Overview | Hardware readers | Laptop Interface | Mobile Device Interface

Diagnostic code readers and Scan Tools allow you to read Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTCs) in your cars Powertrain Control Module (PCM) which caused your check engine light to come on.

A Diagnostic Link Connector (DLC) Allows the Code Scanner or Scan Tool to communicate or "plug into" your vehicle's computer(s). Usually under the dash on the middle or drivers side.

Onboard Diagnostics II (OBD II or OBD2, OBD-II) is a second-generation emissions diagnostic system required by the U.S. EPA on all 1996 and newer vehicles.
It is usually located in a computer module called a The Powertrain Control Module (PCM), in your engine compartment. In addition to turning on the Check Engine light on your dash (also called a "MIL" or Malfunction Indicator Light) when it detects a problem it also contains other engine parameters such as idle speed settings.
It also contains information on pending codes, potential problems which have not got bad enough to turn on the check engine light.
See Check Engine Light and Onboard Diagnostics (OBD)

There are code readers available from your auto supply store for $70-$180 which will connect to a socket (port) under your dash and allow you to see a diagnostic code related to the problem which caused your check engine light to come on.
They will also allow you to turn your check engine light (CEL) off, but it will usually come back on again if you don't fix the problem.
The codes will help your mechanic figure out how to fix the problem, but they are obtuse and the problem is usually not obvious.

e.g. P0440 - "Evaporative Emission Control System Malfunction"
Is frequently caused by a loose gas cap. You can check the diagnostic code list under home and Garden / Auto here to see tips on fixing a few of the problems, but most will require a mechanic.

Mechanics usually charge around $70-90 to check the code for you, so if your only problem is a loose gas cap, a reader will pay for the code reader the first time you use it.
They will also give you peace of mind if the code

Some places distinguish between "Readers", which just read codes and "Scanners" which give you more information.

Note prior to 2008 there were several communications protocols in use.
See Protocols on the auto check engine light page.

In 2007 Consumer Reports tested some of these readers and said the following worked well.

Hardware Devices
Basic compact readers display codes and reset your light.
Actron CP9125 ($80)
Equus Innova 3030 ($80)
AutoXray Code Scout 1500 ($150) has some additional features including
  a battery that enables a user to unplug the cord without losing the information on the display.

Intermediate readers or scanners have include the ability to take a "snapshot" of the vehicle's operating condition at the time of the faulty code. That records things like engine speed and temperature to assist in diagnosis.
Actron CP9175 ($210) (Not tested)

Advanced Engine Programmers Allow you to program your PCM to increase performance. Includes improved power or mileage, optimize for 87 or 93 octane fuel, Engine Rev Limiter, Cooling Fan On/Off Temperatures, Permits use of low-temperature thermostat for cooler, denser intake charge and lower engine operating temperature, Transmission Shift Points, Transmission Shift Firmness, Top-Speed Limiter, Speedometer/Odometer Correction.
Hypertch MaxEnergy Power Programmer $400 (Not tested)

Computer Interfaces allow you to connect your computer or Palm Pilot to the OBD port and perform the same functions as the stand-alone scanners.
ElmScan 5 USB ($140)
  ScanXL advanced software ($80) allows you to create graphs of sensor data, detect changes that could lead to future problems, measure horsepower, ...
OBDII Automotive Diagnostics - $96
Others for Import Cars: (The europeans seem to be ahead on this)
Auterra - 760-739-8506
B&B Electronics (Autotap) - 815-433-5100
Baum Tools- 800-848-6657
EASE Diagnostics - 888-366-3273
www.rinda.com - Marine engines

VAG-COM is a PC/windows program for VWs and Audis developed by Uwe Ross (www.Ross-Tech.com/). It uses Volkswagen Audi Group's (VAG) proprietary diagnostic protocol and will only work in VW/Audi vehicles. In addition to showing fault codes and monitoring operating parameters, VAG-COM allows an enthusiast to make "adjustments," such as reprogramming the locks or the stereo, re-aligning the immobilizer after swapping ECU's and resetting service reminder indicators.
Other PC/Windows analyzers:

Free Software

Software Available to Purchase

Mobile Device Readers
Bluetooth Interface
  OBDLink Bluetooth Scan Tool at ScanTool.net $150
  PLX Kiwi   Bluetooth adapter for android $99
  PLX Kiwi   Wifi adapter for iPhone $149
  OBDKey $160
  ELM327 Vgate Scan Advanced OBD2 Bluetooth Scan Tool $20 - At Meritline

The 6 Best On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Apps for your Car
obd - Android Apps on Google Play

Import Scan Tools
Check Engine Light and Onboard Diagnostics (OBD)
Diagnostic Trouble Codes - DTC
Automotive Diagnostics - Product and Service Directory
JC Whitney catalog
Automotive Diagnostic Code Scanners
Readers/Scanners at BottomDolar.com
Glossary of Terms
Readers at websitement-tm.com
"How to Use Automotive Diagnostic Scanners" book $20

last updated 18 Nov 2011