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CarMD Product Review: The Doctor Is Out

This diagnostic device for your vehicle is available for loan from the Darien Library, writes Patch's Jim Cameron, but it might not be worth the trip.

It looked too good to be true—and it was. The infomercials for the CarMD device promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going by understanding what's wrong with my car before taking it to the repair shop.

Rather than popping the $98.99 for the gizmo, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one. Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan, including GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill A Watt readers. But now I'm feeling a bit guilty.

Here's how CarMD is supposed to work.

You take the CarMD unit—about the size of a fat TV remote—and plug it into your car's computer output. There's the first challenge: finding that plug. But the company's website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my '97 Honda Accord. In my wife's '96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.

Once you've turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but do not start the car. The handheld device talks to your car's computer, downloads the information, beeps four times, and you're done. Well, sort of.

If the handheld device shows a green light, as on my trusty Honda, you're OK.  Your car's computer has found no problems. But if it's a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.

Next you have to copy down your car's vehicle identification number. Good luck reading that, if you can find it.

You then load the CarMD software onto your computer, register online with name and address—no, I did not read the privacy policy!—and open the software. Type in the VIN and the system should identify your car by year, make and model. You can register three cars per device and they don't all have to belong to you.

But here's where I was disappointed. 

When I clicked the "check health status" button, the software displayed umpteen technical service bulletins for the Volvo going back to 1992—even though the car is a '96—but to read the full details, it's $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to obtain them all.

Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device. A call to Customer Service—friendly and knowledgable—got to the root of the problem: the Volvo's "check engine" light wasn't on.

In other words, unless your car's computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn't going to tell you much of anything. But it will ask you for money.

In short, CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car's computer.

Now, had my check engine light been on, CarMD would, in theory, have told me what was wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would have cost to fix it—valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.

But until the "check engine" light shows up on your dashboard, CarMD isn't going to do much more than frustrate you. Save your dough.

John Blyberg September 16, 2010 at 02:41 PM
Jim, As a public library, one of our roles is to be a risk-taker. You came to us with a suggestion that we thought was a good one, so we went ahead and purchased the CarMD. We do that every day with books and movies. As you well know, there are good books and bad books and instead of going to the store or to Amazon to purchase them, our users come to us. In other words, we take the risk on purchasing material so that our members don't have to. It's a role we're glad to play and it's one that is supported by all of the individuals and families who make an annual commitment to keep their library strong. We really appreciate that you've taken the time to provide feedback about the device. So not only have we been able to give you an opportunity to review this device, but you, in turn, have passed on your personal experience with it to the community. These are exactly the kinds of conversations we hope to spark on a regular basis. So thank-you!
Kristin Brocoff September 16, 2010 at 04:43 PM
Jim, I work for CarMD. com Corp., and helped develop the product. We always appreciate honest reviews of our products, but I want to point out a couple concerns with your review. First, CarMD is meant for use by an individual or household. It's not a commercial tool for use as a loaner unit. You had a concern about the Premium Membership cost. This is simply an option for our customers to consider, and never required. You do not need to upgrade to Premium to see all of the safety recalls on your vehicle, or a list of Technical Service Bulletins. With regard to your concern about the yellow light and lack of fix for your situation, I want to point out that it's difficult to diagnose a car with a pending problem. A yellow light means that your car was either recently serviced and hasn't re-set itself yet or saw something it didn't like that hasn't occurred often enough to trigger a dashboard warning light. In this situation, you would not pass a state emissions test. You may also wish to avoid any long trips until the problem is solved. CarMD is working to add more detail and value for our customers who receive yellow LEDs, but we encourage you to run regular reports and monitor your vehicle. It is likely service is required and your "check engine" light will come on in the near future. We are always open to feedback about our products and continue to work hard to provide drivers with tools to monitor their vehicle's health and safety.
Stan September 16, 2010 at 08:37 PM
Hey Jim, AutoZone has been known to scan codes for free. You can then look them up online to find out what's wrong with your car. You can also buy a handheld scanner for under $100 that will read the codes and display them. Some will reset a check engine light if you want it to. Go to Amazon and search for code scanners and make sure it will work on your car. I think most car manufacturers went to OBDII starting in '96. They pay for themselves after just a few uses.
steven mattison August 17, 2011 at 06:52 PM
I purchased the CarMD. It didnt work. plug it in no response. Returned product twice and talked to tech support. They told me cannot help. I spoke to 5 different techs and 3 from customer service. I checked all fuses and all ok, Still no solution. refund given less the shipping charge.
Friends of The Twin Rivers Library January 19, 2013 at 06:19 PM
This information is very helpful. We had considered purchasing a CarMD for our library to make it available to our patrons. Based on Jim Cameron's article, we will not.

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