To work with small parts, whether SMD components on PCB or detailing parts on a model, I have been using OptiVisor magnifying glasses for a few years, allowing seeing in stereo, which would be impossible with a watchmaker’s magnifying glass.
There is still a drawback: I have to get close enough to the objects; as a result, I breathe in the scent of soldering flux or glue. Neither very pleasant nor very healthy. On the other hand, you have to constantly raise the glasses for normal vision and then put them down to work. It is also difficult to wear headphones at the same time to listen to your favourite music.
I thought of another solution as I was looking for a scientific gift idea for one of my grandchildren: a “digital microscope”! In fact, I would rather say electronic magnifier. Yes, but with the promised magnification (× 1000), we exceed the capabilities of a magnifying glass… The promises are only binding on those who believe them, let’s wait and see…
Among my selection criteria, there were:
First I wanted to get information about the qualities and shortcomings of this kind of object. First disappointment: on the allegedly comparison sites, they just give a brief description, then copy the sellers’ arguments, without any objective test. Even better: the quality ranking is only based on the sale number! So I want to denounce this kind of completely bogus website!
I’m going to have to make up my own mind. Initial research leads me to some observations. First, the first prices are around €20, but without Wi-Fi connection. To get this, you have to go up to more than €30. However, Wi-Fi is only possible with a cellphone. Why ? I don’t know. So let’s not insist on this point.
In terms of image resolution, most sellers advertise 2Mp, or 1920 × 1080 pixels. We’ll see what to think about it.
I started by buying this model.
Note: I give the links not because I recommend the products, but so that you can check my comments. Suffice to say right away that none of the models cited does exactly what it promises.
The device is delivered without software; you have to go to an internet address and download a utility, camera.exe, which will be the same for the other models.
The black area is the display area that I have reduced here. You can switch to full screen with the button .
What are the setting parameters? Let’s see the Settings tab.
First observation: no setting for photos. For video, we have a few choices, some of which make the image unstable or split… Note that the best video format is the one displayed, at 1280 × 720, or 921,600 pixels. We are far from the 2 Mp claimed.
You may have noticed a Video Advanced Settings button. As the name suggests, it is for video only. It gives access to different image settings (colour, balance, etc.) and on the camera. But the few attempts I made did not allow me to see any influence from these settings.
Well, for the photo, I confirm, the resolution is also 1280 × 720, and there is no way to change it. To be honest, I would add that 2 Mp is possible in Wi-Fi with a cellphone. But I don’t want to juggle between PC and cellphone, and anyway, this restriction is not mentioned on the website. This is therefore a false allegation.
The “magnification” adjustment is done by a large side wheel (very good!) which has a lot of clearance (much less good!), which moves the image and therefore makes the adjustment very random.
Focusing is achieved by moving the camera forwards or backwards in relation to the object to be viewed. This is normal: we do the same thing in classic macro photo, because it is more efficient and more precise than acting on the lens focus ring. Provided you can do it in good conditions.
Before making the first tests, you must mount the device on its stand. Here, one would think that the manufacturers are ingenious to find the worst possible solution, in any case certainly the cheapest possible.
In the present case, the adjustment is made with a wing nut that tightens two plates themselves enclosing two (plastic) ball joints, you know, like on the cheap “third hands”. Unable to adjust to a specific position. On the other hand, the device is mounted in the stand by a clip which fits into a groove. It is wider than the clip fingers that enter it: there is significant clearance. Just touch the camera (well obliged to focus) to upset everything.
In addition, if you rotate the device to straighten the image seen on the screen, there is a good chance that the clip at least partially hides the adjustment wheel! Finally, the distance to the working surface is ridiculous, unless you position the camera at an angle (the depth of field allows it).
It is indicated in large characters under the wheel: 50× to 1000×. But what does Magnification mean? For me, it is the relationship between the object size and its reproduction, here on the screen. It is obvious that this relationship will be very different between a cellphone and a desktop screen.
In fact, on my 24-inch screen, the magnification, measured by displaying a ruler image, is 220× maximum when the device tip touches the ruler! To reach 1000×, you would therefore need a 109-inch screen, almost 2.8 m diagonal…
Notice on this screenshot the bottom of the image which should be neutral grey. This shows how much I had to change the colour balance to get an acceptable steel shade for the ruler. The automatic balance was confused by the green background of my cutting mat!
In fact, for my main application, this maximum magnification does not interest me, because to work under the device, a space of at least 60 mm is needed. But it can be nice to view for example small animals like mites living in some cheese crust! Or other, much more disgusting things that I leave to your imagination…
There are two buttons on the device body marked + and −, whose instructions tell us that they are used to adjust the zoom level. It may work over Wi-Fi, but not over USB.
What about image quality? We suspect it: very poor, despite a large depth of field probably due to the very small lens aperture. This depth of field, which you never get with an actual microscope, is very appreciable for working under the camera: you don’t always have your hands or tools at a constant and precise distance from the lens.
On the other hand, to publish images, it is much less brilliant: the exposure and the colour balance are automatic, and change from one image to another. For the colorimetric consistency of the images, we will come back another day!
What about the practical aspect for which I bought this device? I expected a recurring problem with these devices, revealed in a video by Électro-Bidouilleur: the delay time or lag between movements and their reproduction on the screen. I must say that it’s quite sensitive at first, with the feeling of a sort of drunkenness. But you get used to it quickly; you only must have slow gestures, as much because of this delay as of the great movement amplification.
For example, I succeeded quite easily in making very small rings (ø 1 mm) and connect them with a wire on a chain. Another advantage is that you can immediately see the defects that would be invisible to the naked eye (at least for me!).
Regarding the soldering of electronic components, it is a little less easy because of the reflections of the too direct integrated LED lighting. However, external lighting can be used, but it will be difficult to adjust to get some comfort.
The quality is very limited, some allegations are either false or biased, but this device is usable provided that you find a better quality stand. In addition, the device is relatively expensive, at least more than others of similar features that we will see later.
I will note before continuing that the devices that I will test later have almost the same qualities and defects, with a few slight differences.
Such a stand is absolutely necessary to obtain stable images. I found this model, which exists under different brands and at various prices. It comes with some microscopes. It is made almost entirely of aluminium. The rack column can be oriented in any direction thanks to the large foot nut. The friction is adjusted with the small knurled knob on the back, and the height with one or the other of the two large side knobs.
It comes with a semi-rigid bag which allows it to be housed (disassembled in two parts) with your favourite microscope.
The only complaint I can make is that the column is a bit short: the maximum distance between the tray and the microscope bottom is only about 110 mm (it depends on the microscope). But since you can orient the stand out of the base, it doesn’t matter much.
Here is this model.
The characteristics given are almost the same as for the previous one. The price is almost the same too. The differences: the stand which is here of “snake” type, and the presence of “preparation slides”, of which the seller says a little naively (sic): [Collection of 12 slides] With plastic materials, it is not as clear as glass, but they are safer for you and can stimulate people’s curiosity to explore microscopic elements. Obviously, for a child’s safety, a plastic blade is less dangerous than glass, but, with the blade thickness, sticking with adhesive tape, plus the light reflections, we see almost nothing. So, no interest.
In use, the snake stand would be more pleasant than the wing nut one, except that the clip is exactly the same, and gives the same clearance which makes it unusable! The plastic base is squared in centimeters and has graduated rulers. The snake fixing screw protrudes under the base which is not milled enough. As it is not equipped with feet, it makes the whole wobbly, which does not help anything.
This device is a little shorter than the Heystop. Its zoom wheel has less clearance and is firmer. On the other hand, the LEDs light intensity adjustment is not very progressive, almost all-or-nothing.
The electronic circuits seem identical (I did not disassemble), the software is the same.
Here, even on a cellphone, I failed to get the 2Mp resolution.
Finally, apart from the slightly better stand, nothing really separates the two devices. Consequently, the two were returned to their sender. I would point out that I reported on the sales website “incorrect product information”, as well as to the sellers themselves. Sellers’ reaction: we offer you a discount, please don’t say anything, we will correct the announcement! I refused. Three months later, no changes are made to the product description.
Here is this model.
Seeing the photo of the product, we suspect that it is exactly the same as the previous one. With no “slides”, and for €9 less, which is not so bad. We will perhaps forgive it more easily for some faults…
Before ordering, I ask the seller if the resolution is 2 Mp as indicated, stating that I use Windows and that I have been disappointed on this point by other similar products. The answer is absolutely positive. I am not totally fooled; we’ll see.
The downside is that the product comes directly from China, so the shipping time is three weeks, actually even a month… And, of course, on arrival, the resolution is only 1 Mp.
Here, it took several email exchanges for them to finally admit the false allegation, after perfectly delaying responses. The bafflegab is not just for politicians. I got a 60 % discount… In reality, only 30 %, because I bought two devices (remember, at the beginning, it was a gift for a grandson, who liked it well for that matter). The discount only applied to the last purchased.
This time, I kept the device, knowing that every other I would find in this price range would be almost identical.
Last thing: think about protecting the lens from soldering fumes.
Note: the last two models, identical, are grouped together into a single column in this comparison table.
|Characteristic||Heystop||Pancellent / LayOPO|
|Stand||Articulation with wing nut||Snake on plastic tray|
|Min. dist. from tray||0 mm||10 mm|
|Max. dist. from tray||14 mm||60 mm|
|Switch on / off||By long press||By long press|
|Adjustment wheel||Much clearance||Quite firm, little clear.|
|Lighting quality||8 cold white LEDs||8 cold white LEDs|
|Light power||Less strong||Rather strong|
|Light control||Quite progressive||Little progressive|
(on 24” display)
|USB cable||A little short: 102 cm||Too short: 83 cm|
|PC software||Camera.exe, very basic|
|Lag||Perceptible delay||Perceptible delay|
|Max. res. on PC||1280 × 720||1280 × 720|
|Max. res., Android||1920 × 1080||1280 × 720|
|Image quality||Poor, auto and non-changeable balance and brightness|
|Definition on image of:|
|PCB at 100 mm||371 KB||413 KB|
|Barcode at 100 mm||315 KB||348 KB|
|SMD at 0 mm||291 KB||299 KB|
By putting the price on it, can we find better, without going to the conventional binocular magnifier?
Dinolite, an American brand, offers a higher price range, even much higher. Here, we start at around €134, for a resolution of… 0.3 Mp, and we go up to almost €300 for 1.3 Mp. Are the Chinese device sensors overrated?
Despite the prices, and apparently much more advanced software, these devices are not necessarily satisfactory, as witness this video of 2016 whose author doesn’t mince his words (it’s a $700 piece of shit). It must be said that this PCB repairer has a real binocular microscope with digital sensor. He is used to luxury!
Dave Jones (EEVblog), in his Cheap USB Microscope Reviews video, already old (2014), joins my own observations. The second device tested seems better, and allows many software settings. A similar model, but not necessarily of the same quality, is available in France: the Andonstar A1. It comes with a good-looking stand.
Electro-Bidouilleur tested the Andonstar ADSM201 in 2017 (in French). This device is available here, or, cheaper here. The built-in display is not necessarily very practical for my taste, but there is an HDMI output for connection to an external display.
Provided you choose the cheapest model — there are still cheaper if you don’t want the Wi-Fi connection — and choose a more serious stand than that provided, this kind of device can be useful as digital magnifying glass. But you shouldn’t ask it for an image quality similar to that of digital cameras or cellphones. We are very far from that.
In the lower price range, the Andonstar A1 seems like an interesting choice, but I didn’t test it.
Heystop Digital Microscope
€39 — price 2020
Jiusion Stand for Digital Microscope
€20 — price 2020
Pancellent Digital Microscope
€38 — price 2020
LayOPO Wireless Digital Microscope
€29 — price 2020
From €134 — price 2020
€39 + 5 — price 2020
at ebay (broken link)
€150 + 13 — price 2020
at ebay (broken link)
€129 — price 2020