Choosing and buying a microscope
A personal view by Dave Walker

Guidelines for the parent buying a microscope for a child
or hobbyist interested in buying their first microscope.

This article's purpose is to explain the main types of microscope available to a first time buyer but does not attempt to recommend specific makers or dealers. I should stress that I am an amateur microscopist, don't profess to be an expert, and most importantly I have no relationship with any microscope dealers. Contacts where expert buying advice can be sought are provided.

For a quick overview - view the basic types of microscope below

two INTRODUCTORY microscopes, especially for the youngster
the STEREO microscope, two models illustrated and explained
the COMPOUND microscope, a simple model illustrated and explained
Or read a more detailed overview - the menu below provides guidelines with links to the microscopes above. Introduction
Buying a microscope for yourself or a child can open up a whole new fascinating world within a world. A good basic microscope is not difficult to use (easier to use in fact than a video camera or recorder) and can provide tremendous fun as well as being educational.

A microscope supplier in your area will be able to explain in more detail the different types of microscopes, and the best choice depending on its purpose and your budget! As an indication of cost the author has included a guide price for each model type available in the UK at the time of writing (in January 1997 and includes a 17.5% UK purchase tax).

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The toy versus real microscope
Unfortunately, you are unlikely to find a proper microscope sold in even the largest shopping centre or home shopping catalogue. The majority of toy microscopes are too small with poor mechanics and optics, difficult to use and may rapidly cause disappointment for the youngster, who may give up an otherwise fascinating interest.

It is worth investing a little more for a simple good quality microscope which can provide many years of use. Proper microscopes, even the simplest, are heavier and larger for stability with good mechanics and optics.

A common failing of toy microscopes is that they often claim as a selling point high linear magnifications eg 500X and 1000X. A toy microscope is useless at these sort of magnifications. You need careful sample preparation, good optics and mechanics as well as specialised lighting to achieve quality images at these powers.

But the most important point is that the beginner does not need this sort of magnification. This is discussed later.

A number of companies have developed microscopes specially for the youngster that differ from the compound and stereo microscopes described below. These are no more expensive than a toy but will be a better buy. Note that these introductory microscopes use only one eye which can be a benefit for the very young who may not be able to adjust two eyepieces close enough together for satisfactory use.

View introductory microscopes for the youngster

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Where to seek advice and where to buy.

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Making the right choice

New or second-hand? Microscope dealers will often sell a range of second-hand microscopes. You may be able to purchase a second-hand microscope from one of the better manufacturers at a comparable price to a new more modest microscope. Unless you know what to look for it is probably best to buy a second-hand microscope from a microscope dealer or service agent, to ensure that it is fully serviced and issued with a guarantee.

Online auctions are increasingly popular and may offer a wide range of microscopes and accessories. As with all auctions it is 'buyer beware'! There can be many good microscopes to be had, but seek advice if necessary about a maximum fair price to bid and the availability of spares and accessories if you wish to upgrade.
Ask the seller, if not stated in the advert, whether they are a dealer or private seller. There are pros and cons with both. The former may offer their standard 'money back if not satisfied' and/or guarantee. A private buyer is less likely to have the facilities to offer this, but should be reflected in the final price.

Ask the seller, if not stated in the advert, where the microscope has come from. If the item has been owned privately e.g. by an enthusiast, it's possible it may have been better looked after than some microscopes sourced from an educational establishment or industry, where they may have had a very hard life.

If the microscope has binocular optics (i.e. stereo or compound with a binocular head) ask the seller, especially if a private seller, whether the collimation is sound (i.e. the alignment of the paired optics). If the collimation is out, it may be expensive to correct. If misaligned by even by a small amount, eye strain and/or headaches may result.

If a first time buyer, be wary of purchasing a sophisticated multi-functional research microscope from an on-line auction without seeking specialist advice beforehand. It could appear - relative to its new price - a bargain, but such microscopes may not necessarily suit the enthusiast. They are often large and heavy - possibly to the point of impracticality for the home user without a dedicated area to house it. They may require expensive specialist servicing and dedicated spares/accessories could be expensive.

Purchasing by mail order?? Most microscope dealers issue a comprehensive illustrated catalogue. This should enable you to make an informed choice of whether they offer a model to suit your requirements and pocket. It is always preferable to try before you buy, but if travel is a problem and you are purchasing a modestly priced microscope from a well established dealer, purchase by mail order should be fine if they offer a 'money back if not satisfied' guarantee.

Given the costs of international shipping, the delicate nature of microscopes and the increased difficulty of resolving problems if they occur, it is probably best to seek a dealer or agent in your own country if at all possible.

How much to spend? The beginner, even if not on a budget, should be wary of purchasing a top of the range model for a first microscope, as a multitude of sophisticated features and high power objectives is probably unnecessary. If you plan to develop the hobby it is worth discussing this with a microscope supplier to ensure you purchase a suitable modular instrument. A well chosen basic model can be upgraded with accessories and extra optics.

Manufacturers: In an attempt to be impartial I don't mention any names! A good microscope dealer won't want a dissatisified customer, therefore they should be confident of the models they sell, and should correct any problems that may occasionally appear in even the most respected brands. A dealer can discuss the relative merits of the makers they sell. Don't be afraid to quiz them and ask where they are made and why they recommend them. If a dealer only offers a range of microscopes from one manufacturer it may be worth contacting a dealer who sells other makes to compare price, features and performance.

Note that the budget models by different manufacturers may look identical, but the quality may differ and is usually reflected in the price.

Update: I have received emails asking what my view is of Chinese microscopes. My honest answer is I don't have any 'hands on' experience of them, but here are some observations.

Many Chinese microscopes aren't sold under a Chinese makers name they are rebadged with dealers or suppliers names, so is worth asking, if uncertain, where a microscope is made. There is a lot of controversy in the microscopy newsgroups and elsewhere of the quality of Chinese (and other Asian) microscopes. There are no doubt some poor models on the market, however I do notice a number of respected UK dealers are selling them in their budget range, so I would imagine that there are good ones available when selected by the dealers and thus should be good value when coupled with a 'money back if not satisfied' guarantee. If you can afford it, buying one of the well known 'big names' is probably a better long term investment, but then many folk including me can't afford one or don't want to invest that much into a hobby, so they fill a useful niche in the market .

I've owned a cheap 'n cheerful (but basically sound) microscope for 25 years and never felt the need to upgrade, in fact I enjoy getting the most out of the instrument despite its foibles. Other amateurs prefer to spend more and enjoy the quality optics and engineering of a better 'scope ... it's very much a personal choice. Amateur microscopy is very much like amateur photography, there is a wide range of models from the big and lesser known names available with prices to match, but you can still get a lot of fun out of the hobby with a sound simple model as much as you can with a big makers flagship model.

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The stereo microscope - its benefits

View some basic stereo microscopes

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The compound microscope - its benefits

View a basic compound microscope

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The author Dave Walker (an amateur microscopist) would welcome comments on how this advice page can be improved. The opinions are those of the author alone. Although this page is hosted by the Microscopy UK site where a limited number of advertisers pay for advertising space, the author has no relationship with these suppliers.

The author acknowledges the useful comments on this suite of pages by Caroline Schooley.

Disclaimer (in case I need one!): the above guidelines are given in good faith. Before purchase please seek the advice of a good microscope dealer, who offers guarantees preferably including 'money back if not satisfied'. The author accepts no responsibility for any defective purchase or dissatisfaction with a purchase.

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