Tips for First-Telescope Buyers
By the time you’re ready to buy your second telescope, you’ll likely know what you want. But that first purchase is often a shot in the dark.
by Terence Dickinson
It’s probably safe to say that most telescopes which sell for $400 or less are purchased as gifts. Often, the person receiving the gift scope is part of the buying process. A spouse or parent says, “Here’s a cheque to buy that telescope you have always wanted.”
Or the gift telescope arrives as a “surprise” from a thoughtful gift giver who knows of your interest.
In either case, what you used to end up with was a 60mm refractor with a tall, spindly tripod and a mounting with mysterious knobs and dials—knobs and dials that could remain mysterious for years. Today’s gift scope is often the same instrument, now equipped with a computer that (theoretically) allows the user to point the instrument at thousands of celestial targets. But let’s get real. A computer and a telescope for less than $400? It’s not surprising that I regularly receive e-mails (especially just after Christmas) from astronomy enthusiasts who find that these scopes are difficult to use or, if they do function, the views are less than satisfying.
Understandably, in some gift situations, you have no control over the purchase. But if you do, here are some basic guidelines for that all-important first telescope.
First, an update. During the past five years, China has become the major player in the under-$1,000 telescope marketplace, displacing Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as the primary manufacturers. This, as it turns out, is a good thing. Quality is better than ever, and prices are lower than ever (when adjusted for inflation).
Second, walk right past the computerized telescope that’s on sale for less than $500 (sometimes much less) in your local big-box discount store. Hundreds of thousands of these scopes are cranked out each year. SkyNews has tested this category of telescope and given models to beginners to try. Our conclusion is that computerized instruments in this price range should be avoided.
Third, if at all possible, shop at a telescope specialty store where it is likely that at least one salesperson has actually used the equipment on display. There are now several dozen such stores in Canada. They are usually owner-operated, and personal service and advice are their hallmark. Also, they tend to stock most of the telescopes I’m about to suggest—and not to stock instruments that have a history of being returned. If no such store is close enough to you, phone one of them. When a salesperson is willing to spend time on the phone, chances are that mail order may be a good choice.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it does include telescopes with a proven track record. I’ll start at the low end.
In my review of the Sky-Watcher 70mm altazimuth refractor in the Jan./Feb. 2000 SkyNews (see Equipment Reviews), I gave this instrument a moderately positive assessment, suggesting that at $220, it was a fairly good value at the time. That same scope is now $150, and at that price, it is an excellent value for buyers on a limited budget. Any instrument with the same specifications but another brand name (such as NewStar in the review) is the same telescope. But read the review, and note the scope’s limitations.
A step up to a more serious instrument is the 130mm (5.1-inch) Newtonian reflector on an equatorial mount with motor drive. When this type of mount is set up with its polar axis aimed at (or close to) Polaris, the North Star, it tracks the stars by compensating for the Earth’s rotation—a nice feature. At $350, this is the lowest-priced 5-inch telescope I have seen with a motorized equatorial mount.
Moving up the price ladder, though not much, is the 8-inch Dobsonian-mounted Newtonian reflector at $400. Just a few years ago, an identical instrument in Canada was priced at $700, but increases in the value of the Canadian dollar along with production-price decreases have combined to make the 8-inch Dob more affordable than ever before. I think this is an outstanding beginner’s scope at this price. However, it’s a sizable telescope that takes up a lot of space in a small car—a consideration if it needs to be regularly transported to an observing site.
For a more compact scope, see the review of the 5-inch Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on an equatorial mount ($750) in the Jul./Aug. SkyNews. Even more compact are the Meade ETX fork-mounted Maksutov-Cassegrains, in 90mm and 105mm apertures. With tripod and GoTo computer control, the 90mm is in the $975 range, and the 105mm is about $1,275. Although more expensive than the scopes already described, these are the lowest-priced computer-controlled telescopes I can recommend without hesitation. In this same category is the Celestron NexStar-4 GT, a 102mm (4-inch) fully computerized GoTo instrument (same price bracket as the Meade instruments above when “optional” tripod is included).
In my 45 years of using telescopes, the choices, prices and overall quality have never been better. I never pine for the “good” old days. Yes, light pollution didn’t exist then and I could easily see the Milky Way from a backyard in suburban Toronto, but the telescopes then couldn’t compare to what’s available today.