Ford’s 7.3 Powerstroke produced great power back in the 90’s and early 2000’s when it was produced. In today’s day however, they are a bit underwhelming compared to the 1,000+ torque being produced by the newer modern diesels like the 6.7 Powerstroke.
The hands-down best performance modification for a 7.3 Powerstroke is tuning. Tuning can help unlock upwards of 100hp and torque all while increasing gas mileage, improving towing, and help the engine run better overall.
Tuning for the 7.3 Powerstroke is a bit more complicated than the newer diesels. It isn’t as simple in all cases as just buying a plug and play device and hooking it up. There are considerations between chips and programmers, custom tunes vs canned tunes, gen 1 vs gen 2, and existing modifications. In this guide we are going to discuss the basics of tuning a Ford 7.3L, cover all the important decisions you’ll need to make, and recommend 3 of the best 7.3 Powerstroke tuners on the market.
Tuning: 94-97 vs 99-03 Differences
Tuning is available for both the early 1994+ models as well as the later 1999-2003 models. However, the performance benefits and power gains are going to differ based on which year engine you have. The 7.3 Powerstroke went through a number of changes throughout its lifespan.
We’re going to put out the changes below and discuss which engines are the most tuner and power friendly. But this is all just to say that the later model 7.3L’s will see bigger performance gains than the earlier models will.
- Turbocharger: the Garret TP38 was used through 1997, models from 1998+ use the GTP38 which is a wastegated version of the original turbo. The new GTP38 is more capable.
- Injectors: the earlier ’94-’97 models only had 98cc fuel injectors, the ’97 CARB trucks got 130cc of flow but there were a limited number of CARB 7.3’s produced. In 1999 the engine got upgraded with 140cc injectors making the later models again more capable tuning wise in stock form.
Again, the main point here is that the 1999+ 7.3 Powerstroke’s will experience better performance gains from tuning. It’s still completely worth it to tune the earlier versions.
Chips vs. Programmers: What’s the Difference?
Tuning for the 7.3 Powerstroke is a bit different than other diesels. Most of the products that you might be aware of like SCT, Bully Dog, Edge, EFI Live, and so on are all technically considered programmers. These devices all connect via the OBDII port and they “flash” a tune into the PCM/ECM which essentially re-writes the original programming of the engines computer.
Chips on the other hand temporarily override the factory PCM/ECM programming. They only work so long as the chip is installed on the vehicle. They are also referred to as “piggyback” tuners. Once it is removed the truck goes back to stock. With a programmer you have to flash the truck back to stock – simply unplugging the programmer doesn’t return the truck to normal.
The biggest benefit to chips is the ability to switch-on-the-fly, or SOTF as you’ll see it referred to. You’ll get a little dial with your chip that usually has 6 positions on it and you simply change the switch to change the tune you are running, instead of having to re-flash the new tune.
For the 7.3 Powerstroke, chip tuning is widely considered to be superior to plug and play programmers. However, using a programmer like the SCT X4 is acceptable if you are getting custom tuning.
Programmers like the SCT X4 come pre-loaded with some tunes already, making it simply plug and play. Most chips do not come pre-loaded with tunes, meaning you must buy the tunes alongside them. The benefit being the tuner will build the tunes for you based on the existing modifications you have. The one exception is PHP Hydra, which is our #1 recommended 7.3 Powerstroke tuner below.
If you have a completely stock 7.3 Powerstroke then the pre-loaded tunes on the PHP Hydra or the SCT X4 will work just fine. That’s the reason these are popular routes to go initially – you can simply buy the device and run the pre-loaded tunes until you need custom tuning which both of these devices support. It is cheaper than buying a different chip that doesn’t come with pre-loaded tunes and then having to buy the tunes on top of the chip.
Once you add a few modifications to the 7.3 that is when custom tuning becomes highly recommended. The pre-loaded tunes aren’t meant to be used with trucks running additional modifications, especially if they are injectors, turbo, transmission, or other similar mods.
Summary: if you are modded or plan to be we recommend getting custom tunes. If you are completely stock the pre-loaded tunes on a Hydra or X4 are just fine.
Most Reputable Custom Tuners
- 1023 Diesel & Fleet
- Jelibuilt Performance / Full Force Diesel
- SDK Performance
- AA Design & Tuning
- Gearhead Tuning
Benefits of 7.3 Powerstroke Tuning
Outside of performance and horsepower benefits, tuning is great for a number of other things. You can build your tunes around functional necessities: more power, better fuel economy, towing, etc. which makes it versatile for all the things you might do with a truck. It really optimizes the engine, allowing it to run more efficiently which in turn results in better gas mileage and more power.
- Up to approx. 140hp and torque gains
- Improved gas mileage
- Better towing performance
- Engine runes better overall / more efficient
Best 7.3 Powerstroke Chips / Tuners
There are a number of chips available for the 7.3 Powerstroke. The ones you will see are PHP Hydra, DP Tuner, TS-6, Revolver, and Arachnid. TS-6 is a popular option out there but we don’t cover it below because we believe both Hydra and DP are superior options to the TS-6. Same goes for Revolver and Arachnid, these two are bottom of the barrel and therefore not discussed.
The biggest issue with all these other chips is you have to have new tunes “burned” onto them. Meaning if you want a new tune you need to uninstall the chip, ship it to the tuner, have then burn it and ship it back to you. With Hydra (and DP) it can all be done remotely from your laptop.
We do cover one programmer: the SCT X4. If you opt for a programmer don’t touch anything else, stay away from Edge or Bully Dog or whoever else is making something for the 7.3L.
1. PHP Hydra Chip
PHP Hydra is pretty widely considered the best chip tuner for the 7.3 Powerstroke. It is the only chip that actually comes with pre-loaded tunes on it – and these canned tunes are actually pretty good for a stock truck. This means you can get the chip, plug it in and be tuned for about $400.
The second reason the Hydra is the best is that it is supported by all the custom tuners out there. It is an open source product so everyone supports and tunes for it, which isn’t the case for DP Tuner below. You can buy your Hydra, run some canned tunes and then buy custom tunes down the road when you are ready for them.
- Pre-loaded with decent tunes
- Supported by all custom tuners
- Inexpensive entry into tuning + can custom tune later
- Custom tuning can be done remotely
Price: $399 pre-loaded with 6 tunes / +$250-$400 for custom tunes
2. DP Tuner with Custom Chip Tuning
The one gripe with the Hydra that a number of people tend to have is with the shift points and the shift strategy it has on a lot of their tunes. For this reason DP Tuner is a very popular alternative. The caveat is that they don’t sell it pre-loaded with tunes so you have to get custom tunes and they are the only ones who support custom tuning on it.
It’s a great product, tons of people are extremely happy with their tunes it is just less versatile than the Hydra which is why it’s #2 on our list. You’re looking at somewhere over $700 for the chip and tuning. And one complaint I have is that they don’t make it very easy to purchase online in my opinion. DP Tuner does also sell custom tunes for the Hydra, and I’m guessing the reason being is that the Hydra is more popular than their chip so they’re trying to catch a little bit of that market as well.
Price: around $700 with custom tunes, currently I’m only finding it for sale along with the Edge CTS3 which pushes the cost to around $1,100 loaded with 6 tunes
3. SCT X4 Programmer
Now, we mentioned that chip tuning is the better route for the 7.3L, but that the SCT X4 is also an acceptable programmer. The X4 is a flash programmer and not a chip to be clear. The benefit of it being a programmer is that it is a bit easier to install and use – you get a nice handheld device that controls everything and it has a screen that can monitor certain parameters.
Now, the pre-loaded tunes on the SCT X4 aren’t going to be as good as the Hydra, but they are just fine if you are completely stock. If you are modded, you won’t want to run the X4 with the pre-loaded tunes, you will want custom tuning.
But the reason this is still a great device to run is because it also supports custom tuning and most custom tuners also support the X4. If you get custom tuning done then there isn’t much of a difference between this and the Hydra minus the ability to SOTF. You lose switch on the fly but you get a tuner that is easier to install and has a screen to help monitor various parameters.
Price: $399-$419 / +$100-$300 for 3 custom tunes
Now, outside of a tuner you might also want some gauges to keep an eye on boost, EGTs, and trans temps. Chips don’t come with any form of monitoring, the only thing that does is the X4 but it’s a small screen and can only monitor a few things. Two popular choices are to run gauges, usually mounted to the driver A-pillar or mounted below the center of the dashboard. If you want a digital option that looks cooler and can monitor more than 3 gauges can you can get an Edge Insight CTS3.
Which is better is honestly personal preference and budget. I put gauges at #1 below but this isn’t to say that they are necessarily better than an Edge digital monitor.
Gauges are going to be the most accurate form of monitoring (not that an Edge is not accurate). Additionally, they will be slightly cheaper than a digital monitor, with the downside being they are also more difficult to install and setup.
You definitely don’t want an overkill gauge setup like this truck with 14 gauges…but it’s a good representation of where you can place the gauges and what they look like. The most popular route is getting 3 gauges and putting them on the a-pillar on below the center dash. Just for reference, I have two gauges on my F350 7.3 that measure boost and EGTs. I have a trans temp gauge on my dash so I only have 2, but I prefer them mounted lower out of my direct view.
Depending on what year your 7.3 is you might have to buy additional sensors and hook them up. OBS Ford’s don’t have an EGT probe or trans probe so you have to buy those and install them which is quite a bit more complicated (these will also be needed for the digital version too).
Price: $200-$500 depending on # of gauges, and preference for quality
2. Edge Insight CTS3
The second option is for a digital monitor. These usually aren’t considered to be as accurate but they are still a great option and plenty accurate for anything that isn’t a true race or pull truck. The digital monitor is a bit better looking, allows you to monitor multiple things at a time and also has the ability to monitor a lot more than just EGTs and boost. It essentially gives you the ability to monitor more than you could with a few gauges, since each gauge is tied into one specific thing.
The CTS3 can also pull engine codes and do diagnostics, which gauges cannot. So it is a monitor and diagnostics tool all in one, for the price that realistically becomes pretty similar to the gauges if you want a nice gaugse setup.
My F350 already had gauges when I purchased it, but otherwise I’d probably opt for a CTS3 just since it is cleaner and more capable, despite losing a bit of accuracy.
Buy Here: Edge Insight CTS3 for 7.3 Powerstroke
Tuning is the best performance upgrade for a 7.3 Powerstroke. It unlocks a ton of power, improves operating efficiency, and pays for itself by the way of better gas mileage.
Chip tuning is the preferred route for the 7.3L, over programmers, with the PHP Hydra being the best chip tuner on the market. Custom tuning is also highly recommended for any diesel that is running some modifications and not just a tune. The pre-canned tunes on the Hydra or on an X4 programmer will be just fine for any stock truck but will be less than ideal, and potentially even harmful, to a modified truck.
In addition to tuning we always recommend having a setup for monitoring. Keeping an eye on boost levels, EGTs, and transmission temperatures is an easy way to ensure everything is operating properly. For this we recommend either using a digital monitor like the Edge Insight CTS3, or going with analog gauges.