By Mark BAT AUTO Technical Editor
Gone are the days of pulling out a paper clip and accessing the computer trouble codes in Macgyver like fashion. Many do-it-yourselfers (DIYs) were just getting used to the idea that a paper clip and a multimeter could handle the sometimes complicated diagnostics found on todays computer-controlled vehicles. You're still in luck if you own a 1995 or older vehicle. But they pulled the rug out from under the DIY on these newer vehicles.......or so many of you think.
I know the scenario. You dig through the repair manual only to find that you CAN'T ACCESS THE CODES WITHOUT A SCANTOOL on any vehicle from 1996 on (OBD-II). Next question is "How do I get ahold of one of these scantools and how much are they?" You call around only to find that you're looking at different models ranging from maybe 400$-2500$. Pretty expensive paper clips. Most of you just give in and take it to the dealer. Others post to the forums hoping for a Macgyver solution. The truth is that there is no way to pick the computer's brain without the help of some gadget. And you're in luck because the crack BAT AUTO staff has dug a little deeper and sifted through the nonsense to find some quality, affordable solutions for DIYs. In the process we managed to discover some equipment that even professional technicians may find useful. Read on to find out about the first gem we've uncovered: The Carcode Scantool!!
Features, Features, Features
Before going into the details of what this little beast can do we should probably take a moment to point out what features you're typically looking for in a scantool. Its an endless list but here's what we think are the most important ones:
Read Trouble Codes The unit should at least be able to tell you if there are any codes stored in the computer's memory.
Clear Trouble Codes The ability to clear any codes stored in memory.
Datastream Access The ability to view live sensor data
Vehicle Compatibility Will the unit be compatible with the vehicle you're working on?? Not all OBD-II vehicles use the same communication protocol. In fact, there are 3 different types. So, make sure you are getting a tool that recognizes the protocol of the vehicles you are interested in servicing.
Upgradeable?? Is the unit capable of future upgrades? This is a very important feature since new vehicles and evolving standards are a fact of life.
Technical Support Is there a support system to help get the most out of the tool and work through any glitches that may come up.
Supported Parameters Does the unit provide the standard OBD-II parameter set or does it support the manufacturer specific "enhanced parameters"?
Data Logging An ability to store sensor data for retrieval at a later date. This is a very useful feature for tracking down intermittent problems or doing more advanced troubleshooting.
Cost This is obviously the bottom line. The tool must be cost-effective.
How you weigh the above features is up to you. I'll just point out that the basic "code readers" do just that: they read the codes and spit out a number on a screen. Some may even clear the codes for you. But these gadgets aren't cheap. Many are at a comparable price to the Carcode scantool and the comparison of features is like comparing a Yugo to a Mercedes. Don't even waste your time. As I go through the features of the Carcode scantool, you'll see that it scores high on most of the above features. It also has many additional features that are unique to a PC-based tool.
Well, up until now I've glossed over the obvious difference with this class of scantool: You need a computer. Is this an upside or a downside? I think of it this way. If you're reading this you have a computer. And why shouldn't you take advantage of such a powerful appliance like a PC that's capable of crunching through these simple tasks without even blinking? Many small appliances like your cell phone and your microwave oven etc have their own little microprocessors. The same is true for the stand-alone scantools. A little known fact is that the PC accounts for only 1% of the total microprocessor market and they are by far the most powerful. Before I stray too far from the subject, the point is that it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the PC that you already have. The power lies in the development of clever software to make it happen!
When I received the Carcode tool for this review, I must admit I was a bit suprised at how incredibly compact this unit is.
Its barely the size of my old trusty pliers....but alot more powerful. The black unit is the main hardware component which houses the electronic circuitry that translates the messages from the car's computer. The gray cable is a standard PC serial port cable and the blue cable has an OBD-II connector on the end which connects to the terminal in your vehicle. THATS IT. It would fit in your shirt pocket!! I can appreciate anything designed so compactly and efficiently because I already have enough tools to clutter my workbench! As I mentioned above, the true power of this tool lies in the software package.
The Nitty Gritty
So, lets get into the heart of this tool: the software. I used a pentium 266 Megahertz laptop with a 1 gig hard drive and 64 Megs of ram for my tests. If you do not have a laptop, you can use a standard desktop PC. All you will need is a longer serial cable extension to reach the PC. The tool was designed to work with even the old dinosaur computers like the 386 and even runs on older operating systems like Windows 3.1 (can you remember that far back?). Most current computers will run the Carcode software with absolute ease. The unit being tested was a "triple combo unit" which is compatible with all OBD-II vehicles. Other models are available that recognize only one of the three protocols for a lower cost. I'll cover the product options and pricing at the end of the article.
I started by perusing the Carcode Website to get an idea of how the tool worked. I also downloaded the VE1-OBD-2 software and read through the help file for a little more detail. I then hooked the hardware to the OBD-II port of the '96 Honda Civic sitting in my shop. I managed to forget to turn the ignition key on and the software was able to detect this and stepped me through the connection without a hitch. It even identified the protocol of the vehicle I was connected to automatically. 2 hours after opening the box I felt relatively comfortable using the tool.
The Carcode scantool was developed by automotive engineer Alex C. Peper who has been involved in computer programming and automotive data acquisition for most of his career. He has produced an incredibly clever and well-oiled little gadget here. His talents really show in the design of the software package. It works flawlessly and seems to be able to handle every possible user-related mistake. And believe me, I did some stupid things like forgetting to turn on the key, not plugging it in all the way, trying to replay files that didn't have any data.....and on and on. Each time the software simply alerted me to my mistake and was able to re-direct itself perfectly.
The software has a bit of a techy feel with computer terms like "addresses" and "modes" used throughout. The communication between the car's computer and the PC obviously involves the identification of where things are stored (addresses) and different sequences of commands (modes). This may be confusing or a bit distracting for some but there are usually text descriptions for each address and mode. So, the end result is that you still can find what you're looking for.
At this point, I'm going to walk you through the many different screens and functions of the Carcode tool. If you are not interested in this level of detail, please feel free to skip ahead to the appropriate sections.
The first screen that comes up is the information screen. As you can see from the figure below, the software browser window is arranged with a series of tabs corresponding to the different "screens".
There is a place to enter the dates, vehicle information and general comments. The stamp window is a nice feature. If you're scanning the vehicle and you have a specific point in time which is interesting, you can press the stamp button and write in a description of why this particular time is important. In my case it marked the time at which I started a hard acceleration since I was interested in taking data during this condition. As you will see later, this is handy because one of the key features of this tool is that it allows you to take your data, store/log it, then retrieve it at a later time. The stamp feature will get you to the exact location of interest. The way this feature interacts with the graphing window is a little cumbersome, but I'll talk more about that when I get to the graphics screen. Finally, there is a log window which records all the steps that the software went through during your connection. This would come in handy if you had to go back to investigate a connection problem etc.
Here the status of all the OBD-II monitor tests are displayed. This is also the location where you access any stored trouble codes. In this case, the Civic did not have any codes stored. If it did, we could go directly to the codes screen to get the complete listing. There is also a button on this screen which you use to clear any current codes. The button in this case is not activated since there are no codes to clear.
This is where you look at all the sensor data that the ECM is receiving/sending. When this screen first appears, there isn't any live data. You must highlight the particular value of interest and then hit the send button to get the data to appear. In this case, I hit the $00 PID SUP($01-$20) button then the send button to just list all supported parameters. In this case, the generic 20 OBD-II parameters are available. As I mentioned previously, each manufacturer has specific enhanced parameters (up to 255 more parameters) which may or may not be available on a particular scantool. In the case of the Carcode tool, the enhanced parameters are currently only available for Ford and a couple GM powertrain options. No enhanced parameters are available for imports such as this Honda. However, future software upgrades will include these additions at no cost.
To the right of the data screen, you can see a statistics tab that shows all the important statistical figures for whatever parameter is highlighted in the list: in this case it is the load value. There is also an ET tab which allows you to control the recording of the scan data as if you were using a stopwatch. You can set start and stop times and even lap times. A really neat feature. And you can also control the sampling frequency (how many data points the unit records in a given amount of time). And lastly, a really clever feature is the audio checkbox. If you check this box you can keep your eyes on the road and monitor the parameter of interest as a sound signal. The frequency of the sound goes up and down according to the value of the parameter. In this case, if the load value was high I would hear a high frequency sound. Is that cool or what??
This is where the diagnostic power of this tool becomes apparent. You can plot up to three different parameters at once and compare them to one another to see if they are responding correctly. In this case, I plotted Load, RPM, and TPS versus time. If you take the time to go through this, you can reconstruct the driving conditions very easily. You could also have multiple parameters graphed together on each of the three plots. If you have an intermittent problem or just want to time stamp a particular event, you must go to the information screen and hit the time stamp button. This will record the actual time of day of the time stamp. To translate this to a particular point on the graph you will need to figure out how many seconds have elapsed since the start of your scanning run. This is cumbersome and could be upgraded to show the time stamp on the graph itself. Maybe this will be addressed in future upgrades. You can also plot one parameter versus another if you click the circle next to the "z" in the lower right corner. The limits of your diagnostic power are literally endless. You can use your imagination to create strategies to hunt down complicated driveability problems. An upcoming series of articles on advanced driveability diagnostics will utilize the Carcode and Autotap PC scantools for this very purpose.
This screen is where you can view a freeze frame snapshot of the data parameters when an emission related trouble code was set. In this case, there weren't any codes stored so the screen is empty.
This screen is where you can request and list out any codes that are stored or pending. As mentioned previously in the status screen section, this is where you would go if any codes were indicated. You can also press the history buttons to see what codes have been present and when they were cleared etc. This may help give you an idea of what problems existed in the vehicle's recent past.
O2 Sensor Screen
This screen is where you can monitor the O2 sensor output. You can pick which sensor if there are multiple sensors and plot the results on a voltage versus time scaleable plot.
This screen is where the output for tests that are not conducted continuously are displayed. The tests that are available depend on the particular manufacturer. In this case, only the evaporative system test could be performed.
The purpose of this screen was not readily apparent to me so I have not included it. It involves searching for some manufacturer specific data and it is not clear how its used. I would recommend not playing with this particular function until further support for it is provided.
This screen is really cool. You can actually set up a virtual dashboard of gauges for whatever parameters you want. I've chosen VS, RPM, LOAD, ECT, SFT1, and LFT1 but you can choose whatever you want to look at. You can even change the gauges appearance and min, max, and redline values. This is an appealing alternative to the graph screen when you are comparing sensor values.
Done Scanning, Now What??
When you finish scanning all your data, you simply press the end button in the uppermost menu on the browser screen. The program will then prompt you to save the scan data in a file. You can name the file whatever you want and store it wherever you wish on the PC. Then, you can retrieve the data at a later time by running the program and then pressing replay and choosing that particular filename.
The real beauty of a PC scantool is that you don't have to do your diagnostics while you're under the hood or in the driver's seat. You can simply record everything of interest and store it. Then go sit down with a clear head and meticulously go over what you've recorded to find the problem.
O.K. I know most people care the most about how much it costs. The amazing thing is that this tool is the lowest cost unit we have found. As I previously mentioned, there are 3 different types of protocols that OBD-II uses.
A unit which recognizes only one of these protocols lists for 122$.
Or you can opt for a "double combo" unit which recognizes 2 protocols for 142$,
or the "triple combo" unit which recognizes all 3 for 162$.
The highest performance model is the "Tricom model" which sells for 182$.
This unit can be used on all vehicles and has a one-piece connection.
I encourage you to visit the Carcode Website for more detail on pricing and options.
There are other options as well that include laptops etc. In our exhaustive search for OBD-II equipment, we have found simple code readers that cost more than this. It is a fantastic value and a fantastic product.
Plusses and Minuses
For those of you who want a quick scorecard, I'd have to summarize it like this:
Compact size and portability
Ability to easily read and clear codes
Datastream access including graphing and dashboard style gauges
Covers generic OBD-II parameters for whatever combination of vehicles you want
Excellent technical support
Free future software upgrades
Data Logging (By far the most valuable feature)
Excellent software package
Enhanced parameters only for Ford and a few GM powertrains
Not a stand-alone unit. You need a computer
Overall the tool provides quite a bang for the buck. I was frankly amazed at some of the features built into the software. There were so many little things that I couldn't even include them all in this review. Some of the other features will be highlighted in the upcoming driveability articles.
If you have additional questions or suggestions for highlights in the future driveability series, feel free to . I also encourage people interested in this tool to visit the Carcode website and get more information directly from the source.
Thanks for taking the time to read this review and I hope that it helps you figure out what types of equipment are available and what best fits your particular needs.
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