By on February 19, 2014

scan tool. Shutterstock user Africa Studio

TTAC commentator Toy Maker writes:

Hi again Sajeev,

Steven Lang’s post buying quality tools piked my interest again on getting myself an OBDII scanner. But which one is right for me? Even the Autel brand mentioned by Steve have readers ranging from $30 to the $350 Autel MD802 mentioned in Steve’s post.

I don’t plan on working on my cars much, just want to use more than onomatopoeias to converse with my mechanics. (Nice. – SM)

Though I did read online “Scanners” can give you more real-time diagnostic than “Code Reader”. Is there guideline to say when should someone spring for a Scanner , and when can they settle for a Reader? My budget for this month is under $100. Will be less after Christmas time, but much more when the CEL comes on again.


Sajeev answers:

In theory, you want the tool that pulls the most codes for your car(s), but the cheaper tools pull basic powertrain codes and little else. Which kinda makes them useless as our cars get more complicated with more fail points. Damn those proprietary software codes from each manufacturer!

In reality, you can go to any parts store and they’ll pull most engine codes for free.  Or get a super cheap one from Harbor Freight if you are too lazy/uppity to go to said retail establishment.

If you need to reprogram some obscure VW Transmission after doing a fluid change, a super special tool (i.e. VAG-COM) is necessary.  But if you have a late-model GM pickup, buying a normal code scanner with the additional GM software isn’t a bad idea.  It all depends on how “smart” you want to look.

Speaking of, OBD-II works nicely with most WiFi enabled smart phones. Which is super cool if you (like me) are wired to these damn things.  What’s not to love about a little plug for your OBD-II port and an app on your phone to give you an ungodly amount of data?  If you have an uber-tuned machine, a fancypants phone and the desire to know everything, the show-off factor available gives you ultimate bragging rights.

To wrap things up, the value proposition of owning your own scan tool depends on a few salient points:

  • Brand loyalty to a single manufacturer. (GM, Ford, VAG, etc.)
  • Interest in fixing problems with a repair manual and extensive searching on brand specific forums.
  • Desire for another plastic box that’ll collect dust in your garage and/or ability to wow your mechanic with non-onomatopoeia based communication
  • Interest in using the free tool at the parts store, or the (somewhat) better rent-able tool (deposit required) when needed.

Quite honestly, communication via onomatopoeia isn’t the end of the world. This is why we pay for mechanics, and why they (usually) add value to our society.

[Image: Shutterstock user Africa Studio]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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24 Comments on “Piston Slap: Better Than Onomatopoeias?...”

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Onomatopeia: the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named. (e.g., cuckoo, sizzle).

    Thanks to Saint Google for the definition.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Speaking of Onomatopeia, the Navajo word for “car” is “chitty” describing the sound cars made at the turn of the last century. “Chitty” has passed into the language in the four corners area of Northwest New Mexico, Northeast Arizona, Southeast Utah. “Chitty” has passed into the English language in that area.

  • avatar

    My two cents is as follows. Get a less expensive code clearer/reader to get you out of limp mode or for first round trouble shooting. Let your tuning shop or garage pay for the manufacturer specific software.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d go with this too.
      It lets you rule out certain potentially dangerous or serious faults and get a bit of piece of mind while you get expert help.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Mama

      I bought a $20 bluetooth obd2 scanner from eBay. With this gadget and the $5 Android software Torque I can check error codes, compute my hp, 0-60 times and much more. Here’s an adapter for $4.44

  • avatar

    I have a $100 Autel scanner/digital gauge thing. It gives me the generic P-codes, clears CEL, and gives me useful readouts like MAP, IAT, so I can see if values are wonky. Well worth what I paid for it.

  • avatar

    Buy one!

    Because the autoparts store will not clear the code anymore(liability).

    If you have iOS or Android smart phone buy a $10.00 ELM 327 from China via eBay. The application in basic version is free(Android) and will clear most ecu codes.

  • avatar

    So did Sanjeev steal a Batman costume and you are regulating on him, Sajeev?

  • avatar

    I’ve paid a lot of mechanics lately. This is a great idea. Time to learn again.

  • avatar

    Multi-syllabic headlines on TTAC? Have I wandered into Bizarro World? I’m just a country gearhead, Jim.

  • avatar

    My scan gauge ($140 about 7 years ago) has saved me from tsuris and worse on several occasions. On a couple of occasions I was able to call a mechanic friend with a code and learn that it was something innocuous. On one occasion, when the car started mysteriously missing like crazy one morning, I brought it into the mechanic, who was full up that day, but who was able to tell me that 304 was a misfire code. I was able to deduce that the problem was most likely old spark plug wires. I got new wires, which fixed the problem.

  • avatar
    Toy Maker

    Thanks Sajeev and great advice from others as well. Thankfully the CEL hasn’t come on again, but I have enough cars within the family that can certainly use the piece of mind should the occation arises. (2004 xB, 2007 Fit, 2013 Civic).

    Now to make that switch to an android phone..

    • 0 avatar

      You can get a USB scanner to if you have a laptop. I have this one works great just throw the laptop in the passenger seat. The software even has a function to see if you can pass your state emission test. Very useful.

  • avatar

    After watching a lot of youtube videos by ScannerDanner, id really love to have a bidirectional scantool. Those things do just about everything, including allowing you to control the operation of solenoids, stepper motors, switches, fans and a lot of electronic stuff. as long as its controlled by the ECU, you can tell the computer to turn stuff on and off.

    but theyre pretty expensive and i doubt id use it much.

  • avatar

    I’d get a scan tool. When my two new cars are out of warranty (’11 Focus, ’12 Mustang) I’m going to pick one up. My other two cars are old (’88 Thunderbird, ’91 Mark VII) and use Ford’s EEC-IV processor. I can retrieve codes from those cars with a paper clip and counting check engine light flashes. Not so much with a modern car. The big question is are you handy (IE do you do most of your own maintenance/troubleshooting/repairs)? If so the scan tool is probably worth the investment.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    A Scangauge or Ultragauge are also alternatives for people who want some real-time data monitoring and don’t want to use their phone for that.

  • avatar

    If you are just trying to check what’s throwing a CEL, a lot of cars have diagnostic connector that you can jump with a paper clip bent into an arc or a wire to read blinking lights.

    I’ve done enough diagnostic (misfire, SRS failure, etc) and clearing without buying a tool.

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