The Heretic's Guide to

Which Scope To Buy?

Last updated January 20, 2011
Orion Telescopes..Superb Optics at a Great Price!!

Now for some actual scope recommendations:
 
Quick Index:
Department Store Scopes
Cheap Scopes
Very Cheap Scopes
Medium priced scopes
4.5" Reflectors
Portable Scopes
Short Scopes
Those cheap 6" Refractors
Astrophotography
Deep Sky scopes
Expensive Scopes
I gotta have a computerized scope!
"Price is no limit" Scopes
Questars
Used Telescopes
Scopes to Avoid
This is too confusing- just tell me what to buy!

Q: I only have $50-100 to spend on a scope. How about those cool scopes at the K-Mart?
 

Nope. No way. They're always a mistake. Bad optics and bad eyepieces on wobbly mountings. The same goes for that $100 blow-out priced "Galeileo" scope on the Home Shopping Network, the 60mm scope you found at Costco, 90% of the scopes sold on Ebay, and just about any "unbelievably low priced" scope sold by a discounter.

You'd be far better off to spend your money on a pair of similarly priced 7x50 Binoculars and subscriptions to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines. You'll see lots more interesting stuff. $100-150 will buy some really excellent binoculars from Orion or other specialized vendor. Avoid the budget $35 binoculars, zoom binoculars, or "focus free" binoculars.

With those 7x50s you can search for comets, count the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, view scores of galaxies and nebulae, find detail on the moon, and more.

Now, it is possible to buy a decent 60mm refractor on a tripod like a Orion Observer 60mm Altazimuth Refractor Telescope that's tons better that the department store scopes from Tasco or Bushnell, but I still recommend spending the money on binoculars. These scopes typically have rather wobbly tripods and will often see less than a good pair of 7x50s. The two 50mm objectives on the binoculars combined have about 30% more light gathering area than will that 60mm scope. And some of those little scopes bearing the names of well regarded manufacturers are poorly made PRC imports. Caveat spectator

As of 2009 there's finally an under $50 scope I can recommend- the tabletop Celestron 21024 Firstscope mention in the main page of this web site. Probably the best starting scope for those on a budget, or just testing the waters. It will see as much as a $250 computer guided 80mm scope for one-fifth the cost. Orion has the similarly priced FunScope 76mm Reflector Telescope With these scopes you can see the moon, the planets, double stars and the brighter deep sky objects. But realize that you will not be getting the same kind of views that the Hubble telescope delivers! The planets will be tiny disks with some details visible with very careful viewing. But it'll still be far, far better than any scope you find in a department store- and Gallileo would have been thrilled to have a scope as good as one of these little reflectors!

I still don't think a cheap 60mm scope is the best buy, but I get a lot of email from people asking about this great deal they found in a department store or Damark catalog on a Meade, Jason, Bushnell, etc. Simple rule: Don't. (If, however, you find a cheap Unitron or Takahashi 50mm or 60mm scope, grab it. Then, buy a good $200 tripod to mount it on!) And do not get a cheap equatorial mounted telescope! They look fancy and "scientific", but they're unusable. The mounts are wobbly and very difficult to align.

Moving up a bit in cost, for $99 you can buy a 100mm (4") table-top Dobsonian-type reflector, the Orion SkyScanner 100mm Reflector. This little scope is easier to use and more stable than all those cheap equatorially mounted 4.5" scopes. Dobsonian scopes look too simple to many people, but they're absolutely the best bang for the buck in astronomy.  I'd pick one of these over a $150 refractor.

If you already have a cheap 60mm refractor- perhaps found at a yard sale- and it's not a total piece of junk, consider buying a "hybrid" prism that will let you use 1-1/4" eyepieces. Buy a pair of good, inexpensive eyepieces- say 24 mm and 12 mm -and you'll have two good eyepieces you can use when you get a better scope. (See the eyepieces section below for specific recommendations) If the mount is too shaky (it probably is), you can build a simple alt-az mount that's far better than any mount that comes with these inexpensive telescopes. Or try this, suggested to me by Donald Rosenfield: Buy  three lengths of iron pipe just large enough to stuff the legs of the cheap tripod into them. Then, when observing, the open ends of those pipes can dig into the ground and Poof! you have a solid mounting!

The January 1997 issue of Astronomy magazine has plans and directions for a good wooden mount for these scopes, too. I recently saw an imaginative design that involved clamping such a scope to a piece of plywood with a couple of muffler clamps, and then attaching that to a simple mount made of 3/4" pipe fittings. See Edmund Scientific's book All About Telescopes by Sam Brown for some other great ideas for building mounts from wood, plumbing parts and other simple materials.


Q: I have $300-600 and want to see all kinds of stuff. What should I get?

This is probably the price range where most people should start.

Dobs

For the best performance and enjoyment for the money, buy one of the "Dobsonian" type telescopes from Celestron, Meade, Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, Discovery and Stargazer Steve. These are simple altitude-azimuth Newtonian reflectors mounted in big wooden cradles, and are a wonderful thing to use. No, you can't do long-exposure astophotography with them- but you can't do it with those spindly little imported equatorial mounts, either. Real deep-sky astrophotography requires SOLID tripods and mounts. You'll be surprised how easy it is to aim and track these "Dobs". I used to have an 8" Coulter that I'd just pop on my picnic table and scan the heavens with. And if you do decide to try photography later, it's easy enough to remount a dobsonian's tube on another mount.

6" scopes of this sort generally start at between $300 and $400. They're all similar in design, with minor differences in mirror mounting, focuser, etc. One notable exception is Stargazer Steve's kits, which are made of birch plywood, as compared to the particle board most inexpensive dobs are made of. Competition in this range is really keeping prices down; I notice Oion now includes a laser columator with its 6" and up dobs. You can find all the Orion dobs here.

Oh, you'll also need a non-magnifying, heads-up finder. There are a number of these available now, but the best known is the original Telrad.

Refractors

Of late I've been impressed with the refractors from Stellarvue. They combine imported lens sets with domestically made hardware to produce some very good telescopes. As a group they're far better than the typical imported f/5 short scope, and don't cost much more.

Some people have reported good things about the various Pacific-rim made scopes from TeleHoon. Theis line includes both Japanese optics (good) and Chinese optics (variable). I had an early 80mm f/7 TeleHoon that uses Vixen optics mounted in a PVC tube. Crude looking but an outstanding performer, better than any of the f/5 short scopes out there. I recently (1/2003) sold it to an astrophotography fan who is very happy with its performance. But the TeleHoon web site appears to be down, and the company seems to be gone as well. There may be a few out there in the used market yet.

Cassegrains

One of the more interesting developments in the past few years has been the explosion of inexpensive Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes from US makers, Russia and now China. The best known of these, and the one that started the interest, is the Meade  ETX90, their version of the Questar, at only $650 instead of $4,500. I owned one briefly; optically it's far better than you'd expect from the low price.

It's not perfect, of course. Optically it's no Questar, despite the claims of some amateur reviewers. Questar specifies a 1/8th wave overall system performance, while the ETX might make 1/4 wave. The ETX also suffers from 5th-order aberation common to all Maksutovs of similar design, and the only way to eliminate these errors is through hand aspherizing- something you cannot do on a telescope selling for around $500; the optics alone would cost over $500 to if that were the case.

The mount is kind of crude, the original plastic eyepiece holder has been known to fall off, and it lacks a lot of the features that make the Questar such a pleasure to use. For instance, you can't rotate the tube in the mount, which makes observing difficult when the scope is in certain positions. But if you're looking for a portable observatory (complete with heavy tripod) for under $700, it's pretty good. (I replaced my ETX with a TeleVue Pronto, a very high quality 67mm refractor with a 2" focuser.)

There's now a Wide range of ETX models that include 105mm and 125mm Maksutovs, as well as short 70mm and 80mm refractors. I wouldn't recommend the short refractors, but the 105 and 125mm models are a good value.

Keep in mind that while the optical quality of the ETX 90 is good, it has a 40% secondary mirror obstruction that results in a lower contrast scope with the same effective aperture of a 3" refractor. Some may like the convenience of the package and automation, but I suspect a 3" refractor may still a better choice for most.

The Celestron NexStar 5 and Celestron NexStar 4 have all the automation of the ETX at a competitive price, and optically the C5 tube has a good reputation. The thin corrector plate of the Celestron's SCT designs will temperature stabilize more quickly than the thick corrector plate in the ilarger Meades, though this is mostly a cold weather consideration.

Celestron, after being purchased by Tasco and seeking to compete more strongly with Meade, was for a time pushing the G3 as their hot little Maksutov. This was nothing more than the venerable Celestron C90 on a little imported equatorial mount. The C90, which a good daylight spotting scope, lacks the sharpness and contrast of the ETX, and the mount was a common lightweight import eq mount- not a very desirable combination for astronomy. No longer listed, but some may be in stores.

The Russian made scopes got off to a difficult start, with various QC problems, but now you can buy excellent Russian made Maks from dealters like APM,  APM USA  and ITE and be assured of good quality control and inspection before the sale. The 4" Tal refractor which comes with a mount for $500-600, depending on drive, can be a very good deal if you get a good unit. I've been hearing mixed reports about quality control lately involving alignment of the objective (easily corrected) and construction of the mirror diagonal (easily replaced, but it shouldn't have to be).

The latest players in this area have been the Chinese, with the "StarQuest" Maksutv scopes available at extremely attractive prices from Orion Telescopes and Binoculars . A S&T review of 2/2002 described the scopes tested as being of good mechanical quality, but slightly undercorrected optically. Still, at the prices charged- half that of similar US made scopes- they look like an attractive buy. But I've gotten a few notes lately from buyers who tell me they can't get a good image with their StarQuest scope. Orion is great about customer satisfaction, but I can't help but wonder if these scopes just don't have very good quality control.

The most intriguing of the new Maks (to me, at least) are those made by Orion of Great Britain, not to be confused with the American company. S&T found their test sample to be of very quality quality, and priced very competitively with the better imports.

[With any scope, you'll need a star atlas and a viewing guide. I like "Turn Left at Orion", a good guide to what's interesting in the sky for each season. It'll also teach you to navigate around the night sky without dealing with celestial coordinates, setting circles and equatorial mounts. For a star atlas, the monthly charts printed in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy will get you started. Later you might want to get the Edmund Mag 6 Star Atlas to help you navigate the dimmer stars. Eventually you'll want something even more detailed, but by then you'll be able to determine for yourself what you need. ]

You already have the magazine subscriptions and the binoculars, n'cest-ce pas?

Many of the newer cheap scopes are coming from China, and the quality of these scopes is highly variable. Some are good, some are garbage. If you buy one, buy from a retailer with a good repuation for customer support, and with the understanding that you can return it if it doesn't perform up to advertised specifications. 

Q: Hey, I found this great 4.5" reflector....

A lot of people are attracted to the 4.5" reflectors on equatorial mounts sold by Orion, Mead, Celestron and others. These are all fairly similar Japanese scopes (with the exception of Celestron's no longer made deluxe 4.5" model, which you may find used). While the optical quality of these scopes is good, you still have the problem of inadequate mountings. These equatorial mounts are far too light and wobbly to do photography with (the usual reason for insisting on an equatorial mount) and nowhere near as easy to use as a good dobsonian type mount. They're really too wobbly to do visual astronomy with beyond 50x or so.

I must get a message every week asking if this or that 4.5" scope is a good deal. Here's my short answer: No. Don't bother with any inexpensive 4.5" reflector EXCEPT t dob. MOst, if not all dobsonian type scopes are  better constructed  than any of the  equatorially-mounted imports.

Q: I have $500-1500 and want something of excellent quality that's portable enough to take everywhere.

The ETX 125, mentioned previously, has its fans. For solid mechanical and optical quality, you can't beat the now-discontinued TeleVue Pronto and Ranger, or their replacements, the tiny TV-60 (about $795) and the larger TV-76 ($1275). Fabulous little refractor scopes. Add one of TeleVue's Panoramic mounts and it's a wonderful rig. A TeleVue TelePod head and tripod system makes a wonderful observing system. They're great terrestrial scopes for birding and other nature viewing, too, something that can be said of few astronomical scopes. There are still some Prontos and Rangers in the hands of dealers, and a lot of used ones floating around out there.

Some think these small scopes are only good for the moon and planets, but under a dark sky it's amazing what you can see. I took my Pronto on a labor day trip up to a friend's cottage and spent hours just working my way through the Milky Way without any maps or guides.

A while ago I recommended various Brandon 80mm scopes, but no astro versions have been in production for a while.

Those who want the absolute best optics in a small package should look at the 50mm and 60mm Takahashi Fluorite refractors. Very expensive for their size, but nothing rivals them for contrast and sharpness. (And the short Tak 90 is my dream travel scope.)

The new Celestron Nextstar 5  SCT (pictured at left) was designed to compete with the new  Meade ETX 125 Maksutov-Cassegrain, and so far all reports say it's a far better deal- but keep in mind both scopes are still compromises, trading convenience for aperture. Still, of the various small all-in-one observatories from Mead and Celestron, this would be my first choice.

I have also heard many good things about the 6" Maksutovs from Russia available from various sources in various focal lengths. Orion had one version (the f/12 scope) and it's said to be extremely good for $899 (price recently reduced). They've replaced this with a number of Maks on what appear to be Pacific-rim sourced mounts, and I haven't heard much good about the quality of these newer scopes compared to the Mak they previously sold. Test before you buy. One other consideration: While these inexpensive Maksutovs have, in general, a repuation for higher contrast and resolutiuon than similarly sized SCTs,  Maksutov scopes have a very thick corrector plate compared to the thin Schmidt-type plates found in SCTs; because of this thick plate, maks cool down much more slowly than do SCTs. In a very cold climate it can take hours for a large mak to stabilize.

Orion also has the excellent Vixen 80mm ED refractor for under $1500, or $1999 on a Super Polaris mount.

Remember- a small, excellent scope under a dark sky will beat the pants off a large scope in a light-polluted sky.

Q: What about those neat "Short Scopes" everyone is selling?
There's been a flood of  80mm and 90mm f/5 scopes in the last few years, and now some 100mm tubes as well. The way they're advertised, you'd think they were all the scope you'd ever need. They are- as long as you don't plan on using magnifications above 40x or so. Think of them as one-half of a pair of giant binoculars. An 80mm or 90mm achromat needs to be at least f/8 or f/9 to get decent color correction, and f/12 or f/15 would be preferred over that. These short scopes are great for backpacking, for comet hunting and for a small, inexpensive scope you can leave set up on a tripod to take outdoors when the mood strikes you. I do like the $100 Orion GoScope 80mm TableTop Refractor Telescope

I wouldn't buy one of the over-complicated, automated versions that are essentiually a $100 scope in a $200 mount. Celestron sells their version with a computer guided mount (the Nexstar 80 GT), but I don't think spending nearly $400 for one of these scopes is a good choice. Given the practical upper magnification limit of around 40x I can't see why you'd need a computer to guide it.

The same goes for the ETX-60, which Costco and others are blowing out the doors at $120. For that price, it's not a bad little rich-field scope, despite the useless computer, but I see many are selling them on E-Bay and elsewhere at $229 and up. Bad deal.

Q: Hey, there's a 6" refractor I can buy for only $600!
There are a lot of these Chinese-sourced scopes around- the Celestron Omni XLT 120 Telescope was one of trhe first, Orion has the Orion AstroView 120ST EQ Refractor Telescope and there are similar scopes from other companies as well.

Like the short scopes, these are a short focus achromats, and there's no way you're going to get adequate color correction in a 6" achromat under f/12 or f/15. Again, a great comet scope, a great low-magnification deep sky scope, but if you try planetary viewing or splitting doubles you may be disappointed. Magnification holds up well past 100x, but everything takes on a violet hue. Sure, you can add color filters to cut the chromatic error and make the image less blurry, but it would be easier to use a well-corrected smaller scope.  Ed Ting gives it a positive revue but with a lot of qualifiers.

Many observers prefer  refractors over reflectors because of the great contrast and flat field they can deliver, but a short-focus tube like this is not going to give you the crisp views of an f/15 achromat or a good apochromat. You'd probably be better off with a well-made Newtonian reflector. There was a lot of talk some time ago on sci.astro.amateur about an add-on optic that is said to correct the color in these big Chinese scopes, but I haven't heard any raves lately.

I think if I were going to spend $600 or so on a EQ mounted 6" scope, I'd be inclined to get something like the Orion StarMax 127mm EQ Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope. That would give you refractor-like images in a compact package at a vaery reasonable price.


Q: I only have a limited budget, but I want to do photography, too.
 

The cheapest way to do astrophotography requires no scope at all, or only a very simple one. You need what's called a barn-door drive, which is nothing more than two pieces of wood, a door hinge and a few screws and nuts from the local hardware store. A good reference page for barn door mounts and this kind of astrophotopgraphy is Brian Rachford's Widefield Astronomy page. Rachford is a PhD astronomer who has put a lot of work and thought into his advice for beginning astrophotographers.

Other plans for simp[le mounts and wide field astrophotopgraphy can be found in Sky and Telescope and other and magazines, and in books like Phil Harrington's excellent Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories (Buy this book- it'll save you a lot of time and money!)

There's a similar device called a Tangent Arm Drive that can also be easily constructed with hand tools. Google either of these terms and you'll find scores of good ideas. Another inexpensive option is a small EQ head like the Orion Min-EQ Tabletop Equatorial Mount which sells for just under $60. Attach a camera capable of time exposures and you can capture long exposure photos of the sky.

If you're mainly interested in photographing the moon and planets, there'ssomething new that's been evolving in recent years- webcam based astrophotography. This uses modified webcams- typically Logitech Quickcam Pro 3000s, 4000 and 5000s, and Philips Vesta and Toucam Pros to take multiple short exposures and stack them together using sepcialized software.If you don't want to go the do-it-yourself route, Orion, Celestron and Meade all offer web-cam based units ready to use for $100-$130. The Celestron NexImage Solar System Imager is available for less that $100. This is a good way to go if all you have is a simple scope. Even unguided copes like Dobsonians can be used on bright objects at low magnifications. You won't get images like those you see in two-page color spreads in Sky and Telescope, but you cvan get surprisingly good results, and the technology is rapidly improving. Orion has has a similar camera, with color and higher resolution, the Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager III.

If you have an iPhone (or an iPod Touch with camera) you can take photos of bright objects thorugh your telescope or binoculars by means of a This is an excellent way to get started without investing in a lot of expensive gear, assuming you already have the phone. There are a lot of interesting camera and image editing and processing apps for the iPhone that might be useful.

Long exposure deep-sky astrophotography of the sort that p roduces beautiful images of galaxies and nebulas is neither simple nor cheap, if you want good results. You need a rock-solid equatorial platform and a way to guide during exposures. Most amateurs interested in astrophotography start out with an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT), since such scopes provide a very flexible and stable platform. Serious astrophotographers often end up with massive, custom mounts from Beyers or Losmondy, since they offer far more stability than the cast fork mounts on SCTs, and high quality apochromatic refractors, like TeleVue's Tele Vue NP101is OTA Imaging System, which offer flatter fields and better contrast than most SCTs.

Probably the best way to get started (if you already have an equatorially mounted telescope) is via "piggyback" photography, mounting a camera along side your telescope and using comparatively short focal length lenses, i.e., less than 200mm. This method can give you good results without the need for special guiding hardware. You can improve your results by guiding through the main telescope. (Interestingly, a lot of people don't know this trick: Pick a bright star and point your telescope at it. Now defocus the scope so the blurry image of the star nearly fills the field. You can now use this image to guide the scope, since small movements are easily visible.)

If you're serious about getting into astrophotography, you should really buy a copy of Michael Covington's new Digital SLR Astrophotography or a bookxs that deals with the new dedicated CCD astrocameras, like Adam Stuart's CCD Astrophotography: High-Quality Imaging from the Suburbs.


Q: I'm nuts for deep sky objects! I want to look for galaxies and nebulas and I have a budget of $1,000.

A number of companies are now carrying Pacific Rim made 6" f/8 refractors that have been generating a lot of enthusiasm. The Celestron CR-150 is probably the best known of these. Selling for around $1,000 complete with mount, when a Takahashi or Astrophysics scope of that size sells for more than four times as much, the companies are selling these as fast as they can get them.

While these scopes are pretty good for what they are- see Ed Ting's review- you don't get something for nothing. Beyond 25x per inch (150x) the large amount of secondary color greatly reduces the sharpness, resolution and contrast of these scope. Using color filters improves the view, but a well-made 6" f/8 reflector may provide better views at less cost.

A larger Dobsonian- something in the 12" to 16" range- is a popular choice with deep-sky fans, but keep in mind that these scopes are pretty darned big. A 12" f/5 scope doesn't sound too big, but the tube alone is about 14" in diameter and 5 feet long- and we haven't even considered the base yet. Of course you have to carefully cushion the tube when you transport it- you can't just dump it in the back of the pickup.

I recently had a 17.5" Coulter Odyssey from the 1980s pass through my hands. That's a HUGE telescope, standing around 7' tall and weighing over 230lbs assembled. After carrying it home once in my car, I knew the next time it left my home would be when I sold it. It's going to the home of a fellow amateur astronomer who has a yard that's fine for viewing. In its place I have a truss-type 16" dob that's a third the weight and much less bulky, and I'll be doing some mods on that scope as well to bring down the size and weight. (UPDATE: I sold the 16", too. I'm back to small refractors and a Questar 3.5.)

Lately I've seen a number of f/8 and f/10 dobs on the market. I'm glad to see this trend developing, as the longer the focal length of a reflecting telescope, the better the contrast, resolution and freedom from aberrations. (See the FAQfor details on why this is the case.)

I still recommend beginners start with something smaller (and more portable), even if they have the budget for a 12" dob. Of course, if you live in an area with dark skies, a really big dob is a great thing to have.

Q: I want a scope that I can set up quickly, carry in my car easily, and I'm willing to spend $2,500-$3,000 or more. I'm very interested in lunar and planetary viewing, so optical excellence is a must.

By the time you're ready to spend this much money you should have enough experience with cheaper scopes to have formed your owned opinions. Then again, perhaps you're a person for whom spending $3,000 on a telescope isn't a big expense. If so, this section is for you.

You may be happy with an 8-11" SCT like the Celestron C8 S-GT XLT Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope - but you should not pass up considering a small to medium sized refractor. There are a number of small refractors from TeleVue, Takahashi, Celestron, AstroPhysics and others that far surpass most SCTs in terms of contrast, resolution and ease of use. While aperture is an important factor, a good refractor will display a sharpness, flat field and contrast that can make them outperform SCTs twice their size. One friend of mine had a 3" Takahashi fluorite scope that he said was the best planetary scope he's ever looked through... until he replaced it with a 4" Takahashi- still on an alt-azimuth mount.
Looking through the popular astronomy magazines you'll note that a lot of the best astrophotographs are done with refractors; SCTs just can't deliver the pinpoint edge-to-edge star images that good refractors can- at least not the inexpensive mass-market SCTs from Meade and Celestron. You can get an SCT that will rival the performance of a refractor of similar size- but at a similar price. Takahashi made about 100 9" SCTs; according to a correspondent, one can be had today for about $6,000 (2000 price). Similar sized SCTs made for industry, research and government have similar prices.

Once again, I'd start with a smaller scope first to pick up some skills and get a better idea of exactly I wanted in a scope before making a big investment.

Another interesting option is one of the many new Maksutov scopes from Orion , Meade, Celestron and others. Maks have a number of advantages over Schmidt-Cassegrains, and according to some references are the ideal design in many ways. Many of these new Maks come from China and Russia, where labor costs are lower, and there are well-developed optical industries. Quality can be highly variable, so it's best for the necomer to stick to well-known brands and reliable retailers.

Don't think that an expensive scope needs an equatorial mount. A really good alt-az mount- like TeleVue Gibraltar, Panoramic or Upswing, or the various Vixen alt-az mounts- is an absolute pleasure to use, particularly when equipped with a dedicated guidance computer. If you're not interested in photography, or detailed planetary study at 350x, check out this option. A Gibraltar can be had for $450, and is very easy to use up to about 280x; a similarly sturdy equatorial mount (like the Celestron/Vixen Great Polaris) costs around $700-900. And the Upswing head, which I use with my Pronto and Genesis, is under $100. ITE has a nice heavy-duty alt-az head I'm thinking of buying.  I  purchased a Bogen 410 mini geared head; for $140 (typical NYC discount price) it's another good choice for very small scopes, and for precise alignment of my Questar. It's only good with small scopes, as otherwise it's too hard to reach the controls while viewing through the scope. Of course, if you're spending $2,000 or more on a scope, there are some good, solid Alt-Az mounts in the $500-and-up range from Orion and others.

Q: I need a scope for nature viewing and astronomy, too.

8" and larger SCTs are generally too large and bulky, and hard to use for terrestrial viewing; the 3.5" and 5" models aren't bad. The new 6" Maks are a nice compromise. Newtonians are just about impossible to use this way.  What you need is a compact scope on an alt-az mount. The TeleVue Pronto and Ranger are excellent choices., if you canb find one; the new TeleVue 60 is a super little scope, even smaller than the old Ranger and still capable of delivering excellent views under a dark sky.

On the budget side, the Meade ETX would be a good choice, especially if you could find an older one at a good price. The Orion 80mm and 90mm short scopes would make good bargain choices, too.

The Questars- especially the field models- are an excellent (if very expensive) option for this use. I had a 3.5" Questar Field Model I picked up around 2004 at a very good price ($500) that was very handy for nature viewing. The design also allows you to hang a camera off the rear port and quickly switch between viewing and photography.

What you'll need to make this work is a 90 degree diagonal for astro viewing, and ideally, an erecting prism of some sort for terrestrial viewing. You can get 90 degree and 45 degree erecting prisms from many sources. I like in-line porro prisms for nature viewing, since I don't have to bend my head over and I can switch from looking directly at the object to looking through the scope more easily.  I'm using a TeleVue porro prism together with my Pronto for  spotting scope use; for astronomy use, I swap the porro prism for a 2" mirror diagonal.

Q: I gotta have a computerized scope! I want push-button GOTO! I want.....

When you talk about computerized scopes, you're really talking about two things. One is computerized setting circles- that is, a dedicated computer that serves the same function as setting circles. The other is full "GOTO" capability- a fully automated, two-axes drive that will point the scope to the object of your choice at the push of a button- or so they say. These can be very handy features if you're in a hurry- but more about that in a minute.

Computerized aiming is available on scopes as cheap as $300, but you really have to ask yourself- if I only have $300 to spend should I be spending $100 of it on electronics? When you're spending less than $1,000, you really should be putting your money into good optics and a solid mount. 

There are three reasons you might want an automated scope:

1. You have a really big scope- too big to operate by hand. If this is the case you're not going to be reading a web page on buying your first telescope.

2. You're engaged in a serious research project, and you need to rapidly aim your scope to acquire objects and collect data. See #1 above.

3. You want to be able to puch a button and see cool things. Now we're getting closer, right? First of all, you will not get that kind of automation short of one of the rather expensive GPS-equipped scopes. Just about every computerized scope requires you to locate at least two stars and aim the scope at them. If you want to track moving objects, you will probably have to do a time-consuming polar alignment, too, unless you have a fancy two-axis drive.

Say you buy one of those popular Meade ETX-90s for $500. Wow, a computerized scope for $500. Not quite. First, add a tripod- and you better make it a good one. You can't use a scope with 150x magnification on that $50 camera tripopd from K-Mart. $200 at least . Now you've spent $700, and you have a 3.5" telescope that tells you where to point it. You could have had a 10" telescope with ten times the light gathering power. 

Okay, you say, but I plan on spending a lot more. Let's say you've got $3,500  and you've decided to get that GPS-equipped 8" SCT. Now you can view Saturn and M32w as easily as watching cable TV. That's the way to do astronomy, right? Well, no. Not really. True, you can set up your scope, push a button and look through the eyepiece, but so what? The images you see won't be anything like those in a book. If all you want is to see great images of astornomical objects you'd do better to just point your browser at the Astronomy Picture of the Day web site. If you want a computerized scope in order to be able to set it up, push a few buttons and be entertained... you'll be very disappointed.

Any image you see through your own scope is going to be inferior to the pictures you see on the web. What makes the hobby fun to those who stay with it for decades is finding those objects yourself, exploring them, and navigating between them. Scopes purchased for push-button entertainment generally end up in closets or yard sales..And that $3,500 could have bought you somne really nice optics instead of a $1,200 scope in a $2,300 mount. 

Q: I want a scope and price is no limit!

I used to get this question about once a month, to which I'd answer "Go buy your own space telescope and don't ask silly questions," but that was before Orion came up with their giant Dobsonians, beginning with this 20", $9,000 Orion UP20 Premium UltraPortable Truss Dobsonian. Not big enough? There's a 36" scope for $40,000, and 40" scope for $80,000, and for $120,000 you can buy their 50" dobsonian scope. (And remeber to tell theem where you heard about it ;-)

Q: Hey what about Questars? Are they as good as they say?

Yes.....but....

If you were to ask, should I get a Questar for my first telescope? I'd say no- but with some qualifications. Questars are optically and mechanically excellent. They're also very expensive. I've owned four- three astro models and a field model. Every so often I start thinking gee, I could get a really big scope for what I have invested in this thing- but when I do sell my Q, I find myself immediately missing the convenience and elegence of the Questar. There's something about the optical and mechanical excellence of this little gem that attracts a certain kind of owner.

Questars have a number of wonderful features, like flipping a lever to switch between finder and scope without removing your eye from the eyepiece- or switching a barlow in and out with another lever. They come complete with a solar filter and a solar finder filter. And they last. My first was was 40 years old when I bought it, and in perfect mechanical condition. I was recently in touch with the current owner, and he reports that it's still in regular use- with a few more updates done by Questar.

Questars make sense if you want an extremely portable, exquisitely made, optically excellent (figured to a system performance of /8 wave!), incredibly well-integrated astronomical observatory that also makes an incredible terrestrial telescope. It's also a great compact piggyback photography platform for lightweight cameras. Used ones are always available, at prices ranging from a third the cost of a new one (for older scopes) to perhaps 80% the cost of a new unit, for a very recent ones. My ten year old, like-new Questar cost me a little over half of what a new one sells for.

Of course, for the price of a new Questar 3.5- figure on spending at least $4,500- there are a lot of other options available. You could get a small Takahashi fluorite refractor on a compact mount, or a really huge SCT scope from Meade or Celestron. And if you're someone for whom $4,500 is pocket change (and I know more than one amateur astronomer for whom this is true), a 7" Questar is a magnificent scope... it does take some hours to cool down, but you could keep it in your custom-built outdoor observatory, right?

There are a number of critics who will tell you that as good as it is, a Questar 3.5 is still an obsctructed 3.5" telescope, and it can only deliver so much. True; my 4" Genesis apochromat delivers much brighter images, and has a similarly flat field (and a little secondary color, it should be noted). But a new 4" apochromat and mount will cost you at least what a Q 3.5 does, and is no where near as portable or easy to use.

I think the real reason I kept buying Questars goes back to the Questar ad I saw in Scientific American when I was around 7 years old. Took me over 30 years to get my first one. But if you have the cash, and if you are the sort of person who likes Swiss watches, Hasselblads, and fine machining, and you want a the best compact, portable observatory made- get a Questar. (And take a look at Barry Carter's Questar web pages.)

The best place to buy a new Questar is probably Company 7, and the best place to find a used one is Astromart.

N.b.: Some have claimed that the Meade ETX is every bit as good as a Questar optically, based on star tests. But as Roland Christen has pointed out, non-aspherized Maksutov sets with spherical surfaces suffer from 5th-order abberations that do not show up in star tests. The difference is clear when viewing objects requiring very high contrast, where the ETX loses details clear in the Questar. This is not surprising, as the mirror-corrector sets Questar buys from Cuimberland Optical cost them more more than the retail price of an ETX-90.

Q: How about used telescopes...?

Often a good idea. Quality telescopes, if not abused, hold up very well over time. There are quite a few scopes no longer made that offer good value.

Good scopes from the past:

Unitron- any of their refractors from years past. (Unitrons were also sold overseas under the "Polarex" name.)

Quantum - fine Maksutovs with excellent optics built by ex-Questar employees. Some need service to replace old focus drive belts.

Gotoh and very old Tasco refractors with adjustible objective cells and solid mounts. (Not reflectors.) Yes, Tasco once sold really excellent refractors, back in the 60s and before. Tasco is an importer, not a manufacturer. A friend has a 3" Tasco from the 60s that's the equal of any Unitron. Gotoh was a fine Japanese maker of optics.

Cave reflectors. Very good large scopes from the 50s and 60s.

Criterion Dynascope 6" and 8" Newtonians. These were very popular in years past, when a 6" newt was the standard amateur instrument. Well made and inexpensive at the time.

Anything from TeleVue. You can get a used Genesis 4" for around $1,000 for the bare tube at this writing, whish is about a third of what a new 4" apochromat costs. Used Prontos seem to be available for $600-700.

Scopes to avoid:

Criterion SCTs. They were the end of a good company, and the tooling was bought by Bausch and Lomb.

Bausch and Lomb SCTs. Dogs, mechanically and optically.

"Polaris by Meade".

"Galileo" refractors.

Anything 50mm (2") and smaller not made by Unitron, Zeiss, Borg or Takahashi

Cheap and flimsy appearing 60mm refractors and 4.5" reflectors. If it wobbles when you touch it, imagine what that will look like when you're looking through it at a magnification of 100x! This basically includes just about every equatorially mounted 4.5" scope on the market. They look "scientific", but they're almost impossible to use.

Just about ANY cheap computerized scope. If you're spending $300 on a computer equipped scope, you're buying a $150 scope with a $150 computer, and that computer won't make your scope see any better. I wouldn't consider a computer until I'd made sure I had good optics and a solid mount- and was spending at least $600-1000.

Q: This is too confusing- just tell me what to buy! Okay:

For 90% of those reading this, the answer is buy a 6" or 8" Dobsonian reflector, depending on what you can afford. The Orions, like the Orion XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope!telescope.com are good, and I have links to other models in the section above on dobs. If the one you buy doesn't come with a couple of good eyepieces, buy additional ones from University Optics or Surplus Shed. Suprlus Shed in particular has a great assortment of high-quality eyepiueces they assemble from surplus lenses.

If $275 is too much, get a Orion StarBlast 4.5 dob for $179.95. It's super stable, easy to use, delivers great images, and is small enough to take on vacation with you.

If you can't afford even $180 for the StarBlast dob, buy a Celestron 21024 FirstScope Telescope for well under $50 and start saving your money. And buy a few low-cost eyepieces from Surplus Shed.

If you have $2K burning a hole in your pocket, and you just gotta have all the gadgets, buy an 8" SCT from Celestron or Meade with auto-guiding, GPS, and built-in cappicino maker.

If you want simplicity and elegance, and spending $4,000-5,000 doesn't faze you, get a good 4" Televue, TMB, Astrophysics or other apochromatic refractor and mount it in an alt-az mount.

If you're very wealthy, spending $10K-20K on a toy doesn't dent your pocketbook, and you want something that's both a useful telescope and a work of art, buy a 7" Questar and a mount from Company 7. And when you're bored with it, send it to me, and I'll find a good home for it ;-)


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