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Laptop, smartphone apps offer an alternative to scan tools

Friday, June 2, 2017 - 07:00
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Professional technicians don’t generally purchase tools that do-it-yourself. The reasons for this can include tool quality, availability of specialized tools, longevity and ease of repair or replacement. In general, the adage that “you get what you pay for” holds true for automotive tools. This reasoning also applies to electronic tools as well. For example, a $30 digital multimeter can provide basic electrical measurement capabilities, but it’s no substitute for a professional meter like the Fluke 88V that retails for $449 and is designed for automotive use with features like Min/Max record, millisecond fuel injector pulse width and an analog bar graph.

Pick a phone—both iPhone (at left) and Android smartphone platforms allow users to download OBD-II related apps that turn their phone into a portable dynamometer, scan tool and trouble code library. iTunes and Google Play websites have a mind-boggling number of these types of apps that range in cost from free to $10

Scan tools are no different. DIY models range in price from $35 for a simple coder reader to around $500 for a scan tool. Professional scan tools start at about $800 and can exceed $6,000 for the most sophisticated models. Spending $6,000 for a scan tool may not make economic sense for every technician and many shops have one high-end scan tool that multiple technicians uses on an as-needed basis. Depending on how big and how busy a shop is, having only one scan tool can create a diagnostic bottleneck, particularly when a vehicle first comes into a shop for an estimate. Having an inexpensive scan tool for every technician can speed things up on a busy morning when lots of vehicles show up with their check engine light on. There are alternatives to using a hand-held scanner to perform basic functions like reading trouble codes and turning the check engine light off and many technicians already own half of an inexpensive, portable, highly functional scan tool — a laptop or smartphone.

By installing diagnostic software, and purchasing an OBD-II interface, a laptop can become a powerful, portable scanner with a large high-resolution display screen.

Technicians who already own a laptop can avoid some of the cost of a hand-held scanner or code reader by using it as a scan tool. A laptop with OBDII software installed, and a connection to the vehicle’s OBDII data link connector (DLC), can provide technicians with the same or greater levels of functionality as many high-end scan tools. The hardware component of this setup is a USB cable and adapter that plugs into a vehicle’s DLC, connecting it to a laptop. Wireless communication is also available via Bluetooth, or WIFI connectivity. There are numerous software programs available that turn the laptop into a scan tool, including free “shareware” that can be downloaded. In addition to reading and erasing DTCs, this software can also display customized gauges (analog and digital), graphs, tables, charts and alerts, all of which can be viewed as a virtual dashboard. Because of their portability, a laptop can be taken along for a test drive to record OBDII data.

The downside of using a laptop as a scan tool is that many are too fragile to survive a typical shop environment for long. Laptop keyboards and greasy fingers are not a good combination, and a laptop that makes an unintentional “trip” from the workbench to the shop floor is going to be expensive, if not impossible, to repair. They also take up lots of space in a toolbox drawer. A better alternative to a hand-held scan tool or laptop is the other device that most technicians already own — a smartphone.

There’s an app for that!

What do smartphones have to do with OBDII? You may have heard the saying, “There’s an app for that.” And there are many OBDII-related mobile applications. Searching Google Play and Apple’s iTunes websites, over 500 applications can be found that allow a smartphone access to OBDII data via a dongle, or adaptor, that plugs into a vehicle’s diagnostic connector. Adaptors are available online from $10 to $100, and many have Bluetooth or WIFI capabilities to connect with a smartphone. Some adaptors work only with their specific apps and offer more than a generic interface of OBDII vehicle data.

Between the Google Play Store (Android) and Apple Store (iPhone) there are over 500 apps that utilize on-board vehicle computer output from the OBD-II data link to interface with these applications. They provide a wealth of information, education and entertainment all at a low cost to the user.

OBDII-related apps are an inexpensive way for technicians to have a fully functional Global OBDII scan tool that as a bonus receives and makes phone calls. Many of these applications do more than simply read and erase trouble codes. They can display real-time data from the car’s engine management system, provide instant fuel economy numbers and display custom dashboards with all types of gauges. With all the OBDII data available, it’s no wonder that some of these applications also offer some fun, behind-the-wheel features. Because smartphones are equipped with accelerometers and GPS-locating capabilities, OBDII apps can provide a sophisticated view of a car's performance. The vehicle’s weight, horsepower, torque and acceleration can all be calculated and displayed in the form of performance gages or graphs. We’ll take a closer look at some OBDII adapters and smartphone apps that are especially useful for professional technicians.

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BlueDriver Adapter and smartphone app

Lemur Monitors (www.lemurmonitors.com) provides advanced diagnostic solutions via their BlueDriver platform. The BlueDriver app is designed to work exclusively with their adapter as a complete system. Available for both Android and iOS devices, the BlueDriver app focuses on repair instead of fuel economy or engine horsepower information and is ideal for the professional technician.

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