Carcode OBD-II PC-Based Scantool 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! Tiny Tim 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.