The Hunt for the Best USB Microscope
Let's Get Plugged In!
Looking for the best USB microscope? The emergence of these fun little tech tools has changed the face of both professional and hobby microscopy. Although lacking the precision and magnification power of a traditional microscope, they're still a fun and useful toy for almost anyone.
A USB microscope is simply a small unit that you connect to a computer through the USB port. Rather than looking through an eyepiece, the image is projected onto your computer screen by using software that comes with the microscope.
Since they're so much simpler in design, they're also much cheaper to produce and sell. This has led to a wave of cheap USB microscopes out there, but how are you supposed to choose the best one for you?
We've looked and a variety of products, and below are our recommendations. We tested these mini microscopes against the following criteria:
- Optics and Image Quality - We're not expecting an electron microscope here, but it should still produce a crisp, sharp image. Does the image degrade at higher magnifications? Is the "200X zoom" really more like 40X? This is one of our most important factors. If everything else is great but the picture sucks, then what's the point?
- Ease of Use - USB microscopes are supposed to be easy to use. Are the controls simple and intuitive? Do you have to read a 400-page manual to get it to work? Unlike your last dinner with your in-laws, we want you to have an experience without frustration.
- Construction - These little babies are easy to fumble, so they have to be well made. Of course you should treat any microscope gently, but the construction here should be sturdy and not cheap or easy to break.
- Software - A USB microscope comes with software that lets you take pictures and see the image on your computer screen. The software is often the biggest complaint with users. We want the software to be easy to install and fun to use.
- Cost - It's fine if a product costs more, but if it does you should get more. Most USB microscopes cost between $40-$150, and if it costs more we want to see a vastly superior image. Some of those $300 models out there just aren't worth it for what they offer.
A word about zoom magnification: many digital USB microscopes say they zoom in up to 200X, but the truth is they don't. It can be difficult to gauge the true zoom, and we only included models that seemed to offer close to the magnifications they claimed. Beware of outrageous claims when buying a USB microscope.
So let's show you what we found!
The Best USB Microscope Reviews
Below are four of our favorite models, each of which are geared to a slightly different type of user. There are two excellent basic models, one under $50, and one for kids. We didn't include forensic-level models, but our choices below should be perfect for users who don't work in a lab.
The Aven 26700-300 ZipScope
The ZipScope from Aven was one of our choices for the best overall USB microscope, as it offers a lot for the price. The image quality is great, the zoom works very well with a wide range, and it's under $100 (usually retails for around $85). We were really impressed with the high quality picture still and video. The unit also boasts:
- Magnification of 10X, 50X, and 200X
- Software that can take AVI video or JPEG/BMP pictures
- One year warranty (nice!)
The lighting is a nice touch as many models come with weak or ineffective lighting. Not this one.
The software isn't too hard to figure out, but it isn't perfect either. Although our biggest disappointment was that it wouldn't work on a Mac. Yet if you're a PC user, this scope is perfect for hobbyists or anyone wanting to look at objects such as stamps, coins, rocks, industrial parts, etc.
Comparing price against features, this is a great buy for almost any adult.
The Dino-Lite AM2011
Dino-Lite is known for their expensive, forensic-level quality USB microscopes. At $100, this one is affordable while offering a fantastic picture. Don't be too disappointed that the digital camera inside is only 0.3 mega pixels. Dino-Lite claims that their images rock due to the sophisticated color resolution. After playing with this, we're inclined to believe them. Both picture still and video taken with the AM2011 look fantastic. It also has:
- Magnification of 10X, 50X, and 200X
- Software that takes pictures and video, both PC AND Mac compatible!
The lighting isn't as great as the ZipScope from Aven, but this can be easily remedied by lighting your specimen from other sources. Overall this unit is a ton of fun, easy to use, and yields top quality images.
Again the software isn't perfect but it isn't painful to use either. It is compatible with a Mac, making this a great buy for Mac users. Or collectors, geologists, stamp enthusiasts, entomologists, industrial inspectors, or anyone who wants to zoom in on the world around them!
The Carson Zorb Digital Microscope
Is a 200X zoom overkill for what you need? Looking for the best USB microscope under $50? For those searching for a low level model that's cheap we highly recommend the Carson Zorb.
The Zorb only zooms to 35X, but for some that's enough. You'd be surprised at how much you can see when an object is 35 times larger! The image quality is good, the device is painfully easy to use, and it comes in a fun egg shape with different color options. It also offers:
- Internal LED illumination
- Software that takes pictures and video. Claims to be both PC and Mac compatible but this is in debate
We were able to get the software running on a Mac (OSX 10.5), but a quick peek on Amazon reveals that many people were not. The functioning of the software on a Mac seems debatable depending on your operating system, so save your receipt if you're a Mac user.
That said, this model is only about $40. The pictures are good, the unit is fun and easy to use, and above all it's inexpensive. If you need low-level magnification on the cheap, this is a great option for the price.
Learning Resources Zoomy Handheld Digital Microscope
Why should adults have all the fun? If you're looking for the best USB microscope for kids, look no further than the Zoomy from Learning Resources. The images are crisp, it's easy enough for a child to use, and small enough to fit in the palm of a little scientist's hands. This is an educational toy that can entertain a kid for hours. It also comes with:
- 43X magnification, 640X480 resolution
- Internal LED illumination
- 2 head adapters for viewing different objects
- Software that takes pictures and video. Compatible with PC and Mac
- Easy for a child to use, ages 4 and up
Again, many people seem to have problems using the software on a Mac, yet many others do get it to work. If you have an older Mac, be sure to save the receipt.
Beyond that this is the perfect mini microscope for kids. It's easy to use, the images are great, and we haven't met a child who wasn't fascinated by looking at things up close. It's made for kids ages 4 to 8, so it's a great way to get little ones interested in science.
Which One Should I Buy?
These USB microscope reviews are meant to be a starting point, but the model you purchase depends on your needs. If you don't need high magnification levels and don't have a lot of money, one of the cheaper models will suffice. Otherwise we recommend spending a little more on the ZipScope or the Dino-Lite. The high quality images are definitely worth it.
Keep in mind too that a kid could happily play with one of the fancier models, and an adult can get a big kick out of the Zoomy for kids. Your purchase relies on your budget, needs, and computer operating system. We doubt you can go wrong with any of the models above.
A USB microscope can give users a new way to look at things. These microscopes probably won’t satisfy the needs of the hardcore scientist, but they're versatile enough to lend themselves to many unique and creative applications.
Keep exploring, marveling, wondering. Stay curious and astonished at all ages. Have fun!
You can see some other models we've reviewed here:
The Orion MicroXplore USB Digital Microscope 200x review.
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