The CAN bus is a simplistic, cheap, and robust interface that’s widely used for communications between microcontrollers but is a viable and cost-effective communications network for systems that are physically wired together. Vector Informatik GmbH has long dominated the space of CAN bus development/analysis tools, but the hardware and software offerings they provide are extremely pricey. This leads to organizations fighting over these tools, because they cannot justify the cost involved to allow all developers and testers to have the setup they require to get their work done.
In this post, I will be presenting some alternatives to the Vector suite that likely provide all of the necessary capabilities your teams require, but at a fraction of the price.
CANCaseXL – Vector Informatik
To get started, you need a CAN interface that you can hook up to your development/testing workstation. The Vector options these days are limited and pricey, and you will end up spending about $1000 to get a Vector CANCase, which supports up to 2 CAN busses. You’ll have to pay a bit more to get the transceivers that work with the low and/or high speed CAN busses. Low-speed is generally 100-125 kbit/sec, and high-speed is usually 250-500 kbit/sec, but up to 1 Mbit/sec rate is achievable as well. A lower bus speed allows for bus lengths of up to 500m, and also allows for longer taps off of the bus. Higher rates mean more bandwidth and faster interaction, which is usually used for smaller time-critical networks.
CANUSB/CAN232 – LAWICEL
Fairly low price options are available from LAWICEL, based out of Sweden. Their CAN232 (serial-port to CAN) sells for $109, and the CANUSB (USB to CAN) is slightly more at $140, but well worth the extra cost if (like most developers) you no longer have a serial port on your laptop or even desktop machine.
The CANUSB can utilize of virtual COM port driver, so that it appears to your system as a standard serial port, which can make it trivial to write your own tools or test rigs. If you need higher bandwidth for high bus-loads, a direct USB driver is available as well. USB drivers for CANUSB are available for Windows, OSX and Linux, although the bus monitor utilities available from LAWICEL are Windows-only.
ValueCAN – Intrepid Control Systems
Intrepid Control Systems offers the ValueCAN3 at $300. Rumor has it that the CANUSB/232 from LAWICEL falls short on higher bus rates, or even highly loaded busses at lower rates. The ValueCAN can keep up with a fully loaded 1 Mbit/sec bus. The ValueCAN achieves this in part by utilizing a true USB interface, unlike the CANUSB, which uses an off-board serial-to-USB converter chip from FTDI.
The ValueCAN3 comes with a limited trial license for its Vehicle Spy software, but a full license for the basic version is $1000 per seat. This is still significantly cheaper that what you would pay Vector! Another pitfall of the ValueCAN is that the software and driver are only available for the Windows platform.
PCAN-USB – PEAK-System
The PCAN-USB from PEAK System has fit the bill myself and many others. You can buy it in the U.S. for $255, and you can upgrade to the 500V isolated version for $70 more so that you don’t let the smoke out of your laptop/PC! The PCAN-USB comes with a free utility, PCAN-VIEW, for sniffing the CAN bus. They do offer higher end software, with various options as well, but they are fairly costly.
Although the PCAN-USB supplied PCAN-VIEW and other software programs are Windows-only, uvsoftware has developed free device drivers for Linux and OSX as well. To top it off, uvsoftware also has a slew of different free and multi-platform software packages, and the source code is also available for the super techies who want to dig in and write their own kick-ass test rigs!
Saleae’s logic analyzer interprets CAN signals. I used it in 2013 on a FIRST robotics team. We had 8 identical devices on a very small bus so this solution might not be enough for industrial applications, but if you have a Saleae around, try it. Their email support was excellent.
PCAN was what I was going to try if the Saleae didn’t work. It’s tough to justify expensive specialized tools on the robotics team.
I worked with Vector and Intrepid hardware and use the Vector SW (CANoe). I also had a chance of checking the Intrepid SW VS3 for few hours (far from being an expert).
Vector in flawless in almost all the way but price. Another minus is the software robustness to bus failures (short circuits, open, ….). Programming features of a node in collaboration with bus monitoring and simple and intuitive programming language, timings, … is superb. Intrepid logging capabilities are a big plus. Software from Intrepid is not as intuitive as Vector but a lot less pricey. A full software buy from Intrepid is less than a software update from Vector.
Thanks for the feedback! I agree with your note that replacing Vector HW and SW is much more cost-effective than upgrading and/or renewing a support agreement with Vector.
My co-workers and I ran into many issues, especially with the USB CANCaseXL from Vector regarding it not starting up and unable to consistently establish communications with the host PC.
Though Vector SW has more features than Intrepid, and other options I mentioned, we have largely found that developers and testers use a very small subset of what us consumers pay for.
Though there are many firms that have made good use of CANoe, the fact that the CANoe programming language is proprietary and very low-level, makes it inefficient for many testing applications. If Vector would provide bindings for other higher-level languages, like Python, Ruby or even C#, it would be more feasible.
Thanks again for chiming in!
Great collection of CAN tools!
For the more adventurous, there are also some great CAN micro development boards from chip makers that have all of the hardware to be used as interfacing tools. At Techmor, we make sensors for the CAN Bus to be viewed and logged over Bluetooth on Android apps.
Yeah, dev boards with CAN can make great starting points for developing custom CAN-attached devices. We have used an Arduino w/ CAN shield with much success as well.
Thanks for the heads up on the cool CAN-attached sensors and the bluetooth bridge for Android fun!
Indeed, it’s a pity that Vector is so prohibitive regarding the software offers versus price. Every option costs pretty much, a full CANoe suite (incl CAPL browser, A2L Editor, Candela Editor) + specific PCI/USB interface would go more than 15.000$. And also, the fact that you are forced to buy a hardware for licensing the application even if you only need to make simulative validation (on simulated bus) of ECU models (model-in-loop validation).
Yes, the capabilities they offer are very wide, and the reading of a test report is as easy as how smart the automatic test has been implemented with the CAPL browser.
So good but so expensive…
The prohibitively costly CAN tools are mainly targeted at large organisations which need the very high end features.
However for a large section of smaller companies, professionals, individuals and students, minimum features are sufficient.
Fortunately quite a few low cost CAN Monitor tools are now available in the market which just fit the budget and also meet the requirements.
One such affordable and effective CAN Bus Analyser or CAN Monitoring tool or CAN Bus Sniffer is the vCAN CAN Bus Analyser from Tangent TechnoLabs.
It comes as hardware and software package. The software is freely downloadable from http://www.tangenttechnolabs.com. The hardware comes in two versions – The non-isolated version costs less than 100$ while isolated version with galvanic isolation costs an additional 50$.
The video demonstration of this CAN to USB converter or CAN USB Adapter is available on YouTube at
The Leaf Light from Kvaser is a one channel CAN high speed interface and cost 275 Euros on the Kvaser website and $335 on Amazon.com
I might be a bit biased as we are a reseller, but they are very robust, have a good API to develop your own applications and a free software, CAN King, for basic monitoring of CAN messages.
There’s also a range of software in different price ranges available from technology partners.
CANtrace from TK Engineering
ViCANdo from Zuragon
X-Analyzer from Warwick Control
Great article! Encourage you to also check out the CANLoggerX000 series:
They are a fairly new player in the market, but offer some really good loggers at very low prices. We’ve had excellent mail and phone support from their side as well, including some custom scripts done for our specific application. Their cheapest logger costs 169 EUR with free shipping. Anyhow, recommend giving them a look :)
Comments are closed.