Not all code readers are created equal—and it’s not just a matter of which brand makes them. Different models are suitable for specific users, so you want to make sure you get the right one for your needs. While there are a lot of different styles of automotive scanner out there, the ones you’re most likely to come across include:
Auto Scan Tools for DIY
This is the type of scanning tool that most DIYers want. It goes beyond a code reader, providing multi-system diagnosis and some service functions, but it is more affordable than OE-level diagnostic tools meant for professional garages. Bluedriver and Foxwell NT624 Elite are excellent choices in this group.
Service functions, coding, and programming capabilities are the main advantages of professional diagnostic tools. You can tune, remap, and otherwise customize the ECU and perform tens of service and diagnostic functions. They’re more expensive and, therefore, what they can do are excellent. However, this type of diagnostic tool ONLY suits professionals working in auto repair shops. If you are a professional automotive technician or diagnostic specialist and ECU programming is not your priority, think about the Launch X431 V+. But if you regularly program ECU of BMW or Mercedes Benz vehicles with J2534, consider taking Autel Maxisys Elite.
How Much Should I Expect to Pay?
DIY-ers should expect to spend somewhere around $100 – $1,000 for a high-quality diagnostic scanner. Models in this price range typically include full-system diagnosis and service functions such as Oil Reset, ABS Bleeding, Injector Coding, EPB Reset, BMS Service, SAS Calibration, DPF Regeneration, etc. The features they omit also tend to be the one’s hobbyists and home mechanics won’t use anyway, things like ECU coding that require more advanced knowledge to do successfully. A typical choice for you, if you want to have such a scan tool around $500, is the Autel MK808BT. The Budget Buy is the Bluedriver that is only about $100. Somewhere in the middle is the FOXWELL NT624 Elite, which costs you around $250.
A professional automotive technician or diagnostic specialist is most likely looking at a budget from $1,000+ to $3,000+. Expect to be on the higher end of that spectrum if you need more sophisticated service functions or complicated performances like car key coding, programming, or ECU mapping. With the budget around $1,000 to $1,200, you can buy a professional car diagnostic tool like Autel Maxisys Elite, my favorite choice ever. It can do almost everything in your shop, from Oil Reset to ABS bleeding, key programming, or ECU coding/programming.
Compatibility and Vehicle Coverage
The OBD2 code system is universal on all vehicles made in 1996 and later. Most professional car diagnostic scanners have broad compatibility for essential diagnostic functions, but the same may not be true of the service functions, “active tests”, or multi-system diagnostic abilities.
With BlueDriver, for example, you can read necessary information from any vehicle with an OBD2 port. It can also read and clear Enhanced Codes for ABS, SRS, and transmissions systems, but not all cars. Those services are only available for select brands and vehicle model years.
The same is true of more advanced professional scanners. The Autel Maxisys Elite is compatible with more than 10,000 models, but not all service functions will be available for all of them. The most limited is the J2534 ECU programming, which can only do on two manufacturers BMW and Mercedes.
The bottom line is that you should pay close attention to which features are offered for vehicles when you’re shopping for diagnostic tools.
Automotive diagnostic tools don’t just read trouble codes and record module data. Professional models also allow you to interact with the engine, making necessary repairs and adjustments. If you’re a professional mechanic, there are many crucial features you’ll need in an advanced auto diagnostic tool:
Full OBD2 Diagnostic Functions
The OBD2 diagnostics consists of ten modes. These include reading and clearing codes, retrieving live and freeze frame data, and conducting emissions tests. Many cheap code readers will only give you access to half of these modes or less. For the most accurate diagnosis, DIYers will want to get a scanner with full OBD2 functionality like the Bluedriver.
All System Diagnosis
Scanners that can read trouble codes from all the electronic modules in a vehicle are ideal for advanced DIYers and necessary for professionals. The OBDII system doesn’t catch all engine problems. In a professional garage, you need a scanner that can read all electronic modules, giving you a complete picture of the engine’s health. You’ll find many scanners in the price range from $200 to $300 like the FOXWELL NT624 Elite that not only lets you diagnose all systems but also perform several service functions like Oil Reset or EPB services. The average price goes up if you also want to get information from other electronic modules like climate control.
Reset and Service Functions
The term “service functions” is a catch-all for a range of repair functions included in auto scanning tools. One of the most common is oil reset, allowing you to turn off the oil light on your dash and reset the parameters after an oil change. Other essential functions include DPF regeneration, ABS bleeding, TPMS reset, adjustments to the throttle or suspension, etc. Generally speaking, reset, and service functions will be more important from a professional standpoint than they are to DIY-ers, though they can be helpful in home garages, as well. You will find the essential service functions (26 ones) in the Autel MK808BT, a perfect pick for you if you’re an experienced home mechanic.
Active Tests/Bidirectional Control
Also called “active testing,” bidirectional control allows the mechanic to activate or test mechanical components on demand. This process tells you if individual actuators, valves, and pumps function the way they should, allowing for more efficient and effective repairs. If you’re looking to do such tests, buy the Launch X431 V+, one of the best bi-directional scan tools today.
Key/ECU Coding and Programming
Car key/key fob/ECU coding or programming, primarily used for changing keys, tuning and remapping engines to optimize their performance, allow you to make changes to the parameters and settings of the engine computer. It’s also helpful for making software updates and troubleshooting issues with fuel efficiency or engine power.
What Else Should You Consider?
Functionality and compatibility are the most important considerations when you’re shopping for a scan tool. There are other factors you’ll want to pay attention to as well, however, including:
* Intelligence. The most common smart feature on diagnostic scanners is an Auto VIN option that instantly identifies the make and model. While intelligent features can be helpful from an efficiency standpoint, they’re not as crucial to the overall operation as other factors.
* Speed. This is primarily a concern for professional garages that need to diagnose a lot of vehicles. A higher processing speed allows the scan tool to quickly read and process data, allowing you to respond to the repairs promptly. Look for a scanner with a quad-core processor for the fastest diagnosis.
* Accuracy. A diagnostic tool is useless if it’s not giving you the correct information. Accuracy can be difficult to verify, one of the main reasons it’s essential to buy a scan tool from a reputable brand with a reputation for quality.
* Updates. Some scan tools come with lifetime free updates, while others will require a paid subscription after a certain length of time. Pay attention to how the updates happen, as well. Updates through Wi-Fi directly on the scanner are the most reliable, saving you the need to worry about your operating system’s compatibility.
* Customer Support. Troubleshooting problems with a scan tool can be frustrating. A reliable and responsive customer support line avoids this hassle so you can spend your time fixing cars, not tinkering with the device itself.
* Community. Not all vehicle problems are easy to diagnose. A strong community of scan tool users can help you solve tricky repairs and issues and share general knowledge to help you use your scan tool more effectively.