With so many diagnostic scan tools on the market, which one is right for you? What are the main functions and drawbacks of various types of car diagnostic scan tools?
Choosing the right scan tool can seem like a daunting task, especially with so many various units out there. Listed below are a few questions you should ask yourself before buying one.
- How often do you see yourself using it?
- Do you need advanced features to scan more than just the check engine?
- How portable does it need to be?
- What year make and model is your vehicle?
- Do you plan on upgrading the software or hardware in the future?
What’s an OBD2 Car Scan Tool?
OBD2 stands for, “On-Board Diagnostics II. Before 1996, most vehicles had some intricate, proprietary way of scanning the vehicle and diagnosing the fault codes. Diagnostics via the OBD port has seen many changes throughout its evolution and is an essential tool when troubleshooting modern vehicles.
Many manufacturers had some special scanners worth thousands of dollars that only worked with that particular vehicle. Some car manufacturers like Toyota had a simpler way by shorting out particular terminals and gauging how many times the check engine light flashed.
It became clear that there had to be a better way of scanning a vehicle. That’s where OBD2 came in. Every vehicle since 1996 now has a universal port normally located under the driver-side dash.
The OBD2 scan tool communicates with the vehicle directly through the ‘K-Line’ or ‘CAN Bus.’ This is a data port which allows your device to communicate and control various computers in the vehicle.
Any OBD2 scan tool can connect to that port, however not all scan tools are created equally. Some will have more capabilities in accessing more computer information from your vehicle. Some vehicles simply work better with certain scan tools, especially when it comes to over-engineered European luxury automakers.
Comparing Different Scanners
Every car manufacturer has its own way of doing things. Some just try to make it much more complex whether it’s for proprietary or functional reasons.
OBD2 scan tool companies do research and development on vehicles that are manufactured to ensure the scanner can get accurate readings. If you visit my recommendations page, I give a complete list of my favorite universal scan tools.
Best OBD2 Scan Tool Overall
If you want an easy-to-use yet small and portable OBD2 scanner, check out the BlueDriver. They take the modern approach by getting rid of clunky wires and opting for Bluetooth wireless.
It uses your phone as an app interface and it’ll work with both iPhone and Android smartphones. Updates are done directly on your smartphone, and it supports basically every year, make and model in the North American market.
Best OBD2 Scan Tool Under $250
For those that want something more rugged with a cable directly linking the OBD2 port to the device, there are many OBD2 scan tools that fall into this category. I myself prefer physical buttons when available.
My recommendation would be the Launch OBDII Scanner. It has a large 5″ touch LCD screen that has a very user-friendly interface and overall the layout is a pleasure to use.
The Launch OBDII allows you to clear any codes including O2 sensors without the need for a smartphone. Some other features are the ability to read live data and use the enhanced mode for diagnosing specific symptoms.
Best Professional OBD2 Scan Tool
The one that I personally own and use on a daily basis is the Autel MS906TS. If you see yourself using one on a regular basis and want the most in-depth capable scan tool with support for virtually every possible year make and model in the world, this is the one to get. Of course, at $1,699 it’s nothing to sneeze at.
Although there are many previous iterations of this Autel OBD2 scan tool, I typically recommend getting the latest version that you can afford not just because of the free firmware and software upgrades on the later models but also, because this unit has the latest hardware processor which speeds things up, especially when you’re navigating through quite a few different menus.
Trust me, there are a lot of functional test pages which is awesome but on some older models, I was frustrated with the page loading speed times. That’s not an issue with the Autel MS906TS. It’s super fast and the large 8″ screen is awesome!
Best Scan Tool For Mercedes & Audi/VW
These last few scan tools are mentioned because of how invaluable they are to professional auto mechanics that work specifically with these car makes.
Star Diagnostic Scanner gives you the ability to re-flash EZS modules, and re-program various computers throughout the car. It’s the same with Audi and Volkswagens. Ross-Tech VCDS is an OBD2 cable that works only with Audis and Volkswagens. This software only works on Windows. If you’re using a Mac, try VMWare and install a host Windows OS.
I once had an 05′ Audi A8. The service techs at the dealership told me I had a bad ECU with communication issues, various modules not responding, and would freeze or crash when being scanned.
They told me I was looking at $10,000 to replace and re-program all the bad modules including the ECU!
The techs were puzzled and recommended that I get rid of the car. Hearing that, was like getting punched in the stomach since I just repaired it and wanted to clear some final codes after the repairs were complete.
I immediately decided to purchase the Ross-Tech VCDS scan tool. I spent $400 not including my laptop. After doing a hard battery reset which you can learn how to do here, I scanned my vehicle and anxiously waited for the diagnostics to finish.
It was fascinating to see the VCDS scan every single module in the car in the vehicle’s native tongue, ‘German,’ and provide the datasheet in English. There were over 40 faults found between all the computers in my car.
After all the faults were scanned, I pressed the magical clear fault codes and to my astonishment, all the faults were cleared and never returned.
That’s when I realized the value of a dedicated scan tool made just for your car. If you have a Mercedes, The Star Diagnostic Scanner for Mercedes is quite pricey at ~$1,200 and is tailored towards professionals so I’d still recommend the BlueDriver.
The cost for the exclusive Audi/VW OBD2 scan tool is much cheaper. If you can afford the $400 you cannot go wrong with Ross-Tech VCDS. It’ll be a worthy companion as you could potentially save hundreds of dollars fixing/diagnosing issues yourself. Ross-Tech VCDS even gives you the part number of the individual computer module being scanned.
- Mercedes – Star Diagnostic – pricey but will do an excellent job
- Audi VW – Ross-Tech VCDS scan tool made just for Audi/VW will communicate with every single module in your vehicle and will allow you to do both hardware & software programming through a laptop
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of buying an OBD2 scan tool from a trusted reputable store. There are many counterfeit scanners that cost a fraction of the cost with the same overall design and layout.
I tried a few of these counterfeit scan tools myself and I’ll share my personal experience with you. I got my hands on one that arrived in an ePacket straight from China. Immediately, the scan tool had issues communicating with the vehicle and often times dropped the signal altogether.
For basic diagnostic functions, I’m sure most will work fine. However, in a more advanced scenario, imagine you’re in the process of re-coding a module with the scan tool and the signal gets interrupted.
That unit can potentially become bricked from data loss corruption if not backed up properly on the diagnostic/programming page. I got the genuine OBD2 scan tool weeks later and it worked flawlessly.
Knowing why the check engine light’s on is important, especially in catching the symptom early on. It could mean your vehicle needs immediate attention. Dealerships typically charge $120 to scan your vehicle.
Buying a scan tool is a great way to know what your car’s computers are trying to tell you and if it’s something that needs your attention in the near future. It’ll save you time and money.
If you’d simply like to monitor the health of your vehicle’s computer and engine output and be able to clear the check engine, the BlueDriver is for you. If you prefer a more traditional OBD2 scan tool, the Launch OBDII Scanner is another great choice.
Finally, if you want to be able to not just read but update your vehicle’s firmware and re-code computers (immobilizer, VIN, updates) the one that I personally use every day is the Autel MS906TS.
Do you own an ODB2 scan tool, if so which one?