Make Summer Science Fun with the Plugable Digital Microscope

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Plugable Digital Microscope

School’s out, but science is always in. If you have a kid who likes to collect everything they find outside (and then ask you to keep it, and you’d better not forget where that rock is, mom!), let them take a closer look at their treasures with a USB microscope.

What caught my eye about the Plugable Digital Microscope is that it’s Linux-friendly. There’s even limited Android support for zooming in in the wild. Other digital microscopes I’ve tried were not so OS-agnostic, but this one is essentially a webcam with an LED ring, which gives it the hallowed “it just works” status in everything I plugged it into.

For Linux, they suggest a Raspberry Pi. And that would make a great gift set for a STEM-loving kid. But I didn’t need to bust out a Pi, as it worked immediately with Cheese on my Fedora laptop.

Your house and yard are full of interesting things to look at. In just a few minutes, I pulled leaves from my herb garden, looked at the fabric of my sofa, and inspected the spaces between the keys of my keyboard.

Back of an oregano leaf. CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle

But what I’ve found from having digital microscopes before is that the first thing almost everyone does when you hand it to them is start sticking it on various parts of their body.

Hair. CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle

Have you ever wanted to prove to your kid that their hands really are that dirty?

Yes, son, your hands really are gross. Go wash them. CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle

Of course, you can also buy or make your own slides. A few years ago, I bought this set of 25 biology slides for my daughter to have a science-themed birthday party. Here’s how two of those look under the Plugable Microscope:

Comprimus mushroom Set, c.s. CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle
Hosuebee Mouth parts, w.m. CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle
Hosuebee Mouth parts, w.m., lesser magnification CC BY-SA Ruth Suehle

For the last two photos, I used the Digital Viewer software (downloadable from Plugable) on Windows 10. It has a more advanced interface than simply capturing images with Cheese:

Digital Viewer software interface

Of course, at this price point, this is not going to give you the experience you get looking through the fancy microscopes at your local science museum. The Plugable Microscope desciprtion states, “up to 250x magnification (Note: Final magnification corresponds to monitor size).” A lot is also dependent on your skill with the focus dial and the available lighting. The microscope has a built-in, adjustable LED ring, which helps, depending on what you’re looking at. It also comes with a suction cup base and small platform, but I found it much easier to use by holding it. Tapping the capactitive button (as opposed to push-button) on the back of the microscope took photos successfully in both software/OS combinations I tried, which is a huge help for getting clear photos if you go the handheld route.

As to durability — always a question with kids and electronic devices — I dropped the microscope on my stone tile kitchen floor, which has previously shattered even Pyrex that fell out of a floor-level cabinet. The plastic ring protecting the LEDs and camera cracked a bit, but the functionality wasn’t affected.

While Plugable lists the MSRP as $49.99, retailers, including Amazon appear to generally have the microscope available for $35.99, a much more palatable price point for a summer toy.

GeekMom received a Plugable Microscope for review.