Scotty Allen is known on Youtube as the creator behind the “Strange Parts” channel. His video about adding a headphone jack back to an iPhone 7 went viral in 2017 and he has gathered over a million subscribers since; doing all sorts of interesting projects in relation to electronics. In this page, I will review the microscope Scotty uses and recommends.
Trinoculuar microscope for electronics?
As electronic components’ packages get smaller, it’s becoming harder for hobbyists to solder and check PCBs. We are reaching a point now where all new packages are legless 0.5mm pitch or lower; and where even the classic surface mount packages such as SOT-23 are falling out of favour with the semiconductor industry. Under these times a good microscope is quickly becoming a staple of all electronics labs, as there’s only so much you can do with your bare eyes.
I originally bought a cheap digital microscope, mostly to check soldering on small components such as MSOP-10, and it has served me well for this purpose. It is however, unsuitable for work or rework.
The main problem with this type of microscope is that they have a single lens. Because of this you don’t get a sense of depth that the binoculars can provide. If you try to solder you get a very awkward feeling where you are not sure if the tip of the iron is close to the board or way above. It makes working under these conditions close to mission impossible.
Another lesser issue is that since they are all digital, there is an ever so slight delay between what the lens sees and what appears on screen. It is barely noticeable but it is still enough to throw your brain off.
An optical binocular microscope solves these issues. The 3rd lens making it “trinocular” is purely extra as it attaches to a CCD and you can therefore use the microscope as a typical digital microscope should you wish to do so.
Setting up shop
The package was shipped with Fedex and took about a week to arrive to Singapore, way under the stated “14-24 days” quoted so that was a nice surprise. I did not have to pay any taxes on arrival as it flies just under the allowed duty free limit; but of course different regulations may apply on your home country.
The microscope itself is very tightly packed in styrofoam with each piece wrapped in plastic. Additionally it comes with a manual and a HDMI cable.
Despite all these efforts my unit came with a bent pin on the power socket. It’s still working and it’s hard to blame on the shop though, so I’ll let it slide.
The microscope comes with the following parts:
- An aluminium base
- An aluminium tube that screws in the base
- The microscope holder to affix to the tube
- The main stereo microscope with the built-in lenses
- An HDMI CCD camera
- Two eyepieces (WF10X/20mm) and their accompanying rubber eye-guards
- One 0.5X barlow lens that screws in at the bottom of the microscope
- One adjustable 0.5X objective for the CCD camera
- A LED light ring to attach to the microscope
Assembling the unit seems pretty daunting at first until you realize you just need to put the right parts where they can only fit; similarly to PC building; so you’ll have the whole microscope up and ready in no time.
Once set up there are a few elements worth noting.
The most jarring one would be the LED light ring. It is absolutely not made for the microscope. To fit it, you have to tighten three screws around the ring onto the delicate plastic holding the bottom microscope lens. It holds simply by friction against the plastic and nothing else; and overall feels very cheap and fragile. According to the manual that comes with the microscope, the factory that produces these also sell “official” light fixtures for the microscope so this seems to be a very weird choice.
Also worthy of a note, the CCD camera must be plugged into a spacer otherwise the zoom on the camera will not match what your eyes see. This spacer is screwed into the lens cover of the CCD and looks like a piece of plastic you could throw away. That would be a dramatic mistake. Still on the CCD camera, the module just plops into the microscope. There’s no screw or anything to hold it together, it just holds here because the fitting is tight enough. It works, but it is slightly discomforting.
Finally, the whole unit needs two mains sockets, as you will need one for the camera and one for the ring of light. Weirdly enough the camera wall wart comes in European dual prong style (IEC Plug Type C); while the ring of light comes with a North American dual prong style (IEC Plug Type A). There is a type C adapter, but it is so shoddily build that I would not trust it. As a UK plug user these are mildly annoying and will require some re-wiring to be safe to use.
First impressions aside, what is it like to use this microscope?
In short: it is amazing. An interesting side effect of using a microscope is that your hands become incredibly steady. Under magnification I am able to move items precisely by a few mils; an operation I consider impossible with my bare eyes. Once the proper zoom and eyes separation distance is set up properly, the stereo effect is mind boggling. You immediately get feedback, as expected, but experiencing it for the first time definitely carries that “wow” moment.
The 0.5X barlow lens is also a very nice addition. Sure it decreases the level of zoom, but it also greatly increases the focal distance, so you can work without having to deal with the lenses uncomfortably close to a hot air gun or a soldering iron.
When you know these things can go for thousands of dollars, $299 is an absolute steal in retrospect. Sure the LED lighting is cheap, and I’d bet the AC/DC adapter for the camera has horrible ripples; but the microscope itself is definetely a work horse which I will keep for a long time. A cool “feature” is that all the lenses are very common in size; so you can buy replacements further down the line or simply get different ones. I’ve already seen a few 0.75x barlows and some other eye pieces on the aftermarket. This thing is very customizable and serviceable.
This amazing value position offered by this microscope will quickly make you forget about its few weaknesses. This is now a staple of my lab and probably would be a nice addition to yours too!
|The Good||The Bad|
Overall feels very sturdy and heavy
Easy to service and maintain
|LED ring of light is cheap|
Two power plugs with different plug types?