Helpful Guide to 2021’s Best Car Key Programmer

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Getting a new car key used to be relatively simple, particularly if you had your backup key. You took your backup to a hardware store and they cut you an identical copy. This cost only a few dollars, and took less than five minutes. If both original keys were lost, you could go to your dealership, give them your VIN number, and order another. You’d have to wait for the key to arrive, and it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t absurdly pricey either. Nowadays, though, you can spend $100, $200, or more on a single replacement, copy, or backup key. That’s bad news for anyone unlucky enough to lose both of their keys. It also makes it tough for mom-and-pop or one-man mechanics to help their customers.

Manufacturers didn’t do this just to inconvenience people. They did this for security. Older car keys were notoriously insecure. If a thief didn’t care about the ignition, they could jam a screwdriver inside and fire up the car. Worse, anyone could copy your key. There was an all-too-common scam where valet parking lot attendants would make a mold of your key. They would also take a note of your address from your registration. Weeks later, an accomplice would show up at your home with a copy of the key, and drive off. Modern keys utilize a transponder chip that’s tied to that specific vehicle. Pairing a new transponder is not easy, and the keys are not cheap. This helps deter thieves.

The downside is that you need a car key programmer to make a new copy. At least, if you don’t want to spend a hundred dollars or more per key at a car dealer. Today, we’ll be reviewing three of the best car key programmers available. We’ll start by reviewing the XTOOL Autool X100 PAD. This is a complete kit, which comes with multiple adapters for various Japanese and Korean manufacturers. Next, we’ll look at the Autel MaxiIM IM508. This is a combo unit with a scanner and key programmer together, and it works with many luxury brands. Finally, we’ll examine the Autek Key Programmer Ikey820. This programmer offers near-universal compatibility with all manufacturers, but only for vehicles made prior to 2017. Let’s see how they compare!

Are There Alternatives to a Car Key Programmer?

If you’re just trying to replace your own lost key, the cost of a car key programmer might be too high. A single key might be pricey, but it’s still much less than a programmer. So in that case, you may be better off biting the bullet and visiting a dealership or mechanic.

That said, you’ll often be able to buy your own blank key. Considering you’ll have a blank anyway, it’s worth testing to see if you can program it yourself. There’s a way to do it at home, but there are a few caveats. First, these are general guidelines. They work for most American vehicles, but not for foreign luxury makes like BMW. Results are also hit-or-miss on Japanese cars. Second, to use our method, you’ll need to have an existing copy. In other words, it’s not going to work if you’ve lost both of your original keys. You’ll only be able to make your own key if you’re making a backup. Finally, some manufacturers require two working keys, in which case you’ll only be able to make a third one. With all of that being said, here’s how it works.

First, sit in your driver’s seat, and set your key blank somewhere close at hand. If you have a second working key, set that one next to the blank. Now, insert your primary key into the ignition, and turn it to the on position. Don’t turn it all the way to the point where it actually starts the ignition. Leave it halfway, where the electrical systems are activated. As soon as the power comes on, immediately turn the ignition off and remove the key. Do this as quickly as possible.

Once the ignition is off, you’ll have about five seconds to swap in your second key. If you have a second working key, use that one. If you only have a blank, use that. Repeat the same process, turning your car’s electrical systems on and back off again. If this is your blank key, your car will go into security mode. You’ll know it’s working because the security light will illuminate on your dashboard. If this is a second working key, you’ll need to repeat the swapping process with your blank. Just like the first time, you’ll have five seconds to do this. Repeat the process with your blank.

When the car goes into security mode, it will remain there for about three seconds before the light goes off. If the light won’t shut off, try pressing one of the key’s buttons. This is required for programming on some models. Either way, once the security light is off, you can remove your new key, then reinsert it to test.

We should repeat that this is an unreliable DIY method that may or may not work on your car. But if it saves you spending a hundred bucks at a dealership, it’s worth a shot. This method is not something you should rely on if you’re making keys on a regular basis. In that case, you really need to get yourself a car key programmer.

XTOOL Autool X100 PAD

XTOOL Autool X100 PAD

The XTOOL Autotool X100 PAD is the redesigned version of the earlier XTOOL X100 PAD. The Autotool has been slimmed down to fit in a smaller case, and comes with the latest and greatest firmware. The new and improved X100 PAD is a complete kit, which includes three different adapters. There are Kia Hyunda-10, Kia-20, and Honda-3 adapters, so you can connect to most non-standard Asian vehicles. For everything else, Asian and American, you can simply use the OBD II connector. You can even work on most European cars, although not some trucks. In addition, the mileage function won’t work on Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and most other Japanese brands.

XTOOL Autool X100 PAD

The unit itself is very well engineered. The original X100 had bigger, beefier corners for better drop protection. However, the main body of the Autool version is more rugged, with a sturdier bezel. This mostly makes up for the slimmer corners, and allows for a somewhat smaller carrying case. The touchscreen is responsive and bright, and is easy to operate. This is true even if your hands are covered in engine grease. Moreover, the screen is also easy to keep clean for better visibility. Visibility is further improved by the use of an IPS panel, which allows for a 178-degree viewing angle. You won’t have to be looking straight at the screen in order to read it.

As we already mentioned, the kit includes a carrying case, which is just big enough for the job. It’s about the size of a small laptop bag, and holds everything that comes with the scanner. There are slots for the adapters, the charger, the cables, and all the other accessories. These slots are cut into the padding, and are sized so nothing rattles around inside. The total weight is just over five pounds, so it’s easy to carry around as needed. And while you’re carrying it, you won’t have to worry that your gear is going to get damaged.

XTOOL Autool X100 PAD

The Autotool boasts a 4,000mAh battery, which is sufficient for a full day of operation. If you need to make a lot of keys for your job, you won’t have to worry about running out of juice. There’s a dealer code included in the package, so you can activate all the features from day one. Finally, there’s a 24/7 customer support line in the event that anything goes sideways. This comes along with two years of free software upgrades, so you’ll be up to date for some time after purchase.

The XTOOL Autotool X100 PAD isn’t just a key programmer. In fact, it’s an OBD II diagnostic tool with all the features you’d expect. You can reset various warning lights, reset the battery, and adjust the mileage. You can perform diagnostics, read all your codes, and calibrate your steering. You can even reset the throttle, EPB, and timing belt service lights. These features won’t work on all Japanese cars. BMW owners, on the other hand, get access to several extra features. You can reset several other warnings, such as the engine oil and brake pads.

Autel MaxiIM IM508

Autel MaxiIM IM508

The Autel MaxilM IM508 is a two-part kit that consists of a scanner and a key programmer. They connect into your car with an OBD II connection. The main scanner unit is chunky, with a fat plastic housing and a colorful IPS display. Everything is easy to navigate, including the key programmer controls.

Autel MaxiIM IM508

Yes, the controls for the programmer are located on the scanner screen. This is because the programmer itself is a small handheld unit the size of a smartphone. It’s designed as a modular component, which plugs into the scanner as needed. This programmer is capable of a variety of tasks, including creating new keys and copying old ones. You can also run a full reset to generate a new key code for your car, locking out old keys. This is useful if your existing keys have been stolen, and you want to start over with a new code. In addition, there’s also a key search function for finding lost keys. This only works if you have a copy, since your programmer will need to know what to look for.

Autel MaxiIM IM508

Compatibility is very good for most manufacturers, but particularly for European models. VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and others are well covered. You can also read and write to EEPRoM and MCU units. The entire package is protected by a 12-month manufacturers warranty, along with 12 months of software updates. In addition, there’s a 30-day free return window. If you just plain don’t like the IM508, you can return it within this window at no penalty.

The IM508 also functions as a standard OBD II diagnostic scanner. It performs basic functions like resetting your brakes, your oil, and your other warning lights. It can also be used to read your error codes, so you can diagnose more complex issues.

Autek Key Programmer Ikey820

Autek Key Programmer Ikey820

The Autek Key Programmer Ikey820 is similar to the XTOOL in some resorts. For one thing, it includes adapters for non-OBD II automakers. For another thing, it’s compatible with a variety of vehicles. This includes virtually every make and model released through 2017. The downside here is that it doesn’t work with most newer vehicles, with the exception of 2018 Fords. This is extremely limiting if you’re working on newer cars. On the other hand, if you work mostly on used cars, this won’t be an issue for a few years.

Autek Key Programmer Ikey820

The programmer will erase, program, and copy keys. It will also work with key fobs for push-start vehicles. The housing is constructed from black plastic, and the screen is easy to read. It comes in a black nylon case that’s scratch-resistant, if not shock-resistant.

Final Verdict

Which one of these scanners is right for you? Let’s quickly recap what we’ve learned. The XTOOL Autool X100 PAD offers the most versatility of the bunch. OBD II scanner options are limited on Japanese vehicles, and support for most European vehicles is limited. On the other hand, key programming capability is nearly universal, and BMW owners get a host of extras.

The Autel MaxiIM IM508 is a better choice for European cars in general, since it covers more automakers. It also allows you to lock out old keys, a very useful feature if you’re concerned about theft. That said, some might balk at the price tag.

The Autek Key Programmer Ikey820 is ideal if you work on used cars, since it supports almost every vehicle. That said, because it won’t work with most post-2017 vehicles, it’s not suitable for working on newer cars. Whether or not this makes it the best or the worst option depends entirely on what you need.

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