Are “China microscopes” any good?

Labor cost in China is lower than in Europe or the US, so this should not be a surprise that many companies outsource production to China.

When reading through various web forums, I somehow get the impression that the term “China microscope” has become synonymous with “low-quality”. I want to comment on this issue by giving an example from our school. We have two types of compound microscopes. One of our labs is equipped with 20 low cost no-name microscopes, which were ordered over a local educational supplies company. These devices were most likely manufactured in China (where else?) and then sold by the educational supplies company to schools and colleges. To my surprise, the body of the microscope was identical to the well-known Olympus CHS series, which our school used for 30 (!) years before we replaced them. The body of the quality Olympus CHS and the “China microscopes” were identical in construction. Evidently Olympus sold the design to a different company. Only the color was different.

Our second lab is equipped with educational microscopes from a well-known German microscope manufacturer. Sixteen boxes arrived after they were ordered, and I helped to unpack them (see video). The boxes had a nice, large “Made in China” label on it. I still remember the unbelieving expression on the face of my colleague, when he told me “Can you believe it, they are actually made in China!”. And he thought that he ordered “solid German quality”. Well, as it turned out, the devices were of high quality and yes, we do expect them to last for the next 25+ years or so. After all, we can also rely on the maintenance service and support provided by the company. This is why we decided to invest a bit more.

The no-name devices of the first lab did have a few issues, but were not generally bad or problematic devices. You really had to tighten the screw holding the microscope head in place, otherwise it would nearly fall off. When removing the microscope head, I saw some metal filings left over from the manufacturing process, which might become a problem when the filings fall into the optical path of the microscope. And after a few years the focus on some microscopes started not to operate as smoothly anymore and had to be readjusted. These are, however, all issues that can be handled by routine maintenance. The no-name devices were cheaper, and had a binocular head (which the other one did not).

These no-name China microscopes of the first lab were very useful in teaching the students proper microscope usage, and I would say that they are also very suitable for amateur usage. Close inspection revealed that the manufacturing quality was not quite as high as the well-known brand, but for every day use, it was perfectly sufficient (and cheaper than the brand model).

What do we learn from this? In my view the expression “China microscope” does not say much. There is a huge quality range and it depends more on the standards that the individual companies (or importers) impose on the manufacturing process. I think that in many cases the microscopic hardware is overrated anyway. In my view, the observation aspect plays a very relevant part in amateur microscopy and there are many people around who make excellent photographs with intermediate or low-end equipment.

What is the point of buying an expensive quality device, when our students rotate the objective into mounting medium instead of immersion oil? Or when they front lens of the objective is cracked? Improper microscope usage will probably degrade the quality of the device more than the country of manufacture. And the image quality obtained is determined by the optics used and not the mechanical operation. It is probably better to get yourself a reasonable, low cost, no-name “China scope” for the beginning, then a second hand quality device, which was abused by students learning microscope usage. Once you know what your microscopic interests are, you can always get yourself a Zeiss/Leica/Olympus/Nikon/etc. later on, used or new. I would guess that the chances are good that some of their models were also made in China.

If you have access to used and well-maintained brand name microscopes, then the issues are again different and you might be able to obtain a high quality for a comparatively low price. This is then again something that I would seriously consider (but this has nothing to do with the country of manufacture).

My opinion. Personal and biased, I know.