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Many affordable microscopes are available. Some models require observation through an eyepiece, others have built-in cameras. The cameras sometimes connect to a computer (or tablet/phone) through USB, firewire or Bluetooth, sometimes they have a build-in screen to display the images that can be stored on internal memory or memory stick. The optical and mechanical quality (and price) vary dramatically. With this large variety of models, it becomes difficult to decide what is best for your situation. To decide what type of microscope to look into, think about the following:

What kind of samples will you be looking at?

The type of sample you want to image is probably the most important consideration to take into account. If you want to image samples that can be easily flattened onto a slide (for example cells or other very small objects), then a microscope with a stage is ideal. However, if you want to image more variable objects (ie. rocks, leaves, etc), then a handheld microscope may be a better fit.

Additionally, the sample type will affect what type of illumination is optimal. For optically transparent samples, such as slides, it is often important to have bottom illumination. However, for opaque samples, top illumination is usually sufficient.

Where do you want to do your activities?

Will you be in your classroom or outside? If you want students to take microscopes on field trips or outdoors, then a small, portable microscope may be a better fit than a bulkier microscope; however, this choice almost always comes with a trade-off in imaging quality.

What size are the objects you want to observe?

If you want high-magnification for viewing very small objects, such as cells and cellular sub-structures, a high-powered microscope with bottom illumination will give the best resolution. However, if you want to have a better overview of a larger object, such as Velcro, then a lower-powered microscope will be sufficient.

Is it important to digitally record images?

Many microscopes can interface with a computer and record digital images, which is important if you want a record of your observations.

We purchased a variety of microscopes, easily available from Amazon and other online distributors, and tested them with 4-6 samples (ranging from fixed slides to live protists). The microscopes roughly fall into 5 different categories. We discuss pros and cons for each category, as well as provide our impression of specific microscope models. On overview of all models can be found in the Microscope Comparison Table.

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