All cars sold since 1996 (in the United States and Canada, at least) keep track of certain problems, giving rise to a new industry in cheap "code readers." Now, every shadetree mechanic can see what the car's computers think might be wrong. Even if you don't want to do the work, it helps to see that you need a new $40 sensor rather than, say, a $4,000 transmission; it's also a good "honesty check" on shops of dubious virtue (e.g. transmission chains).
For more serious troubleshooting, real-time visualization of sensor readings can be essential, providing information you can't get otherwise (like the engine computer's drift from its original air-fuel mixtures), and avoiding the need to physically tap into electrical connections. In some cases, recording real drive-time data to a log file is important. Both tasks require more than a simple code reader; and visualizing the readings requires a big screen.
Quite aside from diagnostics, some people want to have an ongoing record of gas mileage (not relying on their car trip computer, or providing more detail and flexibility), or accurate measurements of their car's performance. You can't use a simple code reader to do this.
Years ago, we reviewed the AutoTap and Palmer Performance Engineering systems, which use a wire bridge from the car data port to a laptop (or Palm Pilot). Using a laptop on a cable is awkward, and most people have a smartphone or tablet (or an iPod Touch, which is an iPhone without that troublesome, costly phone). We now have gadgets that plug into the OBD port, and then send out data wirelessly.
There are some systems that provide both hardware and software, such as MobileScan and BlueDriver, but the feature sets tend to be limited to diagnostics or performance (usually the former). For a moderate or minimal additional investment, one can get a far more powerful system.
Adapters set up to work with Apple (IOS) systems, such as the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, use WiFi ("Airport"), while adapters for Android systems are on BlueTooth™. We have an iPod Touch for testing Allpar's mobile pages (and using birds to kill pigs), so we got a WiFi version.
You can get cheap OBDII adapters, but you can't get cheap replacement car computers, so we ruled out the bottom-of-the-line, no-name gadgets, and sought out companies with reputations for hardware quality and interoperability (because we don't want to be tied to software that might never get updated). One name stood out: PLX Devices. They make adapters for both Android and Apple's IOS.
PLX Devices was kind enough to provide a Kiwi2 WiFi. Designed in California, the Kiwi2 is made in Thailand; the company prints all their contact information on the box and instructions, somewhat confidence inspiring after seeing many gadgets that had absolutely no contact information (including a Hyundai generator). The box lists four compatible apps (there are more), including one which only supports Volkswagens, and one which only supports BMWs (but claims to include BMW-specific codes). One option is ScanXL, running on Windows, which provides more power than most tablet packages.
The Kiwi2 uses a mere 1¼ watts when awake, 0.1 watts when asleep (according to the specs, we did not test it), and can be used in just about any car from 1996 onwards. The manufacturer claims an unreasonably wide range for handling both voltage (10-18VDC) and temperature (0-80°C, or 32-176°F). The device feels solid and well-made; there are no sharp edges, no rattles, nothing that feels loose; and the cable has generous anti-wear supports on both ends. Our only physical complaint would be that the protective film was so hard to take off, we didn't even know it meant to come off until a PLX rep mentioned that we'd shot our original photos with it still on.
The directions were clear and well illustrated, though clearly on a laser-printed single sheet of paper, hand-folded (and set up the wrong way, we might add), which took away from the snazziness of the glossy box. The instructions were simple enough — configure the network on your iDevice to the right station, then set the IP address. That's around 30 seconds. From then on, to use the Kiwi2, you have to switch your network from your house or office to the Kiwi2 (it will happen automatically if you're out of reach of your other networks).
The next step is plugging the Kiwi2 into the OBD port, which can take longer than configuring an iPhone. Then has to find a spot for the transmitter; the cable was long enough to let the transmitter sit on the floor, but for anything but non-mobile use, one would want to tie, wedge, or otherwise attach it firmly to some part of the car, with the cord well out of the path of the driver's feet and the foot-brake (if any).
Two screens from the a program that uses data from the Kiwi2, running on a $100 iPod Touch. Kiwi2 is around $120.
The WiFi signal is too strong for the application; the company says it's good for 50 feet, which may be handy if you need to batter out of the steel car body and to a computer sitting on your bench, but is kind of testicle-roastingly-hot if you plan to leave it on all the time. For that purpose, we'd suggest running an older adapter with a USB cable and forgoing the wireless connection and tablet/iPhone entirely. Most people, though, will use the system for diagnostics and performance measurement only, and for that, it's likely safe enough.
One extra feature of the PLX Kiwi2, not available in most "cheapie" devices, is the ability to integrate aftermarket sensors, in addition to those coming through the OBD port. Buyers can remove a termination jumper, plug in the iMFD adapter (not included), and use it to integrate more sensor feeds. Some examples of this kind of sensor would be a wide-band oxygen sensor, boost indicator, or oil temperature (e.g. at the turbo bearing cartridge).
The Kiwi2 has some diagnostics built in, using a pair of LEDs with snazzy templates; one glows red if it is connected, blinks twice a second if it is not connected, and blinks once per second if it is connected to the car but not an app. The link light stays off unless data is being transferred.
The Kiwi 2 Wifi is the second generation; it is thinner than the first, with a much shorter cable (three feet), has an elm327 compatible interface, and works with ISO9141, VPW, PWM, and CAN protocols. The new version also includes a sleep mode which shuts off unnecessary circuits after five minutes of non-use; it can be turned woken up by pressing a button on the end of the transmitter. That makes permanent installations more practical.
Next: the software. The Kiwi2 is compatible with IOS packages including DashCommand, Rev Pro, Roaders, SpeedPort, Harry's Lap Timer Pro, OBIE, and ScanXL for Windows. Next week, we'll look at some of the software.
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