For the Dino-Lite handheld microscope, it's not such a small world after all

A review of my new favorite gadget, the Dino-Lite handheld microscope

Dino-Light Digital USB Microscope AM413M
Dino-Light Digital USB Microscope AM413M CNET Networks

At this year's CES, adrift between meetings, I stumbled into a few digital microscope booths and spent a little time at the other end of the image-capture spectrum; in cameraville, we tend to concentrate on the telephoto megazooms, which make big things look small, as opposed to the telemacro end, making small things look big. Over the past couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to put the BigC Dino-Lite Digital Microscope AM413M under the, um, microscope.

Although I expected to find the Dino-Lite intriguing, I didn't expect to become quite so absorbed by it. Another way to put that: it's an addictive abyss of a gadget. I found--and still find--myself grabbing everything in sight to put it under the 'scope. (Click the slide show to see some of the things I did examine.)

CNET Networks
Dino-Light AM413M handheld
Dino-Light AM413M handheld CNET Networks

The Dino-Lites come in a variety of models ranging from a plastic-bodied, VGA-resolution version with 4 LED lights (AM211) to the 1.3-megapixel, aluminum-alloy-bodied AM411/AM413 models. (Here's a handy comparison chartof the different models, though it doesn't include pricing.)

The device itself is pretty simple: a metal tube with a ring for setting magnification/focus on the barrel and a snap-on clear plastic cover to enclose small objects. A USB cable comes out the top. One of the most fun things about the Dino-Lite is that you can hold it in your hand--you can see what detritus has accumulated between the keys of your keyboard, for example--but when you zoom in that much what really gets magnified is hand shake. There are two optional stands available: a $39 plastic base with gooseneck arm and plastic mount and a $95 high-tech metal base with a more high-precision mount for finer scope placement (not shown). The latter took a little longer to assemble--this isn't the most well-documented product I've reviewed. There are quite a few helpful videos about it on YouTube, however.

The software that accompanies the Dino-Lite is fairly basic but easy to use.

The image under the scope appears in a window of the accompanying software application. The software lets you view and capture stills and video (up to 30fps or time-lapse) and provides some measurement and annotation tools for analyzing images. Though there are quite a few options--measure by diameter, radius, line segment, continuous line--the measurement tools aren't quite as useful as they could be. For instance, the scope can't tell the software what the current magnification level is. You've got to enter it manually. And you can't seem to save or export the measurement data, just use it as labels.

Most of the Dino-Lites have magnifications the company specs as "approximately 10x to 50x, 200x". The actual available magnifications vary, and are kind of difficult to peg. With the scope sitting directly on an object, it generally focuses at 50x to 60x and then again at 200x to 210x. You can achieve other magnifications by adjusting the distance between the scope and the subject. For small objects, which can be jiggered to fit underneath the clear plastic endcap, you should be able to achieve continuous magnification across the entire range. Larger objects won't be able to get close enough to the lens, however, so there will be gaps in the magnification range for those. And the LED lights can't illuminate more than about 3 inches away.

At about $500 (you can buy it at the charmingly named, and ThinkGeek.comcarries some of their models), it's a bit pricey as a toy--unless it's a gift for your brainiac teen or the executive who has everything--but I don't think it's appropriate for analyzing cancerous tissue, either. Though the images and video are surprisingly good, the white balance is very sensitive to ambient light and white balance and exposure aren't sufficiently uniform across the field of view for color-critical analysis. But there's a lot of gray area--and potential uses--that fall between toy and scientific instrumentation.

I'm going to hit the floor of my office now, to get the Dino-Lite up close and personal with my carpet.

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