We stuck live tardigrades (also called water bears) under six inexpensive microscopes: three digital microscopes and three traditional optical scopes. We wanted to see what the teensy beasties — they grow no larger than 1 millimeter, or about the thickness of a credit card — would look like through the lenses of these off-the-shelf microscopes. Along the way, we learned quite a bit about the microscopes themselves. And while this wasn't the most rigorous test to find the best scope for kids — our tester spent about 6 hours with the microscopes as a group — we wanted to share some of our insights because we think they'll be worthwhile for any parent looking to buy their child one of these products.
[Check out our pics showing what the tardigrades looked like through the lenses of these microscopes.]
Omano Monocular Compound Microscope
The Omano was our favorite microscope thanks to its ease of use, solid construction and ability to reveal an amazing shot of a tiny tardigrade at the scope's max magnification. The Omano is the biggest, heaviest and sturdiest of the microscopes we tested.
- The Omano includes three lenses (4x, 10x and 40x magnification).
- The dials were easy to operate, with an accessible but out-of-the-way control for adjusting the brightness.
- The slide clips were tight and easy to use.
- The lenses have a built-in arrow that lets you "point" at things you're viewing, and the scope includes a helpfulinstruction manual.
- The only complaint we have is that the power cord extends out toward the person viewing through the scope, which was annoying.
My First Lab Duo Scope
This reasonably priced microscope looks and feels like it was designed for kids; it has just the basic features one would need for a microscope experience. It's a small microscope, but it's still sturdy and doesn't move around while you're using it. Kids will be able to look at a range of things, including the itsy-bitsy tardigrade; the scope includes three lenses (4x, 10x and 40x magnification).
- The Lab Duo has a handy, easy-to-turn aperture-adjustment dial, which controls the diameter of the light beam illuminating the object being viewed.
- Plus, you can light the slide from the top or bottom.
- The microscope comes with thorough instructions, which budding scientists will appreciate. They include a guide to experiments using the microscope, as well as steps and tips for preparing slides.
- The clips holding the slide in place are a little on the loose side.
This beginners' microscope gets the job done, and it would be great for a young kid who is just getting interested in biology. It includes three lenses for multiple levels of magnification: 15x, 30x and 60x. But it looks and feels cheaply constructed, and there are some clunky drawbacks.
- The AmScope Kids comes with a bevy of accessories, such as prepared slides, brine shrimp eggs and hatchery for them, and a carrying case for the lot.
- The instruction manual is thorough and easy to use.
- You can rotate the base of the microscope to turn the bottom light on and off, which is convenient.
- A built-in color filter saves you from having to stain slides.
- The construction is cheap, with a lot of plastic that looks like metal; the plastic clips work, but they seem like they'd break easily.
- Even though the light is convenient to turn on and off, it's tricky to do so without touching the mirror on the other side.
- The adjustment controls are finicky, and their location on the scope isn't as intuitive as the others we tested.
- The eyepiece is vertical (rather than slightly slanted), which makes it uncomfortable to look through. The eyepiece opening is small, which will make it hard for parents to use but OK for kids.
- The base where you place the slide is small, making it difficult to move it around without messing up the slide.
A note on magnification numbers: Traditional and digital microscopes define magnification differently. Whereas magnification numbers for traditional microscopes is the ratio of the actual size of the object being viewed to the size the specimen appears under the microscope. The magnification numbers for digital microscopes also account for various other factors, including the computer screen (physical size of the monitor and pixel resolution) and features of the related software.
Plugable USB 2.0 Digital Microscope with Flexible Arm
This digital microscope comes with its own stand, which has a flexible neck to move the scope at will. It can run on Macs, PCs and Linux systems, and the manufacturer claims a 250x magnification. We found there is no way to adjust the magnification on the microscope itself; the microscope seems best for looking at bigger items, like blades of grass or grasshoppers, than teensy tardigrades.
- The Plugable USB 2.0 Digital Microscope's bendy neck gives lots of freedom to adjust the microscope.
- The lighting is easy to adjust, as there are built-in LEDs that you can change for different brightness levels.
- The suction cup for the stand can be attached to more than just the base, which is handy.
- The grid pattern on the base makes it easy to align the slide with the microscope.
- A touch-sensitive button on the microscope lets you snap images without jostling the microscope. You can also initiate a snapshot on your computer using downloadable companion software.
- This scope is difficult to use overall. We played around a lot with it, trying to position the microscope "just so," and we were almost never able to get it right.
- The flexible neck doesn't bend enough to bring the microscope lens as close as we would've liked to the object being viewed; you're better off taking it out of the stand and holding it with your hands.
- If you aren't super careful while adjusting the lighting, you can nudge the microscope out of position.
- The plastic cap on the end of the light, which is not removable, limits how close the lens can get to the specimen, and it causes reflections in images.
- The microscope and the laptop camera share the software, and it is tricky to switch from one to the other.
- The instructions included are skimpy; if the microscope were intuitive to use, that might be OK. But it's not.
Celestron 5 MP Handheld Digital Microscope Pro
This digital microscope also comes with its own stand and can magnify objects from 20x to 200x, with the final magnification depending on your screen size, according to the manufacturer. The software is compatible with Mac and Windows.
Pros: The software has tons of features for measuring and annotating, and it can capture still images, video and time-lapse videos. It includes a clip for keeping the slide in place.
- The adjustment dials were fussy compared with all the other microscopes we tested. To change the vertical positioning of the scope, you have to loosen one screw on the left to adjust the scope itself. Then, if you want to go more than an inch or so farther up or down, you have to loosen a screw on the back that moves the entire scope mechanism (plus those other two screws) up and down. There’s also a separate screw that secures the scope to the mechanism, so if you want to take it out and hold it in your hand, there's yet another screw you need screw with.
- You can get somewhat close to the object being viewed. Even so, the plastic light cap is not removable, which means you won't be able to get very close to whatever you're examining.
- The printed instructions included with the microscope have six "steps," none of which is particularly helpful or well explained, and one of which is, bizarrely, "Install on Mac."
Dino-Lite USB Handheld Digital Microscope
This digital microscope, like the others we tested, is relatively small and comes with a stand. However, you can also just hold it in your hands. It offers magnifications ranging from 10x to 50x.
- The Dino-Lite is easy to remove from the stand and use to view something up close.
- Compared with the other digital microscopes we tested, this one has easy-to-adjust dials.
- The included software offers a lot of tools for drawing on the images you snap through the scope lens. There's a touch-sensitive button for taking snapshots without jostling the microscope.
- The lights create odd patterns behind transparent slides, so you should use opaque slides.
- There's no way to turn off the light when it's plugged in. However, the actual microscope turns on only when the software is activated.
- Considering the microscope is not intuitive to use, the instructions are skimpy.
- The plastic light cap isn't removable, limiting how close you can bring the microscope to the thing being examined.
The best of the bunch was the Omano microscope, but we would still recommend the other two traditional microscopes. Out of the digital ones, we would choose Dino-Lite. If you're choosing between the two types of microscopes, figure out what you'd like to use the scope for. The digital microscopes are way easier for taking photos and videos of your specimens, but they don't give as powerful of a magnification. For viewing truly microscopic specimens, a traditional microscope is your best bet.
Originally published on Live Science.