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So your engine light is on. It could be nothing. Or it could be a sign that your engine is about to leave you stranded in the middle of the highway. Either way, you’re going to have to spend a stack of cash to get it checked out. Which brings you here, looking for advice on the best car diagnostic scanner, so you don’t actually have to go to the mechanic every time that godforsaken light appears.
As its name suggests, a car diagnostic tool scans and examines your vehicle for whatever is causing the problem and gives you a diagnosis directly, without the pricey middle man. Car diagnostic scanners come in both bare-bones and high-tech varieties, and no, you don’t need to be Baby Driver to use either one.
The best car diagnostic tools won’t fix your vehicle, but they can point you in the direction of where your problem may be. Using special codes (more on that later), the scanner can tell you whether you have a problem with your engine, with the battery, with the circuitry or something else altogether.
The best car diagnostic scanners are an essential tool for your car emergency kit, to let you easily and accurately get an idea of where your car troubles may lie.
What You Need to Know Before Buying a Car Diagnostic Scanner
There are a few things to keep in mind before starting your car diagnostic tool search.
OB-1 vs OB-2: There are two basic types of diagnostic scanners which are not interchangeable. OB-1 scanners are make and model-specific tools for vehicles made before 1996. In ’96, on-board diagnostic systems were streamlined so all cars had to use OB-2 diagnostics. OB-2 diagnostic scanners work with this system, so can be used for pretty much any vehicle manufactured after that year.
Code reading: After running the scanner, the unit will show you your car’s “trouble code,” which points to the problem. With the most minimalist scanners, this is all the information you get, so you’ll have to do some Googling and research — the same way you’d do for a mysterious Netflix error code, for example. More high-tech scanners translate codes into actual words, and some even provide trouble-shooting instructions and can connect to your smart phone via an app.
How to use it: With the engine off, plug in your scanner, usually under the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. Then turn the engine on and follow your scanner’s instructions. After you’ve received and interpreted your trouble codes, you can decide if you’re confident enough to find your own parts and make the repairs yourself, or if it really does need a professional. Even if you do decide to go to a mechanic after diagnosing the problem, you’ll still be armed with enough information to avoid any possible fleecing.
1. Kobra Products OBD2 Scan Tool
This Kobra Product unit is a really bankable, standard car diagnostic scanner which, to be frank, is really all you need. It is absurdly simple to use, even for non-car people, and spits out diagnostic codes in minutes.
The palm-sized scanner slots easily under your dashboard via the attached cable and plug. It’ll generate both generic codes or manufacturer-specific ones, for cars made between 1996-2016.
Use the manual it comes with to translate the codes, and a quick internet search later you’ll have your problem and troubleshooting solution. Now you know whether you have a $20 dollar you can fix yourself in an afternoon, or the kind of serious issue you’ll need to take to a pro. Sometimes you should just keep it simple.
Pros: Efficient, reliable, and simple to use.
Cons: There are no automatic troubleshooting instructions.
2. BlueDriver LSB2 Bluetooth Pro
This scanner is basically the complete opposite of the simple stand-by above. So if you are the kind of driver who wants access to all of your car’s information, updated in real time, and accessible via app on your phone, this is what we’d suggest.
The main distinguishing factor of this diagnostic tool is its easy-to-read digital display, which let you read everything clearly and quickly from a 2.8-inch color screen.
The BlueDriver includes what the brand calls “enhanced” diagnostics, which looks at trouble codes for more operational systems than the check engine light alone. The error report matches the trouble code to the car’s make and model, then matches that to a specific fix, eliminating endless “how to” searches online.
This diagnostic tool can also give you live data reports and a smog check, so you know if your car is due for an emissions test.
Pros: Full color display. Unit provides repair solutions, live data, scans for more codes than simple models.
Cons: Not everybody really needs all of this information or so many features, so if all of these feels like a lot, this might not be worth it.
3. Foxwell OBD2 Scanner
The Foxwell has fewer high tech features than BlueDriver but it does provide more information than the simplest models.
Roughly the size of a pack of gum, the scanner slots easily under the dashboard. Readings includes a definition of the problem codes, which can be accessed by pressing the “help” button, which saves time on research and indicates whether you’re looking a quick fix and what parts you might need.
The Foxwell also keeps a log of your car data, which can be printed and sent to a mechanic if you can’t repair the problem yourself, and it has an automatic VIN retrieval and decoding feature which makes it easier to read manufacturer-specific codes.
If you’re not familiar with car mechanics or scanners, you might need to do a little studying to take advantage of all the features, like its live sensor and graphic capabilities, but a lot of people find these features really useful.
Pros: Smallest scanner on our list. Convenient to use and includes useful enhanced features.
Cons: It might take a little time to understand and take advantage of all features.
4. Bafx Bluetooth OBD2 Diagnostic Car Scanner
We like this Bluetooth option if you want a simple tool that covers all the basics and identifies the problem right away.
The sensor connects to an app on your phone, and it provides quick and accurate information on all of your car systems. Conveniently, trouble codes appear on your phone as clickable links, which can be expanded to include definitions of problems, which makes for considerably less legwork than usual. It also provides good live sensors for a basic scan.
The Bluetooth does not work on iOS, however, so you can only connect to an Android or Windows, and it requires a third-party app.
Pros: Portable size, convenient app.
Cons: Not iOS-compatible.