You cannot diagnose and repair vehicles today without a scantool and up-to-date service information. So it is essential to keep your scantool current with the latest software updates. On many older professional grade scan tools (both aftermarket and original equipment), the software that contains all the diagnostic trouble codes, display PIDs (Performance Information Data) and other operating features is usually loaded into a cartridge, memory card or internal memory chip. On most newer scantools, the software is flash programmed onto an EEPROM chip so it can be updated electronically via the internet.
Updates may be available once or several times a year, depending on the scantool manufacturer and the level of service they provide. Some of the cheaper DIY scan tools offer no updates, others may offer updates but only infrequently or only for older vehicles that are four or five years behind current models. Most professional grade scantools by comparison offer regular quarterly updates. For a list of scan tool manufacturers, Click Here and scroll to the bottom of the page.
The problem is, if you are using outdated software to diagnose a vehicle that is not covered in the software, your scantool may not function properly. It may misread codes or not recognize codes. It may not display all of the PIDS that are available for that vehicle, or it may display incorrect information for certain PIDS. Incorrect information is worse than no information because it can be very misleading and may cause you to misdiagnose a problem.
Most software updates for DIY scantools are available at little or no cost to the user from the scantool manufacturer. The DIY software updates tend to lag four to five years behind current models. Updates for most professional scantools are more timely and offered on a quarterly basis. However,professional updates require an annual fee which may range from $600 to $1500 or more depending on the scantool, its capabilities and the years, makes and models covered by the software.
With some professional scantools, there are separate cartridges or software packages that only cover certain makes. If you work on Asian vehicles, you need the Asian software or cartridge. If you work on European vehicles, you need the European software or cartridge. If you work on big trucks, you need the specific truck software or cartridge. Want the latest technical service bulletins and troubleshooting help? That's included in another software package or cartridge.
Here's something else to watch out for: Buying older used scantools on ebay or Craig's List. Often the software cartridges that come with these tools are out of date. That may not a problem if you are buying the tool to work on an older vehicle that is covered by the tool. But what if you want to update the scantool to work on newer vehicles, it may not be possible if the tool lacks the proper hardware to support many of the functions that would be found in a newer scantool. Also, the scan tool manufacturer may no longer support older versions of its tools leving you with no way to update your scantool.