Editor’s Report: Manual Mayhem

Poorly written instruction booklets hobble starter scopes.

Kobau stargazer

A beginner experiences the wonder of the night sky at the Mount Kobau Star Party in British Columbia. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Beginning astronomy enthusiasts have never had it so good. The past few decades have seen a proliferation of affordable telescopes of reasonable quality. Those of us who got our start many years ago are amazed that it’s possible to purchase a complete 8-inch reflector for only $500. That certainly wasn’t the case when I bought Luna, the 3-inch Tasco reflector I wrote about in my previous Editor’s Report. Indeed, adjusted for inflation, an 8-inch instrument actually costs less today than my 3-inch did back in 1972! In short, times are good. But one area where things aren’t so rosy is the documentation that accompanies most beginners’ telescopes.

Sadly, many instruction booklets do a poor job of explaining how to get the most out of the gear. This isn’t new. I’ve evaluated a lot of equipment over the years, and I’ve seen some very good documentation—but it’s the exception. Most of the time, to be blunt, the paperwork is lousy. And I’m not the only one who gets worked up about it. In his review of tabletop Dobsonians in the November/December issue, Ken Hewitt-White expressed dismay about the state of the documentation included with those products.

Ken and I have noted a few recurring problems. First, some telescope makers attempt to make a single instruction booklet cover a range of scopes with a “one size fits all” approach. This leads to confusion—especially when the illustrations don’t exactly match the model you actually have—and forces the reader to wade through pages of irrelevant information. Second, the quality of the writing is often appallingly bad. Some of this can be attributed to poor translation, but regardless of the cause, sloppy writing not only reflects badly on a company’s brand but also makes life more difficult for the customer. Third, the collimation instructions that come with reflectors are almost always terrible and that’s when they’re included at all.

Assembling the equipment is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another. In fairness, it’s not up to the manufacturer to offer a complete guide to the night sky, but surely some highlights and a few brief observing tips are in order. Failing that (or in addition to it), a “for more information” appendix listing books, magazines and on-line resources would be a big help.

After submitting his review, Ken commented, “Honestly, I don’t know why telescope manuals can’t be more effective.” Neither do I. Cost is doubtless one reason (well-written prose and professionally prepared diagrams and photos aren’t cheap), but in our view, there’s a greater cost associated with not providing helpful instructions. Far too many scopes end up packed away in basements and closets after the initial burst of excitement fades. Good documentation serves as a crucial bridge to the next level, where using a telescope becomes easier and more rewarding. If we can help novice star­gazers make that transition, chances are, they’ll stick around. (Note to manufacturers: They’ll likely buy another instrument and more astro-gear from you.)

Here’s hoping for improvements soon. In the meantime, I’ll continue to advise newbies to pick up a copy of NightWatch by our own Terence Dickinson. Nearly 35 years after its first printing, NightWatch remains an inspiring, informative and well-written guide to trouble-free scoping. In short, it’s everything most telescope manuals aren’t.

Editor Gary Seronik invites your comments and astronomy-related observations and photos, which can be directed to him at [email protected].

Categories: Editor's Report
One comment on “Editor’s Report: Manual Mayhem
  1. Al McAdam says:

    I received a Costco Meade scope to start me down the money pit of astronomy. The instructions were point the scope north and so I took my compass and lined it up the way the instructions were laid out. I knew where the Big Dipper was and how to find Polaris so why didn’t Meade use Polaris and show a diagram to enable those who didn’t know how to find it and line their scope up properly? The scope failed but exactly one year later and Costco gave me back my money and I bought a better scope and mount.

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