By Vijay Shah
In the run-up to my 28th birthday ten days ago, I thought of treating yours truly to a little gift. I am not a naturally-gifted person when it comes to the purchasing of gifts, either for myself or for someone else. In fact, it is much much harder to pick out a present for other people, especially if you do not know them very well. As narcissistic as this may well sound, I find that the easiest person to go shopping for is myself. Besides I admittedly find shopping incredibly boring – apologies to any shopaholics reading this post.
My gift inspiration finally came in an unlikely place. I am a regular shopper/user of the auction site eBay and has recently purchased some clear pages for my banknotes collection album there. The seller also posted a catalogue from a hobbyist’s supplier, Lindner. Based in Germany, Lindner has been selling aids, cabinets and albums to collectors for more than 60 years.
I leafed through the slender glossy book and reached page 79, where my inspiration was awaiting my earnest approval. It was a USB microscope. A useful item for hobbyists, this was a device that can be plugged into the USB port of your computer and used to examine anything you feel like. At last, I found what I needed. Something that would prove useful for studying my collections of coins, banknotes and tobacco excise tax stamps. In addition, the Lindner branded device also came with software that would enable me to take pictures of whatever it was under the microscope lens and save them. All at a reasonable 2 megapixels. I was smitten. I am fascinated by technology and gadgets. The USB microscope made me want to scream like a little girl. Well, maybe not that much, but my enthusiasm was unbridled.
There was one catch, and there always has to be one. The Lindner Digital USB Microscope had an asking price of nearly £100. While that may be small change compared to the thousands of pounds commanded for high-end electron microscopes, I just was not prepared to part with that sort of money for a small handheld gadget.
Dejected but determined, I decided to make the acquaintance of an old friend; the bargain hunter’s paradise called eBay. This article is not intended to promote eBay in any form, so I could easily have tried Amazon or any technology stockists.
After doing some research on the net to find out more information on USB microscopes, especially their specifications and whether they would be compatible for my laptop, I started bidding. The first item looked good but I was outbid. No matter, I’d try again. I bid on another microscope. This one, which came in a garish pea-green cardboard box, was being offered by a seller under the handle “wysiwyg_sales”. This company was based out of Leicester, UK, which was convenient for me. Most of the auctions in this category of gift were coming out of Hong Kong, and there was only a couple of weeks until my big day. I did not want to be kept waiting on bated breath for three-plus weeks.
I lie. I did not actually bid on this microscope. I purchased it outright through eBay’s ‘Buy It Now’ instant payment service. I would still have to wait 6-8 days for the parcel to arrive, but I made a huge saving. £14.99 versus Lindner’s quoted price of £99.90…you do the maths. The postage was free, and there was a manufacturer’s year-long warranty bundled into the deal. Savvy shoppers save more.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with these kinds of microscopes or want to buy one themselves, I will give a rundown of the particular model I paid for. The USB microscope, as its name suggests, is an optical device that can be operated and powered by the USB port on your laptop or desktop. The model I picked up was manufactured by Eastcolight Ltd, ironically located in Hong Kong. The product itself was originally sold by the supermarket chain Tesco under the “How Cool is This” brand name. Obviously judging from the fake American kiddie-speak marketing and age-range of 8-12 years stated in Wysiwyg’s advert, the USB microscope is aimed at children (and the wallets of their aggrieved parents). Don’t worry though, I bought this little fellow for serious business, not examining gross close-ups of people’s zits.
The Tesco microscope operates at two magnifications only: 20x and 200x. It seems restrictive, but I think it is still reasonable considering the low price. Resembling a cross between a fat laser pointer and an extraterrestrial hairdryer, the gadget can be used either with the supplied metal stand (to keep it steady) or held freehand. Just like the expensive German version from my catalogue, this one also came with a small CD with pre-installed software: ArcSoft’s Photo Impression 5, a scaled-down photo capture and modification program.
I was genuinely excited to try this treat out. I proceeded to find as many interesting objects within the confines of my room as possible to experiment with. One of the key advantages that a USB microscope has over a traditional one, is that you do not need to spend ages finely slicing subject matter, or manipulating it between fiddly glass slides. You just place the studied object underneath the lens. Once I had installed everything, the microscope was a textbook example of plug-and-play (Windows 2000 users will have to manually download the scope’s drivers from the CD-ROM).
Illumination is covered by 4 extremely bright and white LEDs which you can change the luminosity of, using a toothed wheel on the gadget’s cable. To move between 20 and 200x magnification, there is a scrolling wheel built into the scope itself. You do have to be a bit precise with the wheel’s movement, as the magnification can veer off-course when you are focussing on subjects. Just have to be gentle with it.
The software was easy to install – although useless with Mac Books – and I quickly got the hang of it, especially with capturing and storing photos. Speaking of photos, I would like to show you some of the better pictures I took with my microscope. This is just to give you an idea of what it is capable of and its usefulness. This article might just be what it takes to solve your son’s/daughter’s/cousin’s/science teacher’s Christmas shopping dilemma. Enjoy!!! 🙂
Not the crusty eye of a fish but the miniscule front-facing camera of my Samsung Galaxy S II mobile (cellphone) – 20x mag.
A close-up of the diode light above the Number Lock key on my laptop – 20x mag.
Slightly blurred close-up picture of the colour-shifting ink on a Brazilian IPI tax stamp found on cigarette packs – 200x mag.
The roaring lion’s head logo of the Kenyan Revenue Authority, as depicted on one of its products; a tax stamp – 20x mag.
K is for Kosovo: The holographic strip on a cigarette excise stamp from Kosovo – an important security measure – 20x mag
All smiles: Happy faces and pretty flowers hidden away in the micro-printing of a tax stamp made by the Imprimeria Nationala of Romania – 20x mag.
From Tanzania, another tax stamp, complete with miniature images of a bemused giraffe – 20x mag.
Fabric fibres – possibly polyester-viscose mix – at 200x mag.
Loose tobacco leaves – at 200x mag.
By the hairs of his chinny-chin-chin: Stubble from the author’s lower face – 20x mag.
A close-up of one of the silver embossed digits on my debit card – at 200x mag.
The monogram of the designer Ian Rank-Broadley on a British one penny coin (issued 2011) – at 20x mag.
The same initials and the same coin, but magnified further – at 200x mag.
Picture of the dots that make up the colour on a photo magazine – these dots are the magic behind offset colour printing. Unfortunately the pic is quite out of focus – at 20x mag.
Some of the author’s arm hairs – at 200x mag.
Hope you enjoyed this wacky collection of pictures of life under a microscope. The USB microscope is definitely a fun way of filling up spare time…as Wysiwyg Sales would say…”A fantastic gift for budding boffins and ceaselessly curious screen monkeys, the USB Microscope is one gadget you’ll use again and again, whether you’re zooming in on animal, vegetable, mineral or unknown sample discovered deep within your sock… – it’s time to think small. Really, really small.”
“USB Microscope Digitally Magnifies at 200x, 1600×1200 Resolution” – Adrian Covert, Gizmodo LINK
wysiwyg_sales at ebay.co.uk (credit also for the microscope itself…a fine piece of kit!)