Your Guide to the Best Car Diagnostic Tools of 2020

By: // Updated: September 17, 2020

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As a rideshare or delivery driver, vehicle maintenance is likely one of your top priorities. However, even the healthiest cars have bad days, and it’s not uncommon for bad days to trigger the dreaded check engine light.

When your vehicle tells you something is wrong, don’t panic. The most important thing to do is find a solution to maximize your car’s safety and efficiency so you can continue earning on the road. But first, you need a reliable car diagnostic tool.

This article will help you understand what a car diagnostic tool is, how to use it, and which models you should purchase.

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What Is a Car Diagnostic Tool?

Car dashboard

Car diagnostic tools are most commonly known as OBD2 or OBD-II scanners. Their primary purpose is to detect the error code associated with your car issues when your check engine light turns on. This allows you to understand where the issues are coming from, so you can diagnose the exact issue your vehicle is experiencing.

It’s important to note that OBD1 scanners do exist and are a separate type of diagnostic scan tool. These are dedicated to vehicles models from 1995 and earlier, whereas OBD2 scan tools have been the proper code readers for all modern vehicles, whether you’re driving a Nissan or a Mercedes-Benz, since 1996. Neither OBD (onboard diagnostics) scanner is interchangeable for the other.

For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on OBD2 scanners. These tools are incredibly helpful when you want to save yourself a trip to the mechanic, or if you want to pinpoint the issue to prevent unnecessary charges before you head over. In the long run, having one on hand will save you a lot of time, money, and headache.

3 Best OBD2 Scanner Brands

Shopping for a high-quality OBD2 scanner is a necessity to ensure accuracy and efficiency in your car repairs. Here are some of the most trusted brands for OBD2 scan tools (and some great models they make) to help you collect your trouble code:

1. Autel

Best car diagnostic tool: Autel

Autel produces a large amount of highly rated OBD2 scan tools, ranging from tools for beginners to professional diagnostic tools for the highest quality support. All Autel tools are compatible with most newer vehicles, and provide code definitions so you don’t need to scour the web to translate your error code. Here are a few of our favorite models produced by the company:

  • Autel AutoLink AL319: This low-cost model isn’t just your run-of-the-mill scanner. Even with its small $35 price tag, the Autel AutoLink goes beyond translating your check engine light. You can find freeze frame data for the moment your vehicle’s faultiness started. Plus, you can perform an unofficial emissions test using this tool.
  • Autel MaxiLink ML619: The Autel MaxiLink is a mid-range Autel product that additionally offers a live data display to help you pinpoint issues with maximum accuracy. The best reason to upgrade to the MaxiLink is for the lifetime of free online updates, which will keep your fault codes and data as accurate as possible.
  • Autel MaxiDiag MD808: This professional-grade car diagnostic tool certainly isn’t a necessity for most drivers, but if you’re passionate about DIY car maintenance and repairs, the Autel MaxiDiag will be a great asset. This tool allows you to not only diagnose troubles, but keep up with everyday maintenance tasks with an easy-to-follow user experience.

If you really want to go crazy, Autel is a highly trusted scanner brand that also produces ultra high-end products that connect to WiFi, have cameras, and help you update your car firmware. Of course, we don’t recommend this for everyday use. Unless you’re planning to open a repair shop or collect OBD2 scanners as a hobby, extremely high-end scan tools will be a waste of your hard-earned money.

2. BlueDriver

Best car diagnostic tool: BlueDriver

BlueDriver primarily has one major OBD product on the market: the BlueDriver Bluetooth Pro OBD-II Scan Tool. This incredible tool cuts down the bulkiness of traditional OBD2 scan tools by only providing the plug and allowing you to connect to your Android or iOS device via Bluetooth to complete the diagnosis. This way, you’ll be able to deal with a touchscreen setup that you’re familiar with for maximum efficiency.

BlueDriver’s Bluetooth scanner provides its users with not only real-time information, but also with data reports that you can save and export. The app will also suggest fixes based on your car code, so you’ll have a course of action before making maintenance purchases. It’s no wonder this is a favorite among many car owners and professionals.

3. Actron

Like Autel, Actron produces quite a few different car diagnostic tools fit for beginners and enthusiasts. Here, we’ll focus specifically on the Actron CP9690 Elite AutoScanner Kit.

This scanning kit uniquely functions as an OBD1 and OBD2 scan tool, covering Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota vehicles from 1984 to 1995 in addition to modern vehicles. Of course, this isn’t the only helpful touch. Though this Actron model isn’t exactly low-end, it does provide solutions from a database with millions of verified fixes, and gives you freeze-frame and real-time data.

Using Your Car Diagnostic Tool

Best car diagnostic tool

Once you have your OBD2 scanner in hand, the next step is learning to use it. Follow these directions to start uncovering whatever issue your car is facing:

  1. Find your vehicle’s diagnostic link connector, which should be the male end of the port that your OBD scanner will be able to plug into. This is typically located on the driver’s side of the car, below the steering wheel but above the brakes.
  2. Plug in your OBD2 scanner. You’ll typically need to turn on your ignition (without turning on your engine) for the scan tool to begin reading your vehicle’s trouble code.
  3. Select the option on your scanner that allows you to read the codes. Record the code(s) you are provided in the order that they appear.

With your code(s) in hand, you’re ready to decipher the meaning behind your strange combination of letters and numbers. The first letter will always pinpoint the faulty area of your vehicle: B for body, C for chassis, P for powertrain, and U for user network. The second number will tell you if it’s a generic code that applies to all vehicles (0) or if it’s specific to your car manufacturer (1).

The final three characters of your trouble code will narrow down specifically what’s causing the issue, denoting anything from ignition system errors or transmission troubles. To finalize your diagnosis, you can use this guide to further decode what your check engine light is telling you, or Google the error code for more specifics.

Before you spend money replacing expensive parts of your vehicle, make sure you take a look at the faulty area first. It’s always possible that there’s simply a clog or a jam in the area affecting your vehicle’s function, and the part is working just fine.

Diagnostic Tool Alternative

Tools in an auto shop

If an OBD2 scanner is currently out of your budget, we recommend heading to your local auto parts store for a diagnosis. While this isn’t as convenient as having a code reader exactly when you need it, most auto parts stores will gladly provide a quick scan for free.

Calling ahead to ensure this complimentary service is available will prevent you from wasting time on the road with your check engine light on. However, the majority of these national chains will have an OBD2 scanner for visitors on hand:

Frequently Asked Questions

Man putting oil into a car

Ready to put your diagnostic skills to the test? Your first go at reading your error code may require some help from Google, but to ensure you’re as prepared as you can be, we’ve answered a few common questions about car diagnostic tools:

1. Where can I find an OBD1-specific scanner for my vehicle?

Online ordering is your best bet. Though some auto parts stores may still have OBD1 tools in stock, it’s more efficient to order off their websites or than to hop from store to store.

If you don’t want to purchase a scanner, O’Reilly Auto Parts does specify that it offers OBD1 scans as a free service, in addition to OBD2 scans.

2. Why is my check engine light still on after repairs?

Sometimes, your vehicle just needs a bit of time to take into account the repairs. You can reset your check engine light from your OBD2 scan tool’s main menu. If the light remained on because additional repairs are needed, the light will turn back on after you spend some time driving.

3. Can I write off my OBD2 scan tool purchase as a business expense?

If you’re a rideshare driver or delivery driver, your OBD scanner purchase will make you more than likely eligible for a tax deduction. We recommend consulting with an accountant, but most expenses directly related to your independent contractor job can be written off during tax season.

Get Back to Earning Fast

When you’re a car owner who depends on your vehicle to make a living, it can be difficult to hear that your vehicle needs repairs. With a car diagnostic tool ready the moment your check engine light turns on, you’ll be prepared to stop the issue before it makes long-term damages.

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