Those of us who trawl the world of cheap imported goods will most often stay in our own comfortable zones as we search for new items to amaze and entertain us. We’ll have listings of electronic goods or tools, and so perhaps miss out on the scores of other wonders that can be ours for only a few dollars and a week or two’s wait for postage.
Just occasionally though something will burst out of another of those zones and unexpectedly catch our eye, and we are sent down an entirely new avenue in the global online supermarket.
Thus it was that when a few weeks ago I was looking for an inspection camera I had a listing appear from the world of personal grooming products. It seems that aural hygiene is a big market, and among the many other products devoted to it is an entire category of ear wax removal tools equipped with cameras. These can get you up close and personal with your ear canal, presumably so you can have a satisfying scoop at any accumulated bodily goop. I have a ton of electronics-related uses for a cheap USB close-up camera so I bought one of these so I could — if you’ll excuse the expression — get a closer look.
Wax Spoons And Cotton Buds, What’s In The Box?
These cameras take the form of a slim pen-like tube with a camera and ring of white LED lights at one end, and a USB cable emerging at the other. A variety of ear cleaning tools can be attached to the business end, and the cameras are available in a range of resolutions.
As is my custom with these reviews of questionable-but-entertaining products I bought the cheapest, which at somewhere well under ten dollars secured me a 640×480 pixel resolution model with an anodized aluminium tube, a cable with a pod for an LED brightness control half way down, and a three-way USB plug on its end. More cash will get you many more megapixels, but I decided that for my uses cases that wouldn’t deliver much benefit.
The camera duly arrived, in a very generic box emblazoned with “HD Visual Earwax Clean Tool”. HD it certainly ain’t, but inside was a manual and a pack of ear cleaning parts as well as the camera itself. Everyone should take a moment just once in their life, to consider a wax spoon. The manual suggests a dubious-looking Android app download, but since it appears to expose itself to USB as a fairly standard webcam it worked straight away both with normal PC and mobile webcam viewers such as Cheese on Ubuntu. Being a person of infinite curiosity, I of course shoved it straight in my ear, and was treated to a fascinating close-up of my (mercifully clean) eardrum which decorum prompts me not to share with you.
Away From The Ear, How Does It Do?
Tearing it away from a microscopic examination of my ear canal and giving it a clean with an alcohol swab, it was time to point the camera at something more useful. It revealed itself to have a fixed focus set to just below 20mm in front of its lens. With this it would capture the room or the view from the window, but only in an extremely blurred fashion. Pointing it at a circuit board allowed it to bring out the smallest of chip components in sharp focus, and the lettering on devices I now struggle to read was made completely legible.
Randomly pointing this device at things is fun, but it’s hardly useful. I wanted to know if this is a viable alternative to a dedicated USB microscope for SMD work. It was time to mount it to something solid and try to use it.
Using flexible grippers would be perfect as a stand, but the versatility of this camera lies in its ease of being mounted to almost anything. I secured it to a bottle with a Post Office rubberband and quickly positioned it over a PCB for a closer look. At this point, two immediate issues arose; there’s no obvious physical orientation of this round camera, and the extremely bright LEDs reflect off the components and the board itself. So I mounted it an angle to avoid reflections and rotated it until the monitor showed the right way “down”.
Taking an old board and attempting a bit of reworking, an immediate difference from commercial microscopes became apparent. The distance of 15 to 20mm between work and lens is enough in which to work, but is still small enough to make touching the camera with the soldering iron a hazard. It is possible though, and the level of magnification is such that even the smallest of components can be worked with.
Ear-Cleaning Cameras and You
So then, should you buy an ear cleaning camera as a cheap alternative to a USB microscope for bench work? If you don’t mind its proximity to the work it’s certainly a usable tool, and it does make for a handy inspection camera for small things. But it’s worth bearing in mind that a cheap USB microscope with a proper stand isn’t too much of a further stretch for a modest budget. Sometimes merely being adequate for the job doesn’t justify the purchase.
Perhaps this one comes into its own for its size though, in that it will easily pack into the most compact of toolkits. I’d say buy one if you want. It’s a fun toy for next-to-nothing through which you’ll find all sorts of random tiny-stuff entertainment. If you want a better microscope though, I suggest you save your pennies and buy the dedicated model instead.