There isn’t a universal rule as to which microscope works for students who are planning to get their degree in biology and those who are studying for their degree in, say, veterinary medicine. Often times, they have to get the best of both worlds. What this means is that they should use both a stereo microscope and a compound one.
In fact, some areas require even three types of microscopes. For example, if your job requires you to go on a field, you probably don’t want a model that weighs a lot as transporting it can become cumbersome. By contrary, students are likely to use the microscopes in school labs and one that’s placed on their desk, in their rooms. In other words, they’re less likely to carry the microscope from one spot to the next as they have to tend to their studying while they are in the same place.
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see that the domain that the student is currently getting his or her degree in is what matters most. While stereo microscopes are made to satisfy the needs of those interested in looking at leaves, insects, and rather large things such as jewelry pieces and electronics components, the best compound microscopes are a different business altogether.
Another thing that makes the difference between one kind and the other is the magnification power. While compound alternatives can magnify the size of the specimen by up to 1000x and more, few stereo microscopes can do the same. In fact, I’ve never come across one that is capable of doing so, and I’ve been prospecting the market for quite a while. Most of the units you are likely to come across have magnification powers that go up to 90x. If you’re lucky, they might be able to magnify the sample by up to 200x, but that’s very rare.
So, should the student be interested in looking at smears and biological specimens, he or she should consider getting a compound unit. Depending on the working distance made available by the design of the product, the user might be able to look at other items, as well.
The last type of microscope I was mentioning in the beginning was the USB magnifier. Of all the types available for sale these days, this particular one isn’t the one I would recommend for a student. Such models are usually made with poor optical components, they can’t withstand the test of time, they don’t even have eyepieces, and they usually offer a somewhat poorer resolution compared to their stereo and compound counterparts. But they are cheap, I’ll give them that.