The Professional Diagnostic Buyers Guide

Buying a “big ticket” item like a diagnostic machine is tough - and it can take a great deal of research to find exactly what you need, at the right price point. 

We have sold over 2000 diagnostic machines over the past 10 years and first hand-experienced the “fly-by-night” sellers just trying to make a quick profit on diagnostic devices whilst leaving their customers confused and unsatisfied with their purchase.

We have put together this guide to help automotive professionals ask the right questions before making this important decision to avoid: 

  • Buying a device that does not have the functionality you need
  • Being overcharged for a device that does not suit your needs

1 - The Essentials

There are a few main points to get out of the way at the very start: 

  • What do you need the diagnostic machine to do?
  • What is your budget?
  • Where will having this machine in your workshop take you business wise?

It is always important to remember that different brands are different. From what they can do, to their after-sales support, to their costs. Some brands will offer you a tool that can do what you need it to do on a specific job, but what about the next job you have that will differ ever so slightly? 

Always take note of what you will need today, and in a year’s time. This will often affect how you set about deciding on your budget. 

2 - Choosing Your Brand and Where You Purchase the Diagnostic Machine

With the essential out of the way, it is time to look at what brands are out there, and what options you have:

  • Do you want to go for a tier 1 (OEM) machine? This is a device built and sold by a specific vehicle manufacturer. These devices will only work for a specific brand, but will offer the most complete coverage for that brand possible. For example – if you only work on Ford vehicles, a Ford OEM diagnostic machine may be a good thing to look into.

  • Are you a general workshop? Tier 2 machines, such as the Autel diagnostic tools, will work on a wide variety of vehicles*. This means that you are able to open up to more clients while still being able to offer support as close as possible to OEM level tools. 

*Autel, for example, supports up to 80+ vehicle manufacturers depending on the diagnostic tool.

Now comes the technical part of this decision, because we still have to add in where you buy your diagnostic machine from. 

Tier 1 diagnostic machines will usually come directly from the manufacturer, and will offer you support depending on the way that they, as a company, work. Tier 2 differs from that however. You can either purchase a unit from an authorised dealer in your region, which will give you maximum support. Or you can look at buying a product online from outside of your region, which usually will turn into a “grey import”. 

Grey imports will not give you the same level of support, as well as the fact that you will have to pay for any shipping should something go wrong. So, let’s have a look at a few more of these pros and cons in choosing where you buy your diagnostic tools:





Tier 1

  • Full coverage on that brand of vehicle
  • Good support (depending on the manufacturer)
  • Only works on one brand of vehicle
  • More expensive unit and licencing costs

Tier 2

  • Works on a variety vehicles (brand specific offering)
  • Offers a range of services
  • Good support (depending on the manufacturer and place of purchase)
  • Range of add-ons allowing the unit to do more
  • Spare parts are readily available
  • Although coverage can be comprehensive for most makes, models and functions (The software is not the OEM)

Grey Imports*  

  • Usually cheaper
  • Involves hidden costs such as taxes and import fees
  • Limited (if any) support
  • Device manufacturers often lock devices used out of their designated regions
  • Updates are often not available

Now that you have an idea of what type or class of device you want, we can have a look at a few options of each: 

Tier 1 

    • All brands offer their own diagnostics, whether that is through a self-contained unit or through a computer program. 
    • For example – BMW has Icom and Mercedes Benz has their MBStar. 

Tier 2 

    • Autel: Offers a wide range of devices catering to all types of client, from the basic AL319 up to the MaxiSys Ultra. 
    • Launch: Offers a similar range to Autel, however can be more difficult to obtain the full range. 
    • Fcar: Offers a range more dedicated to heavy-duty vehicles, such as trucks and agricultural equipment. 

Grey Imports 

    • Most, if not all, products from nearly all brands can be obtained through the internet, be it through a local reseller or an international exporter. It is always important to note that these are still considered grey imports. 

*It is vital to note that while we wouldn’t tell you not to go for a grey import, we would never fully recommend this as an option. We have seen the negatives from going for one of these items, and will always suggest that customers go for either a tier 1 or tier 2 product instead to ensure that they are fully supported, as well as to prevent any hidden costs popping up and pushing the price way up unexpectedly. 

With a decision on what kind of machine you want, and what your budget will roughly be, it’s time to break into picking the model you are looking for. 

3 - What Do You Need Your Diagnostic Machine To Do?

Different users require different functionality – simple as that. The trick is deciding exactly you want the device to offer. Here are few important things to consider depending on what type of user you are: 

  • What are your current requirements?
  • How often will you be using the machine? 
  • Where will you be using the device?

Types of uses

Functions required

DIY user

  • Checking for faults on a vehicle to ensure that it 
    is running smoothly
  • Diagnosing simple issues
  • Simply using the device within the vehicle
  • Reading fault codes
  • Clearing fault codeS

Vehicle servicing mechanic

  • Diagnosing the vehicle systems
  • Reading live data
  • Vehicle services
  • Comparing data to find issues
  • Simple coding for replaced parts
  • Component testing
  • Reading fault codes
  • Clearing fault codes
  • Live data visuals
  • Offline coding
  • Service functions
  • Actuation testing
  • Wired or wireless connection to vehicle acceptable

Full repair 

auto-electrician & professional mechanic

  • Diagnosing the vehicle systems
  • Reading live data
  • Comparing data to find issues
  • Coding functionality for more advanced replacement ECUs
  • Part testing
  • Diagnosis of more advanced issues – finding the precise location of a fault
  • Need to move around the vehicle to confirm tests are running correctly
  • Reading fault codes
  • Clearing fault codes
  • Live data visuals
  • Offline and online coding
  • Actuation testing
  • Intelligent diagnostics
  • Wireless connection to vehicle required

Now that you know what category you fit into, you can break into this a little deeper. 

  • Will you be expanding your requirements due to owning the machine? If you think you only need a simple machine to start with, does that mean that  in a few months time you will need something with more functionality? If this is the case, then it is best to think forward and invest in the best option you possibly can right now.


  • Will you need any other functions for the type of vehicles you work on? If you know you will need to do things where most of the time you would be using a secondary tool, it may be a better option to invest in a more advanced tool, which gives you a “one-stop” method for all you require.


  • Do you work on a range of vehicle types? (i.e.Cars, trucks) If you require a device that can work on a wider variety of vehicle types, then you need to limit yourself to brands that offer all that you need. There is no use at looking at a motorcycle diagnostic tool if you are going to be working on trucks.

It is vital to remember that this is an investment that in many cases can be used to massively improve a business’s revenue stream. While it may seem difficult to justify for now, it will be an indispensable tool in your workshop in no time at all! 

There are a few other important points to remember when picking your brand too:

  • What kind of support do they offer you in your region? Some regions do not have direct support, which means the unit will have to be sent to a place where repairs can be made. This can lead to extra costs in courier fees.


  • What are the costs of updates? The vast majority of diagnostic tools require you to have annual licenses in order to gain access to updates. It is important to take note of this, as it may push the running costs up a fair amount.


  • Will the diagnostic tool continue to work if you do not renew your license annually? Some brands of diagnostic tools will require you to renew your license annually in order to continue to use the machine, whether you need the updates to do the work or not.


  • Will you need to purchase additional items to allow the tool to perform all of the functions it is capable of? Some brands sell important extras separately, which can push the initial price of the unit up by a fair amount. It is vital to take this into account when choosing the brand you want to buy. 

4 - The Other Points To Think About

Different brands offer different perks – and this can be helpful when deciding on what direction to go in with your purchase. It can also be a final push when the choice between two brands is tight! So, here are a few things to consider: 

  • Support? All brands offer support in some way or another, but in some cases, this is far more in depth. For example, Autel Africa offers physical support (should a unit need repairs), as well as direct contact with technical support in South Africa through WhatsApp groups*. On top of this, Autel offers data logging on their diagnostic tools, which allows the user to send reports directly from their tablet to the Autel support team at their head office.

  • User-friendliness? Not all hardware and software is created equal – it is important to know that the unit you pick is easy for you to use, as well as able to stand up to the rigors of working in a busy workshop. You also need to ensure that the device can be used while you are busy, without having to jump between the tablet and a PC in order to look up fault codes, or the location of the OBD plug in the vehicle.

  • Will you be able to expand on your diagnostic tool’s arsenal after you have purchased it? If you find your unit at the perfect price for you, will you still be able to easily add to it when you need to by purchasing extras to grow your functionality at a later point?

  • Warranties and guarantees – Does the unit you purchased come with any factory-fault related protection, or any money-back guarantee should you have been sold the incorrect device for your requirements? It isn’t the “magic spray” of the automotive world
    In football, we often see players have a quick spray on their “career ending” injury, and they are up and running in seconds. Don’t think of a diagnostic tool as the magic spray of the automotive world though. Rather think of it as your newest, and maybe most versatile, assistant in the workshop. Whether you are a DIY enthusiast in your home garage or a big-time mechanic in a busy workshop, this tool will help you to find the issue, and by working together, to make that problem go away.

    *Depending on the unit purchased

5 - Conclusion

Overall, the process of choosing the correct diagnostic tool for what you need seems complicated – but truthfully, if you know what you need, what you are willing to spend, and what you think you will need in the future, then the process is made simple. 

Always remember – there is an abundance of information out there for all machines, but the best way to move forward is not to drown yourself in technicality. In short, you can just follow these steps: 

  1. Write down what functionality you need
  2. Set a budget for yourself
  3. Narrow down your options using this guide
  4. Ask one of our salesmen for their expert recommendations
  5. Make your purchase
  6. Be happy with your purchase because you got the perfect diagnostic tool for what you need!
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