Simple OBD2 Scanner Buying Guide

This guide will cover Onboard Diagnostic Scanners (OBD2) and why this affordable and invaluable tool should be as ubiquitous as a spare tire for nearly all vehicle owners. Every domestic or imported vehicle manufactured since 1996 is mandated to be equipped with a data port located near the driver’s seat. In the years prior to 1996, domestically sold vehicles weren’t required to feature these data ports. If you own a Ford, GM, Chrysler, or Toyota from the 1980s-1995, there is a scanner that is adaptable to OBD1 technology. More on that later.

Most drivers, when the inevitable check engine or oil change light pops-up, will race towards the nearest mechanic shop or dealer service center and begrudgingly shell-out $249 for a vehicle diagnostic check.

The price of OBD scanners has dropped precipitously in recent years, which means that they are no longer cost-prohibitive. Even if you are a neophyte to car repairs, you can’t afford to not feature one of these devices in your arsenal. It should be noted that major auto parts retailers will OBD scan your vehicle and provide you with codes free of charge, or let you borrow their scanner.

Next, I will outline the benefits of owning an OBD scanner, even if you aren’t mechanically inclined.

Benefits of Owning an OBD2 Scanner

- At a typical cost starting at $30, these devices are affordable, and will pay for themselves if they save you even one trip to the shop.
- Erase error codes and turn off oil change lights in your driveway.
- In-depth diagnostic information of all major systems of your vehicle, including predictive repairs.
- Spot-check the integrity and honesty of your mechanic.
- Avoid costly, unnecessary repairs.
- Diagnose and repair basic issues yourself without the need for expensive technicians.

Like most consumer electronics, selecting the right make and model can be a daunting task. In the next section, I will cover the basic differences between the types of OBD scanners and the features you should focus on.

Types & Features of OBD2 Scanners

Entry-level, or handheld scanners are hardwired, which means that you attach a cable adapter to the data port in your vehicle which transmits a wired signal to the device. The information they provide is basic, like typical error codes. You will be relegated to cross-referencing these codes to Google. Their scope is more narrow than the more expensive OBDs. Most of the entry-level models will not facilitate the removal of error lights, and provide only the most basic of diagnostic information.

Inexpensive OBDs are simply code readers, and more elaborate ones are scan tools. For the typical car owner seeking to audit their mechanic or assess and address a basic issue, a code reader is likely adequate. For more advanced diagnostics and car repairs, a scan tool is probably the answer. All scan tools are code readers, but not all code readers are scan tools.

Also available at the entry price level are dongle-style tools that plug into your data port and transmit all pertinent vehicle data to a number of different apps. They do not have wires, a keyboard, or a screen like handheld units.

At the top of the price range are the wireless OBDs, which transmit their data on-screen or via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to a customized app. These devices provide the most in-depth diagnostics, parts recommendations, service updates (like recalls), thorough vehicular systems evaluations, and repair instructions. They will also turn your check engine or oil change light off. They can even evaluate the health of your battery, and offer predictive information if a system is bound for maintenance or repair. They have the traditional keyboard and screen, but also work through diagnostic apps.

It’s important to cross-reference your vehicle with the model of scanner you are considering purchasing. Not all devices work with every make and model of cars.

If you are simply wanting to diagnose your check engine light, the less-expensive code readers will suffice. If you plan on tackling a portion of your ongoing maintenance and repairs and are fairly mechanically-adept, spring for one of the more elaborate scanning models.

The differences in scanners can be subtle, so scour the reviews to make an informed buying decision. In the next section, I’ll provide you with a few of the top-rated devices, their prices, and key features.

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