Best Microscopes

Updated September 2021
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Buying guide for the best microscopes

If you have ever wanted to see what the world looks like at the microscopic level, a good microscope is the tool you need. More than just a scientific instrument, microscopes are popular among kids and adults who want to see things up close.

Choosing the right microscope comes down to knowing what type you want. High- and low-powered microscopes are the most common and simply differ with the amount of magnification they offer. Other factors like the overall size and weight of the body, along with the quality of the lens, will affect the price and performance of the microscope. The size of the things you want to look at can help you decide.

We have made a few recommendations on the best microscopes we think will give you a unique, educational experience. Continue on to learn about these microscopes and the details you need to know to choose the right one for your needs.

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Understand what types of objects you want to view before purchasing a unit. Some high-power microscopes are too strong to see details on items like coins.

Basic microscope design

Most types of at-home microscopes fall into one of two design categories: high-power/compound microscopes and low-power/stereo microscopes.

High-power/compound microscopes

A high-power microscope provides greater magnification qualities than a low-power model. Most allow you to clearly see objects such as bacteria or an insect’s parts. This type of microscope also is called a compound microscope.

Pricier compound microscopes often have two eyepieces, while cheaper compound microscopes tend to have just one eyepiece. Either way, the view through a compound microscope is two-dimensional, or flat. (If the unit has two eyepieces, each one receives the same view from a single objective lens. This is what causes the 2D image.)

Low-power/stereo microscopes

A low-power microscope doesn’t have the magnification level of a high-power microscope. It’s appropriate if you want to look closely at a larger item with details that are difficult to see with the naked eye. This would include items such as woven fabric, computer chips, and coins.

The terms “low-power” and “stereo” are often are used interchangeably. A stereo microscope nearly always has two eyepieces, each with its own objective lens. The result: an apparent “3D” view of the object at hand.

Monocular vs. binocular

Compound microscopes are commonly sold in two designs: monocular and binocular. The monocular design has one eyepiece, while the binocular design has two eyepieces.

Here are some other key differentiating factors between monocular and binocular designs —

  • Cost: A monocular (single-eyepiece) design is cheaper than a binocular (two-eyepiece) unit. This cost comparison assumes that both microscopes have similar features.

  • Ease of use: Most people find the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope easier and more “natural” to use. However, a young child who is still growing may be more comfortable with the monocular design.

  • Maximum magnification: Generally, binocular microscopes are available in higher magnification levels than monocular units. However, unless you’re looking for magnifications beyond 1,000X, you should be able to find satisfaction with either design.

  • Usage situations: Both monocular and binocular microscopes have a similar usage scenario: you use them to view objects that aren’t visible to the eye alone, such as bacteria or water organisms. You need the high-power capabilities of these types of compound microscopes to achieve success in viewing such objects.

Key microscope features

When choosing between products, it helps to understand the key components available in microscopes.

Magnification power levels

You can expect a high-power unit to have a magnification power of 400X or greater. Some microscopes designed for home use could have magnification levels as high as 2,000X.

Low-power microscopes typically offer a magnification level of 100X or less. During the course of our research, we found microscopes from reputable brands like Canon with magnification as low as 60X.

Picking the right objects

Certain types of objects are easier viewed with one microscope design than another. For example, a high-power microscope with 1,000X magnification doesn’t work well when looking at coin, because the magnification would be be too great to see any details of the coin.

Similarly, a low-power microscope doesn’t have a great enough magnification level for you to inspect bacteria successfully.

All of this is to say that you should think about the type of objects you want to view before purchasing a microscope.

Lens quality

The quality of your microscope’s lens plays a key role in your scientific success. A good lens yields a sharp image resolution, so if you want to see minute details, be sure to invest in a quality lens.

Don’t expect to find a high-quality lens in a cheap microscope. You’ll typically find them in high-power microscopes, but that’s not always the case. For the best results, it pays to do a bit of comparison shopping.


A digital microscope may be sold as a high-power or low-power unit. You can connect it to a tablet or computer in order to view objects in real time.

You can then keep digital copies of your images, almost as if you were recording a digital photograph.


Some microscopes are designed to be carried with you to various locations. This is handy if you’re attempting to study objects in the field or at a friend’s house.

Such microscopes typically run on battery power.

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Did you know?
If your microscope has a light source, you may need to replace its bulb. Don’t try this procedure without reading through the user guide first for directions.

Terms to know

If you’re confused by the jargon associated with purchasing a microscope, check out our list of important microscope terms —

  • Arm: This is the part of the microscope that connects the eyepiece to the base. Some arms can articulate, allowing you to move the eyepiece around.

  • Base: The base is the portion of the microscope that supports the rest of the unit. It provides stability to the microscope.

  • Binocular: A binocular microscope is a compound microscope with two eyepieces. Because it’s compound, it’s different from a stereo microscope. Binocular microscope images present through the eyepiece in a flat, two-dimensional view.

  • Coarse focus: You’ll use this knob on the side of the microscope to initially dial in the focus.

  • Compound microscope: This type of microscope is also known as a high-power microscope. Some have two eyepieces; others have just one. Notably, a compound unit with two eyepieces is called binocular rather than stereo.

  • Digital microscope: This type of unit connects to a computer or tablet to show the objects on a display screen.

  • Dual power: This term refers to a microscope that can use two different magnification levels, such as 100X and 60X.

  • Eyepiece: This is the portion of the microscope you look through to see an object. Some eyepieces include a magnification component that’s used in conjunction with lens magnification.

  • Fine focus: The fine focus knob is a more precise type of focus in a microscope than the coarse focus knob. You’ll use this knob after the coarse knob to dial in the focus.

  • High-power microscope: Also known as a “compound” microscope, a high-power microscope has the largest magnification level available in a microscope. It’s best used for viewing objects that are impossible to see with the eye alone, like bacteria.

  • Lens: The microscope’s lens focuses the light from the object into the eyepiece. It’s often called an objective lens.

  • Low-power microscope: A low-power microscope has a low magnification level and is used primarily for viewing objects like coins. Most low-power microscopes are stereo microscopes

  • Magnification: This is the measurement of the microscope’s ability to magnify an object. The magnification number for a microscope is signified with a number and an X. There’s a magnification aspect to both the eyepiece and the lens of the microscope. The total magnification number is determined by multiplying these two numbers. For example, if the eyepiece has a 10X magnification and the lens has a 50X magnification, the total magnification is 500X

  • Monocular: This type of compound microscope contains one eyepiece. Among microscopes designed for use at home, only compound microscopes are offered with one eyepiece.

  • Portable microscope: A portable unit runs on battery power, so you can carry it to areas where no power outlets exist. For example, you could take a portable unit into the field for working with subjects that must be studied on location.

  • Resolution: This term refers to the ability of the microscope to create sharp images.

  • Single-power microscope: A single-power microscope operates at only one magnification level, such as 100X.

  • Stereo microscope: A stereo microscope contains two eyepieces, resulting in a three-dimensional view of the object you’re studying. The term “stereo microscope” is often used interchangeably with “low-power” microscope.

  • Zoom power: This term refers to a microscope with a range of magnification levels. For example, a zoom power microscope may be able to use a magnification level of 60X, 100X, or any level in between.

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A stereo microscope differs from a binocular microscope, which presents the view in two dimensions. A binocular microscope is a compound microscope.


Q. Do I need a diopter adjustment control with my microscope?

A. The diopter adjustment knob is a control that allows you to adjust for vision differences between your right and left eye. It changes the focal distance for one eyepiece so that the two match. Although it’s not a necessity, it’s smart to have a diopter adjustment control on a microscope. This ensures the clearest image possible for all users.

Q. How can I clean the microscope lens?

A. Treat the microscope lens with care when you clean it. For this task, you should only use an approved cleaning solution and lens paper. Wipe the lens gently to avoid scratching it.

Your microscope’s user guide should have recommendations for safe lens cleaning.

Q. What accessories are good to purchase with a microscope for children?

A. Consider purchasing a slide box in addition to the microscope. The slide box will contain pre-made slides that a child can look at with the microscope. Look for variety in the types of slides in the box, such as plants, insects, water samples, and soils. Don’t just pick medical slides, which all will look the same to a child.

Additionally, look for a book that provides a child-focused introduction to microscope use. A good book will provide suggestions on how to use the microscope and what types of objects to view.

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