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Hardware giant Intel has launched into child-friendly peripherals with its QX3 Computer Microscope. Using digital imaging and video capture, children can explore a microscopic world at first hand through 10x, 60x or 200x magnification.

The Intel QX3 has brought microscopic observation and investigation into the digital age at an affordable price. It requires Windows 98 and a USB connection, and the software checks for other system requirements on installation.

The software is designed to be compatible with other packages so captured images can be exported easily. The QX3 is well presented, supported by an instruction booklet for parents, with advice on setting-up and maintenance, and one for children, with ideas for microscope projects.

Spoken on-screen help outlines the purpose of the buttons, and further technical support is available on the website. It also comes with specimen containers (too small to contain a slug or snail of any size), tweezers, a dropper and pre-prepared slides to get children going. The booklet offers some safety advice but I would like to see a warning about the hazards of using liquids with electrical equipment printed on the icroscope itself.

The Intel QX3 is an excellent idea, and offers good value for money, but it is difficult to use. Focusing on samples is tricky; especially if they are not flat. The instruction book warns that developing expertise in focusing can take some time - this was certainly true. I was unable to achieve clear images like those shown on the box and in the manual.

The viewing head, with its own light source, can be detached to examine larger objects at low magnification. But it takes a steady hand to focus sufficiently, and because it is fairly large, young children will have trouble manipulating it. In hand-held and stand viewing, there is a delay between moving to focus and the image appearing on screen, which takes getting used to.

The Intel QX3 has many advantages over the traditional microscope. In the primary classroom, everyone can share pictures on the computer screen at the same time - inviting discussion and observation. It is also useful for collecting images to enhance presentations. Sadly, however, the same frustrations I remember from using a junior microscope 25 years ago have not disappeared.

Gillian Blatherwick is ICT co-ordinator at Rushey Mead primary school in Leicester

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