If you’re like most drivers of modern cars, you’ve likely encountered a dreaded check engine light at some point during your driving career. While usually not an indication of something serious (although rarely they can be), they do indicate that your car’s computer system has detected a fault somewhere in your car and the cause of this fault needs to be addressed. While you may be fearful of trying to diagnose such a fault, the fortunate news is that modern cars do most of the heavy lifting for you.
If your car was sold in the USA after January 1, 1996 it is legally required to have an OBD 2 system equipped. OBD 2 (often referred to as OBDII) stands for On Board Diagnostics 2, and is the more advanced successor to OBD 1. Any time a check engine light comes on in a car equipped with an OBD 2 system, your car’s computer will store a code that describes the fault or faults that triggered the check engine light. Reading these codes can save you tons of time with diagnostics because it tells you right where the problem is.
To read these codes, you have a few options. First, you could cruise over to your car dealer and they can read the code. If your car is under warranty, this is a no brainer as they will likely repair the car for free as well. However, for those of us with cars that are out of warranty, a trip to the dealer can be prohibitively expensive as even just reading a fault code (which only takes 5 minutes or so) can easily cost you over 100 bucks as they will typically bill an hour for the job. Your other options including stopping in to see your independent mechanic who will do the work of a dealer but for cheaper. The third and most cost effective option is to buy an inexpensive OBD 2 scanner and read the code yourself.
What Is An OBD 2 Scanner?
An OBD 2 scanner is a small device that can be plugged into the OBD 2 diagnostic port, which is typically found behind a small panel on the bottom of the dashboard on the driver’s side. The best OBD 2 scanners contain either an all inclusive hand pendant with a display and toggle buttons or come with a connector and software for your Android or iPhone that allow you to read OBD 2 codes on your smart phone. For the latter, some smart phone OBD 2 scanners work via a hard cord and others work via Bluetooth. Once your scanner is connected to the OBD 2 port in your car and initiate the ode reading command with the press of a button or two, the code reader will display the 5 digit code. You can then take this code and compare it to a reference list to find out what has gone wrong. You can see a reference list of OBD 2 codes and their descriptions here.
The Best OBD 2 Scanner
When it comes to choosing the best OBD 2 scanner, there are a variety of considerations. When it comes to just reading a code stored in your ECU, pretty much any scanner will work. The biggest difference between the low end automotive scan tools and the best car diagnostic tools are that the top end ones tend to be more robust and have more available features.
BAFX 34t5 Bluetooth OBDII Scan Tool
If you are a DIY mechanic and don’t have to rely on your scanner all day every day, we tend to prefer the Bluetooth devices as they tend to be more user friendly, less expensive, and have a few extra features that are pretty cool since they can take advantage of the smart phone display. The BAFX OBDII scanner comes with the connector, which you plug into your OBD 2 port underneath your dash. Once you have downloaded an app of your choosing (our favorite is Torque although there are also free OBD 2 apps available) and connected the device, you just connect using your phone or tablet like you would any other Bluetooth device. This scanner requires no special equipment as it is truly plug and play.
We should note early on that this particular scanner only works with an Android device, and will not work with an iPhone (although there are comparable OBD 2 scanners that are compatible with an iPhone and they have similar advantages to those of the BAFX scanner).
There are several advantages to using a scanner that connects to your phone. First, you don’t end up paying for a fancy hand pendant with display. Instead, your money goes towards extra perks such as software that allows you to see real time engine running parameters as well as an attractive user interface. Furthermore, since you aren’t connected by a cord, you can have your phone near you as you work in your engine bay to make better use of the real time information from your OBD 2 port when diagnosing your car. Conversely, there are also some disadvantages. Your phone isn’t exactly designed for harsh chemical environments nor is it impervious to grease, oil, or coolant. As such, you have to be careful and also have to take more breaks to make sure you are using your phone with clean hands. Personally we are willing to make this compromise as we prefer the extra software features to the durability at this price point.
As for features specific to the BAFX, there are many worth mentioning. Like all OBD 2 scanners, you can read both generic and manufacturer specific diagnostic trouble codes for your car. You can also clear these codes. Another great feature is that you can get real time feedback about how your engine is running including tachometer, speed, O2 sensor readings, long term and short term fuel trim, various fluid temperatures, etc. You can also graph these functions over time. Another cool thing is that while the scanner comes with a demo software for a PC, you can choose which OBD 2 scanner app you want to run on your phone.
Overall, we think the BAFX is by far the best Bluetooth OBD 2 scanner around and arguably one of the best all around OBD 2 scanners available. We have used this ourselves as our go to scanner for a few years now and are confident that you will agree!
Autel Autolink AL319 OBD 2 and CAN Scan Tool
There are other great scanners on the market if you are worried about using your phone, anticipate a high volume of automotive work (such as someone who works at a repair shop), or tend to be just plain hard on your tools. Autel’s Autolink is one such example. While it may not have the beautiful graphical interface that the BAFX allows for and it may cost almost double, you can be assured that it will withstand some abuse (and also prevent you from having to put your $600 smart phone in harm’s way).
Autel’s scanner comes equipped with a connector that is hard wired to the hand pendant, meaning your reach is a little bit limited. That said, reliability is assured as you will never have to worry about any sort of connectivity issues nor do you have to worry about setup. Additionally, it also has a color screen which can convey a decent amount of information whereas many OBD 2 scanners of this style only show a code. You can read live engine data as well as generic and manufacturer specific fault codes (including pending codes!). It is also worth mentioning that menus are multilingual.
As far as construction, the device has three buttons and is housed in a red plastic case. The case is relatively robust as is the cord. The device is completely sealed so it is resistant to water, oil, coolant, or other fluids that it may be exposed to when working in an automotive environment.
Overall, Autel makes the best OBD 2 scanner when it comes to a self-contained hand held device. Autel makes a whole line of scanners, some of which are cheap and some of which are extremely pricey. We recommend the AL319 as it offers the best value as far as features for the money. We think you will be very satisfied should you opt to go this route.
So we hope this guide has shed some light on the ins and outs of OBD 2 scanners as well as helped you to pick the best OBD 2 scanner to suit your needs. That said, we know there are tons of great tools out there, and while these are our favorites, there are other options. If you feel like seeing what other options are available, feel free to have a look at many more makes and models that are available by clicking here. Happy wrenching!