tier models but lately some cheaper ones come with CDs or guides which have all the information you need regarding error codes and vehicle maintenance.
We will touch on this further down the guide but you should always try getting a scanner with a good wide display which will make all the information easy to read and interpret.
Some models even have wi-fi and Bluetooth at the same time which allows you to check things online via the unit itself but those are mostly used only in professional car repair shops as they can cost you an arm and a leg.
With the implementation of Bluetooth in modern cars, peripheral technologies had to adapt and adapt they did. OBD2 scanners now mostly come with an integrated Bluetooth connection to match with almost any post 2010 model. On top of that, they usually keep their USB connectivity in order to accommodate older models. The way the Bluetooth scanners work is that they have a transmitter which is plugged into your car’s port and then it sends all the usual information to your device be it a laptop or even an app on a smartphone. The advantage of having that (apart from no wires to get in your way) is that you can use your device to multitask and check the issue on the internet while the scanner does its job. Another advantage is that this method is super fast especially if you have a smartphone app which lets you diagnose your car as soon as you can pull your phone from your pocket.
Access To “Mode 6”
Last of the features which are new to the car diagnostics tool industry is the so-called Mode 6. It is a function typical for the better and more expensive scanners which shows you the upper and lower limits of a parameter as well as the live data for it. That way, if proficient enough in car engines, you will be able to diagnose complex issues or see signals of something going bad way before it manifests itself as an expensive car repair.
Now, let’s talk about the more standard features which still play a huge role in most people’s purchase choices.
The Scanner’s Memory
Storing your error codes can be more helpful than you think. Some models offer you the option of storing all the data stemming back to the first time you used the tool. That will open a whole new door to understanding and diagnosing more complex issues with your vehicle. Having a memory option on your device also allows you to run live data on it for example while driving. It will store it and then present a graph of how the parameter of your choice handled the test. Look for scanners with built-in SD card slots in them to expand your options when it comes to diagnosing and storing data.
Another thing that helps with understanding the depth of the issue is:
The Freeze Frame Feature
This allows you to see exactly what happened at the moment in which the error code was created by your car. If shown to your mechanic, he can possibly track the issue to other components which gave in at the occurrence of the issue and fix them as well.
If an OBD scanner doesn’t have Bluetooth it will solely rely on its cable connectivity. This means that the longer the cable, the more agile you will be with it. If you want the scanner to lay on the passenger side seat you will need at least a 2 ft. cable. Some mechanics even go further by getting 10 or even 20ft. cables so that they can worth under or in front of the vehicle while reading the data from their scanner tool.
Being able to connect your scanner to a computer brings a lot of benefits the biggest one being the option to download your software updates on the go. That means that with a laptop and an obd scanner you will be able to always keep your model updated, be able to store data if the scanner doesn’t have built-in storage, and even save and print data from your car.
This is fairly obvious but the larger the battery on your unit the more you will be able to take it around with you without fearing of it shutting down on you.
Some cheaper models use the energy from your car and power up only when you plug them in. This is a huge downside in our opinion, as it might drain your car’s battery if used over a prolonged period of time and also deprives you from the extracted data once you plug your scanner from the car.
Generally speaking, the larger the display – the better. Some new models come with a colored LCD displays too, which is a bit gimmicky but it gets the job done of looking good. Colors are only good for graphs with multiple data lines which are color-separated.
Larger screens can also display more data at the same time without you having to press up or down buttons to scroll through the information (if your hands are busy with the car).
Smog Check Option
This feature allows you to see whether your car will pass its emission tests or not and also what you need to do in order to fix the issue preventing it from passing.
You will see this feature a lot as it is a selling point of most scanners. I/M stands for “Inspection and Maintenance” and shows you the time from the last DTC reset moment until now. It helps prevent cheating on emission tests, as some people can clear error codes connected with the car’s emissions the day before the actual test, and there won’t be a way to find out without the I/M feature.
You might think this isn’t important, but imagine wearing mechanics gloves or being all dirty and want to press something on the scanner with your elbow. Then, you will need large, tactile, clicky buttons to do the job. Always go for scanners with big buttons, trust us.
This isn’t as important as the other features but it is a thing worth mentioning. The weight and size of your scanner are important if you are planning on taking it with you somewhere. Sure, most scanners are made to be portable and are now with the size of a modern day smartphone but the more complex ones can weight a few pounds and are the size of a small laptop.
Using An OBD2 Scanner
Since its an end-user tool, manufacturers made sure that the procedures of using the scanner are as simple as possible. In fact, people often think that using scanners is too much of a hassle when, in fact, it’s as easy as using your car’s radio.
The first thing you have to do is find the connectivity port of your car. In most cases it is located below the steering column in the middle. Some cars might have the plug-in port inside their engine bay or even around the fuse box. Either way, if you can’t find the port just check online for your specific car model.
If your scanner is working via Bluetooth, you will have a small connector that you plug in the car and there won’t be any cables anywhere. If you have a cable connector repeat the same procedure with your cable. If you have a choice of choosing different cable lengths, pick a longer one. That will make you more flexible when diagnosing your car.
Now, let’s check one of the most important aspects of a scanner tool – the codes it will show you once plugged in. Most people get easily confused and just give up when they see a random code being generated. We are here to help you out with this and explain all your car’s codes in an easy to digest way.
A Deeper Look Into OBD2 Error Codes
The “Check Engine” light is one of the biggest concern of most drivers but in its essence it isn’t meant to create panic or scare you. It is created to indicate ongoing or sudden issues within your vehicle, even ones which are insignificant on the grand scale. By having a good scanner you will always be able to determine what exactly triggered this light in your car and see whether you will be able to fix the issue yourself or simply delete the error code temporarily.
To get you up to speed with car diagnostics lingo here are the two most often used terms:
- DTC – A diagnostics trouble code which is generated by your vehicle as soon as something strays away from the usual.
- OBD – This is your on-board computer diagnostic system which analyzes and stores the DTCs of your car until you can check them with a tool.
Note: Some cars have built-in scanners into their OBDs and can display various issues explained in words instead of numbers and letters (as in a code).
The Anatomy Of An OBD Code
Most tools will display DTCs with a combination of letters and digits, most often with 1 letter followed by 3 or 4 digits (ex. P-0123). Some more advanced models will present you with actual data about the trouble code as well but for now, let’s assume every scanner shows you the code only.
Let’s decipher what each symbol from the code looks like:
The First Letter Of The Code
P- This letter means that the code stems from your Powertrain. Those are the most associated ones with the “check engine” light.
B- If you get this at the start of your error code it means that there is something wrong with the body of the car, including all your airbags, sound system, etc.
C- This letter indicates issues with the chassis of the vehicle
U- In case your OBD cannot identify nor understand the code it gets it will display the letter “U” at the beginning of your code. In some cases (or in the newest car models) this letter will indicate network communication issues.
There are tools which are identity even deeper and more sophisticated issues and trouble codes but they are really expensive and can be found only in professional repair shops.
The First Digit Of The Code
This digit confuses a lot of people. Basically, it can show two things:
- Whether the code is generic, meaning similar for all car types (Displays “0”)
- The code is brand-specific, for example BMW-specific codes (Displays “1”)
There are a few exceptions such as codes like P30, P2, C2, C3, which again are in the territory of the far more advanced OBD2 scanners.
The Second Digit
The second number of your code refers to the specific system from which the issue comes. It can be anything from 1 to 9 and each number has its own meaning.
- 1 – This means that there is something wrong with the fuel or air metering systems. Problems with your MAF trigger this code number.
- 2 – This shows fuel injector problems.
- 3 – This number usually means a few things but they are all related to your car’s ignition system. Most often those are engine misfires.
- 4 – This indicates issues with your emissions such as a catalytic converter efficiency ones.
- 5 – This number shows speed control and idle control problems.
- 6 – In most cases this shows you that there are circuit issues or computer failures within your car.
- 7, 8, and 9 – All these numbers indicate issues with your transmission which can be anything from pressure faults to problems with the sensors.
The Last Two Digits
These last two digits give you a description of the issue which can sometimes be detailed and sometimes it’s just the two numbers depending on the grade of your scanner. They are the thing that mechanics look at most often since they are specific enough to pinpoint an issue.
Pro Tip: If your scanner doesn’t provide further information for those last two digits, there are tons of online directories in which you can check your car’s error specific codes.
One last thing we want to give out as an advice – If you ever get a multitude of codes always address the ones on top as they can be the root cause for anything that comes after them. Also, you need to understand that these scanner tools are meant to indicate whether there is a false alarm going on or a real issue which requires the work of a mechanic. They are in no-way a guidance tool to DIY fix your car in your garage. Error codes can also be triggered by something harmless such as a loose fuel cap, bad wiring connections across the car or even moisture build up which messes with your vehicle’s sensors.
Now, let’s move on with another interesting part of this guide:
Reading OBD Codes Without Having A Scanner Nearby
If by any chance you haven’t brought your OBD scanner with you on a trip and you suddenly get a light turn on on your dashboard don’t lose hope – there might be a way to handle the error code and diagnose it without having a scanner. Over the years car engineers have intentionally created small tricks for drivers to be able to display and extract DTC from their cars when there is no scanner around. This is done in order to facilitate field-condition operations in various kinds of car emergencies. Still, all the methods in a way stimulate your car’s on-board computer to give out exactly what is wrong and are more or less involved with the OBD port of the vehicle itself.
Here are some of the methods that work best:
- What is the single item every car comes with? That’s right – your car keys. Turning your car on and off for a few times (varies from model to model) without cranking it. Once done enough times, leave the key at the “on” position and the “check engine” light will start blinking. Each blink will represent a number and a pause means space between two potential numbers. For instance, the number “23” will look like this – blink, blink, pause, blink, blink, blink. Once you write down the code, check the owner’s manual to see which error code the car is trying to give you and what does it mean.
- There is another way to diagnose issues by using your odometer. That is done by pressing the “Trip” and/or “Reset” buttons while turning the car on (without cranking it). After turned on, release the button(s) and you will get a trouble code displayed on your on-board computer or dashboard display.
- The paper clip method – this method is quite familiar with older cars as the solution dates quite far back and older drivers know it well. Use a paper clip to plug it into the two ports of your vehicle’s OBD terminal. Then, turn the ignition on and see what code your car displays. It can either be a code or a flashing sequence as in the last method we described.
Note: those blinking codes are different from the 5-symbol ones we just described (the P-0123 ones) and are different for each car manufacturer. General Motor cars in the USA need you to turn the car on and off five times.
Pro Tip: Diagnostics often are free at most car repair shops, so if you are on a journey just find the nearest around you and take your car to it instead of trying to use these methods. Those are last instance methods which are advised towards only if you are outside public places and towns.
There are other methods such as the “Multimeter Method” which is a bit tricky and actually requires you having a tool (a multimeter) and even a few others but those are the ones that are tested countless of times and have stayed with drivers throughout the years.