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Posted in: Developing Perspectives (January 2014)

Up Close & Personal

By Bryan Bergeron

I've owned one model or another of those Luxo magnifiers for most of my life. They're good for 'big picture' magnification. Large illuminated glass magnifiers provide a clear image of the area, good elbow room, and they're easy to work with. Because you're looking straight through a lens at the work area and your hands, there's nothing to learn. What you see is what you get. Unfortunately, every time I check the prices, these magnifiers seem to increase in cost.

The situation is reversed with electronic magnifiers. Moreover, the feature-to-cost ratio continues to climb, with the latest models providing amazing results for relatively little outlay. At the high end of the electronic magnifier spectrum is the ProScope lineup. I've owned the original ProScope and the ProScope HR, in part because the lenses are compatible across the bodies — just like the lenses of an SLR camera. The latest models — ProScope HR2 and ProScope Mobile — provide enhanced resolution (1600 x 1200) and the ability to display and capture images on all Apple iOS devices. The latter could be especially useful if you're teaching an electronics class to a room full of iPhone and iPad users.

You can purchase the original ProScope base for $99 (refurbished), or a new ProScope HR base for $170. The HR2 and Mobile units (with lens) sell for $350 and $450, respectively. Additional lenses range from $50 to $250, depending on magnification and built-in illumination.

On the more affordable end of the spectrum is the Celestron Handheld Digital Microscope 2MP ($45, Amazon). This capable magnifier will reveal the most minute details of an SMT solder joint, with magnifications from 10x to 150x and built-in LED illumination. The software application that accompanies the magnifier isn't quite as polished as the version that ships with the ProScope, but considering the price it's quite a bargain. The Windows version has several features not found on the Mac application, but this is a minor annoyance.

In addition to buying a new stand-alone electronic magnifier, you can repurpose that old microscope in your basement with a new digital image capture device. I've had great luck with the Celestron Digital Microscope Imager ($35, Amazon). You simply remove the ocular eyepiece or tube from your microscope and drop in the 2 MP USB cylinder. The better your optics, the better the image, and magnification depends on your microscope's capabilities. I've had trouble with the software, so use Adobe Photoshop for image capture. Otherwise, for the price, you can't beat the capability. Before buying the imager, I was using an adapter for my Canon digital camera. The adapter kit alone cost $150, and there is no software.

So, there's a solution out there for just about any budget. If you don't own a magnifier, treat yourself. The next time you're debugging a circuit board trace, you'll be glad you did. NV