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Tuning forks as tip–sample distance detectors are a promising and versatile alternative to conventional cantilevers with optical beam deflection in noncontact atomic force microscopy (AFM). Both theory and experiments are presented to make a comparison between conventional and tuning-fork-based AFM. Measurements made on a Si(111) sample show that both techniques are capable of detecting monatomic steps. The measured step height of 0.33 nm is in agreement with the accepted value of 0.314 nm. According to a simple model, interaction forces of 30 pN are obtained for the tuning-fork-based setup, indicating that, at the proper experimental conditions, the sensitivity of such an instrument is competitive to conventional lever-based AFM. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.