The 7 Best Microscopes of 2023 - Microscopes for Students

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The 7 Best Microscopes of 2023 - Microscopes for Students

We’re willing to bet it’s been a minute since you prepared slides in a science lab. If your kid’s back-to-school list includes a microscope, you probably need a refresher before beginning your search.

While teachers should provide basic guidelines on the type and style students need, there’s a laundry list of variables within those broad categories, along with other considerations like how many kids in your household need to use it and whether you should invest more if you have a budding scientist in your nest.

Here’s a crash course on how to find the right microscope for your elementary, middle, high school, or college student, along with expert recommendations on the best microscopes worth buying.

All of the microscopes we recommend come from brands known for their high-quality instruments, such as AmScope and Omax. These microscopes are designed for students and kids from grade school to high school and up—plenty are suitable for working laboratories.

During our research, we weighed cost against features such as magnification range and settings, the included eyepieces and objective lenses, and other factors like the angle of the ocular piece for easy viewing and bonus accessories. We also broke out specs for each microscope to help you compare models and find the best fit for your use case. Our final selections represent the best microscopes for a variety of individual needs and budgets, including the best overall, the best advanced option, and the best value we could find.

Scroll down for reviews of our recommendations directly below, followed by essentials to consider as you determine which model is best for you.

If you’re looking for the whole shebang, this kit offers an excellent piece of equipment plus accessories and fun extras. All the basic must-haves are covered—a sturdy metal body, dual LED lights and five magnification levels up to 1,000 times, plus a color filter and coarse and fine focusing knobs on both sides. There are also three objective lenses and two wide-field eyepieces.

As for activities, the kit comes with two 10-piece slide kits for viewing prepared slides and creating your own, which includes blue and red specimen stains and tools. There are also 50 extra slides with 100 covers and a colorful 48-page instruction and activity book thrown in.

The only potential drawback is that the 45-degree ocular tube may be hard for kids to see through.

This compound lab microscope is fairly compact and ideal for advanced high school and college students. It features eight magnification settings up to 2,000 times and four objective lenses, with an enamel-coated metal frame and coaxial fine and coarse focus knobs on both sides.

The binocular viewing head swivels 360 degrees and you can adjust the intensity of its LED light. Other highlights include a mechanical stage that moves in multiple directions for examining every inch of the slide without it slipping out of place, plus it comes with 100 glass slides and cover slips along with 100-sheet lens cleaning papers.

If you have more to spend, this digital compound microscope is excellent. It features a 1.3-megapixel camera to capture and display images on a computer screen or projector via a USB 2.0 connection.

The microscope offers magnification up to 1000 times with two wide field eyepieces, along with three premium quality objective lenses and a 360-degree swiveling monocular head.

It also has dual fine and coarse focusing knobs, and an enamel-coated all-metal frame. The only downside is that there’s only one LED light source.

This beginner compound microscope has an impressive lineup of features found in models with a higher price point, including six magnification levels up to 1,000 times, three optical lenses, and two built-in eyepieces.

There are also dual LED light sources above and below to see opaque and transparent specimens, plus six color filters for contrasted viewing.

The ocular tube’s angle is an easy-to-use, low 38 degrees, and it comes with 25 slides, a petri dish, forceps, and other essentials. The compromise is that its body is mostly plastic and doesn’t feel as solid in hand as microscopes with a metal body.

This digital microscope doubles as a camera, so you can capture details of specimens and display them on your computer’s screen. The plug-and-play device connects via USB and has a webcam and sensor that are compatible with multiple operating systems.

It offers 250 times magnification and an HD two-megapixel camera, plus a flexible arm, graduated marks on the base pad for measuring objects, and an adjustable LED halo light.

It’s ultra-compact and weighs less than three ounces, and it’s also backed by a two-year limited warranty. If you need something for occasional digital use at your business or home, this is a great pick.

You won’t get any extras with this microscope, like color filters, slides, or other accessories, but what you get is a solid piece of equipment for a reasonable price.

It has a sturdy, all-metal body with an enamel finish, five magnification settings up to 1000 times, high-quality coated optical glass, plus coarse and fine combo focus knobs on both sides for precise adjustments without having to lift your hands.

There are also three objective lenses and two wide-field eyepieces. The 45-degree ocular tube may be tough for younger kids to reach, but the main drawback is that the microscope doesn’t have a dual LED light to see opaque specimens illuminated from above.

This pocket handheld microscope is perfect for turning neighborhood walks into a learning experience for kids to explore nature, or for adults as a field scope.

It weighs a mere two ounces and features 20 to 40 times magnification and a bright LED light—plus it comes with two specimen slides and a removable base stand. The microscope runs on three LR-44 button cell batteries, which are included, and you can’t beat the price—just $14 at the time of this writing.

The only downside (though likely not a dealbreaker) is that the LED button doesn’t turn on or off—you have to hold your finger on it to illuminate the object you’re viewing.

Start with estimating how often you’ll use the microscope, and for what purpose. For elementary school children, there are kits with real microscopes, plus colorful workbooks and activity cards so they can explore prepared slides and learn how to make their own. These usually include kid-safe accessories like tweezers, test tubes, and petri dishes.

A more advanced microscope (made with all-metal construction, enamel coating for durability, and magnification up to 1,000 times) is likely sufficient for most students through high school. Students taking AP or college level classes may need a microscope with up to 2,000 times magnification, or other features required for more advanced lab work—make sure to check the syllabus before you buy.

Here’s a quick overview that breaks down different kinds of microscopes and the most important broad factors.

Students typically use compound microscopes, which are used for viewing the microscopic components of a given slide at various levels of magnification. For instance, if your slide has a blood droplet on it, you’ll be able to see red blood cells using the microscope.

The higher the magnification, the more detail students see while examining specimens—and price generally rises with magnification power. Compound microscopes also have higher resolution for viewing specimens with greater clarity.

Stereo microscopes have low magnification power and are used for viewing objects in 3D. You can use them in professional labs for tasks like dissection, but they can also be great for very young children who want to see things like rocks, bird feathers, and plants in greater detail.

Stereo microscopes don’t require slides, making them a good pick for kids who may not be ready to handle the precision.

Most students through high school work with monocular scopes, which have a single lens with magnification power up to 1,000 times.

More advanced binocular microscopes offer higher magnification (and again, are pricier). That said, there are binocular microscopes especially designed for early elementary school students who might struggle to close one eye at a time. These kid-friendly binocular microscopes have ocular tubes that are close together to suit small faces.

A traditional microscope uses your eyes’ optics to view an image. A digital microscope transfers images on slides or larger objects to a computer screen with a digital camera and optics.

There are basic digital microscopes that are essentially a camera with magnification for viewing objects you can see with the naked eye on screen. More advanced models combine lab microscopes with digital technology to see microscopic slide specimens on screen.

Most microscopes use LED lights to illuminate objects and specimens on slides. There are microscopes with single-source LEDs beneath the slides for viewing transparent materials, and dual-LED microscopes that add a second light on top for an opaque view of what’s on the slide.

We recommend some level of illumination for any microscope, but especially monocular microscopes where students may be expected to identify elements in a specimen, like cells.

Some microscopes have color filters on a rotating disc, which adds a fun visual element to the viewing experience (and eliminates the need to stain slides in order to see certain translucent components).

The most professional (and expensive) microscopes have an enamel-coated, all-metal body. They usually weigh more, feel solid in hand, and have higher quality optical lenses compared to cheaper options meant for kids or young students.

High-quality microscopes also tend to have features that allow for more precise adjustments, like fine and coarse focus knobs on both sides, and even mechanical stages that allow you to move the slide in multiple directions. Less expensive microscopes are often made of plastic, or a combination of plastic and metal, and come with lower quality glass lenses.

While a cheaper option is totally acceptable for most students, it might be worth investing in something higher-quality if you think you’ll get a ton of use out of it.

Rachel Klein is a Senior Commerce Editor for Popular Mechanics, where she writes about everything from garden hose reels and patio furniture to mesh wifi systems and robot vacuums. She started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and was a travel editor for more than a decade before she started testing and reviewing luggage, noise-cancelling headphones, and other travel-related products. Fast-forward another five years and her area of expertise includes home decor, appliances, tech, and outdoor adventure gear. In her spare time, you'll find her planning her next trip, reading historical fiction, and seeing as much art as she can squeeze into a weekend. 

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