What Do Tuners Do for a Truck? Are They Worth It?

Updated on Aug 23, 2023


Upon a quick search for performance modifications for your pickup, you’ll likely find a list of conventional bolt-ons like exhaust systems, cold air intakes, throttle body spacers, and programmers. While it’s easy to see how most of these components bolster engine performance, as more airflow equals more power, programmers and tuners are often shrouded in mystery; how does plugging a handheld device into your pickup’s OBDII port increase power? 

In this guide, our experts set out to clear the air around these handy devices, answering all the common questions surrounding performance tuners, like how they work, how much power you should expect to gain, and whether they’re worth the steep prices!

How Do Tuners Work?

Believe it or not, tuners aren’t magic. They aren’t snake oil or placebos either; they provide noticeable, dyno-proven performance gains! But how? 

Tuners and programmers improve your pickup’s performance by modifying pre-set parameters of the factory computer, such as ignition timing, fuel rail pressure, injector pulse, air/fuel mixture, and more. In turn, the engine runs more efficiently, thus increasing power and fuel economy.

In factory form, most vehicles feature relatively conservative tunes to provide maximum longevity and accept less expensive fuel grades. That isn’t to say that tuned powertrains are inherently less reliable, but you can increase stress on mechanical parts IF you fail to exercise caution while running a custom tune. If you know the limitations of your drivetrain and take the necessary precautions–like using the appropriate fuel grade, keeping up on preventive maintenance, and driving responsibly–tuners are safe and effective.

How Do Tuners Work on Gas and Diesel Applications?

While tuners function similarly on gas and diesel engines, there are some key differences.

Gas Trucks

Gasoline-powered engines rely on three sources for combustion: fuel, spark, and air. For an engine to operate, fuel injectors atomize gasoline into the cylinders, fresh air enters the cylinders through the heads/intake, and spark plugs produce a high-energy charge which ignites the mixture. This combustion recurs in a particular order (firing order), which drives the pistons up and down, thus rotating the crankshaft and creating torque; simple, right? 

In modern vehicles, fuel, spark, and air are precisely regulated to ensure the proper ratios enter the cylinders at precisely the right time, thus ensuring efficient and safe operation. However, as mentioned previously, manufacturers tend to tune vehicles conservatively, often retarding timing and pulling air and fuel to limit power and increase longevity.

Tuners eliminate most unnecessary restrictions, directing the computer to dump more fuel and air into the cylinders for a more powerful combustion cycle. Tuners also command the spark plugs to ignite the mixture slightly sooner, referred to as “advancing timing.” As a result, the engine operates more efficiently and produces more power!

Diesel Trucks

Diesel trucks operate similarly; like gasoline-powered vehicles, diesels require three components for combustion: fuel (diesel), air, and compression. Unlike gas-powered engines, diesels don’t utilize spark plugs; in fact, they have no ignition source at all! Instead, they rely on the high temperatures created from compressing the air and fuel molecules to ignite the mixture. 

So how does tuning work in a diesel application? Like a gasoline-powered application, diesel tuners modify specific parameters within the computer to increase power. Considering the lack of an ignition source, diesel tuners primarily focus on parameters like injection timing and fuel rail pressure, allowing more fuel to enter the cylinders. Tuners also typically increase boost thresholds, allowing the turbocharger to create more boost, which forces more air into the engine and, thus, optimizes combustion and increases power!

How Much Horsepower Can a Tuner Add?

The amount of power a tuner adds directly correlates to the application, supporting mods, and aggressiveness of the tune. For instance, an application with more supporting modifications, like a beefier fuel pump, larger injectors, an aftermarket intake, and a high-flow exhaust will respond better to tuning than a stock engine, as there’s more room for improvement. Additionally, a more aggressive tuning profile can add significantly more power than a mild tune; most tuners even include several options depending on your desired power level!

Are Truck Tuners Worth It? 

Depending on your wants and needs, definitely! Tuners are an excellent investment if you’re craving extra power to tow, race, or even merge on the freeway. Several even improve fuel economy and feature bonuses like live data monitoring, gauge readouts, tire size adjustments, and DTC code reading.

Our Favorite Performance Tuners

Check out some of our expert's favorite tuners below!

  • 2.8-inch HD full-color display

  • Towing, Economy, Daily Driving, and Extreme Performance tunes

  • Speedometer correction for aftermarket tire sizes and gear ratios

  • Adjust rev and speed limiters

  • Integrated transmission tuning

  • Disables active fuel management on select applications

  • Read and clear DTC (diagnostic trouble codes)

  • 2-year warranty

    The Superchips FlashPaq programmer is an advanced, next-generation programmer that allows you to take full advantage of your pickup’s performance potential! The Superchips FlashPaq features multiple pre-loaded tuning profiles to enhance towing performance, fuel economy, daily drivability, and overall power. And for those pesky GM active fuel management systems, the FlashPaq can disable cylinder deactivation to ensure every ounce of power is at your disposal with zero delays!

  • Multiple driving modes

  • Read and clear DTC (diagnostic trouble codes)

  • Manually initiate regeneration 

  • Full-color monitor shows a wide range of engine and performance parameters

  • Driving coach monitors driving habits to help maximize efficiency and fuel economy

  • Logs driving data which can be stored and downloaded

  • Stores up to 10 custom tunes

  • Includes dash mount

The Bully Dog GT Tuner is a staple in the performance tuning world, combining the tunability of a performance programmer with real-time monitoring to ensure the safety of your drivetrain. With the ability to store and upload up to 10 custom tunes, you can shift turning profiles on-the-fly to match your driving conditions, whether towing, mulling around town, or hitting the drag strip! 

The Bully Dog GT features an integrated mount that suspends it on the window in clear view of the driver, allowing you to monitor parameters like coolant temperature, boost, fuel rail pressure, and more! Other features include DTC code reading, an integrated driving coach, data logging, and the manual regen on diesel applications.

  • Prevents the active and dynamic fuel management systems from deactivating cylinders

  • Improved power throughout the RPM range

  • Doesn’t program your vehicle’s ECM

  • Fits all V6 and V8 GM vehicles with active fuel management

  • Simple plug-and-play installation 

  • Easy to revert to factory settings

Are you tired of your GM pickup’s active fuel management system robbing power from the drivetrain? While cutting power from multiple cylinders can save fuel, it also creates an inconvenient delay while cruising and leads to unnecessary valvetrain wear! 

The Range Technology Active Fuel Management Disable Device takes care of the AFM system with a simple plug into the OBDII port. Simply plug the device in and prevent the engine from dropping cylinders! The device doesn’t modify your vehicle’s factory tune and is easily revertable by unplugging the device!

  • Prevents cylinder deactivation

  • Disables auto-start/stop for 2015+ Ford

  • Eliminates hesitation on acceleration

  • Unleashes the true power of your engine

  • Plug-n-play installation

  • Does not reprogram your vehicle's ECM

The DiabloSport Sprint is a simple, plug-and-play device that deactivates your pickup’s active fuel management and auto start/stop systems. While providing minor benefits in fuel economy, these systems rob your vehicle of much-needed power and create noticeable delays while at cruising speeds and taking off from a light. They can also cause unnecessary valvetrain wear and produce an irritating drone when paired with an aftermarket exhaust. 

With the DiabloSport Sprint, simply plug the device into the OBDII port and enjoy full cylinder activation at all times!

  • Full color, high definition 5-inch touchscreen

  • Performance tuning for mileage, towing, daily driving, and performance

  • Capability to store and deliver custom tunes created by 3rd party tuners using Diablo's CMR software

  • Customizable gauge screen layouts

  • Customize and choose between 5 gauges screens per layout

  • Custom color mixer and customizable gauge screens

  • One-touch, easy menu navigation

  • Read and clear diagnostic trouble codes

  • Comprehensive data logging and performance tests

  • Correct the speedometer and adjust speed and rev limiters

  • Light sensitivity meter to activate user-adjusted day/night modes

  • Internet updateable

Introducing the next generation of tuning: the Trinity 2 Programmer from Diablosport. The full-color, 5-inch touchscreen tuner features full gauge monitoring and tune uploading, including pre-programmed mileage, towing, daily driving, and performance tunes as well as fully custom 3rd party tunes using Diablosport’s CMR software! 

The touchscreen display is futuristic and easily navigable, making scrolling through menus and updating tunes a breeze. Installation is also straightforward, requiring nothing more than mourning the monitor with the included suction-cup mount and plugging the tuner’s power cable into your vehicle’s OBDII port! 

For all your tuning needs, check out our wide selection of tuners and programmers for your application. We offer C.A.R.B. compliant, race, and E.P.A compliant tuners for most makes and models, allowing you to extract the most power out of your ride!

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