A note before reading: This is only a general overview to understanding tuners, programmers and chips. The actual abilities and features from specific manufacturers and devices will vary.
What are Tuners and Programmers?
There are a many ways you can boost the performance of your truck, like buying an aftermarket exhaust system or installing a cold-air intake. But all you’re doing is adding appendages — why not just improve it right at the heart? By installing a tuner or programmer directly into your truck’s control module, you’ll get access and more control of your truck’s on-board computer*. To put it simply, a tuner or programmer is an electronic device that can manage and optimize your engine’s performance.
The SCT X4 Programmer Mounted on the Windshield
How To Install A Truck Tuner Or Programmer: An Overview
They’re typically easy to install, just plug the device into the OBD-II (on-board diagnostics) port under your dashboard. (Use this website to find where the OBD-II port is.) From there, the tuner/programmer will load custom programs called “tunes” into your truck’s computer. Every tune has data for the specific year, make, and model of your vehicle. These tunes will dictate adjustments to your engine, like increasing fuel pressure to boost horsepower so you can, let’s say, improve your towing capability. (Note: There are specific tunes for towing and they keep an eye on your transmission. We’ll get more into the specifics later on in this guide.)
Location of OBD-II port in a Ford F-150
After you choose the tune you want, you can upload, or “flash”, it into your truck’s computer, saving it in its memory. Then you can disconnect the device and leave it at home. However, there are also devices where you leave it plugged into the truck’s wiring harness. These devices alter the engine sensors as they are sent to the computer and changes what the computer would read. Other devices you leave plugged-in so you can read its on-screen gauges if you want to see real-time information. In either case, as you drive, the device will have adjusted settings that will optimize the performance of your truck in your desired area.
3 Kinds of Tunes: Stock, Canned, and Custom
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As for the tunes themselves, there are three varieties: stock, canned, and custom. The stock tune is what came with your truck. It’s what the manufacturer installed when it left the factory. Think of it as an “all-purpose” tune since they don’t know why you’re buying their vehicle. This stock tune needs to work for off-roading as well as driving to the store. It gives you a reasonable balance of performance, fuel economy, and drivability. A canned tune is where the manufacturers of the device know the stock specifics of your vehicle and how to improve its performance if you want better fuel efficiency, etc. Depending on the tune, they also allow for adjustments to factors like tire size. A custom tune is where you go to a person (called a “tuner”, which we’ll get into more in the next main section) where they analyze your driving data and your truck’s current specs (like if you installed an aftermarket cold air intake) to create a specialized tune just for you, fit to the way you drive.
*ECU, ECM, TCM, PCM … What’s The Difference?
Depending on your truck’s model, manufacturers have different names for the on-board engine computer, each with minor differences. Asian car manufacturers usually call it ECU, or Electronic Control Unit but sometimes it stands for Engine Control Unit. It’s generally the same as ECM, or Engine Control Module, and, yes, it can also mean Electronic Control Module. Both acronyms usually refer to the system that reads sensor data from your truck’s engine. (They’re how you get the ‘check engine’ light.)
There is also TCM, or Transmission Control Module, referring to the truck’s system that, of course, manages the transmission. Not all vehicles have a TCM. Ford and GM vehicles usually call it the PCM, or Powertrain Control Module. It encompasses both an ECM/ECU and the TCM. Chrysler vehicles usually call their computers either the ECM or PCM.
Read also: How to Test TCM on a Duramax
The Difference Between Tuners and Programmers
So before we get into the details of everything, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between a tuner and a programmer. It all comes down to where you’re looking. When you’re Googling “Best tuners for my 5.7 Hemi Ram” or “Best programmers for GMC Sierra 1500” the search results will suggest devices that are called tuners and programmers regardless of what you typed. That’s because, in the general market, they’re used interchangeably — they both refer to a device you connect to your truck that manages and can boost its performance.
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However, if you’re researching where more serious truck lovers like to discuss the best tunes and manufacturers, like truck forums, then there’s a difference. These guys typically use “tuner” to refer to a person who knows how to read your truck’s data and create a custom tune for you. A “programmer”, for them, is the electronic device that will load the tune into your truck’s computer.
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There is also a difference in definitions depending on the manufacturer. For instance, one of DiabloSport’s Programmers can read gauge displays and get Wi-Fi updates but a SCT Tuner has the same capabilities.
For this guide, we’ll follow the forums and use “tuner” to refer to a person while “programmer” is the device. However, in our review pages, we’ll use them as the manufacturer defines them.
The Difference Between Chips and Programmers: Pros and Cons
Now that we understand the difference between Tuners and Programmers, next is understanding Chips. Chips, or modules as they’re also sometimes called, do similar actions to your truck’s computer like a programmer, but there are some major differences.
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Chip vs. Programmer: Installation Differences
First off, not all trucks can accommodate chips and similarly, some trucks, like the Ford Powerstroke 99-03 7.3L get more performance customizability with a chip than a programmer. Chips need to be specially programmed to match the truck’s computer code (PCM/ECU/ECM code) otherwise they will not work. And most programmers will lock to your truck’s VIN number once you use it, marrying it to that vehicle. (Until you “unlock” or “unmarry” them.) The installation of a chip differs from a programmer as well. For a chip, you usually have to wire it directly into the wire harness that connects to the computer while a programmer can just be connected to the OBD-II port.
Chip vs. Programmer: Custom Tune Differences
As for the tunes themselves, some chips require you to send them to a tuner to “burn” custom tunes onto the chip. (There are chips, like the Hydra chip, that allow owners to DIY with a USB cable.) This also means that you can buy a blank chip and send it to your preferred tuner to burn custom tunes just for you. And not all programmers allow custom tunes. Some come with only canned tunes that follow your truck’s stock specifications. You have to buy a programmer that allows for custom tunes. But, unlike the chips, the user can add the tunes themselves either via Wi-Fi or connecting it to a computer via USB.
Chip vs. Programmer: Want to Change Your Tune While Driving?
The big attraction for truck owners to use a chip over a programmer is the ability to switch tunes while driving. The TS chip has a knob that makes it super simple to switch from one tune to another while on the road. Programmers usually need you to turn on/off the truck and wait a few minutes for the new tune to properly load into the computer (called ‘flashing’ a tune). But most programmers allow you to make adjustments to parameters like tire size or gear ratio so your tunes will have up-to-date, accurate information. Chips can’t take in new information after they’re burned. You have to “re-burn” them to change the data.
Chip vs. Programmer: Solve DTCs Yourself
But what programmers usually have that chips don’t is the ability to read and solve the Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC) from the truck’s sensors so you have the chance to fix the problem yourself instead of going to the dealership every time. They also usually have screens that allow you to view gauges on performance data in real-time. Some programmers can also perform high-speed data logging so you don’t need to go to a shop for a special scanner or buy special software.
*Note: Please keep in mind that, depending on the manufacturer, the features and abilities of their product may not quite align with what we’ve described here.
Why You Should Get A Tuner, Programmer, or Chip
Straight from the factory, vehicle manufacturers set limits on your vehicle to keep drivers from pushing the engine too hard or to comply with federal standards. But with a tuner, programmer, or chip you can upgrade the horsepower, torque, fuel efficiency, clear and check diagnostic codes, or all of the above. (See our list of common adjustments below.) You’ll have the ability to make your truck a more efficient, better functioning tool that suits you exactly as you need, with the way you drive.
Add Power, Speed, and See The Data In Real-Time
For example, the Bully Dog GT Diesel 40420 Performance Tuner can give Ford 6.4 Powerstroke owners the ability to calibrate the speedometer, customize the speed and rev limiter, and give you real-time gauges on your fuel economy. While for those Dodge Ram owners with 6.7L Cummins engines, the Edge 31507 Juice with Attitude (yes that’s the actual name) can add 150HP and 250 ft. Lbs of torque. And for those Chevy Silverado owners with the 5.3L engine, you might be interested in the Hypertech 2000 Max Energy 2.0, valued for its ability to give you the best performance with powerful tow power.
Got Aftermarket Parts? Go Find A Tuner.
And if you’ve already improved your truck with aftermarket parts, a tuner is the only way to go. Since programmers/chips come with tunes that are based on stock specifications, you need to get a tune that fits with whatever you added on. Tuners will know how to add the aftermarket boosts into a custom tune so your engine, transmission, etc will work its best but not overwork itself after a few drives.
Tuners can sometimes use Dyno Tests, or Dyno Tuning, to learn about the current calibrations of your truck. A machine called a dynamometer is used to help measure the force, power, and torque of your engine. Based on the data from these tests, tuners will have suggestions on where to improve your truck’s engine based on your goals for the tune.
(Performance gains will vary depending on the combination of your truck’s specs, the programmer/chip device you use, and how you drive)
- Reading and clearing maintenance/diagnostic codes
- Monitoring of engine functions (through on-screen gauges or data logs; not a complete list)
- Injection control pressure
- Injection timing
- Throttle position
- Transmission temperature
- Engine RPM
- Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT)
- Some parameter adjustments to improve truck sensors accuracy
- Tire Size
- Tire Speed Rating
- Air/Fuel Ratio
- Horsepower and Torque Boost (average increase of 5-10%)
- Improvement in Fuel Economy (usually combined with adjustments in driving style) (average 1-4 MPGs)
- Optimization of engine for higher octane fuel
- Improvement in Towing Performance (alters aspects like horsepower, torque, transmission shift points)
- Increasing Throttle Response/Eliminating Throttle Lag
- Adjustments for Racing (Not street legal)
- Adjust RPM shift points
- Change Rev Limit
- Raise speed limit setting
- Optimization for Off-road Use
- Change threshold for tire pressure monitoring system
- Change the temperature for your electric cooling fan to turn on
- Get high low-end torque in 4WD
Could This Tuner/Programmer/Chip Hurt My Truck?
Generally, no. It depends on how you use it, where you get your programmer/chip, and who created your tune (whether it was a tuner or a canned tune). The major programmers and chip manufacturers have been working with trucks for years; they know what they’re doing. If you’re looking for a reputable tuner to get a custom tune, check the forums for your specific truck for suggestions or ask the device manufacturer. But when you’re adjusting the settings in a programmer to mess with the shift points or fuel timing, be aware that this could do serious damage to your truck. If you’re unsure of what your truck can handle, do enough research or ask your local mechanic/tuning shop before your trial-and-error approach forces you to make an expensive trip to the mechanic.
Watch Out For Faulty Tunes and Existing Mechanical Problems
Your truck could run into issues if you install a faulty tune. Maybe the file was corrupted or your truck specifications do not match the specs the tuner/manufacturer wrote in the tune. Or, your truck has an electrical or mechanical problem that the tune assumes should be working correctly. In this case, you must fix the physical problem before your tune will work properly. (You might want to thank the tune/tuner too – who knows how long it would have been until you saw the problem and how expensive of an issue would have it been to fix then?) Most of the time, the issues will only last as long as you continue trying to use your truck with the faulty tune/broken part. As soon as you fix these (and maybe get a reputable tuner to confirm everything is fine), you’re good to go.
A Big Benefit: See A Problem and Fix It Before It Costs Major $$$
These devices can also help make sure your truck remains in top condition. You can use a programmer to keep an eye on your truck’s vital signs so you can quickly fix the problem, preventing further damage and larger maintenance costs later on. Some devices also give you more diagnostic capabilities for your truck so you can identify future problem areas well ahead of something breaking.
Can I Go Back to Factory Settings After Using a Tuner, Programmer, or Chip?
Depending on the device you have, you can go back to factory settings if you need to bring your truck back to the dealer or if you just don’t like the new tune. (This is called using the ‘stock tune.’) Some devices store the original setting in their internal memory so you can switch back. Other devices just need to be unplugged from the truck’s computer and you’re back to factory settings. However, if you do somehow lose your factory settings, there are tuners that have the stock tune for your truck and can send or upload the data back to your device or truck. (For a fee of course.) And, worst-case scenario, if you can’t find anyone to help you, the dealership will usually be able to set things back to stock conditions, again for a fee.
Note: If you want to go back to stock before an emissions inspection, make sure you have some time to drive with the stock tune for at least 50 miles. And don’t forget to take out the device itself! (Some tunes will not comply with emissions guidelines.) If you change it without the computer “getting used” to the stock tune, there will be an error code that will fail you during the inspection.
Will The Manufacturer Warranty Still Cover My Truck If I Use A Tuner/Programmer/Chip?
Your warranty will stand depending on how you use your device. There is a federal law called the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act that helps truck owners that use performance programmers, chips, or tuners. (It also covers those aftermarket replacement parts.) The Act dictates that manufacturers and sellers share detailed information about their warranty coverage with their consumers. For most manufacturers, this means that the truck’s warranty will become invalid if your device ends up damaging the vehicle. Therefore, so long as your dealer can’t prove that the tune you used caused the failure of the part, it will still be covered by the warranty. (If you want it from a lawyer’s words, here’s an article in Road & Track magazine written by a lawyer.)
Is Using A Tuner, Programmer, or Chip Legal?
It depends on the state. Most states will allow tuners to be sold and used but the only weird exception is California. (But hey, we’re not lawyers – check with your state’s laws for specifics.) The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has a law restricting the selling of aftermarket automotive parts to make sure that the vehicle won’t pollute more than regulations allow. The manufacturers that sell their devices in California have to submit their products for testing and get a license for that particular product if they pass. These CARB-passed products can still be sold and used in the rest of the country.
What Is The Best Tuner/Programmer For My Truck?
Ultimately, this is a question that only you can answer. Here at Mechanic Guides, we’ve reviewed the best tuners and programmers for some trucks to help you decide. If your truck or engine is listed below, read on for our opinions on the best tuners and programmers!
- Camaro SS
- Chevy Silverado 5.3L
- Dodge Ram 6.7L Cummins
- Dodge Ram 5.9L Cummins
- 6.6 Duramax
- Ford Ecoboost 2.3L
- Ford F150 3.5L Ecoboost
- Ford F150 4.6L
- Ford F150 5.0L
- Ford Powerstroke 6.7L
- Ford Powerstroke 6.0L
- Ford Powerstroke 6.4L
- Ford Powerstroke 7.3L
- Ford Triton 5.4L
- GMC Sierra 1500
- 2014 Dodge Ram 1500 Hemi
- Jeep JK
- 6.0 Vortec
If your truck isn’t listed, or it is but you’re too lazy to click, here are some key factors to figure out before you start spending money. As you’re answering these, keep realistic expectations in mind on what can be improved. There’s a reason the stock tune is the way it is — there are still real limits for what your truck can handle, regardless of what device and tune you install.
1. How old is your truck?
Like we mentioned earlier, programmers plug into OBD-II ports. So vehicles manufactured after 1996 will have this port. If it’s older than 1996, then you can only use chips. (Although most of these “newer” trucks can still use chips if that’s your preference.)
2. What’s your Budget? (Related: Do you want canned tunes, custom, or both?)
Obviously, this will be a big factor. There will be a price difference in hiring a tuner to create a custom tune compared to buying a programmer and using one of the canned tunes out of the box.
Expect to spend around $300-$500 for a programmer. The cost for a custom tune ranges from $75 to at least a couple hundred. It will depend on the tuner. (Keep in mind you’ll still need to buy a programmer or chip to install that tune into your truck’s computer.)
3. What’s your style of driving?
If you just drive around the city and use 87 octane fuel, that’s fine, just pick a device that will cover that. However, some programmers/chips require you to use 91 octane to fit with their 91 octane tune, so you’ll have to spend more at the pump to get the boosts you want.
4. Does the tuner have the ability to adjust to your current and desired specs?
To get the best output from your programmer/chip, you’ll need to make sure that it can handle the changes you’ve made or want to make. Anything you buy won’t help your truck’s performance if that aftermarket exhaust system you just installed or those bigger tires you want to get next month can’t be added into the calculations.
5. Do you want to have a display to see gauges of your truck’s performance?
If there are specific boosts or parts that you want to keep your eye on by having a gauge in the cab with you, you’ll see its performance in real-time. Then you can make the necessary driving adjustments or tune changes.
6. Do you want it to log your driving data?
Keeping driving logs are great to help monitor how your truck is doing as you add or remove parts, or try different tunes. Its also great data to send to your tuner or the programmer/chip manufacturer if you ever have questions or a problem come up.
7. How many tunes do you want to store?
Think about what you need on a daily or weekly basis. Maybe you tow often and need different boosts for different weights of cargo, but you also need to drive on the highway a lot. However you drive, make sure the programmer or chip you get can hold the tunes you need. The space will vary by manufacturers but you can expect at least 3 spots —some devices can allow up to 10 or even 15.
8. What kinds of tunes does it have right out of the box? Would you ever use those tunes?
Similar to the question before, if the canned tunes that come with your device aren’t going to be useful to you, then best to look for one that does. (Or look into custom tunes but more on that in the next question.) Most devices have canned tunes that cover the needs of most drivers like adding horsepower, optimizing street performance, and a general towing boost.
9. If you want custom tunes, does it support custom tunes?
Not all programmers will support custom tunes. In these cases you can only use the canned tunes that are pre-loaded. However, most chips will support custom tunes.
10. Are you looking for support for a backup camera video feed?
The design of many of the programmers have a touch-screen monitor. If your truck has a backup camera, some models will let you connect the video port into your device. This could be helpful if your original screen has issues or you just want to keep your eyes looking at the same spot on the dashboard.
11. What’s the tech support from the manufacturer like?
If you’re new to tunes, it’s really nice to be able to contact the manufacturer if you have questions or issues and get a response quickly. Most manufacturers have weekday hours where they’ll answer questions via email, phone, or sometimes fax. (But keep an eye on the time zone – they might be on the opposite of the country.) SCT and Bully Dog offer “Emergency Weekend Support” if you really mess up.
12. What’s the warranty like?
Similar to the tech support question, if this is your first time using a programmer or chip, it’s good to be aware of what’s covered and for how long. Most manufacturers have a 1-year limited warranty. However, companies like JET Chip and Hypertech offer 2 and 3-year limited warranties, respectively.
13. Do you have tuner shops in your area that can work with the device you want or do you need to mail it?
Things get a lot easier when you have a local tuner to answer questions or to just bring your truck in for them to check out in-person. If you don’t have a tuner nearby, there’s still email though! It’s just on you to make sure everything is installed and loaded properly.
14. How easy is it to update the OS or add/change the tunes? Does it have Wi-Fi or does it plug it into a computer?
If you’re terrible at keeping cables in good condition or if you’re just lazy to figure out how to connect the device to your computer, Wi-Fi capability is a great feature to look for. However, most devices without Wi-Fi just need a USB cable. You will probably need to disconnect it from your truck through. If it need to always be directly wired into the computer, this might be super annoying.
Popular Programmer and Chip Manufacturers:
- SCT – Founded in 2003, this company creates devices specifically for Ford, GM, Dodge, and Chrysler vehicles. They have dealers throughout the US and in over 30 countries.
- Bully Dog – Bully Dog and SCT are under the same parent company, Derive Systems, as of 2014. The Bully Dog company started in 1998 and creates devices for Ford, Chevy, Dodge, and GMC.
- DiabloSport – Based in Florida, this company started 2001 and offers programmers for Chevys, Dodge Rams, Fords, and GMCs, among many others.
- Edge – In 2005, Edge became part of the MSD Performance company that also owns DiabloSport. The brand also makes programmers for Chevy, Dodge, GMC, and Ford vehicles.