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Curious about science? If so, you may be considering a microscope purchase.
This device provides a window to a world that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.
And microscope prices have dropped tremendously in recent years, making them a great investment for parents, teachers, and others who are interested in science.
Of course, the microscopes sold for home use don’t match the power of what you’d find at a science facility.
Most of them probably can’t even match the most powerful microscope at your local high school.
But for performing some fun science experiments at home, the microscopes in our product matrix, above, are excellent choices.
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Our goal is to provide readers with the trustworthy information they need to make a wise purchase.
And because we never accept free samples from manufacturers, our selections and product reviews are free of bias.
Please continue reading this shopping guide to understand how different microscopes work and how you can pick the best one for your needs.
Most types of at-home microscopes fall into one of two design categories: high-power/compound microscopes and low-power/stereo microscopes.
A high-power microscope provides greater magnification qualities than a low-power model. Most allow you to clearly see objects such as bacteria or an insect’s parts. This type of microscope also is called a compound microscope.
Pricier compound microscopes often have two eyepieces, while cheaper compound microscopes tend to have just one eyepiece. Either way, the view through a compound microscope is two-dimensional, or flat. (If the unit has two eyepieces, each one receives the same view from a single objective lens. This is what causes the 2D image.)
With the right kind of microscope and digital camera, you can attach the camera to the unit. This is another option for recording photographs of the images you see.
A low-power microscope doesn’t have the magnification level of a high-power microscope. It’s appropriate if you want to look closely at a larger item with details that are difficult to see with the naked eye. This would include items such as woven fabric, computer chips, and coins.
The terms “low-power” and “stereo” are often are used interchangeably. A stereo microscope nearly always has two eyepieces, each with its own objective lens. The result: an apparent “3D” view of the object at hand.
If your microscope has a light source, you may need to replace its bulb on occasion. Don’t try this procedure without reading through the user guide first for proper directions.
Compound microscopes are commonly sold in two designs: monocular and binocular. The monocular design has one eyepiece, while the binocular design has two eyepieces.
Here are some other key differentiating factors between monocular and binocular designs —
Cost: A monocular (single-eyepiece) design is cheaper than a binocular (two-eyepiece) unit. This cost comparison assumes that both microscopes have similar features.
Ease of Use: Most people find the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope easier and more “natural” to use. However, a young child who is still growing may be more comfortable with the monocular design.
Though most adults prefer a microscope with two eyepieces, a young child whose face isn’t fully grown may appreciate a monocular design.
Maximum Magnification: Generally, binocular microscopes are available in higher magnification levels than monocular units.
However, unless you’re looking for magnifications beyond 1,000X, you should be able to find satisfaction with either design.
Usage Situations: Both monocular and binocular microscopes have a similar usage scenario: you use them to view objects that aren’t visible to the eye alone, such as bacteria or water organisms.
You need the high-power capabilities of these types of compound microscopes to achieve success in viewing such objects.
Compound microscopes with a “trinocular” design have a third eyepiece to attach a digital camera. You can then record photographs of what you see through the microscope. A trinocular design microscope is tricky to use, and it’s the most expensive type of design.
When choosing between products, it helps to understand the key components available in microscopes.
You can expect a high-power unit to have a magnification power of 400X or greater. Some microscopes designed for home use could have magnification levels as high as 2,000X.
Low-power microscopes typically offer a magnification level of 100X or less. During the course of our research, we found microscopes from reputable brands like Canon with magnification as low as 60X.
Some low-power microscopes have a maximum magnification setting of 40X or less.
Certain types of objects are easier viewed with one microscope design than another. For example, a high-power microscope with 1,000X magnification doesn’t work well when looking at coin, because the magnification would be be too great to see any details of the coin.
Similarly, a low-power microscope doesn’t have a great enough magnification level for you to inspect bacteria successfully.
All of this is to say that you should think about the type of objects you want to view before purchasing a microscope.
When using a microscope in a location where dust is present, keep an aspirator available to blow the dust gently away.
The quality of your microscope’s lens plays a key role in your scientific success. A good lens yields a sharp image resolution, so if you want to see minute details, be sure to invest in a quality lens.
Don’t expect to find a high-quality lens in a cheap microscope. You’ll typically find them in high-power microscopes, but that’s not always the case. For the best results, it pays to do a bit of comparison shopping.
A digital microscope may be sold as a high-power or low-power unit. You can connect it to a tablet or computer in order to view objects in real time.
You can then keep digital copies of your images, almost as if you were recording a digital photograph.
If you’re considering a digital microscope, remember that you will need to allot some space next to the microscope to accommodate your tablet or laptop computer.
Some microscopes are designed to be carried with you to various locations. This is handy if you’re attempting to study objects in the field or at a friend’s house.
Such microscopes typically run on battery power.
If you want a portable microscope, search for one that operates on battery power.
If you’re confused by the jargon associated with purchasing a microscope, check out our list of important microscope terms —
Arm: This is the part of the microscope that connects the eyepiece to the base. Some arms can articulate, allowing you to move the eyepiece around.
Base: The base is the portion of the microscope that supports the rest of the unit. It provides stability to the microscope.
To move a microscope, support its weight by the base. Carrying it by the arm could damage the unit.
Binocular: A binocular microscope is a compound microscope with two eyepieces. Because it’s compound, it’s different from a stereo microscope. Binocular microscope images present through the eyepiece in a flat, two-dimensional view.
Coarse Focus: You’ll use this knob on the side of the microscope to initially dial in the focus.
Compound Microscope: This type of microscope is also known as a high-power microscope. Some have two eyepieces; others have just one. Notably, a compound unit with two eyepieces is called binocular rather than stereo.
Digital Microscope: This type of unit connects to a computer or tablet to show the objects on a display screen.
If you’re interested in recording photos of the images you see in the microscope, consider a digital microscope.
Dual Power: This term refers to a microscope that can use two different magnification levels, such as 100X and 60X.
Eyepiece: This is the portion of the microscope you look through to see an object. Some eyepieces include a magnification component that’s used in conjunction with lens magnification.
Fine Focus: The fine focus knob is a more precise type of focus in a microscope than the coarse focus knob. You’ll use this knob after the coarse knob to dial in the focus.
You can use a microscope's diopter adjustment knob to compensate for differences in your left and right eye’s vision levels.
High-Power Microscope: Also known as a “compound” microscope, a high-power microscope has the largest magnification level available in a microscope. It’s best used for viewing objects that are impossible to see with the eye alone, like bacteria.
Lens: The microscope’s lens focuses the light from the object into the eyepiece. It’s often called an objective lens.
Low-Power Microscope: A low-power microscope has a low magnification level and is used primarily for viewing objects like coins. Most low-power microscopes are stereo microscopes.
Magnification: This is the measurement of the microscope’s ability to magnify an object. The magnification number for a microscope is signified with a number and an X. There’s a magnification aspect to both the eyepiece and the lens of the microscope. The total magnification number is determined by multiplying these two numbers. For example, if the eyepiece has a 10X magnification and the lens has a 50X magnification, the total magnification is 500X.
You can calculate your microscope’s magnification by multiplying its eyepiece and lens magnification levels together.
Monocular: This type of compound microscope contains one eyepiece. Among microscopes designed for use at home, only compound microscopes are offered with one eyepiece.
Portable Microscope: A portable unit runs on battery power, so you can carry it to areas where no power outlets exist. For example, you could take a portable unit into the field for working with subjects that must be studied on location.
Resolution: This term refers to the ability of the microscope to create sharp images.
Do you want to use your microscope to study an item on location? If so, consider investing in a portable microscope that runs on battery power.
Single-Power Microscope: A single-power microscope operates at only one magnification level, such as 100X.
Stereo Microscope: A stereo microscope contains two eyepieces, resulting in a three-dimensional view of the object you’re studying. The term “stereo microscope” is often used interchangeably with “low-power” microscope.
Zoom Power: This term refers to a microscope with a range of magnification levels. For example, a zoom power microscope may be able to use a magnification level of 60X, 100X, or any level in between.
Q. Do I need a diopter adjustment control with my microscope?
A. The diopter adjustment knob is a control that allows you to adjust for vision differences between your right and left eye. It changes the focal distance for one eyepiece so that the two match. Although it’s not a necessity, it’s smart to have a diopter adjustment control on a microscope. This ensures the clearest image possible for all users.
Q. How can I clean the microscope lens?
A. Treat the microscope lens with care when you clean it. For this task, you should only use an approved cleaning solution and lens paper. Wipe the lens gently to avoid scratching it.
Your microscope’s user guide should have recommendations for safe lens cleaning.
Q. What accessories are good to purchase with a microscope for children?
A. Consider purchasing a slide box in addition to the microscope. The slide box will contain pre-made slides that a child can look at with the microscope. Look for variety in the types of slides in the box, such as plants, insects, water samples, and soils. Don’t just pick medical slides, which all will look the same to a child.
Additionally, look for a book that provides a child-focused introduction to microscope use. A good book will provide suggestions on how to use the microscope and what types of objects to view.