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Cheap Microscopes Buying Guide

There are actually two types of starter microscopes that we researched for this buying guide -- traditional microscopes and digital microscopes -- and each offers a different experience for users. A traditional microscope is probably what most older adults recall from their high school science classes.

These microscopes are relatively simple to use and provide a less technical experience than the digital alternative. A cheap traditional microscope is probably best suited for children; we read reports of kids as young as six or seven independently using one of the models on our list. The best-known manufacturers for starter microscopes are My First Lab and Thames & Kosmos.

Digital microscopes are more complex instruments than traditional microscopes, and are more suitable for tweens or teenagers and more useful for adults. They must be connected to a computer to display an image of the object being viewed, a set up that allows you to capture still images or video of the object. The main manufacturers of digital microscopes are Digital Blue, Carson, Celestron, Veho, and GSI.

In terms of features and performance, the best cheap microscopes fall somewhere between toy and real scientific tool. The key feature to look for in both traditional and digital microscopes is high-quality optics; accessory tools and equipment are an added plus. For digital microscopes, a critical feature is reliable, user-friendly software. And for any cheap microscope, especially one that will be used by children and teens, durability and ease of use are vital performance attributes.

We researched both cheap traditional microscopes and cheap digital microscopes, and selected one best and one good model for each type. In the traditional microscope category, we chose the My First Lab Duo-Scope (starting at $64) as the best because it's a durable, high-quality microscope with a helpful accessory kit, and the Thames & Kosmos Biology TK2 Scope 636815 (starting at $80) as a good traditional microscope because it's another fine-quality model with an excellent accessory kit. We didn't like the Vivitar Micro View MIC-20 (starting at $23) despite its very low price because users report the MIC-20 is unreliable.

For cheap digital microscopes, we identified the Digital Blue QX5 (starting at $100) as the best for its ease-of-use and high-quality images. We picked the Carson Zorb MM-480 (starting at $40) as a good digital microscope largely because consumer reviewers say it's fun to use. We're not wild about the Veho VMS-004 Deluxe (starting at $61) because poor documentation and difficulty of use may be a turn-off for amateurs, although it might be an acceptable option for technology geeks.

Regardless whether you opt for a traditional or digital microscope, the key features to note are the optics, the build, and the accessories. We'll discuss each below for both types of cheap microscope.

Review continues below

Traditional Microscope Optics.

Optics, of course, is the obvious place to start. The better the optics in a cheap microscope, the better the view. In other words, good optics enable the young scientist (remember, cheap traditional microscopes are child-oriented) to see objects clearly at high and low magnification.

Both traditional microscopes on our list, the My First Lab Duo-Scope (starting at $64) and the Thames & Kosmos TK2 (starting at $80), feature high-quality optics and similar magnification settings. These two cheap microscopes have three settings for the objective lens (the lens closest to the object): 4x, 10x, and 40x. In addition, both microscopes have two settings for the ocular lens (the lens closest to the eye): 1x and 10x. If you set the ocular lens to 10x, for example, the total magnification in combination with the objective lens will be 40x, 100x, and 400x. The Vivitar Micro View MIC-20 (starting at $23) provides 4x, 10x, and 40x magnification settings and 10X and 12.5x with the eyepiece. Another cheap traditional microscope, the Konuscience Zoom 1200x (starting at $60), offers only very high magnification settings of 100x-200x, 300x-600x, and 600x-1200x.

The Duo-Scope and TK2 also offer a dual-illumination battery-powered LED lighting system. Dual illumination means you can light transparent objects (like slides or a bug's wing) from below and solid objects (like the bug's body) from above, which lets you see these different kinds of objects with the appropriate light. By contrast, the Konuscience Zoom 1200x is only designed to light transparent objects from below, and you have a choice of using a bulb or mirror as the light source. Experts note that LED illumination is one mark of a serious entry-level microscope and is far superior to the light produced by mirrors on models that are more like toy than tool.

Digital Microscope Optics.

Optics is the critical feature in a cheap digital microscope, as well. But unlike the cheap traditional microscopes we researched, which offer similar magnification options, we found a wide range of magnification settings in the digital microscopes segment. The Digital Blue QX5 (starting at $100), for example, offers magnification settings of 10x, 60x, and 200x. The lower-priced and child-friendly Carson Zorb MM-480 (starting at $40) takes a much simpler approach with a single magnification setting of 35x. Among the other digital microscopes that we examined, the Celestron 44302 (starting at $40) magnifies objects at 10x, 40x and 200x; the Veho VMS-004 (starting at $61) magnifies objects at 20x and 400x; and the GSI High-Definition (starting at $41) magnifies objects at 25x and 200x.

One clear advantage of the digital configuration is that images of the object you're viewing are displayed in real time on a computer screen. Although some users might see the need for another piece of equipment as a disadvantage, the computer connection provides all manner of goodies. Once displayed on the monitor, you can use the packaged software to capture a still image or make a video; the Digital Blue QX5 even makes time lapse videos. These saved images let you share your discovery with others or save them for future viewing. We read numerous reports about their usefulness as instructional aids in classroom settings and in providing documentation for technical professionals.

A related feature noted in the specifications for cheap digital microscopes is the resolution of the digital image. The resolution tells you how many pixels are used to display the image, a number that's relevant only if you're interested in zooming in on a section of the image displayed on the computer screen or if you wish to make a high-quality print; if you just want to stoke a youngster's interest in science, the resolution may not matter much. But in case you want to know, the two best digital microscopes on our list -- the Digital Blue QX5 and the Carson Zorb MM-80 -- feature resolutions of 640x480, which matches the standard resolution for a computer screen. Other digital microscopes we looked at offer higher resolutions: the Veho VMS-004 has a resolution of 2.0 megapixels (1600x1200); and both the Celestron 44302 and GSI High-Definition Microscope feature a resolution of 1.3 megapixels (1280x1024 pixels).

Microscope Accessories.

Don't we all just love accessories? Kind of sweetens the pot, so to speak. Some cheap microscopes don't disappoint in this regard. The accessory kit that comes with traditional microscopes typically includes items such as an instruction booklet, sample slides, Petri dishes, and a few tools to help users get deep into the microscope thing. The My First Lab Duo-Scope accessory kit is particularly generous: it includes five plain slides, four prepared slides, a cover glass, one plastic dropper, two bottles of stain, slide labels, lens paper, forceps, a scalpel, a plastic test tube, a plastic Petri dish, a straight teasing needle, and an instruction manual. The Thames & Kosmos TK2 accessory kit contains a full-color 48-page manual that guides users through setup and operation (including instructions on how to observe biological specimens), as well as new slides, prepared slides, tweezers, a Petri dish, blue and red dye, a dissecting needle and a scalpel. The Vivitar Micro View MIC-20 comes with three plastic vials, a stirring rod, a spatula, a scalpel, a needle pen, and two circular specimen trays. And the Konuscience Zoom 1200x boasts an accessory kit that includes most of the items mentioned above, as well as a viewer, wall projector, paper projector, and camera attachment.

Among the digital microscopes we researched, the notion of accessories hasn't really taken hold. Only the Digital Blue QX5 offers a modest set of traditional accessories, such as specimen jars, sample slide tweezers, eye dropper, and slide clip. The QX5 also comes with software for viewing and editing images, and creating slide-shows and videos. All the digital microscopes we looked at provide software that allows you to capture images and video. The Celestron 44302 additionally provides photo management software, and the Veho VMS-004 software lets you measure the actual size of objects (this feature is not easy to use, however).

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