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In the first part of this little series, we talked about the PLX Kiwi2 device, which takes your car's diagnostic-port data (OBDII) and sends it over the air to your iPod, iPad, or iPhone. This week, we'll take a look at some software. But first, why bother when you can get a code reader so cheaply?
The answer is because, while it's good to know what your car computer things is wrong, it's sometimes not nearly enough. Perhaps you want performance data (0-60 and quarter mile times), more accurate than what you can get from your iPhone's accelerometer. Perhaps you want to have a really good, detailed log of gas mileage. Maybe you're diagnosing to see which sensor might be just flaky enough to cause problems, but not enough to log an error code, or you're tracking down a problem that the car computer can't diagnose well. You might even have an issue that comes up only when you're driving, so that you need a log file rather than live readings. In all these cases, a code reader is insufficient; you need a more serious device.
Software of this type often seems to get superceded by newer programs; updates and upgrades are not certain, even for web services. Don't rely on regular updates.
Some time ago, we talked about the AutoTap and Palmer Performance Engineering systems, both of which use ordinary computers to record and show information. With handheld devices now ubiquitous, new buyers should also consider handheld (or shoved-into-the-glove-compartment) solutions, with a transmitter (like the Kiwi2) plugged into the OBDII port. These are available for Apple devices (sending over AirPort/WiFi), and for Android devices (sending over BlueTooth™).
There is no shortage of OBDII software at the iTunes Store, but one quickly discovers that most of it was created to accompany hardware (if it's free, it probably requires hardware). Many claim to measure performance but only work with the iWhatever's accelerometer, and not with actual data.
Some of the software that came up were iOBD2, Mobilscan, and BlueDriver. Each "free" system required its own brand of transmitter; for example, BlueDriver required a $100 adapter (it also had in-app purchases to enable features that you'd think would be free, such as $10 for a smog readiness check, or $2 for antifreeze temperature). All of them provide not just error codes with brief explanations, but also also values for different sensors — engine load and temperature, fuel pressure, engine speed, timing advance, intake temperature, etc. That makes them good for more extensive diagnostics than "Hey, what's the computer think is wrong?"
We also tried Rev Pro ($40); we found it did not do all it was billed to, and the company never responded to our requests for support or clarification. Looking at the comments, it appears that we were not the only one. Rev Light does provide some OBDII information, mainly whether it supports your device.
In the end, we took a more extensive look at two apps, at the high and low end. The low end was staked out by OBIE, a $5 purchase focused on gauge readouts, sold by the AppleSeedStore. It does not provide any way to look at codes; it's gauges only, and one gauge per screen. (There is no iPad version, though it looks good in double-scale on an iPad).
The list of supported gauges is relatively short, compared with DashCommand, but includes most of the "majors." We're not sure why anyone would want another speedometer; the tachometer may be handy. Still, the throttle position, temperature, and other key sensors will be handy. We did see some lag in updating the voltage display, but other meters seemed to react instantly. One can modify the colors, but it would also be handy to be able to modify the labels (e.g. to have more points of reference) and to be able to see more than one item, not including voltage, per screen.
Rev Lite provides some data from the accelerometer and iPhone GPS, and tells you if your adapter shows various OBD metrics. It does not, though, actually read sensor data. For that, you're supposed to go to the full $40 version, which does provide the usual sets of gauges and data and perform data logging. However, its features are fewer than DashCommand, and support seems to be completely nonexistent. For $10 more, buyers can opt for the much better-supported DashCommand software.
The $50 DashCommand program comes from Palmer Performance Engineering, which also created the laptop software we reviewed some time ago. Kiwi with DashCommand ($130+$50) roughly matches the price of the competing OT-2 device with its free LogWorks software ($180); DashCommand can also use the OT-2 device's input.
DashCommand was under active development when we tested it, with a new version coming out even as we puzzled over how to get to the main menu; version 3.4.0 made that far easier. Version 4, in testing, is to add acceleration-measurement capabilities later this year (Palmer told us it would be a no-charge upgrade for current owners). We found version 3.4 to be fairly slow on our 4G iPod Touch, but speedy enough on our original iPad. On current-version iPhones and iPads it should be responsive.
DashCommand works with a variety of connectors (anything ELM compatible over WiFi, at least one hardwired system, and the Pioneer AppRadio). We found, in line with comments in the iTunes Store, that it once had problems connecting to the adapter. Shutting the iPad and resetting the Kiwi2 fixed this.
The system always shows the status of the connection on top of each screen, with a green light for "connected" and an amber light for "no connection." For a permanent setup, a hardwired connection would be more reliable and reduce the amount of radio-wave exposure. Since our iPod Touch ran out of battery during a trip, you may need to hardwire that, at least, to a power source; it lost its logs and data when it shut down. The iPad had an easier time of surviving for hours.
Like any code reader the system can read diagnostic codes, providing brief descriptions, clear them if needed (which also destroys your inspection readiness, so don't use it just before getting your car inspected), and display your inspection readiness status. This screen is shown above-right.
Users with more than one car can, after manually entering them, manually pick the current car from a list, though the system could read the VIN code and auto-pick. (Likewise, when adding a new car, one would think it would read the VIN and decode the model, year, and engine size, but that might be a lot of work for Palmer, given how many cars have been sold since 1996. It also would not be future-proof, though one could program in a "is this right?" or "not detected" workaround.)
Gauges are available for many sensors in the default dashboard, including engine speed (as-reported and corrected), whether the computer is in open or closed loop (whether it's using the oxygen sensor), boost or vacuum, gas mileage (instant, overage, over time periods), fuel flow rate, timing, various temperatures, readings from pressure and air flow sensors, engine load, catalyst temperature, fuel pressure, oxygen sensor readings, and the air/fuel ratio; the system also tells how far the computer has deviated from its original program. These sensors only work if the car supports them through OBDII.
We were disappointed when we plugged in a borrowed 2006 Volvo XC70, though; there was no input recognized from the airflow sensor, oxygen sensor, and a few other critical systems. It did not recognize many of the smog-readiness checks, either. Our readings from a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country were somewhat disappointing, too; but a 2013 300C exceeded our expectations, with readings from just about every system.
The real power of DashCommand over other solutions lies in the customizability of the gauges and logging. There is a trip computer feature and a complex gas mileage logging setup, along with the normal trip computer stuff; the system can also provide average boost/vacuum, maximum acceleration, the top fuel flow rate, top speed, idle time, peak vacuum, and peak breaking acceleration. Both peak acceleration and peak braking acceleration are taken from OBDI II data (via the vehicle speed sensor) except when in skidpad mode, so they should be accurate.
Skidpad data is provided, but it's based on the phone/tablet accelerometer, and accuracy is only good if you level and lash down the pad/pod/phone. The same is true for the inclinometer.
Palmer support people mentioned that there are some sensors that are always tracked in the background to keep trip stats up to date, even if you are not viewing trip data on the screen; these "persistent PIDs" can be shut off in the settings, speeding up the data rate for better logging. That's handy on car with older, slower bus systems. They also said that they can monitor ten to twelve PIDs (information sources) at once, "far more than any other OBD-II software is getting," and that can slow down the data rate on cars with older protocols.
To get logs out of the iThing, you email them to yourself once you're connected to a real network again; but files can easily grow large. An hour in our 300C yielded a 6 megabyte log. Go past 12 megabytes, and you'll probably have serious problems getting it out of your iPad. There's no other way to do it, either; you can load it and replay it within the program, or send it to yourself. The file itself is binary, and can be read from the free evaluation versions of Palmer's ScanXL or PCMScan desktop software, which can also export it to any spreadsheet. If you have a Mac and no Windows software (Crossover or Parallels), you're stuck. (As a side note, ScanXL appears to just be PCMScan with a new name.)
Exporting to spreadsheet format gives you three columns for numerous variables, with the same headings, which can be a bit of a mystery. Viewing them in the software works fairly well, though you can't alter the order of scanned variables; ScanXL lets you alter the playback speed, and pause if needed, which is good, but overall, working with log files provided as much frustration as gratification. Selection methods for the graphs were primitive; in general, it seemed like all too much Windows software does, the minimum that could be done with the tools at hand. That's not to say you'll find anything better.
Racers with access to a real track can use the race-track feature, which maps out your location, acceleration, and braking as you drive laps for later analysis.
The software claims to measure peak power and torque; these are estimated via algorithms that may vary somewhat in accuracy (the data comes from the vehicle speed sensor), but the feature is handy for rough estimations of modification-based changes. It can use gear information from the computer to talk about time and distance traveled in each gear, in neutral, and in non-optimal gears.
We went to visit the company website and found hundreds of customized dashboards, though many of them are useless fanboy stuff: configurations designed to look like particular sports cars. On the other hand, those who want more information to be shown at once will still find some to be happy with, and customizing your own screen is a major strength, especially for iPad owners. The default screens are a mix of "suitable for iPhone" and "best on iPad, or iPhones if you have terrific eyesight."
We suspect that you will want to design your own, though, to meet your particular needs. So now we're ready to design our own dashboard and we discover a little "but." While some may be attracted to DashCommand because they use a Mac, not a Windows laptop, the skin editor is Windows-only.
It seemed to work fine in Windows 8 running on a Mac in Parallels Workstation — well, fine is an overstatement; it's rather hard to figure out. After hunting down the help files, and spending some time with the program, ... I gave up. So much for thirty years of using just about every kind of software there is. But if you really want to invest the time, it's good to know you can create your own dashboards — and obviously some people did master the DashXL program and create their own.
On Palmer's laptop side, PCMSCAN ($170) hasn't been updated in years but provides more features than DashCommand; though it's not compatible with wireless transmitters (the company's ScanXL software is). As of June 2013, ScanXL cost $100, ScanXL Professional $150; both are wireless compatible. The laptop software provides freeze-frame data, oxygen sensor test results, and vehicle and calibration information, which DashCommand doesn't; it also provides graphing and an OBD Terminal.
Those who want to use DashCommand to measure performance (0-60, quarter mile, etc) directly from car data will have to wait until late summer (2013), when version 4 is due to gain those features. In theory, logging speed sensor data and comparing it to elapsed time or distance can provide the same data, with more effort, as long as your data bus can keep DashCommand fed quickly enough.
Overall, this is one of those programs where you need to decide whether to invest the time to make it worthwhile, rather than the money. Some features are nice, some end up being candy, and others are essential to certain buyers — which ones fall into which categories depends on your needs and expertise. The price for the hardware-plus-software package, not including iPod/iPad/iPhone, ends up being around the same as that of a plain scanner in the Sears weekend circular.
The fact that it runs on so many devices, albeit all Apple devices (unless you get the BlueTooth/Android version), is handy, because it's future-proofed to a degree: even if you switch from iPhone, you can get an iPod Touch or iPad to run the software. Indeed, with the prices of iPod Touches, dedicating one to in-car services is not a crazy idea.
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