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OBDII Data Link Review

If you have read through this blog, you know we’re huge fans of using data and video to improve driving performance. In this post, we’ll look at options to get OBDII data from your car to your phone. If you are planning to use Harry’s Laptimer, we also suggest you start your shopping journey there. Harry is a great guy and he keeps the recommended accessory page updated (separate pages for iOS and Android.)  Let’s take a look at three products that represent the spectrum of options available.

genericAt the low end are what I’ll categorize as the “plug and pray” devices. You plug them in and prey that they work because they’re really cheap. You can find them on Amazon or ebay, often under $20 and you get what you pay for. They may work to allow you to clear some codes, but generally they are not going to maintain a secure connection long enough or fast enough to get the flow of data you’re looking for. If you found one that refreshes at a 4hrz or faster rate, then consider yourself lucky. If you’re on a tight budget, the up-side is you could buy about four of these before you spend more than the next device on our list. Our general recommendation is to stay (no, run) away from these and support the companies making an investment in this space.

Next up are the WiFi connected devices. Several good devices fit into this category and our favorite is currently the OBD Link MX by ScanTool. In fact, I wish I could carry these in our store, but haven’t found a distributor yet so search on Amazon for a deal. The data link is fast.  The connection is reliable (though all of these devices take several attempts to form a connection.) It comes highly recommended by Harry and it supports a wide range of protocols. Wifi does have some disadvantages compared to Bluetooth such as complication of forming the connection (unnecessarily complex obdlinkalonepassword that’s printed on the device so write it down before you plug it in) and the fact that you can only form one wifi connection at a time. You also need to disable the “ask to join networks feature” once you have a connection, or you phone may lock-up trying to connect to the paddock infrastructure hotspot as you circulate on the track. I used it for my last track weekend, plugged it in on Friday, made the connection, then forgot about it all weekend and it worked like a charm. They also make a Bluetooth version which I haven’t tried. There are more expensive recommendations on Harry’s page, but for my money, this is the sweet-spot in the market right now.

PLX Devices recently started selling the KIWI3, the latest iteration of their popular KIWI line of adapters. On paper, it offers some Kiwi3attractive features: high data transfer rates, easy connectivity through Bluetooth 4.1 (low energy), and good power management. The form-factor is the best of the three tested, and we like the low profile. We just couldn’t get it to work initially. We tested 10 devices with iPhone 5S, iPhone 6s, and Galaxy 5. We got one to connect sometimes to the iPhones. (There is a firmware update available for Android 6 users but not iPhone yet.) The price is about $20 more than the OBD Link MX.  If the firmware update gets published for iPhone it may be worth it. They also announced an updated version of their old device called the KIWI2+.  It has the technical specs of the old cabled device (photo right), but offered without the cable and in the new case of the KIWI3. Not sure about price and availability though. When we went to their website to grab a link it wasn’t there, so stay tuned. If you’re an Android user, it kiwi2might be a slightly less expensive alternative for you to consider. [We would like to hear from you if you’ve been able to get the Kiwi3 working with iPhone.]

In-Car Video Telemetry

Here at GeorgeCo, we’ve been using on-board video for driver education for a while, but our previous systems were full of compromises. Dedicated professional systems are expensive. Consumer video equipment is not rugged enough. Place the camera outside of the car and you can’t see what the driver’s hands are doing. Place the camera between the rear seats and you can’t see all of the controls. Place it between the front seats and you only see what’s out the front window. There had to be a better way without breaking the bank. Now we think we’ve cracked the code.
Telemetry System
The goal of this project was to create an off-the-shelf solution for under $500 that would provide lap timing, in-car video, and telemetry ($300 if you already have an iPhone).

The iPhone 4 gives you a video camera, GPS, accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope. Optrix makes a rugged mil-spec case with a 175 degree wide-angle lens that works with either an iPhone 4 or current generation iPod. It costs about $100. Put your iPhone in the case and attach it to your car using the CruiseCam mount which costs about $50 or make one yourself. We already had a mount so it didn’t cost us anything. Now to get the telemetry data from the car. PLX Devices makes a cable for $150 that plugs into your OBD-II port and provides telemetry data via a local wireless network. We went with the Kiwi WIFI unit, but they also make a Bluetooth model. BMW doesn’t make everything available that you would like to have (such as A/F ratio or oil temperature), but it does provide some key measures: RPM, gear, speed, throttle position, boost pressure, and intake manifold temp. Set-up is very easy if you follow the instructions for iPhone.

Pulling it all together is a piece of iPhone software called Harry’s LapTimer available from the iTunes store. This $29 program has features often not found on professional systems costing hundreds more. You can download a predefined track map, or create your own as we did in the video below.

If you aren’t getting power to the PLX unit, check your fuses. Typically fuses F3 or F36 may be blown on the MINI and you wouldn’t know it. We look forward to getting it out on the track in September.