Choose the right scan tools

Once viewed simply as a code reader, the scan tool has evolved into a cornerstone of vehicle diagnostics


It’s hard to believe, but OBDII systems have been around for at least 16 years. A quantum leap over the capabilities of its predecessor, OBDI, the newer OBDII has taken on a persona of its own. While OBDII’s main priority in life is to control and monitor powertrain-related systems, it does one other thing of vital importance for you as a service technician—communicate diagnostic-related information through a special messenger known as the scan tool. With the proper scan tool, you can interact with OBDII systems to get to the heart of problems quickly, accurately, and efficiently. This works to your advantage to increase customer satisfaction and reduce comebacks.

Terms like obsolescence, incompatibility, lack of connectivity, non-upgradeable—they all strike fear into the hearts of shop owners and technicians. Although no one ever intentionally buys diagnostic equipment for its present and future shortcomings, most everyone could do a better job of maximizing their investment by performing a little research on the equipment and its applications. To that, we dedicate this month’s column on scan tool selection.

Q: We’d really like to have one scan tool for the variety of vehicles we service. Which one is best?

A: Every tech and shop owner wants one scan tool that can do it all. While there are certainly scan tools out there that can handle a wide range of vehicles, you’ll need to look around a bit to find a tool that best accommodates the group of vehicles you service. Remember, a scan tool can do a whole lot more than just pull codes. It can display serial data, parameter identification data (PID), perform actuator tests, and even interact with other onboard systems such as antilock brakes, transmissions, cruise control and body control. It’s not uncommon for technicians experienced with OBDII diagnostics to prefer one scan tool over another, depending on the make, model and year of cars they service.

Q: It seems everywhere you look these days, there’s an “app” for smart phones to perform almost any chore. Is there an app for OBDII diagnostics?

A: Yes, there are scan tool apps for both Android and Apple smart phones. Remember, a smart phone is basically a small personal computer that also makes phone calls. So, it stands to reason that a scan tool app would run on one of these devices. While these app-based scan tools have some effectiveness, they in no way measure up to the full capabilities of a dedicated scan tool.

Q: What exactly is the difference between a “generic” scan tool and a manufacturer’s OE-specific scan tool?

A: Generic scan tools display the bare minimum emissions-related data as required by the US EPA. Manufacturer-specific, and many “enhanced” scan tools, go far beyond the basics of a generic scan tool and provide you with much more information to use in a given diagnostic scenario. These upscale scan tools have bidirectional capabilities, meaning that the scan tool can “talk” with, as well as listen to the vehicle’s diagnostic routines.

Q: What “extras” should we consider when making a scan tool purchase?

A: Make sure you have all the proper cables and adapters for the cars you service. Confirm how software updates are handled and at what price. Make sure to check into what training is included to get your staff up to speed quickly. Finally, check into warranty coverage and what can be done to keep your shop productive in the event your scan tool dies on a busy day.

Q: Isn’t one scan tool as good as the next as long as it’s OBDII-compliant?

A: Although comparable scan tools may meet minimum OBDII code requirements, they’re not all created equally. One scan tool may display more information than another one on your list. So, capabilities vary, meaning you’ll want to comparison shop with precision.

Q: A scan tool I’m looking at is advertised to display Mode 6 data. How does this work?

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