Modern vehicles are equipped with an on-board diagnostic system that monitors nearly every system on the vehicle to ensure it is operating correctly. It monitors engine systems, transmission systems, ABS brake operation, evaporative emissions controls, and electrical system operation.
Vehicles manufactured for model year 1996 or newer use the second generation of on-board diagnostics, or OBDII, or newer protocol. When a problem exists, one of the control modules sets a trouble or fault code and a warning light is displayed.
It used to be that only professional mechanics were able to read and diagnose those trouble codes because the diagnostic equipment was expensive and exclusive for repair shops. Now, scan tools are available to everyone and range in operation from very basic code readers to professional grade diagnostic tools.
If you’re considering a scan tool of your own, you need to assess which grade of scan tool you should look for.
- Basic code readers simply determine the fault codes present and can clear codes.
- Do-It-Yourself type scan tools are capable of diagnosing and monitoring more complex issues on your vehicle.
- Professional-grade diagnostic equipment is capable of performing all the functions a professional mechanic may require.
Here are the top rated car diagnostic scanners for each skill level.
- 1. BASIC CODE READER
- 2. DIY SCAN TOOL
- 3. PROFESIONAL SCAN TOOL
1. BASIC CODE READER
Basic code readers or scan tools are meant to provide a quick glimpse into an issue your vehicle is experiencing and allows you to clear the fault codes that are set in the on-board diagnostic system. They aren’t meant for in-depth diagnosis or monitoring. A basic code reader is an excellent addition to the toolbox of a car lover who isn’t necessarily tech-savvy.
BAFX Products 34T5 Bluetooth OBDII Scan Tool
For an easy-to-use scan tool that is compatible with Android devices via Bluetooth, the BAFX Products 34T5 is an excellent choice. The unit itself is compact and plugs directly into your car’s OBDII data port under the driver’s side of your dash. The tool pairs easily to your Bluetooth-enabled Android phone, tablet, or your Windows computer and operates via an app such as Torque to display the data the BAFX 34T5 can access.
The BAFX Products 34T5 is capable of reading and clearing fault codes that can illuminate the check engine light, perform a pre-test for your emissions system so you know if your car will pass its smog test, can read real-time sensor data, and can even record your 1/8 to 1-mile drag times directly on your device.
The BAFX Products 34T5 OBDII code reader is not capable of performing more advanced functions like timing advance, turbo tuning, or diagnosing problems with manufacturer-specific trouble codes. It also does not function with iOS devices at this time, so if you want to use your iPhone or iPad for your OBDII scan tool, this one is not for you. There are status lights on the unit that plugs into your OBDII port, but your connector may be positioned so the lights are pointed away from you so you won’t be able to monitor the unit’s status. It’s not a major issue, however. Viewing codes and data through the BAFX Products 34T5 scan tool does require an app, which will likely cost you anywhere from $5 to $60 depending on the app you choose and the functions you need.
AutelMaxiScan MS300 OBDII Diagnostic Tool
Autel is quickly becoming one of the most trusted names in diagnostic equipment. Even their most basic scan tool, the MaxiScan MS300 is capable of reading and clearing diagnostic trouble codes of most types from nearly any make and model. The MaxisScan MS300 powers up as soon as it is plugged into your vehicle’s OBDII port and operates in an intuitive manner with just two buttons.
Because the unit plugs into your data link connector directly with a cord, you don’t need another device or app to read codes. The MS300 has an LCD display, albeit a small display, that displays the trouble code and its description directly on the unit. One button is used to select an option and the other scrolls through those options. For being a very simple tool, it is more than capable of reading and clearing codes that could cause your engine light to come on.
The AutelMaxiScan MS300 is not a powerful computer or scan tool otherwise. It does not provide system monitoring, and if the trouble code is manufacturer-specific, you won’t get a description of the code on your display and will have to look it up otherwise. Their manual provides a list of thousands of code definitions, but it appears to be loosely translated from Chinese so it isn’t entirely accurate in English. Also, the MaxiScan MS300 is completely standalone without the ability to update, so any future vehicles or codes aren’t supported.
Basic Code Reader Comparison
While the BAFX 34T5 Code Reader is provides higher level monitoring capabilities, it is only that – monitoring. It can’t modify data aside from clearing trouble codes, so unless you want to keep an eye on your fuel mileage or drag times, this function doesn’t really add capability. The MS300 isn’t able to display charts and graphs for data at all, so the BAFX 34T5 gets the edge here.
The MS300 comes with everything you need to read your codes in your OBDII system simply by plugging it in while the BAFX 34T5 requires that you download an app and use an Android device to read your codes. For simplicity and reliability, the MS300 is better.
The BAFX 34T5 is compact and can be left plugged into the data port so you can access your car’s information whenever you want via your device’s Bluetooth, while the MS300 is on a short cord that is awkward and gets in the way. If you want quick access to your car’s trouble codes without having to carry a scan tool with a cord, BAFX 34T5 is the clear choice.
The BAFX 34T5 and the MS300 are very different units for the basic code reader category. While they both perform similar functions, the BAFX 34T5 is a clear choice for a user who is more visually-inclined, while the MS300 is the easier to use option that doesn’t rely on any other tools or technology to operate.
2. DIY SCAN TOOL
These scan tools are meant for people who prefer to perform their own car repairs at home instead of taking them to a repair shop. They provide a wide array of data, much more in-depth than the basic code readers on the market. While they are quite comprehensive, they aren’t all-inclusive like the professional-grade scan tools, and you’ll want to find one that performs all the functions on your particular vehicle.
BlueDriver Bluetooth Professional OBDII Scan Tool for iOS or Android
The BlueDriver scan tool is a small box that plugs directly into your data link connector under the dash. There are no cables to connect to or buttons to press. It connects via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet and uses a free BlueDriver app provided by both Apple Store and Google Play. If you want a wireless connection and intuitive, easily read instructions, this is for you.
The app is well laid-out and connects easily to your vehicle. You’ll be up and running in literally 10 seconds. For most vehicles, the BlueDriver scan tool will pull up your vehicle VIN number, year, make, and model, so you get the most accurate, manufacturer-specific information possible. One of the best features BlueDriver contains is the code report that it generates for each code. It contains the code definition, possible causes, and a list of reported fixes for the code your vehicle has. It totally eliminates the need to skip back and forth between the app and Google to search for causes and repairs for your vehicle condition. For those who want a physical copy of the report, you can send it to a printer on your network. Another neat function is freeze-frame data recorded at the time the code was set. It can help you determine an intermittent fault’s cause much easier.
BlueDriver reads and clears current engine codes, pending codes, and permanent codes on all makes. It also reads manufacturer specific codes or ‘Enhanced” codes for GM, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota with more makes reportedly coming soon. Unfortunately, as someone who performs as many repairs at home as possible, those missing makes from enhanced codes could be a deal-breaker for many. If you have any other make, you’re still stuck headed to the dealer to diagnose ABS, airbag, or body system problems.
Innova 3040c Diagnostic Tool
The Innova 3040c scan tool is a highly rated diagnostic tool for the DIY market. It is a standalone tool that operates by connecting the scan tool via cable to the data link connector. The Innova 3040c retrieves your vehicle information including year, make, and model, and is very intuitive in its controls. It has an easy-to-read 2.8-inch color screen and nine buttons to swiftly navigate through your options.
The Innova 3040c reads engine codes from all makes and models 1996 and newer, and reads most ABS codes from popular makes as well. It is incredibly fast to use because it is a standalone scan tool; simply plug it in and read the codes. The Innova 3040c can test battery and charging system functions right from the scan tool, eliminating the need for additional testing equipment. You can access live data, freeze-frame data from the moment the trouble code was set, and can get information about possible causes and potential fixes with the Innova software. You can update the software and hardware on the Innova 3040c for future compatibility.
The Innova 3040c comes with a few concerns, though. There are reported issues communicating with some European makes which can pose a problem if you drive a European car. Hopefully this will be addressed by a future update. Also, the only enhanced codes that can be accessed are ABS codes, and only on the most popular makes. For a true, tech-savvy DIY user, this can severely limit the ability to perform all of their own repairs. Another reported flaw has to do with inaccurate battery testing functions in the Innova 3040c. Users have said the scan tool will deem a battery faulty while other testing devices report the battery as good, bringing into question the tool’s overall reliability. The Innova software for addition diagnostic information is difficult to access and requires an internet connection and a user login.
BlueDriver vs Innova 3040C Comparison
The Innova 3040c is a versatile, capable scan tool for the DIY user, covering most aspects that you’ll ever need without the necessity of a Bluetooth-capable device connected to it. It has a reliable DLC connection by cable and is updatable with vehicle connection capabilities expanding.
The BlueDriver Bluetooth diagnostic tool goes a step further with better reporting and diagnostic help readily accessible on your device with the ability to print the data at the touch of a button.
Overall, the BlueDriver Bluetooth Scan Tool is the better choice. While the Innova 3040c is a great, capable scan tool, BlueDriver performs the same functions more intuitively and on a more easy-to-read platform.
3. PROFESIONAL SCAN TOOL
The professional grade scan tools are used in automotive repair shops and by those with extensive training or knowledge in vehicle systems. Professional scan tools may not provide the most comprehensive data and tips for diagnosing but can access the widest array of data streams and all kinds of codes, both generic and manufacturer-specific.
Launch X431 V+ Diagnostic Tool
The Launch X431 V+ is an Android-based tablet that functions as a scan tool. It has a 10.1-inch touch screen for easy, colorful viewing operation. It connects wirelessly through a Bluetooth connector in the DLC and is WiFi capable, so updates are simple and diagnostic information is easy to find.
The Launch X431 V+ is capable of scanning all diagnostic trouble codes from all major manufacturers in North America, Europe, and Asia. It can retrieve and clear generic codes and manufacturer-specific codes for ABS, airbag, and body control functions. It has a full database of repair information for virtually every car you can think of, including TSBs and recall information. It operates quickly and smoothly, though it takes a while for the device to boot up initially. The battery should last around 8 hours according to the specs.
The problem with this unit is that it is obviously from China. The language and terminology used can be difficult to understand and can lead to some frustration that may lead the user to avoid using this tool if possible. That’s unfortunate because there are so many things this diagnostic tool can do including live data tracking, key and ECM programming, and ABS and airbag communication. The initial startup takes forever as well because you can’t really use it until you register the tool. The manual is on a CD and not paper, meaning if you need to access the manual you’ve got to use another computer with a CD drive, which is getting more difficult to find these days. A USB drive or SD card would be more helpful.
AutelMaxiSYS MS906 WiFi Diagnostic Scanner
Autel, a rising name in the automotive diagnostic tool industry, has a professional grade scan tool in the MS906. It is an Android-based scan tool that can be connected either through a VIC module or with a wired cable. The wired cable comes with the kit, as do connectors for every possible application you can think of. The MS906, if you buy the VIC, is probably the closest thing to a manufacturer grade scan tool you’ll find, but the cable version is a close second.
The Autel MaxiSYS MS906 is perhaps the most versatile aftermarket scan tool you’ll find. It’s capable of performing key coding for a variety of makes and models, and can code ECMs just like a dealer’s scan tool. It reads the VIN number from the ECM to populate your year, make, and model when you scan the car so you’re looking at correct information when you check for codes. It reads manufacturer-specific codes as well as generic codes and works on virtually any brand that uses OBDII, so any vehicle from 1996 to current. It’s as intuitive as you’ll ever find on such a complex scan tool, and even beginners and DIY handymen will be able to navigate their way through to read codes.
The Autel MaxiSYS MS906 isn’t perfect, however. It still has characteristics that show it is a Chinese-made unit in both the language on the scanner and the diagnostic information you view. It is perhaps overly complex, even for a professional user, as the owner’s manual is 104 pages long. There is information this scanner can do that you’ll never use, and that can get in the way of finding some of the data you actually need.
For usability, both the Launch X431 V+ and the AutelMaxiSYS MS906 are similar because they use an Android-based system. They are quite comparable in size and manufacturing also. The Launch includes a wireless Bluetooth connector while the AutelMaxiSYS VCI needs to be purchased separately, so if wireless use is important to you, the Launch could be the better way to go. In every other way, the Autel takes the grand prize. It’s way more user-friendly and intuitive to use, and operates very much like the scan tools in use at car dealerships.