Selma » « I got it

Cheap toy failures

The other day, when I was doing some online shopping, an ad popped up for a clip-on microscope for my phone. I thought, “I’m a professional microscopist! I should have a microscope I can carry around in my pocket!” and on a whim, I ordered it. It was only $8, so what the hey.

My dream has not yet been accomplished, I’m sad to report.


First sign of trouble: It claims 60-100x magnification, and looking inside, there’s a cheap plasticky looking lens set well back inside — it’s got maybe a 30mm focal length. Nope, that’s not going to work. I haven’t even tried it yet and I’m doubtful.

Next step is to attach it to your phone, which is really, really easy, using a big clip to clamp it to the camera lens. Except that the clamp is not very solid, and your phone is going to be hanging off to the side. It won’t stay clamped for long. You also just have to eyeball the positioning, since there’s nothing to lock it in alignment with the phone camera lens. Aligning it is a constant struggle. The clamp can’t even hold the phone in place, it certainly won’t hold it in alignment. If you’re lucky enough to get a picture, be prepared for uncontrollable wobbly vignetting.

The next problem: there are a couple of crude, hard to work knobs on the side. One is for magnification: forget it. Set it to the lowest mag, “60x”, and just leave it there. The other is the focus knob, which is also clumsy and hard to turn. Now imagine juggling a loosely held phone clipped to the side of this thing, you’re trying to hold it steady because any wobble will shift the camera lens away from the “microscope”, and you’ll understand that this is a frustrating exercise in imppossibly precise coordination.

So I got it together, pulled out a couple of prepared, stained slides of chick embryo sections, about the easiest targets possible, and tried to take a picture. Nooooope. I briefly saw a few images wander by, afflicted with ghastly spherical and chromatic aberration, but if I moved a finger to click a picture, they’d wander off again. I thought briefly about making it work with a couple of ringstands and some clamps, but realized that the agglomeration would be bigger than my dissecting scope and produce crappier pictures, so there was no point.

Caveat emptor. You get what you pay for. Sometimes less than what you pay for.

Selma » « I got it


  1. Katie Anderson says

    I’ve been wanting to pick up one of the cheap zoom lenses they make. My cell phone camera is incredible and I never carry the point-and-shoot anymore, but I missed having the big zoom available the last few times we’ve spotted orcas from the shore. But everything on Amazon seems to be those sub-$10 plastic things, usually with a giant clip. A few magnetically stick to the ring around the lens, but have just as cheap of optics. I’d be willing to pay $20-$50 for a small decent quality lens to keep handy, but no one seems to make them.

  2. Marshall says

    As a quick workaround to avoid having to click the button, you could record a video, that way you won’t have to click the button. Of course, your quality will be pretty significantly degraded, and you’ll have to use some video-editing software to extract the relevant frames.

  3. Larry says

    Being both a woodworker and a photographer, one thing I’ve learned that, with tools, you absolutely do get what you pay for. A $200 set of Japanese wood chisels will out-perform and out-last that $20 Chinese-made crap you get at Home Depot. The same applies to optics. Real, quality glass will cost you your left arm and part of your leg but the images you can achieve over the cheap consumer-grade lens can be stunning. I can’t even image what plastic lenses will produce.

  4. blf says

    [W]ith tools, you absolutely do get what you pay for.

    Seconded for trvth.

    I’m not sure poopyhead thought of this gadget as a “tool” insomuch as a neat little “toy”, but that is neither here-not-there. And apropos of nothing much, it sounds like the plastic magnifying lens in some Swiss Army Knives are more useful (those certainly do work, and come in useful every now-and-then — I usually use mine to read the markings on electronic chips when I can’t find a jeweler’s loupe or “real” magnifying glass (both proper tools)).

  5. wzrd1 says

    You’d probably have been better served with a foldscope, if they ever do get production going.
    That project is going for 140 power paper scaffolding microscopes that do give decent quality, largely with the goal of delivery to developing nations.
    There was another similar product to the crappy toy version so easily found and tossed into the rubbish tip, also geared toward developing nations for diagnostic usage in rural clinics, but the project name escapes my memory.

  6. Dark Jaguar says

    I just had to prove my humanity by solving a basic math problem. Odd…

    Anyway, there’s about 4 or 5 companies that actually make good products in any given field. All other companies suck. Most of them are from unregulated markets like China, so it’s bound to be something pretty terrible.

    And, the even sadder truth: the companies that make good products aren’t interested in making niche products. The companies that make bad products are. So, a pocket microscope for your cell phone will… never ever be made well…. ever…. no not even that one. I know, because I’ve been trying to find some company, ANY company that makes a decent internally mounted memory card reader for my PC. There’s plenty that make them, but not a one of them are Intel or Asus or anyone that actually carries weight. They are all companies you’ve never heard of like Startech or Lunsangsai or whatnot. They’ll make the products the big wigs aren’t willing to make, but their products will only work for about a month before dying on you, and tend to be made of just the worst most shoddy plastic imaginable.

  7. beardymcviking says

    Your timing is amazing, as I just saw an ad for exactly this device yesterday and had been considering buying one to try out. While it’s cheap enough that I can consider it a toy, I would have been disappointed with a toy of this low quality. Thanks for the review!

    I should stop buying ‘toys’ on the internet, they’re mostly made of disappointment.

  8. cvoinescu says

    I have the version with an eyepiece and no clip. It has slightly less awkward adjustment buttons, too, but it’s otherwise the same. It’s useful for reading markings on electronic components and hallmarks on jewelry, but not much else.

  9. says

    There was a version that screwed into a case for a Samsung S-4 solving the aligment problem but you must also get a tripod with phone holder and use a timer on your camera to avoid motion blur. (It had an led light from the side)
    It was a nice toy and I got some nifty pictures.

  10. methuseus says

    @ Dark Jaguar # 10

    They are all companies you’ve never heard of like Startech or Lunsangsai or whatnot.

    Startech is a well-known and reputable Canadian-based company. I’ve had many good products by them. They occasionally produce a stinker, but then most companies do, as well.