Every day we bring you reviews of technologies that are designed to make our lives easier. For the most part, our reviews are about simplification. We pick up gadgets that help us do things better, faster, and more easily. Today, we’re going to look at something a little different. Instead of enhancing your everyday life experiences, we’re going take a look at something that allows you to see the world in a way that you never thought possible.
Before we get into the review, it’s important to gain a little perspective. Taking a quick look back at the phones we used four years ago can help us find a new appreciation for the modern renditions. This time, we’ll be going back long before the births of our great grandparents.
In 1590, a pair of Dutch eyeglass makers created something unique. A tiny metal tube was retrofitted with their most powerful magnifying lenses to create what would later be known as the world’s first microscope. Over the course of hundreds of years this technology would grow and evolve. With it, our knowledge of the world around us grew. We learned about cells, and the basic chemical makeup of the organic world. We cured diseases, invented new things, and discovered new ways to discover. Without the microscope, nothing we’ve reviewed would even be possible.
Today, even schoolchildren understand the inner workings of things that cannot be seen with the human eye. Theory is one thing, but seeing things first hand is an entirely different experience. USB powered microscopes are the next generation of the novelty item invented in the 1500s. Today, we’ll show you how you can have one for yourself.
OMAX Digital Lab Compound Microscope
Looking to get your hands on a lab grade microscope? Look no further. This model probably looks like what you’d expect a microscope to look like. But this model isn’t just about looks, as it’s got the powerful hardware to back it up.
When we first opened the box of the OMAX Digital Lab Compound Microscope, we couldn’t help but feel intimidated. At first glance, this looks like something that you’d need a bachelor of science just to operate. Fortunately, we found that the operation was actually quite simple. Just above the tray, you’ll see the three lenses sticking out. You can rotate them around to choose 4, 10, or 400 times zoom. All of the focusing is done by raising or lowering the inspection tray. You can see the knob for it on the right of the microscope. The knob has a very smooth range or motion, making it easy to get things in the exact position you want them.
Unlike other models, this one has a pair of viewing ports, referred to as binoculars, located at the top of the microscope. Because you’re going to be making fine adjustments, having the video to peep in an see your changes in real time makes it much easier to use.
With a 1.3-megapixel sensor, the image quality is absolutely mind blowing. The images produced look more like something out of a digital camera than an inexpensive microscope. The colors are perfectly represented, holding true-to-life styling. You really need a high-quality monitor to appreciate this. We were using the LG 32MA68HY-P. It really is something to take what’s normally invisible to the human eye and see it blown up on a screen the size of a television.
One of the biggest improvements to the image quality comes from the bottom mounted lighting system. This light provides a slightly warm glow that is diffused by the covering. You’re not getting harsh light like you would with a standard LED system. Instead, it illuminates your object in a way that lets you almost see through it. The cellular structure of a leaf and the tiny vein-like structures within come alive, giving you a new appreciation for something that has always been common to us. If you’ve seen lab grade images in science magazines, you’ll be able to get the same kind of look with this microscope.
One of the most helpful design elements in this microscope is the mechanical components. Not only are all the adjustments very fine, but they’re lockable too. This means that once you’ve got things exactly where you want, you can keep the microscope in the exact position that you want.
This microscope can also handle a larger variety of sample types than any other on the consumer market. It’s got the dual slide system that can flatten your sample so the entire thing is in focus, giving you excellent image quality.
Opti-TekScope Digital USB Microscope
This digital USB microscope looks more like an industrial tool than anything. But it’s actually a window into a whole new world. It’s high quality metal arm is designed to position and adjust a powerful CMOS sensor that lets you digitally enhance things that you’ve never seen before.
Using the Opti-TekScope Digital USB Microscope is much easier than you could imagine. There are two adjusting knobs located on the front of the device and on the rear support beam. The vertical bar in the center allows you to adjust the level of zoom. Simply turn the knob on the front to loosen the gear, and slide the bar up or down. The closer it is to the page, the higher your zoom. The further away, the larger it gets. This lets you inspect anything you have around from exactly the point you want. Once you’ve got the zoom where you want it, you’ll likely want to change the viewpoint. The arm swings from side to side in a circular pattern, so you can maintain your zoom while you move around.
You’ll be amazed at what kind of image quality you can get from such an inexpensive device. With a maximum zoom level of 200x, you’ll be able to see every single security feature on your standard $100 bill. The concentric circles that make up President Benjamin’s eyes are only barely visible to the naked eye. But under this microscope, you can even see the slight jittering of the lines caused by microscopic print errors. One of the main reasons that you can see so clearly is the contrast.
The CMOS sensor does a great job of separating dark and light colors, so invisible details almost pop out at you. The disadvantage of this is that the colors are a little muted. This probably won’t be an issue for most people, and makes the microscope more suitable for technical analysis and exploration. At a resolution of 1600 x 1200, you’re able to save these images in crystal clear format and share them with anyone who’d be interested in seeing them.
It’s not just photos that can be saved from this powerful microscope. Full motion video can be saved in AVI format. The only thing to keep in mind is that these videos are LARGE. They’re saved uncompressed, which makes sure that every detail is recorded without any loss in quality. For professional use, this is a great feature to have. The last thing anyone wants is to find something cool only to discover that the blocky compression ruined the fine details. In some circumstances, you can compress the video without any loss of quality. This is easy to do with free video editing software or by uploading it to YouTube.
Another great feature that we found incredibly useful was the adjustable brightness LED lighting. This lets you get the image looking exactly the way you want, and has the ability to bring out details that you can’t see under ordinary lighting conditions.
Plugable USB Digital Microscope
We’ve taken a look at a few of Plugable’s products before, and have always been pleasantly surprised. When you get into this price tier, you often have to wade through piles of under-performing products before you find that one gem. Based on our experience, Plugable is the most likely manufacturer to have that gem.
The Plugable USB Digital Microscope works a little differently than others. It’s got a unique prime lens that doesn’t require focusing. This means that, no matter where you place it, anything comes through sharp. This allows them to use a flexible camera mount much like the ones you see on a desk lamp. The stand has a large grid in place so you can align your items perfectly. We found this to be excellent for stitching together multiple photos into one large image.
Although they advertise 250x magnification, a more reasonable value is 10x. This is because the manufacturer is factoring in the size of your monitor. That being said, the images are still surprisingly clear. Think along the lines of a high-quality webcam, just with more detail. The colors are much more vibrant on this camera than they are with others. In a way, this makes your images a little more fun and entertaining to look at.
We wouldn’t use this for professional use, but if you’re just playing around it’s as good as anything.
The most important feature of the entire system is it’s simplicity. You just plug it in and go. There is no learning curve needed to figure out a complicated system. If you’ve used a digital camera before, you already know how to use this microscope.
Another bonus feature is the webcam chipset. It’s detected by your computer as a standard webcam. This was done on purpose for compatibility reasons. While other microscopes come with advanced software, this one can be used with anything from video chat to editing suites.
Which USB Powered Microscope is Right for Me?
If you’re wondering which one is the best for you, you’ll first have to decide what you’re going to be doing with it. For processional or mission-critical situations, the OMAX Digital Lab Compound Microscope is the clear winner. This isn’t just replicating a lab grade product, it actually is. It may be a little on the expensive side for some, but it’s professional quality and wide range of features makes it all worth it.
Alternately, maybe you’re just looking to have some fun or teach your children a little bit about the world around them. In that case, you’ll want to grab yourself the Plugable USB Digital Microscope. This model is basic in nature, but still provides everything you need to enhance images by up to 10x magnification. It’s simple, easy to use and incredibly affordable.
But the two above products are actually extremes on the scale of consumer microscopes. A good balance between the two is the Opti-TekScope Digital USB Microscope. We were very impressed with the incredible image quality of such an affordable option, and that’s why we see it as the best bang for your buck.
Want to enhance your image even further? Remember, the quality of your microscope is heavily dependent on your display. There’s no better way to enjoy larger-than-life (literally) images than on a massive Samsung CF791 34” curved display.