Nobody likes it when their check engine light comes on. Panic sometimes sets in, wondering what could possibly be wrong on your car. Was it a repair you just made, or are you using a different type of gasoline? Could just be that the gas cap wasn’t screwed on tightly enough.
When it happens to most people, they either head to a mechanic to get it looked at (sometimes costing upwards of $100 for a diagnostic scan,) or ignore the light, possibly causing more issues than before. A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive discovered than up to 10% of drivers are currently driving with their Check Engine light on, and half of those drivers have had the light on for more than 3 months.
CarMD is a hand-held device, no larger than a standard cordless phone that plugs into your (1996 or newer) vehicle’s OBDII (On-Board Diagnostics) port, usually located below the car’s dashboard. The device will scan the car’s computer for error codes and possible problems, then report back to you any potential problems, even if the check engine light isn’t on yet. You then plug the device into your computer and after creating an account on CarMD.com, it will give you a full report on the problem including an estimated repair cost. Continue reading for our review:
When we got the device, it came in a box with the scanner, batteries, a software disk and the required USB cable for your computer, and a handy carrying case. Within minutes of opening up the box, we were scanning my wife’s Acura RSX for problems. The check engine light was on, so it was a perfect opportunity to get the car checked out. On the front on the device, there is an LCD screen to display codes and other information, two simple buttons, and three LEDs – green, yellow, and red. Green lights when everything checks out fine, yellow when there is a potential issue, and red when you need a repair.
A few seconds after connecting the CarMD to the OBDII port (right below the dash,) and turning the car on (but not the ignition,) the device beeps indicating a successful reading. The LCD screen says “P1166” – a diagnostic code meant for deciphering later.
I installed the CarMD software on my PC (read below for minimum computer requirements,) connected the device via a USB cable, and the software immediately brought me to the CarMD website to create an account. I gave the VIN# of the RSX, and a report of the issue was generated, giving me detailed information about the problem (Oxygen Sensor,) potential fixes, and about how much it would cost to fix:
Click Image for Larger View
This information is invaluable to most consumers. With too many mechanics out there that will “tack-on” make-believe problems to jack up the bill, it helps to have this knowledge available. It’s also very useful for anyone buying a used car – always check it before you buy. Not all problems trigger the Check Engine light, however, and the CarMD will let you know (with a yellow light) about these potential issues, or if the car will not pass an emissions test.
Once you receive the information from CarMD.com, it will display an estimated cost of repair, as well as other potential fixes for the problem. Don’t use the cost guide as definitive though. Although the price was correct for some Oxygen Sensors, I found some for quite a bit less expensive. Another nice thing about CarMD is that they put you in touch with an ASE certified technician if you’re away from home and don’t have a computer – at no extra charge.
The folks at CarMD really set out to make a great, comprehensive product here that’s easy for the average consumer to use to it’s full potential…and they did. This device is very easy to use and analyze, and is almost dummy-proof.
There are a couple of downsides as well, of course. First of all, you can only add three car profiles to your account, and only run six reports per month. The likelihood of you needing more than this amount is very low, but in case you do, I asked why they limit this amount:
“It was important for CarMD.com Corp. to limit the number of reports a customer could generate because the company’s database information is so very valuable. Our database has been developed over a decade and is updated daily with input and validation from thousands of ASE techs from across the country.”
A couple things I don’t like about the CarMD is that the software included to install on your PC is set to run every time you start your computer. This means that unless you know how to stop programs from running at boot-time, that’s just one more program that makes your computer take longer to start up. My only other complaint is that you cannot clear codes with this device. So if you’re troubleshooting the issue and need to reset the code to see if it comes back on, you’re out of luck and have to go to the mechanic (unless you know how to reset your ECU manually.) based on that point, I should reiterate that the CarMD is not for you if you’re a do-it-yourselfer. The inability to clear codes is very limiting if you like to troubleshoot problems yourself.
Considering what the CarMD does and how easy it is to use, those complaints are minor, and there’s no reason that every household shouldn’t have one sitting in their glovebox. Are there other tools out there that do the same thing? Of course. Do any of them do it so effortlessly and easily? If there is one, I haven’t seen it.
Buy one for $89 at CarMD.com
Minimum PC requirements:
* WindowsÂ® PC system
* Windows 99 (SE), Windows ME, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Or Windows Vista
* 50 MB of free hard disk space
* 128 MB RAM
* Pentium III processor
* 1 USB port
* Internet connection
* Internet Explorer 5.5, Netscape 7.0 or Firefox 1.0 browser