Thinking about adding a tuner to your truck? In this day and age when everything seems to be controlled by a computer, tuners can make a huge difference in the way the vehicle performs. With the explosive growth of tuning companies over the past decade, sometimes it can be hard to keep up with which is best for your application.
There is no denying that just about every tuner on the market will produce huge power gains in a diesel. With the ability to run such a wide air/fuel ratio, diesel engines respond extremely well to tuning. So if they all yield big power, how do you know which one is the best for you?
Our staff has been in the diesel market before most tuning companies were offering tuners for diesels. As the market has matured, we have seen the progression and evolution of tuners.
We reached out to five of the top companies and had them send us tuners to review. To keep this uniform in comparison, we are not going to address the horsepower and torque gains of the tuner. Most of the tuning products in the market today are somewhat universal. For example, the same Bully Dog GT tuner can tune 2001 to 2014 Duramax powered trucks, 2003 to 2014 Cummins powered trucks, and yes you guessed it, 1999 through 2014 Power Strokes. What doesn’t change between all of these applications is the interface.
The tuners that we are reviewing are, in alphabetical order, the Banks Power Six-Gun Diesel Tuner with their IQ 2.0, Bully Dog’s GT Tuner, Diablosport’s Trinity, Edge Products Evolution CTS, EFILive’s Flashscan, and SCT’s Livewire TS.
With the exception of the Banks Power Six-Gun, all of these tuners are referred to as programmers. (The Six-Gun is a module, and we will talk about the difference between a module and programmer later.) Programmers are able to program the engine control unit (ECU) through the OBDII port located under the dash.
What is OBD II?
It stands for Onboard Diagnostics, and the Roman numeral 2 means it’s the second generation. Onboard Diagnostics were originally mandated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and CARB (California Air Resources Board) as a way of allowing all the emissions equipment from every vehicle manufacturer to be monitored using one tool. Before regulation, manufacturers could choose how their vehicles were monitored and the type of interface they used to access that information.
The port is a 16-pin female interface connector that is mounted somewhere in the cabin within two feet of the steering wheel. Programmers plug into this port and reprogram the vehicle’s computer.
Over the years, computer systems have become more complex and more things are controlled. So as a general rule of thumb, later engines have more electronics under the hood that can be controlled or monitored by the ECU. This is one reason it takes tuning companies longer to get to market with a new engine application than it used to. In addition, there are additional complexities that are built into the ECU’s that act as anti-tampering/hacking which create a challenge for companies to “crack” the codes.
Programmer vs Module
Unfortunately, the nomenclature within the tuning industry hasn’t been kept straight, and many words are used as if they are interchangeable even when they mean different things. This can make it hard to tell the difference. The word “tuner” used to refer to anything that modified the tuning of the engine. Then it became attached to programmers that only tune the engine through the OBD II, and now it seems to be once again used as reference to anything that modifies the engine’s performance.
For the remainder of this article, “tuners” will refer to anything that modifies the performance of the engine (all of the products being reviewed). Programmers are devices that interface directly with the ECU via the OBD II port.
A Module is a tuning device that intercepts the signals from specific sensors and modifies the signals to “trick” the ECU into thinking something different is happening. To intercept the signals from the sensors, these devices usually have wiring harnesses that need to be routed over the engine and multiple sensors need to be connected to the module. The installation takes more time than a programmer, but there is no modification of the factory tuning required (unseen by scanners or other devices that interface with the ECU.)
Early on, modules were the only devices that could change horsepower levels of the vehicle while you drive. Bully Dog was the first tuner company to use the term “Shift On the Fly,” and while it has been widely used, it was a major difference between programmers and modules early on. Today, many modules and programmers can adjust the power level as you drive, taking away a huge advantage modules had early on.
Grading #1 – The User Interface
This is probably the most subjective aspect of a tuner and one that is really based on your needs. All of the tuners tested, except the Flashscan from EFILive, have some sort of display that is designed to be mounted on the dash or windshield. The sizes range from Bully Dog’s 2.4-inch display up to Banks Power’s 5-inch touch screen.
Typically, people mount the displays on the A-pillar along with a couple of gauges using some aftermarket holder. Over the past few years, this is changing and people seem to be getting away from traditional gauges and relying more on the displays for information (more on this later). This is where size can becomes a factor.
The IQ 2.0 is the largest of the group and easy to see, but it does create a bit of a challenge mounted on the A-pillar. We generally see people mounting the IQ 2.0 in the center of the dash. Due to the size of the display, that seems to be the easiest position and one that doesn’t interfere with visibility. Some people don’t mind it being mounted in the center of the vehicle and others do. For us, it was a little awkward at first (we have always had them mounted to the left) but we quickly got used to the interface and it wasn’t a big deal. But it certainly is hard to miss the big display on the dash.
“The Banks Power Six-Gun gives you six power levels. The lower levels are for heavy hauling. Then crank it up for monster torque and horsepower. The iQ is a full on PC. It runs windows and there is a full desktop version available. It also, allows you to do read everything that is going on under the hood,” says Gale Banks CEO of Banks Power.
On the flip side of that, the 2.4-inch display from Bully Dog is almost too small for someone with large fingers. They have tried to address this with ribs in between the buttons, but when driving we found ourselves having to focus a little more than we wanted to on exactly what button we were pushing.
Most of us in the office seem to gravitate to the medium display range (3.5 to 4.3). The larger displays allow for easier interfacing and the gauges on the display are easier to read because they are larger.
All of the touchscreens seem to have the same issue for us. We have grown accustomed to the sophisticated screens used by our phones which are extremely sensitive to touch. Many of the touch screens we tested seem to use more of a pressure sensor, and require a much greater force than we are used to. The best example of this was the SCT Livewire TS. If you don’t play around with your screen much, then it isn’t really an issue, but if you are constantly trying to move through screens, then it becomes somewhat annoying having to push rather hard to change screens.
On the flip side of this, the Diablosport and Edge Evolution CTS screens seemed closer to what we are used to. When driving, it was pretty easy to navigate the screens without having to figure out a way to brace the back of the controller to select an option.
No matter which controller we used, we did find that some of our fingers required more pressure than others. We are assuming that the more calluses on our fingers, the more pressure required to activate.
When it comes to the EFILive, the interface is the only non touchscreen tuner we tested. The power of the programmer (which we will touch on later) isn’t in the interface, it is in the software. The controller itself is large enough and pretty easy to use. Once the vehicle has been programmed, most people just put the FlashScan in the glove box for later use. The software does allow you to hook up a computer and you can not only see just about everything but you can record what is going on. So, in that respect, it is extremely powerful and helpful. But the programmer interface isn’t why people opt for a FlashScan.
Because the Flashscan isn’t designed as a gauge set or meant to be mounted on the dash, you may be wondering how you adjust the power level while driving? There are two methods. EFILive was the originator of the five position switch in the dash. By rotating the switch from one to five, the power level can be adjusted. The other option is to use the programmer. It just takes a matter of a few seconds to connect the Flashscan and click a few buttons to adjust the power level without having to fully reprogram the truck.
Grading #2 – Display options
This is probably where the largest changes in tuners have been made over the years. Tuners were originally devices that were fairly large and bulky. It took a long time to program the vehicle and once programmed, that was kind of that. You put the tuner away because unless you were changing power levels or had a check engine light on, you didn’t need it.
Edge Products and Bully Dog lead the change in the industry. Both companies came to market with products that were designed to be mounted on the A-pillar. The user could configure the display to show a variety of parameters on a black and white display.
Later, SCT came out with the Livewire, which was a much larger tuner than Edge or Bully Dog’s, but it was designed to be mounted on the windshield. Through the evolution of the Livewire, we have the highly refined device that we see today. This small display is still very powerful, but now in a compact device. The screen has a limited color pallet, but it is easy to see in the daylight (not always the case with the original). Our only real complaint about the Livewire TS is the boot time. Upon initial startup, The TS does take a few more seconds to get to a functional state than some of the other displays, but once it is up and running, it responds as quickly as the rest.
For Diablosport, the Trinity marks the company’s first attempt at a dash mounted monitor. When it entered the market, there were a number of displays already available. Diablosport was able to see what others had done and capitalized on some of the other display weaknesses to create a very user friendly interface. Instead of black and white, the Trinity is color, and the interface is easy to use and intuitive. The Trinity is one of the only tuners in the market to have a touch screen and push button controls. This allows the user to really control the device how they want. We found ourselves going back and forth seamlessly between the touch screen and the buttons.
“The Trinity offers truck owners a huge full color touch screen with gauges that can be completely customized. A user can display up to 5 gauges on 9 different pages (45 in all), choose the shape, size, and parameters and even select from 10 different background wallpapers! With Trinity’s color touch screen and customizable options, a user can really see just about any sensor on their truck without the need for aftermarket gauges,” explains Dan Dolan Sales and Marketing Manager for Diablosport.
With Banks Power, the IQ2.0 is the second generation of its display, and is an option with its module (not standard). The interface is generic in that it doesn’t provide any programming or specific function outside of displaying information by itself. The interface feels like it is designed for a foreman, manager, or salesman who does a lot of business on the road. It is Windows based, and has the ability to ready PDFs, and can work with pretty much any Windows based software. For someone who is very programming savvy, they can probably design some really cool backgrounds and displays for the IQ, but the factory default displays are a “little vanilla”.
The current generation of the Edge Evolution CTS is probably the most graphically pleasing of the tuners tested. The CTS stands for color touchscreen and it offers a wide range of display options. The display is very easy to see in the sunlight and the interface is fairly intuitive. “The Evolution CTS tuner is as simple as one, two, three to install, but can be expanded for the gearheads who want to add more sensors, power switches, or a backup camera via Edge’s exclusive EAS – Expandable Accessory System,” explained Jim McGinn of Edge Products.
All of the programmers and modules in the market today, offer different levels of power. This is especially important for a diesel as the work being done by the engine can vary greatly at any given moment. The amount of fuel and timing needed for an engine under load (say towing 15,000 lbs) is very different than an engine under very little load (truck by itself cruising down the freeway). As we mentioned above, we aren’t going to address the specific horsepower and torque ratings for each module.
Instead, we are going to talk about the flexibility. Companies like SCT (which originally stood for Superchips Custom Tuning) and EFILive have always offered the end customer a way of changing the tune based on the specific components used.
SCT has really pioneered custom tuning in the Ford market. Tim Roi of SCT Performance says, “SCT has empowered custom tuning dealers worldwide to provide huge increases in horsepower and torque while retaining the factory drivability and reliability of even the wildest high performance vehicles.” While there are some limitations on what can be done, SCT custom tuning can get most combinations to work well. This becomes more important as fuel injectors are changed and critical when turbocharger(s) are upgraded. Changing from a variable turbocharger to a fixed can cause many issues and if not properly addressed can actually damage the engine.
The powerhouse in the custom tuning market is EFILive. They approach tuning software very differently than everyone else. EFILive spends a tremendous amount of time “cracking” the factory ECUs (as do other companies) but then they provide the software for the end user to change that tuning however they want (within reason). “EFILive’s FlashScan, and AutoCal are the tools that give customers the ability to create their own tunes to suit their conditions, hard parts, and requirements for their own trucks, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach,” explains Donna Blackmore, Business Manager for EFILive. The FlashScan V2 doesn’t have pre-programmed power levels or any programming at all. When you buy it, it comes blank. With the book wide open, tuners are able to change just about any parameter to really squeeze out every single horsepower possible.
This is one of the reasons why many high-horsepower Duramax truck owners rely on EFILive. In recent years, EFILive has been doing the same for Cummins tuning. Late model Cummins tuning was just recently released, and isn’t as mature as the Duramax tuning, but we are already seeing some big things. If you aren’t interested in doing the tuning yourself, EFILive has a great dealer network that can tune the truck for you.
In addition to SCT and EFILive, there have been quite a few companies that have recently started offering the ability to have custom tuning done. With the merger of SCT and Bully Dog, the new Bully Dog GT tuners have custom tuning now available. This is still relatively new, but we are excited to see how the Bully Dog dealer network embraces the custom tuning. We are sure they will rely heavily on the mature SCT dealer network, but only time will tell.
Diablosport’s Trinity can also be used to download custom tuning to the vehicle. Its CMR dealers are able to modify the tuning to work with most modifications made, and it will really help make the truck more drivable. Early on, Diablosport’s Predator programmer was a go-to programmer to be “stacked” with a number of different modules to produce some very impressive power gains. The Trinity CMR network can offer tuning to remove the need to stack. This can simplify the complexity of your system.
The only programmer in this review that doesn’t offer custom tuning is the Edge Evolution CTS. The Evolution CTS does offer multiple power levels that can be changed while driving but there is no ability to “custom tune” the tune for your exact combination.
In addition, the Banks Power Six-Gun is a module, and there are no custom tunes available. As with the Evolution CTS, it does have different power levels that can provide great drivability for most people.
At A Glance
We put together a quick chart below to give you a side by side comparison. This is by no means a complete list of features and benefits, just some of the key features.
|Diablosport||Edge Products||Bully Dog||SCT||Banks Power||EFILive|
|Largest Market||Cummins||Power Stroke||Cummins||Power Stroke||Duramax||Duramax|
|Driver Interface||3.5″ color touch screen||4.3″ color touch screen||2.4″||4″ touch screen||5″ touch screen||none|
|Price Ladder 1-5 (5 most)||3||1||3||2||5||4-5 (depending on tuning)|
|What’s included||Windshield mount, cabling to connect to vehicle and computer||Windshield mount, cabling to connect to vehicle and computer||Windshield mount, micro SD card, cabling to connect to vehicle and computer||Windshield mount, cabling to connect to vehicle and computer||Windshield mount, EGT Probe, cabling to connect to vehicle and computer||Blank tuner, tuning software (downloadable)|
|Upgrade and options||Trinity EGT Accessory kit, gauge pot mount,||Expandable Accessory System, Camera, sensors, turbo timer, and more.||Sensor Docking Station w/ optional Pyrometer, EGT, Pressure, Speed, and temperature||Rear view camera, EGT probe||Rear view camera, EGT probe||5 position switch|
|Custom tuning available||Yes||no||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
Really, the best programmer is the one that works for you. If you are looking to get every last ounce of power out of your truck, and you plan on modifying it heavily, then a device that offers custom tuning is critical. If you are looking for a
a solid horsepower increase, and you don’t want to push your truck to the limit, then maybe the display and functionality is most important to you. For people that live in California, maybe the most important aspect whether the device is 50 state legal or not.
No matter which way you go, you will be bumping your truck’s performance by probably close to a hundred horsepower and a few hundred lb-ft. of torque. This will take a good performing engine and really wake it up.
Today’s tuners are just a step in the evolution of tuners. We will continue to see tuners integrate more features into the units, as well as more options to add additional accessories to make them even more powerful. So keep an eye out for the latest options!