Ever since car keys have incorporated transponder technology in the mid-90s, key fobs have been keeping our vehicles secure since then. However, with transponder technology, car keys have become so much more than just a mechanical way to access your vehicle, achieving an extra layer of protection to car security.
Transponder technology dramatically decreased the chances of cars being stolen and added “keyless” entry convenience. However, it can be a significant pain in the event of loss, or it gets damaged beyond repair. This is where automotive key programmers come in, and any car mechanic or shop without them is simply not worth your business.
In this article, we will share the criteria we used to select the best key programming tool. In doing so, we hope that you can use it as a guide in choosing the best one that will suit your needs.
Top key programming brands
There possibly hundreds of different car key programming products that are floating around the market as we speak. Due to marketing efforts, every one of them will probably look great on paper, so we need to look closer.
Autel has been around for more than a decade in the industry of car diagnostics, and they are showing no signs of slowing down. They heavily invest in research and development in automotive diagnostics. Their products are high-tech and are also known for their physical toughness, lasting far longer because of their hard ABS plastic and non-slip armor. Most of their products are on the higher end of the scale, so expect higher pricing, but clients swear that the products are well worth their price. Autel prides itself on how they take care of their customers by providing an excellent after-sales service.
This company also claims decades-long experience in the car diagnostics industry but is based offshore in China. Because of the lower manufacturing costs, they could produce the same level of technology at a lower price point. Their tools are pretty innovative and have a reputation for accuracy. In addition, the company enjoys a strong following because of its excellent after-sales customer service and support. The most vital selling point of XTOOL is by providing the same level of features at a fraction of the usual cost.
LAUNCH is a Hongkong -based company with roots that go back as far as 1992 and has been developing car diagnostic tools since then. Their products are well known in the automotive industry, primarily in OBD Scanner technology. Recently they also produced key programming devices and is very successful in this field. Mechanics swear by the accuracy of their products and are generally satisfied with their customer service and support team.
7 Best Key Programming Machines
1. LAUNCH X431
The LAUNCH X431 V+ PRO is a bi-directional tool with more advanced features than its predecessor, the X431 V. It is primarily marketed as a car remote programming tool, but it is so much more than that. The X431 V+ PRO has the distinction of supporting almost every brand of automobile worldwide; there isn’t a lot of devices that can claim the same.
This is the latest in the X431 line, and the V+ PRO added to its name is for a reason. The V+PRO adds more OE-Level functionality and has added compatibility with heavy-duty modules. This makes it possible to work with a 24-volt system on heavier trucks and SUVs. It also supports more modern amenities like sunroof internalization, cluster reset, headlight fitting, and even air suspension fine-tuning; how about that!.
Aside from key programming, the device also features complete bi-directional control, more than 30 reset functions, initialization, and even the capability of actuation testing. This allows the X431 V+PRO to read fault codes to the ECU and send commands to the unit.
Talking about software, all the X431 series diagnostic and key programmer tools are powered by Android open-source operating systems. The V+ PRO, in particular, has an Android 9.0 operating system, a 10.1” capacitative screen. In addition, a 7000 mAh battery is equipped, which adds more power than the previous models. This new X431 iteration now supports Wifi printing, and it also has built-in support for ADAS, video scope, and TSGUN software, adding to its already versatile list of features.
The unit comes in a complete package complete with all OBD II connectors and cables and can claim 99% compatibility with all vehicle brands. The V+ Pro is no different, and it features a tablet-style multi-touch capacitor screen that offers high visibility even in bright environments. The interface is perfect for use in broad daylight and bright shop or garage lights.
Furthermore, the obd2 key programmer android can be configured to display its information in 24 different languages, making it a versatile tool no matter what language you are speaking. The display and tablet themselves are wrapped in a sturdy non-slip, toughened ABS plastic. The shell prevents wear and tear damage from accidental bumps and rough handling, which makes it at home in your toolbox, glove compartment, and even in the busiest shop.
If the features themselves do not convince you, the excellent aftersales service probably will, and you probably will not need it. All Autel products are solidly backed by a 5-year warranty on top of a 60-day money-back guarantee. Most mechanics recommend Autel for its legendary reliability and unsurpassed compatibility across a wide range of automotive brands around the world.
2.Autel Maxisys MS906BT
This obd2 key programmer from Autel is the Maxysis MS906BT, the latest key programming tool in this company’s lineup. This key programmer has the same functions as its older sibling, the MS906,, and has the added oscilloscope support, wireless VCI, and advanced ECU coding. The wireless VCI connection is the main difference between the two models, and the capacity to add an inspection camera is not present on the older model.
The Maxisys has key fob programming and IMMO keys that allow it to clear information of lost keys, key relearn, and remote programming to add new keys. This is also a bi-directional machine that makes it possible to read and send signals to the engine ECU. While it is true that this is a scan tool to program key fob, it is also a fully-featured car diagnostic tool, able to read, scan, and even clear and reset fault codes.
The Autel MS906BT’s user interface is as intuitive as they come in terms of ease of usage. The main tablet is housed in an ergonomic yet tough armored ABS plastic and rubberized coating to ensure survivability in rough and tumble environments such as a garage or a shop. Enjoy a zippy, lag-free experience with its Exynos Hexa-core processor. The information is displayed in an 8.0” inch screen that is clear even in broad daylight and in bright shop lights.
While Maxisys has over 31 service functions, but not all work on all models. However, this is a minor and not a deal-breaker in any way. It has a built-in 8-megapixel camera and an internal memory storage capacity of 32GB, which is more than enough for any application. On top of these, the MS960 is equipped with a beefy lithium-polymer battery. This means it can deliver power for up to 14 hours of continuous operation.
Connectivity-wise, the Autel MaxiSys MS906BT is equipped with the latest 802.11b/g/n that makes interruption-free connections. Aside from the Wifi, it can also be connected via Bluetooth V2 EDR class 1 and a wired USB 2.0 connection. The AUTEL ecosystem is also fully cloud-integrated, with a large database and technical support for troubleshooting and diagnostics. The enhanced Bluetooth connectivity allows for convenient wireless connectivity between the tablet and VGI device. This makes the MS960BT a versatile tool to have around any shop or garage.
The Autel Maxisys is a cheap key programmer by no means, but it has almost all the tools and features you will need to fix any issue with transponder keys and engine diagnostics. Ensure that your car model works with it before purchase, especially if you will use it on just your cars. If you own multiple cars or intend to use them in your shop, this device is an invaluable addition to:
3. Key Programmer Tool CK100
The CK100 cars keys programming tool from ARAMOX is priced just right for the DIYer and car owner, being in the sweet spot of being not too cheap and not too expensive. The form factor of this device looks similar to OBD II car scanners rather than the usual tablet form factor of an immobilizer key programmer. This makes the device a lot more portable as you can use and operate it with one hand. The handle is ergonomically contoured for comfort even when holding it for long periods of time.
This SBB car key programming tool contains a database for most known car manufacturers and should easily reprogram transponder keys. The device has multi-language support to diagnose European car manufacturers quickly. This device works exceptionally well for older European vehicles and American brand cars but not all of them. The easy-to-read LCD screen has high visibility even in direct sunlight and bright and harsh shop lights, which is tastefully done in blue and white color display for maximum contrast without the glare.
The SBB line of key programmers is best known to work with vehicles that have newer 80-bit transponder chips, especially with Ford and Chrysler. The CK-100 in particular has gained a reputation as being a well-rounded device that can do all the basics and produce fully functional key transponders in 5-10 minutes for those who know what they are doing. The CK-100 V99.99 is an upgraded version that added a database for additional vehicle brands. The handy gadget has added compatibility with Korean car brands, especially Kia and Hyundai. This new version also improved compatibility with GM cars and is now compatible with Ford’s keyless E-code.
Connectivity-wise, the CK 100 is simple and straightforward as you simply connect the supplied cable to the OBDII port under the dashboard and you are good to go. From the port, you can program new buttons, read key information from the anti-theft lock memory, program an entirely new key set, or even remove the previous key programming. Even the most novice user can do the job with its menu-guided programming, prompting the user through a step-by-step account on what is to be done next. This is a huge improvement from previous models who can only handle 40-bit keys.
The CK 100 ships in a sturdy shockproof case that make lugging it around easier and doubles as a practical way of storing the device. Aside from the already robust casing, the device itself is armored with a shock and dust-resistant toughened ABS shell. This provides extra protection in the hectic and rough and tumble shop or garage environment. The manufacturer has an excellent customer service support team that is available to address any questions about the product, with the promise to give quick solutions to common problems.
4. Autel MaxiIM IM508
The MaxilM IM508 from Autel is a popular device because it has the XP200 key programmer that complements the unit’s OBDII scanner capabilities. This vehicle key programmer is also a full-pledged OBDII diagnostic scanner. It can provide comprehensive key programming and IMMO functionalities, read PIN for lost keys, generate keys, remote learning, and key learning.
The MaxilM IM508 can connect and read factory-level diagnostics with systems on over 80 car manufacturers. Its OBDII scanner and diagnostic tool can reset BMS, TPMS, oil light, and others. In addition, the Autel MaxilM IM508 automatically scans the vehicle’s VIN, accessing the full range of key options as well as functions. The IM508 adds another level of convenience by having an ‘expert’ mode as well as a ‘smart’ mode that both professionals and novices can use. When in the smart mode, the operation becomes a guided menu type of operation where the device gives you step-by-step instruction for key programming. In the expert mode, the menus revert to their default and separate settings.
This device also comes with OE-Level access to the ECU that enables a three-pronged approach to vehicle maintenance. These are its key programming features, systems diagnostic capabilities, and 22 advanced services, all in one sturdy package. While it does not come with all features, the diagnostic system is quite comprehensive. Its OBDII scanner can quickly identify and interface with over 80 car manufacturers worldwide, which is way more brands than the busiest shop can handle. If you are unsure of the compatibility for some reason, the Autel ecosystem of diagnostic tools also offers access to its online database, which can verify that for you.
The service functionality covers all the basics and more; the IM508 has oil reset, EPS, battery service, turbocharging, odometer, and even resets brake pad replacement settings. It can read all relevant fault codes and can read live data from the ECU as well. We would like you to note that some special services though are not universally compatible, and verification is needed if you are after these services. To be sure one can cross-reference the vehicle’s VIN number on Autel’s extensive database by sending it to email@example.com.
Warranty is superb as always with Autel, giving customers a 30-day full refund or replacement guarantee as long as the unit has no user-incurred damages. In addition, the software package also comes with a free 12-month update giving you a full year of uninterrupted service and peace of mind. Furthermore, Autel has an excellent customer service support team that is available to answer any product-related concerns.
5. X100 Pad3 Car Key Programmer
The XTOOL X100 PAD3 is the latest iteration in the X100 series of best key programmer and diagnostic devices. The new model improved on functionality while retaining the same number of compatible car manufacturers. You can read an additional four diagnostic systems that enable the device to read codes from transmission systems, ABS, and SRS, aside from engine trouble codes. At the core of its Key Programmer are the KC100 and EEPROM adapter that makes it easy to program new keys and support 4th and 5th MQB key match and programming. Can create keys even when all keys are lost on IMMO 4th only. The X100 PAD3 can now work on more car models and manufacturers, improving the already capable PAD2.
The X100 PAD3 is a fully-featured diagnostic scanner aside from being a key programmer. The device can perform advanced special functions, such as oil service light reset, EPB reset, throttle body reset, battery reset, and even steering angle calibration. It has an overall count of 16 special functions, which includes Injector Coding and Gearbox Match. The device can be used to diagnose fault codes on multiple models and multiple vehicle zones. It can read display code data, read and clear codes, )2 sensor testing, and has a bi-directional component.
The tablet itself is dust-resistant aluminum alloy and is wrapped in tough silicone armor that is ergonomically contoured to provide a rigid case that protects from accidental drops and bumps. The protection also provides excellent handholds and grips to what would otherwise be a bulky gadget. The user interface is tastefully done and in such a way that makes it highly visible even in broad daylight or bright garage and shop lights.
The hardware specifications start with a 1.8 GHz quad-core processor that is powering up the Android OS. This combination delivers a lag-free and smooth experience while navigating the menus and user interface. It’s 10000mAh battery packs a powerful punch enough to power the device even when connected to multiple cars. The interface includes USB, HDMI, DC, DB15, ensuring that you can join no matter the protocol.
XTOOL’s X100 PAD3 also employs both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity to link with the ECU. Its 802.11 WiFi effortlessly connects to install updates as well as apps for diagnostic use. The Bluetooth connection capability removes the dependence on wires, improving mobility, especially when working with multiple vehicles in a garage or shop.
The XTOOL X100 PAD 3 enjoys the class-leading 2-year free update on its software compared to most that only offer a year’s worth of software updates. In addition, they also provide free tech support after-sales service. The Key programmer and fully-featured OBDII functionality, including special functions, is a well-rounded gadget worthy of a place in any garage or shop.
6. Autel MaxiIM IM608 PRO
The IM608 from Autel is a bi-directional car diagnostic tool that gives users full access to a powerful range of key programming and IMMO functions. This means that it can both read, send and receive information from the vehicle’s computer. This is an outstanding feature when you consider that most key programmers can just read fault codes and not much else.
The Autel Maxilm IM608 PRO can reset and relearn keys, remote control, and key fob configuration and programming. Deep in the heart of the key programmer is the XP400PRO advanced all-in-one key programmer. It features expanded EEPROM functions for a more complete key function access. The XP400 also has over 170 types of odometer reading component functionality as well as over 180 Immobilizer ECU component types. On top of those, it has over 2000 MCU component types and 440 EEPROM component types.
The device can clone existing keys, which is very helpful for family cars or carpooling. In cases where the old keys are no longer available, the IM608 can generate key codes straight from the IMMO memory. In addition, this gadget can easily pick up the PIN codes associated with your vehicle’s IMMO system, allowing you to make new remotes. The device is even made to be backward compatible with the Autel IM508, giving this device even more value for the money.
Connectivity with the MaxilM IM608 utilizes Bluetooth and WiFi. With its Bluetooth connection enabled between the MaxiFlash that connects to the port and the tablet itself, diagnostics are fast, uninterrupted, and wire-free. The WiFi connection is used for linking to Autel’s database and updating the diagnostic software. The Bluetooth has an impressive connection range which tops out at 210 ft, allowing you to work wirelessly across several cars.
Completing the package, the IM608 can perform a broad spectrum of OBDII functions, such as erasing error codes, viewing freeze-frame data, ECU data retrieval, among other basic functions. It can even access controls and settings for ABS, Engine, transmission, and SRS via the ECU aside from just reading fault codes. Perhaps the best part of its features is that it can conduct OE-Level and an in-depth diagnostic scan of a wide variety of engines. The IM608 is compatible with over 80 car manufacturers from Asia, America, and Europe.
The IM608 is Android-powered, ensuring compatibility across a wide range of applications. A responsive 10″ touch screen with an 8-megapixel camera allows for easy navigation of the menus as well as sharing photos with other techs. It runs on a 15000mAh battery that lasts for hours and allows multi-vehicle scanning. Last but not least, the IM608 enjoys Autel’s 1-year warranty as well as the 30-day replacement or refund guarantee.
Autel IM608 – Video review:
7. Autel MaxiPRO MP808K
The MaxiPRO MP808K from Autel is an upgrade from the already formidable MP808, adding 11 new connectors for an even broader compatibility with multiple vehicle models and car manufacturers. In addition, service functions are pretty much on-point, with 23 services to choose from. It can do active testing with its bi-directional capabilities, allowing users to read and write to the ECU and transponder. The MaxiPRO comes in a complete package, along with a comprehensive connector kit for all possible connection types. The included software practically takes care of everything, including logging and tech support connectivity with Autel.
Hardware specifications of the Autel MP808K feature a faster processor that is encased in a 7″ touchscreen display. While the tablet itself is made of aluminum alloy, it is also wrapped in a protective shock-proof ABS plastic shell. This affords the MaxiPRO MP808K a higher degree of protection against accidental bumps, drops, and general rough handling which is common in and around a busy shop. Autel is known for its sleek design and durability, and the MP808K does not disappoint in this area. The large color display has enough brightness and contrast that it is no problem reading the information in bright daylight and even shop lights.
The device gives even first-time users an enjoyable and smooth experience because of its user-friendly interface that has clear menus and guidance built-in to the device itself. The software suite includes a shop manager, data manager, an academy portion, and an online database where you can cross-reference your scanner’s findings and find solutions to whatever fault codes you read. The database is maintained and verified by professional technicians so you can be assured of accurate data.
The MP808K has an extensive range of compatible vehicle models and manufacturers and can execute OE-Level diagnostics that can show ABS and SRS data. The device can add a key fob by recoding the transponder to a mechanical key. It can also pull vehicle information via its smart auto VIN technology. This allows the key programmer to recode keys even if all the keys are lost.
Furthermore, the software can be fully utilized in a shop environment to log client data and serve as a secondary database, especially on car key transponder security. This translates to a hassle-free transaction when a particular client becomes a repeat customer because the details are already in the system. The MP808K is also covered by a 12-month free update on its software, ensuring an interruption-free year. To back up Autel’s solid reputation for high-quality products, it has a 12-month warranty as well as a total replacement or refund warranty within 30 days.
The problem is not the lack of available products but rather the opposite; there are simply too many to decide immediately. While the products themselves are numerous, each product will also have different features, which compounds the problem. Below are the things that you should consider before buying the best transponder key programmer.
Just because it is used for transponder keys does not mean that it would be just as small. Most of these products are practically small computers. These locksmith car key programming tools can go from being as small as a phone or a 12” tablet. Make sure you take a look at the dimensions before deciding your purchase. If you are a shop owner and use the device in a more or less permanent location, being large and bulky will not be a problem. But if you plan on servicing clients, make sure to get the automotive key programmer that is the right size for you.
If you are a mechanic, it will not do well if the universal key programmer you recently purchased is NOT universal and has limited compatibility. As this will be used for multiple vehicles, the key programming machine that you are buying is widely compatible across vehicle brands. Not only that, but these devices should also be able to work with key programmer software for laptop and phone systems. While no programmer can do all the brands, some come close.
We all want value for our hard-earned money, and most of the best transponder key programmer will often do just more than reprogram replacement keys. Usually, these devices are also fully-featured car diagnostic tools and can do everything. Today’s key fob programmers are generally multi-purpose tools, taking advantage of their powerful computer chips to do other tasks. Find the one that contains the feature set that you always need and utilize with your programming services.
The majority of these devices are primarily made up of large LCD screens, with the other electronic components built around them. The best automotive locksmith programming tools would be encased in a rugged, durable, and shock-proof material. Most of them combine rigid ABS plastic, rubberized armor, and scratch-resistant covering for the screen. Higher-end ones would even offer dust and water resistance. Get the car key programmer with most, if not all, of these features as they will certainly need to survive a shop or garage environment.
The gist is that these parameters are by no means the only ones, but they are the absolute basics that a decent car key programmer tool should have. You can use them as a kind of checklist and put them in tick boxes when selecting your car key programming device. These will help in getting you closer to the right direction to take before you make the purchase.
Types of car keys and the cost to replace them
Throughout automotive history, there are six types of keys that are used to get access to vehicles. We will give each of them a cursory glance to at least have an idea relative to what our cars have and be more knowledgeable in the process.
This is the oldest type of key and is also called the mechanical key. These are physical keys only and rely on their unique grooves and indentations to unlock and start a car. They have no electronic parts and require no chip key programmer of any kind. Manual keys are still in use today, even in the most modern car as backups in case electronics fail. A locksmith can make a copy either manually or via a key cutting machine and will cost between $10-$30, including labor if the locksmith charges for it.
While these are considered relics of the past, they are still being used in older cars. They are not keys as we know them but are instead templates with which to make copies. Because they are often associated with classic or vintage cars, replacing them can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Some vehicles will need to have their entire management systems replaced upon losing the master key in rare cases. When this happens, itt will cost more than the actual car itself.
Ever since its development in 1996, these keys have been the standard since then. They are usually metal with a more oversized plastic handle that contains the transponder chip inside. Along with these keys came the need for the transponder key programmer, as it is common for these keys to get lost or damaged. To replace a transponder key may cost anywhere from $40 up to $250, and the price may largely depend on where you get it from. Getting one made from a professional locksmith will considerably lower the cost versus getting one replaced through the dealership.
Whereas the transponder key has a large plastic housing where the key itself protrudes, the switchblade key folds into the case. These keys usually will have three buttons than the usual two buttons of the transponder key. Switchblade keys are more significant to accommodate the key folding inside as well as the additional button. These keys are pretty popular because of their ‘cool’ factor and their practicality as you have both the physical key and the key fob in one place. With these, a universal car key programmer will work and cost around $30-$100 and sometimes more, depending on the manufacturer.
The valet key is a key that has limited functionality, as they are often the key given to valet services. These keys will open and start the car, but stop there. They cannot be used to open the trunk and have no access to other functions. Replacement of this key varies by manufacturer but costs as much as regular switchblade or transponder keys. While they may have limited functionality, they still require an ignition key programmer.
These are by far the most advanced car key fob in use today as they perform a variety of newer features than just start the car. Some of the more modern functions are auto-unlock, hatch or trunk assist, remote start, and push-button start. These keys also require a smart key programmer and are one of the most expensive car remote programmer tool that’s available. This is why smart keys can usually only be duplicated or replaced in a dealership and can cost from $200-$400 to replace.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
Can I DIY a car key programming?
The short answer is yes, but you have got to have the right tool to be able to do it. Having the correct key fob programming tool compatible with your transponder will take anywhere from 15-30 minutes of fiddling with the settings to accomplish. This means that if you do not have experience yet, better to consult a professional or bring your key to a shop. There is no sense in buying the programmer to find out it is not compatible with your car keys. Once you know what to do, that will be the time to purchase one for yourself.
How do car key programmers work?
Most scan tool to program keys is pretty straightforward, at least in the user’s view. One simply puts in the vehicle model while the programmer is connected to your car’s OBDII port. The process where the pin code of the vehicle is programmed into the new key is done automatically. With the best key programmer machine, the user simply waits, and it is done; you can use your new key fob after the process completes its course. The gist is that you pretty much input your vehicle data and let the machine do the work for you.
Is it possible to get a key programmed with just the VIN?
A key programmer tool definitely can, but the tedious part is to have the vehicle with you and proof of ownership. If you comply with this requirement, a car key code can be pulled from your VIN, and a replacement key can be made. Of course, you will need to be present if you are the owner, your driver’s license, and your car registration papers with your name on them. Yes, it is quite possible, but you can see how much of a hassle it is. The secret is not to lose your keys as much as possible, even it is in terrible shape.
What do locksmiths use to program keys now?
Since almost all cars produced since the mid-’90s have transponders embedded in their car keys, the only machine capable of reprogramming new keys is equipped with obd2 key programmer software. This is why car key programmers are the most widely used car diagnostic tools today. Of course, they still use traditional key-making machines to fashion the actual mechanical key, but programmers are needed for that key to work with the transponder.
How many keys can be reprogrammed to a vehicle?
The numbers vary per car manufacturer, but the general number of keys is a pair. Depending on the make and model, some will allow you to have an additional key fob. Some will have some mechanical keys, but two or three would be the norm for the transponder.
How much does car key programming cost?
While cost may vary depending on the kind of key your car has, typical run-of-the-mill key fobs can cost between $40-$50. Additional features, such as remote start, trunk lock, trunk assist, and arming alarms, will cost extra. For luxury vehicle key fobs with all the bells and whistles, it is not uncommon to shell out between $200-$500 for reprogramming, and it would probably take a computer to program car keys of this caliber.
The reviews above for car key programming equipment just emphasize how important these devices are for securing modern cars and keeping them safe. While these devices are rarely on the cheap side, they certainly pay for themselves in the long run by alerting you to possible problems in the long run. These devices are multi-function gadgets, and while you may not use the programming function as often, the other diagnostic procedures are used at least weekly or even daily.
If you are a car owner, having the best key programmer machine is always an advantage. If you are a professional mechanic, this tool will pay for itself, possibly with just a couple of customers. Remember to purchase one that has compatibility with a wide range of car models. Additionally, you do not need to wait until your key fob gets broken or gets lost to have them replaced. An extra key or two may come in quite handy in the event of loss or damage.
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