If you’re looking to save yourself the hassle of unnecessary trips to the mechanic (or if you want to be prepared for engine trouble on the road), an OBD2 scanner is a great investment in your car’s future.
While the specific features you get will depend on the specific model you buy, each of these readers will help you to diagnose the most common engine problems among newer cars.
Please note that these inexpensive handheld scanners are not able to read the manufacturer-specific codes, and if they can detect them, they often won’t be able to tell you much. Some may be able to reset your engine codes, although this will not fix the problem itself.
It’s always best if you use the code information to help you diagnose a problem, rather than relying on it to be a one-step solution.
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Best OBD2 Scanner on the Market
Under $50: Autel MaxiScan MS300 CAN Diagnostic Scan Tool
The Autel MaxiScan MS300 is a
The power comes from the built-in OBD2 port, so you won’t need to worry about batteries or a plug. This is helpful, and we feel it makes it the best tool to keep in the trunk of your car, just in case you run into problems on the road.
One of the biggest complaints we have with the MaxiScan is the instruction manual. It was poorly translated (or so it seems), so it’s not going to be a lot of help when trying to figure out how to work it.
We suggest taking a look online to find information from other users to help you determine how to use your scanner.
Additionally, this scanner will not tell you any manufacturer-specific codes, nor will it do anything to help you fix things – all the machine has the capability to do is to reset the
You might also find it helpful to write down the code you receive, and either look them up online (if you are somewhere you can do this) or relay them to someone at the shop you call for a tow (if you’re stuck out on the road).
In some cases, the code might help the mechanics there to offer a quick fix, instead of a more expensive tow. This could be helpful in situations where you are stuck in the middle of nowhere (although it would be helpful if the tool itself told you what the codes meant).
This little scanner isn’t going to be setting any records anytime soon, but it is just less than $20, with an 88% customer satisfaction rating.
If you don’t have the budget for a better scanner but would like to start diagnosing your car problems, this is a helpful little tool for a very good price.
Under $100: Autel AutoLink AL319 OBD II & CAN Scan Tool
If you’re looking for something in the under $100 range, the Autel AutoLink AL319 offers a few more features than the MaxiScan, with a relatively reasonable price (for those who can afford a slight upgrade).
Most users won’t understand all of the information that’s presented on the screen, but a quick Google search can teach you what to look out for.
We like that this code reader gives you enough information to determine whether a used car purchase is a good investment or not.
In these situations, an OBD reader could potentially save you thousands of dollars, if you discover a problem that might cause you to change your mind about the car. It’s a little pricier than the MaxiScan, but we found it to be much more useful in day-to-day situations.
We did notice that this scanner has some major problems, particularly when it comes to updating, so it might not be able to sync to your car.
While we had no issues, we have heard of many customers whose unit absolutely refused to communicate with the car, despite the reassurance that it would.
This could be an issue with a failure to read the manual properly, but if you’re concerned, it may be worth it to go with the Actron (below) instead.
Under $200: Actron CP9580A Enhanced AutoScanner Plus
This particular unit retails for almost $400, but at the time we did our review, it was priced under $200 on Amazon.
This unit has similar issues with software updates, but there are a few guides (in Amazon reviews) that detail the best way to get around these problems. Your experience may vary, but when in doubt, the Actron customer support team is very helpful.
This scanner was very easy to use, once we got the codes updated.
It hooked up to our 2009 Corolla with ease and helped to figure out that the problem was something in the combustion area.
Of course, like any handheld scanner, you’re not going to get all your information from this little machine, but it can help to inform you what to expect when speaking to a mechanic. In most cases, it’ll probably pay for itself the first time you use it.
You should keep in mind that the scanner will, of course, have limitations when compared to the full-size OBD2 scanners at your local auto shop, and it’s probably best if you look up the codes you get online to see a little more information about the problem.
When you keep your expectations reasonable, the Actron is probably going to exceed them.
Of the three scanners we reviewed, we would consider the Actron CP9580A to be the best overall for the DIY mechanic. It’s not good enough to run your own shop with, but it’s about as close as you’re going to get for less than $200.
This little machine is expected to hold up for a few years of use, and it comes with a one-year warranty to make the purchase price go a little farther.
What is an OBD2 scanner?
OBD stands for on-board diagnostics.
The 2, in particular, refers to the change in the diagnostic criteria – prior to this update, the OBD was simply a light that turned on or off. (Commonly referred to as the “idiot light”.)
An OBD2 scanner helps to demystify the DTC (diagnostic trouble code) of vehicles made after 1996. These cars have a built-in computer that helps to troubleshoot problems.
These scanners may come with software to install on your laptop, or they may have an app for your Android or iPhone.
We have not heard of any OBD II scanners for Windows Phone, but if you know of one, please feel free to mention it in the comments.
Who needs one?
Once upon a time, OBD2 scanners were limited to automotive technicians and mechanics, but that’s no longer the case.
It’s very simple to buy your own OBD2 scanner and test your engine from the comfort of your own home.
This can potentially save you hundreds of dollars, if you find that the problem is something you can easily fix yourself, as opposed to something that requires professional attention.
When you’re looking at any new technology that you are not familiar with, it’s best to fully understand what you’re getting yourself into. So when you are going to buy an OBD2 scanner, the important things to consider are as follows:
- Your budget: A more expensive scanner is not necessarily a higher-quality scanner, and it is never advisable to spend more than you can afford.
- Your car: Some scanners are not able to get vehicle-specific codes, so if your
di agnosticcodes are specific to your manufacturer, you may have to look them up online after finding the code with your scanner.
- Information and Display: If your OBD2 scanner doesn’t provide enough information, it’s useless. You need to ensure that you are selecting a model that will present enough information for you to accurately diagnose the problem yourself.
- Battery or Power Source: Different scanners have different power sources, and the one that’s best for you will depend on your personal preference.
- Diagnostic Features: While all scanners should offer the same basic features, customers with a larger budget will be able to choose different features that may be helpful for them.
- Data Options: Some higher-end scanners can connect to the internet, which allows for even more information. When plugged into a computer, these scanners will often show a great deal more information than they would on their own.