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Buying Guide for Your First Diagnostic Scan Tool

Stephanie writes for 4WheelOnline. As a car enthusiast, she loves writing about anything automotive.

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You and your vehicle are done with the getting-know-you stage, and you want to build a deeper relationship with it. Of course, you would probably want to know more about what makes it tick, is it doing okay, will it break down soon, or what's wrong with it? And hopefully, there's something you can do yourself if it has problems.

Back in the day, drivers and mechanics used their "feelings" when diagnosing vehicles. Some car issues are pretty obvious, like a flat tire or leaks. However, specific car issues are deep within the vehicle's system. DIYers may analyze their vehicle based on their use and the signs, symptoms, and the car's feel. Although some people still do this technique, vehicle diagnostics have become more precise with the advent of computers.

On-board computers in vehicles made reading live vehicle performance data, problems, or preventive maintenance schedules easier. Vehicle computers also enable mechanics and end-users to measure, analyze, or efficiently repair vehicles using car or truck performance monitors and diagnostic scan tools. Internet connectivity has also improved the accessibility to tools, information, and procedures about vehicle diagnosis and maintenance. If you want to buy your diagnostic tool, there are general considerations to look at to make sure you'll get what you need.

What is a diagnostic scan tool?

A diagnostic scan tool is synonymous with OBD (on-board diagnostic) scanning tool. It essentially reads data and fault codes coming from a vehicle's computer system. It also means if your car or truck does not have a computer system, then a diagnostic scan tool will not work.

OBD is not a new technology. Its first recorded use was in 1968 from Volkswagen. Later on, other car manufacturers like Datsun and GM followed suit. In 1988, the diagnostics and connectors were standardized. Then, in 1996, a standard OBD II became mandatory for all car manufacturers in the United States.

A diagnostic scan tool includes a console with a screen where the vehicle data interface. It also has buttons for control and a connector to the vehicle's OBD or OBD II port. The OBD II connector is rectangular with two lines of eight connector pins that inserts into the port found in your vehicle.

The connection transmits data from the vehicle's computer coming from different sensors and modules and is shown as data and codes on the screen of the diagnostic scan tool. Other more advanced scan tools can perform more complex procedures like resetting data, deleting fault codes, and suggesting repair approaches.

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Do I really need a diagnostic scan tool?

Even if you are not a car enthusiast and consider yourself just a daily driver, a diagnostic scanner is a valuable tool to have. Although most vehicles now have display warnings, many users may not know the meaning of all those warning lights.

Diagnostic scanner tools give information about your VIN, live data, fault codes, freeze frame data, and many more. The VIN pertains to the vehicle identification number, the information you need, especially for obtaining replacement parts for your vehicle.

Let's say you looked at tire and wheel packages as a primary upgrade for your ride. Everything looked fitted and fantastic, but you get a warning light when you start the car. Only a diagnostic scanner can help you figure out what went wrong. Even if you decide to take it to the mechanic, it's good to have your own readings so you can cross-check your scanner's data to their suggested repair procedures.

What should I consider when buying a diagnostic scan tool?

Knowing what you’re getting into is one thing while knowing the considerations before purchasing a diagnostic scanning tool is another. There are many OBD II tools in the market, and their differences can be miles apart. To help you out in picking one, here are fundamental aspects you should examine:

1. What do you want to do?

Ask yourself what you need a diagnostic tool for. Are you only interested in checking the state of your car? Maybe you don't want any auto repair shop to rip you off. Also, perhaps you want to DIY and make sure you get the right car or truck parts to replace.

Knowing your intended use can be deemed the most crucial consideration when purchasing your first OBD II scanner. Devices differ in capability and information availability. Entry-level scanners mainly read out data and delete fault codes but may not let you reset specific metrics.

2. What information do you need?

Your vehicle comprises different components and systems like your engine, transmission, electrical, or braking. Chances are, you are looking for a diagnostic tool because your car has a particular issue already. However, some OBD II scanners offer only certain information about these different systems. Examine the specifications of the diagnostic scanners to make sure the information you need is listed.

3. What vehicle will you use it for?

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Most OBD II scanners carry different car brands and make. Even so, make sure to go through the year, make and model the scanners can read. If you have several vehicles from different manufacturers, you can get a bang for your buck if you get a scanner carrying the brands you have.

4. How much is your budget?

Different specifications come at different prices. More functions are usually priced more. If you have a limited budget, stick to the specifications you can actually use. For example, if you will not be fixing your vehicle on your own, there's no point in getting a diagnostic scanner with repair approach functions. There are inexpensive scanner tools capable of reading any domestic, European, or Asian brands with OBD II like the Dinan OBD2 Scan Tool. These types give value for your money, especially if you have cars or trucks with different brands.

5. Is it upgradable?

Like other digital devices, some diagnostic scan tools are upgradable while some are not. There are options in the market that are upgradable for free for a limited time. Others have free upgrades indefinitely but come at a price. Upgradability is vital to ensure the accuracy of your OBD II tool. Also, an upgraded device may read new vehicle releases or any additional functions that older scanners may not detect.

What are the different types of diagnostic scan tools?

After weighing the mentioned considerations, it also helps to know the different diagnostic tools to judge better which one to buy. With the many options in the market, diagnostic scan tools can be categorized based on how they connect with the vehicle, their portability, and their functions.

Connectivity

Wired - Wired diagnostic scan tools have in and out wire connectors. One end connects to the console, and the other connects to the OBD II port of the vehicle. This type is effective in maintaining connection stability since it is done physically. However, the limitation here is the length of the wire. Diagnostics are usually done inside the vehicle or somewhere near.

Wireless/Bluetooth - With technological advancement, wireless diagnostic tools are now available in the market. This type gives freedom to the user to do vehicle analysis from a distance. Also, Bluetooth technology paved the way for diagnostic apps accessible through other devices like smartphones and laptops. However, wireless devices are usually more expensive and can only function depending on the reach of the Bluetooth device.

WiFi - This diagnostic scan tool connects to the car or truck through WiFI. Internet connectivity allows the user to access more information other than reading codes from the vehicle like repair procedures and replacement parts.


Portability

Handheld - These are portable OBD II scan tools you can bring anywhere. The size ranges from slightly larger than a smartphone to tablet-sized devices. However, don't be fooled with just the size. There are handheld scan tools that have basic to advanced functionalities.

Laptop/PC Based - Some diagnostic scan tools use laptops or PCs to analyze the vehicle's data. Most of them carry advanced computing functions used in diagnosing and repairing cars. Additionally, brand-specific scan tools generally use laptops or PCs.

Dongles - These are the most portable type of scanning tools. A dongle is a small device that connects to the OBD II port and connects wirelessly to the analyzer and screen. Users can access vehicle information through smartphones, handheld devices, laptops, or PCs.


Functions

Generic - From the word itself, generic scan tools can give basic reading about the engine and the powertrain control module (PCM). Essentially, it can perform the fundamental functions of an OBD II scan tool like clearing fault codes. Some can do basic resets, usually at an additional cost. It may apply to users who want to know more about their vehicle's performance.

Enhanced - This is the more amped-up type of scan tool. It can do all the essential functions plus more complex information and procedures. It can analyze other specific modules in modern cars like transmission, traction control modules, airbags, ABS, etc. The use of this type may be applicable for those who are interested in do-it-yourself fixes.

Professional/Factory - Typically, professional diagnostic scan tools are made by and for specific manufacturers. Aside from what the generic and enhanced scan tools can offer, this type of scan tool can do complex diagnostics and information. It also suggests repair approaches, calibrate replacement parts, do performance programming, and many more. However, professional scan tools support all these functions and still cater to many brands of vehicles. This one is more applicable if you have a knack for fixing different brands of vehicles or if you have a vehicle repair shop.

Scan away!

You don't need to be overwhelmed with the number of available diagnostic scan tools. With enough discernment and research, you'll be able to pick one depending on your usage, vehicle brand, and budget. To get the most out of your diagnostic scan tool, make sure to get it from a reputable brand and from reputable sellers like 4WheelOnline.

© 2022 Stephanie King

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