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How to maintain a microscope so it will last longer (Part 2)

Apr 18, 2020

Welcome to part 2 of our tips on how to maintain a microscope. Part 1 Can Be Read Here

In part 2, I will touch on the peripheral parts of the microscope system that should NOT be looked at as a 20+ year investment. These items include the camera, computer, and imaging software. These items are just as integral as the microscope itself to generating good data, but unlike the microscope stand they do not stand up to the test of time even under the most ideal of circumstances. In order to properly maintain a microscope for many years, you’ll need to budget for replacing these items eventually.

The manual, widefield microscope has not had dramatic leaps in technology over the 2000’s. The same cannot be said for motorization. It is always getting faster and more precise. Same for other modalities of microscope imaging. Confocal microscopy is always on the cutting edge of technological advancement.

However, for our everyday ‘work horse’ microscope, the microscope stand you buy today is going to be very functionally similar to the microscope stand that will exist 10 years from now. Computers and cameras are quite the opposite; the development and rate of change is rapid. A cutting-edge camera from 10 years ago is functionally obsolete today. A 5 year old PC might as well be 500 years old. A 2 year old cell phone… who would even consider it?

My hope is to enlighten you to the potential pitfalls of holding on to obsolete technology, and how a proactive approach in microscope upgrades is beneficial in the long run. Just like a proactive approach to service and maintenance!

Microscope Cameras: Proactive Approach to Changing Tides

Budgeting decisions are always complicated. On just about any quote, the camera peripheral is one of the most expensive line items you will see. And in many quotes, the camera is one of the first concessions made to adhere to a specific budget.

Any Imaging Specialist would tell you that a good camera is every bit as essential as good objectives to getting the data that sets you apart. But in the real world, scaling back a camera is much easier to do than making changes to the actual microscope parts.

For motorized systems, there really isn’t a compromise to be made besides the camera. Being a significant investment, complete microscope systems (scope + camera/software) are preconceived as married for life. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trading in your spouse for a younger, sleeker model, the same cannot be said for your microscope camera!

Maintain a microscope: Software

The corporate conversion from Windows 7 to Windows 10 is wreaking havoc on a lot of microscope systems. There is a plethora of camera manufacturers that are choosing to not create Windows 10 compatible drivers for their ‘legacy’ camera products.

If you still operate a FireWire camera, there is a significant chance your camera is not going to function in Windows 10. Either there won’t be drivers for it… or the Windows 10 compatible versions of software won’t communicate with it… or you will be at the mercy of ‘half-fixes’ and miserable glitches.

Since modern PCs do not come equipped with a FireWire port in the motherboard, we must resort to PCI cards that add expansion FireWire slots to a motherboard; these cards also have requisite drivers to run in Windows 10. These PCI cards are also not being guaranteed to work in Windows 10 by the manufacturer.

The combination of questionable camera functionality with questionable expansion card functionality gives the whole system a very unstable foundation. Some users who are up and running on Windows 10 with FireWire cameras and little to no issues. Others have come to accept freezing, crashing, and weird bugs as part of their life until they can afford to upgrade.

If you have an older camera that is running USB 2.0, you have a longer leash than our friends still clinging to FireWire, but use these cases as a precautionary tale. The next data-transfer-standard-breakthrough could be as drastic as FireWire to USB was. A camera that is satisfactory today could be obsolete in just a couple of years as these technologies evolve.

There is a silver-lining in all of this… Since these camera technologies are evolving so rapidly, pricing stays relatively consumer friendly. A $5,000 camera purchased today is coming with immensely better color reproduction and resolution than a 10-year-old camera that was $5,000.

Computers: The Achilles Heel of Your Microscope

Microscope, camera, computer… these are the foundations of a complete digital microscope system. A bottleneck at any of these three main nodes will cause your efficiency and workflow to suffer. Out of the three, computers are the one that leads to the most headaches for most people.

Unfortunately, there is very little we can do to help an old computer be less bad. If you pay more upfront for a top of the line computer, it will remain viable longer. However, in the grand scheme of things, even the best PCs will be outdated in 5 years.

If you work for a company that has computers from a major corporate supplier, then your time-to-obsoletion is even lower. These PCs were made to be cheap and do simple tasks. In many cases they aren’t adequate for high-end or even middle-of-the-road microscopy imaging tasks.

PC death by a thousand cuts

In the first blog post about the life of a microscope stand, I described the inevitable death of the system as a ‘death of a thousand cuts’. The imaging workstation can be the culprit for many of these cuts all on its own.

Hard drives fail, graphics cards stop getting updated drivers, your microscope that runs on RS232 serial communication and a FireWire camera is now suddenly saddled up to a new PC that has neither of these things…you see where I’m headed here.

Much like a very old microscope that are cost-ineffective to spend money on repairing, spending money on piecemeal replacements or upgrading of a PC can be a money pit. Replace a failed hard drive here, upgrade a graphics card there, suddenly you have paid for ½ the cost of a new PC just in time for the motherboard to fail.

Keep your imaging system running efficiently

If you are starting to sense a theme here, then you are on the right track. Proactive approaches to the keeping your PC up to date will keep your microscope system running efficiently. The worst-case scenario is that you have an old microscope that was not well-maintained, an outdated camera that is now no longer supported, and a PC that is taking ages to do anything.

Instead of a small or moderate investment occasionally to keep the system optimized, you are staring down the barrel of another big quote that makes your manager’s head spin. Out of all of them, the routine upgrading of PC hardware is the easiest to accomplish, and usually the least impactful on your budget.

An additional bonus to keeping the PC fresh is that it presents a golden opportunity to get a current version of all the software installed on to your system. Annoying little bugs get squashed constantly, and often you will see added features to the software that make your job much easier.

Final Thoughts

The microscope system is a delicate ecosystem; the system must be treated as both individual parts and a unified whole. Many will see their microscope investment as a one-time kind of deal, and then naturally get frustrated when these expectations are not met.

Having a plan for routine PC upgrades and a smooth transition along camera technology makes it so that when the microscope does ultimately find itself beyond repair, you simply drop in a new stand and life goes on.

You’ll never find yourself suddenly in need of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of upgrades and nowhere near the budget to swing it. Oh, and your grant is due in a week! Or you’re frustrated over those reports you simply cannot complete without correlating data from the microscope. These catastrophe level issues are a reality and experienced more often than you may believe.

Like any complex system, gradual, incremental investment in the microscope system not only optimizes efficiency but ends up saving money and frustrations in the long term.

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