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Just a Peek - I Spy With My Microscopic Eye: MiScope

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- February 10th, 2006

A bit ago I wrote an article about hardware that our PC using friends can play with, but is denied us because of our OS of choice; that, of course, being OS X.

One of the items I longed for was a Mac compatible USB enabled microscope. There are several available, some Mac compatible right out of the box, while others were not. I thought it'd be interesting to see if I could get one of these devices to play with a while, then tell you about it. 

That's exactly what I did; the nice folks at Zarbeco LLC sent along a MiScope for me to put through its paces, and I gotta tell ya, this MiScope is a bunch of fun, discovery, and learning all rolled up in a palm-sized package.


MiScope From Zarbeco LLC

The MiScope came from Zarbeco LLC with a CD in the package that contains MiXscope, a software package from EdH LLC which allow the MiScope, and Digital Blue's QX series of microscopes to run on Macs.

Let me say on the outset that I frown on the notion of Mac users having to cough up an extra US$14.99 to do the same thing PC users can for just the price of the scope. True enough, 15 bucks is not a lot of money, but why should Mac users get penalized?

Still, the creators of MiXscope must get paid, and, on the scale of things, a 5% premium is not so horrible...but, it's the principle of the situation that has me miffed.

OK, enough on that subject, on to the good stuff.

I Spy With My Microscopic Eye...

Load up MiXscope, plug in the MiScope with the provided USB cable, and prepare to be amazed.

I used to work with optical and scanning electron microscopes waaaay back in the day, and I've never lost the feeling of wonder, discovery, and just plain coolness one gets when one looks at the world really close up.

MiXscope provides a window through which you see what the MiScope sees. The software is fairly simple; it allows you to do some basic manipulation of the incoming video. You can take still photos (by clicking the 'Capture' button on the side of the MiScope), create time lapse movies, or regular movies, and there are more than enough options for each to allow you to do some interesting things.


Extra protein: Dead bug at 140x

But the real fun is using the MiScope microscope. Of course, you'll get close-ups of your skin, hair, and clothes, but the cool stuff doesn't stop there; put the scope of your carpet ( the dirtier the better) or wall, open the fridge and pull out that moldy bit of cheese, or dust under the couch and examine the results. Absolutely fascinating. Now, take your MiScope outside (if you have a laptop) and it gets even cooler. Bugs, flowers, mold, and that weird stuff you found under a rock all comes into sharp focus with the MiScope. I literally spent hours just looking at stuff.

More extra protein: Bread mold at 40x (left) and 140x (right)

Focusing the MiScope takes a little getting use to. There's a slider on the left side of the scope which is an ideal place to rest your right thumb (if you are right-handed). Use your thumb to slowly move the slider down until the object of interest comes into focus. Continue moving the slider and the image gets bigger, and blurrier, but if you continue to move the slider the image will come back into focus, and it will be at a higher magnification.

A nickel at 40x (left) and 140x (right)

Speaking of magnification; the MiScope has 2 magnification setting..., well sort of. If you sit the MiScope on a flat surface and focus it at the first stop, the magnification is about 40x, the second focus stop is about 140x. Both focus areas are labeled. You can focus on object using magnifications the are in between the 40x and 140x range, however,  by manually moving the scope closer to, or away from the object of interest. What this means is that your magnification is not exact, so you cannot make precision measurements with the MiScope unless you put a gauge in the picture, but truthfully, who cares? The MiScope can be used for quick inspections or examinations, and is so light-weight and easy to use that many will just enjoy having it around.

That's Great But...

Is there anything wrong with this pint-size marvel? That depends on your intended use: As I mentioned before, if you're looking to do precision measurements then the MiScope may not be the right device for you. If you are looking to do any sort of hands-free inspection, then the MiScope won't fit into your game plan either; it is designed to be handled while in use, and does not come with a stand or means of keeping the scope stationary and focused on a subject while you do other things

Another point about the MiScope to consider is its price: At US $275, the MiScope might be too expensive to be bought for smaller children. The price may not scare away schools looking for a learning tool, but the QX5 from Digital Blue would fit this bill, and cost almost 1/3 less. Adults may want more mounting options, such as those offered by ProScope, whose basic model is only a little more expensive.

On the other hand, the MiSocpe does offer a nice selection of lighting sources (infrared and ultra-violet) that are, unfortunately, not interchangeable, there are no extra lenses to buy, and the scope, constructed of high grade plastic, does have a nice solid feel that may stand up well in less than pristine environments.

I wanted to perform some decidedly unscientific tests on the MiScope by dropping it from various heights onto various surfaces in a attempt to see how the scope would hold up to simulated hard use. Alas, the folks at Zarbeco, asked that I return the review unit unscratched. (Sigh!) They did say that they have had customers tell them of their experiences with ill-treated MiScopes; one MiScope owner claimed to have dropped his scope on a concrete floor and it bounced 2 feet, yet continued to function. Of course, I can't validate that claim, but the MiScope I'm currently holding does feel as if it could take a bounce or two and still work just fine.

The Bottom Line

Zarbeco's mite of a microscope packs a good amount of fun in a small package. MiScope is easy to use, and can take some really cool photos and movies, but Mac users have to shell out an extra US$15 to do so. Also, I  found that, while the MiScope does offer one-handed operation, you MUST have that one hand available while doing your microscopic examinations; this may prove inconvenient to some, and Zarbeco offers no options to remedy this.

However, the lighting options Zarbeco offers may be just the ticket for professionals needing a casual field microscope that can provide U.V. or infrared lighting at the press of a button. Unfortunately, these lighting options are only options at the time of purchase and can't be added to or changed later.

Still, when it is all said and done, the MiScope is a solid little USB microscope that does the job of opening the microscopic world to many with finesse and aplomb. I know I had a load of fun checking out every day things at 40x to 140x, but returning my review unit won't be.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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