Inspecting metal objects with a microscope

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What is a USB microscope and how does it work?

Do you know how a USB microscope works, its benefits and shortcomings - and how do you decide if it's the right solution for your needs or not? Learn it all here.

More and more businesses are looking to replace their more traditional microscopes with a digital version and as part of their research, they come across the compact USB microscope.

In this article, we’ll have a closer look at a USB microscope, including how it works, its benefits as well as shortcomings. Lastly, we’ll guide you on how to figure out if a USB microscope is the right solution for your needs or not.

What is a USB microscope?

A USB microscope is a lightweight and compact tool used to magnify objects (or areas of an object) that are too small to inspect with the naked eye. Instead of using an ocular, the viewer inspects their object via the monitor of a computer or via a built-in screen. A USB microscope is therefore considered a digital microscope, although a very simple one.

Magnified photo of cardriges, taken with a TAGARNO digital microscope

How does a USB microscope work?

With CMOS sensors, typically used in digital cameras and camera phones, the USB microscope is similar to a webcam but differentiates in its ability to magnify due to its macro lens. While some USB microscopes have built-in illumination, others depend on ambient lighting.

A USB microscope typically offers 20x-300x magnification and requires that the lens either touches an object or is kept at a short distance to magnify it.  This creates a small field of view but reduces the risk of unsharp images due to incorrect lens to object distance.

What are the advantages of using a USB microscope?

With its compact design, a USB microscope is extremely portable and can easily be moved from one workstation to another if it needs to be used for different processes.

Similarly, the compact design also makes it a suitable alternative to conventional stereo microscopes if you don’t need the high power magnification typically offered by the latter due to their optically more complex design.

USB microscopes are also widely available on online marketplaces like Amazon and E-bay at a significantly lower point than other kinds of microscopes. This makes them more accessible for education purposes or hobby projects. They are also great options if you need large quantities or if you are new to the world of digital microscopy and want a low-entry product.

Further, a USB microscope doesn’t have an ocular but instead uses a screen to display the magnified object. Whether built-in or you are using a computer or laptop, the digital display prevents the viewer from having to bend their neck to look through an ocular when inspecting an object. Instead, the viewer can sit up straight which creates a more comfortable and healthier setup that improves productivity and job satisfaction.

Lastly, the digital display reduces the risk of cross-contamination between operators and thus the need for cleaning the system between inspections, factors that have become increasingly important since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Woman using a digital microscope to inspect seed

What are the shortcomings of a USB microscope?

A USB microscope, however, is compromised in terms of optical quality, lighting and working distance which is important factors to keep in mind when weighing the pros and cons of different types of microscopes.

Further, as far as digital microscopes go, a USB microscope is a rather simple one. These days there’s more advanced digital microscopes available with all the digital benefits mentioned above, but also significantly better image quality and more flexibility in terms of working distance and lighting options. These microscopes also come with more features, including more camera settings, presets and software options, that make them better suited for industry professionals.

In what situations should you choose a USB microscope?

A USB microscope can be used for simple magnification tasks on a large variety of samples and across industries, including Agriculture, Electronics, Forensic, Metal and Plastic inspection.

If you find that the image quality isn’t up to standard, however, or if you want a more professional and efficient setup, we recommend a more advanced digital microscope. For simple magnification tasks, ZIP is a great option. For more advanced inspections with high documentation needs, PRESTIGE or the flex arm mounted MOVE will be better suited.

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