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Buying Considerations for Digital Microscopes

Digital Microscopes are microscopes that are equipped with cameras and have become popular in the last 10 years. There are a number of different types of digital microscopes and it is useful to have an idea of what you are looking at before you buy. This post will first outline what to consider when shopping for a digital microscope, and a separate post will discuss the various types of digital microscopes available.

Things to Consider

Why do you need one? 

Are you a scientist trying to cure cancer, or a hobbyist who enjoys looking at common everyday objects. Not all microscopes are created equal, and neither are their cameras. Professionals usually know what they need, and when they don’t will ask questions to ensure they purchase the best microscope for their purposes. Hobbyists sometimes get caught up in having “professional grade” equipment and may purchase expensive products they don’t really need.

What type of Digital Microscope do you need?

For scientists and other professionals that need microscopes to conduct their work the biggest consideration when purchasing a digital microscope is making sure the camera is adequate and that any associated software will work with whatever computer the microscope is connected to. For hobbyist and grade school students, there are number of low-cost options that range from lenses that connect to smart phones, to portable handheld microscopes, to traditional compound and stereo microscopes that have the capability to be connected to cameras. Describing the different types of digital microscopes is a post unto itself and will be written as a follow up to this one.

How powerful of a camera do you need?

Many traditional compound and stereo microscopes now come in Trinocular options. These models have a third connection to the light path within the microscope that can be equipped with a camera or video equipment. These cameras can range from 1.3 MP to as high as 20 MP. This creates a dilemma, which MP option do I go with?

To answer this question you need to answer why you need the camera in the first place. Do you have to take many pictures and save them on a computer day after day? Do you need to email them? Are you an instructor or teacher that wants to present a slide to an entire class of students? Or, do you need to take a limited number of high quality pictures that will be printed, or poured over by your collogues?

Although it is tempting to have the most advanced camera, one has to realize that those pictures take up space on hard drives, and can be too large to email or quickly upload to the internet. On the other hand, what is the point of having a picture of what you are looking at if the resolution is not defined enough to make interpretations. These things you will need to think about while considering which microscope to go with.

A related consideration is what is the image display power of the device you are transmitting to? Many times a user sees no difference in the quality of a 10MP and a 20MP camera, this more often than not because the image display capability of the device they are using is only 2MP. The most powerful camera isn’t going to display properly on a low resolution screen.

Do you want the camera the comes with your Digital Microscope, or a more powerful aftermarket camera?

Most microscope manufactures like AmScope sell digital microscopes that come with a camera that you select. Some like LW Scientific build their microscopes to be able to support a camera add on that can be purchased separately. There are a number of camera companies such as Lumenera that make cameras for microscopes that are equipped for them. If buying an aftermarket camera, it is important to make sure that the connection between the camera and the microscope are compatible. This information can be ascertained by comparing the specification sheets of the two products, or by reaching out to the manufacturers.

 What potential Digital Microscope Software issues are there?

Having a fancy digital microscope is awesome, unless it doesn’t work with your computer or other device. Because these are digital products that use PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones to display images, they often have associated software. Traditionally this software came on a CD-ROM with the microscope, but now more and more this software is available on the manufactures’ website. Often you can download the software before you buy a product you are interested in and see if it is compatible with your computers’ (or other devices’) operating system. For tablets and smartphones, there may be an app in the app store for your device. Download it and see if there are any issues. If you can’t find a related app in your app store, there may be a link to one on the manufacturers’ website. If you can’t download the software needed for the product you are interested in, just make sure that it is compatible with the current operating system of the device you intend to use the microscope with. 

How do you want to transmit the image from the camera?

For products like lenses that attach to smartphones and tablets, the camera on your device is the camera used and the image will automatically appear on your device’s screen. For more traditional microscopes equipped with cameras, the image needs to be transmitted to the device you want to pair it with. This happens in one of three ways: 1) USB Cable, 2) HDMI Cable, 3) over WiFi. These three methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

  1. USB Cable – Best for quick transmission of low to high resolution images.
  2. HDMI Cable – Transmits high quality image and video.
  3. WiFi – Transmits high quality image and video without the need for a cable but is subject to the limitations of the network it is connected to.

 Conclusion

Now you should have a better understanding of what to consider when shopping for a digital microscope. Keep in mind how you will be using the digital microscope, and why you need it in the first place. To do this understand what type of configuration you need, how powerful a camera you would like, whether or not the device you will be pairing the microscope with can support both the cameras’ software and MP resolution, and finally how you will be transmitting the image created by the camera to this other device.