1/11 SLIDES © Staff, Courtesy of Carson
Finding the right microscope for your child or teen can be a daunting task, with a laundry list of options on the market, including type, style, and appropriate features. It’s never early to get little ones interested in the natural world, and no doubt your school-age kid has STEM as a major part of their curriculum. We’ll venture to bet that it’s been a while since you’ve prepared slides in a lab, and there are microscope 101 basics you’ll need to absorb before you begin your search.
Luckily, we offer a crash course, plus shopping advice so you can make a well-informed decision. Read on for our top recommendations for the best microscopes for budding scientists of all ages.
What to Consider
Start with considering how often it will be used, and for what purpose. For pre-K, there are toy microscopes built for small hands that include special features to keep little ones engaged, like prerecorded voices that offer fun facts and quizzes. For elementary school children, there are crossover kits with “real” microscopes plus colorful workbooks and activity cards for them to explore prepared slides and learn how to make their own with kid-safe accessories, like tweezers, test tubes, and petri dishes.
A more advanced microscope with all-metal construction, enamel coating for durability, and magnification up to 1,000x will likely be sufficient for most students through high school. Students taking AP classes or at the college level may need a microscope with up to 2,000x magnification or other features required for more advanced lab work.
Here’s a quick overview that breaks down different kinds of microscopes and the most important broad factors.
Compound Versus Stereo
Students typically use compound microscopes, which are used for viewing slides at various levels of magnification. The higher the magnification, the more detail students will 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 larger objects in 3D. They have applications in professional labs for activities 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, and may not be ready to handle the precision of using slides.
Monocular Versus Binocular
Most students through high school will work with monocular scopes that have a single lens with magnification power up to 1,000x. More advanced binocular microscopes offer higher magnification (and again, are pricier). That said, there are binocular microscopes especially designed for pre-K and early elementary school students with ocular tubes that are close together to suit small faces.
Traditional Versus Digital
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 models that are essentially a camera with magnification for viewing objects seen with the naked eye on screen. More advanced models combine lab microscopes with digital technology to see slide specimens on screen.
Most microscopes use LED lights to illuminate objects and specimens on slides. There are microscopes with single-source LEDs at the base beneath the slides for viewing transparent objects, and dual-LED microscopes that add a second light on top for an opaque view of what’s on the slide. Also, 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).
Construction and Frame
More professional (and expensive) microscopes have an enamel-coated all-metal body. They usually weigh more, feel solid in hand, and have higher quality optical senses. They 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, often with lower quality glass lenses.
How We Chose
All of the microscopes we review below have average customer ratings of four stars or more. The microscopes we feature are built for students and kids from pre-K to high school and up, and we weighed cost against features mentioned above to choices that offer the best value. We cover traditional and digital microscopes across a range of price points, from budget to higher-end ones upwards of $200. We also break out specs for every microscope to help you compare models.
2/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
1) Emarth Compound Microscope
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 1,000x• Eyepiece: 10x and 25x• Objective lenses: 4x, 10x, 40x• Power: Three AA& batteries• Dimensions: 13.3 x 9 x 6 inches • Weight: 2.7 pounds
This beginner compound microscope has an impressive lineup of features found in models with a higher price point, including six magnification levels up to 1,000x, three optical lenses, and two built-in eyepieces. There’s also dual LED light sources above and below to see opaque and transparent specimens, plus six color filters for extra-fun viewing—and eliminates the hassle of staining slides.
The ocular tube’s angle is an easy-to-reach 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.
3/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
2) AmScope All-Metal Compound Microscope
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 1,000x• Eyepieces: 10X and 25X• Objective lenses: 4X, 10X, and 40X• Power: Plug-in or three AA batteries•Dimensions: 15 x 10 x 7 inches•Weight: 4.5 pounds
You won’t get any extras with this microscope, like color filters, slides, or other accessories, but what you will 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 1000x, 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’s 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.
4/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
3) AmScope Compound Microscope Kit
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 1,000x• Eyepieces: 10x, 25X• Objective lenses: 4x, 10x, 40x• Power: Plug-in or three AA batteries • Dimensions: N/A• Weight: N/A
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 1,000x, plus a color filter and coarse and fine focusing knobs on both sides. There's 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, plus 50 extra slides and 100 covers. The colorful 48-page instruction and activity book is a bonus.
Slideshow continues on the next slide
5/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
4) Plugable USB Digital Microscope
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 250x• Eyepieces: No• Objective lenses: No • Power: USB• Dimensions: 3.5 x 1.25 x 1.25• Weight: 2.9 ounces
This digital microscope doubles as a camera, so you can capture details of specimens displayed on your computer’s screen. The plug-and-play device connects via USB and has a webcam chipset and sensor that’s compatible with multiple operating systems.
It offers 250x magnification and high-definition 2.0 megapixels, with a flexible arm, graduated marks on the base pad for measuring objects, plus you can adjust the brightness of its LED halo light.
It’s ultra-compact and weighs less than 3 ounces, and it’s also backed by a 2-year limited warranty.
6/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
5) AmScope Digital Compound Monocular
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 1,000x• Eyepieces: 10x and 25x• Objective lenses: 4x, 10x, and 40x• Power: Plug-in or two AA batteries• Dimensions: 15.1 x 10.2 x 6.9• Weight: 4.8 pounds
With more to spend, this digital compound microscope features a camera with 1.3 megapixels to capture and display images on a computer screen or projector via USB 2.0 connection.
The microscope offers magnification up to 1000x and has 10x and 25x wide field eyepieces, along with three premium quality objective lenses and a 360-degree swiveling monocular head. It also has dual-side fine and coarse focusing knobs, and an enamel-coated all-metal frame.
The only downside is that there’s only one LED light source on the bottom.
7/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
6) Omano JuniorScope Microscope for Kids
Key Specs• Magnification: 40x to 400x• Eyepieces: No• Objective lenses: 4x, 10x, 40x• Power: Plug-in or three AA batteries• Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 14 inches• Weight: 3 pounds
This is a great option to give kids the experience of working with a more advanced microscope without overwhelming them—and make it fun.
The metal microscope has enough weight to feel solid, with three magnification levels up to 400x and high, high-quality lenses, and light sources on the top and bottom to view solid and transparent specimens, plus adjusting focus is simple, with two basic knobs on each side.
But what’ll really grab their attention is the colorful cards to guide them through using the microscope to investigate crime scenes, view human hair, and explore the insect world. It also comes with accessories, including a petri dish, test tube, slides, and more so they can try eight experiments.
8/11 SLIDES © amazon.com
7) National Geographic Dual LED Microscope
Key Specs• Magnification: 20x• Eyepieces: 10x and 25x• Objective lenses: No• Power: Two AA batteries• Dimensions: 7.25 x 5.7 x 12.5 inches• Weight: 2 pounds
Advanced science students use microscopes with two eyepieces, which can be tough for kids to see through if the ocular tubes are too far apart. But some also have trouble keeping one eye closed to view specimens through a monocular microscope.
This option from National Geographic is the answer: a binocular microscope with adjustable eyepieces that can be set close together. Other highlights include dual LED lights so little scientists can examine objects on slides and in 3D and two pairs of optical lenses to see objects and 20 and 50x magnification. There’s also more than 50 accessories, including prepared slides and blanks to prepare your own with all the necessary tools, plus a brine shrimp experiment.
There’s no doubt this kit packs in fun that’s sure to keep kids engaged and entertained, which is the point. It doesn't have the magnification and precision focusing other microscopes do for more detailed work.
9/11 SLIDES © Popular Mechanics
8) Carson Pocket Microscope
Key Specs• Magnification: 20x to 40x• Eyepieces: No• Objective lenses: No• Power: Three LR-44 button cell batteries (included)• Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 2 inches• Weight: 2 ounces
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 2 ounces and features 20x to 40x magnification and a bright LED light, and 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.
Slideshow continues on the next slide