As proud as this author is that this website has loads of helpful telescope information for beginners to digest, I can understand that perhaps it’s too much, and I need to try and make it simpler to ease people in before they get attacked with information overload and can turn into Ralph Kramden after receiving advice…
So here it is – the oversimplified Cliffs Notes guide towards selecting your first telescope.
Here are the five simplest tidbits of advice to guide you in the right direction:
If Your Budget is Less Than $200, Get a Pair of Binoculars Instead!
Sadly, I’ve encountered cheap-o-scopes many times when people bring them to star parties hoping that someone will show them how to use it – only for them to practically abandon them during the party!
The optical quality is just as good, if not better, through a pair of binoculars of the same price. Their optical lenses are the same aperture (width) as a cheap-o-scope, so certain targets like the Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades, and Orion Nebula are still impressive through a pair, and it’s fun to have that freedom to move around. They are also great tools in helping you learn constellations and how to star hop to find targets.
It’s Not About the Brand Or The Type – It’s Always The Aperture!
People will always tell me rather proudly, “I have a Celestron!” and in return I always ask, “great… what’s the aperture?” Often times, they just use their hands to describe “oh it’s about this wide by this long.” Only then will I inquire about the actual specs and type.
While there are different types of telescopes that have their own pros and cons, the most important thing to worry about is how much aperture – light gathering power, can you get for the price you’re paying. The wider the scope, the more light you collect, hence the more you can resolve!
The MOUNT is More Important Than The Scope Itself
Imagine having the best gaming console with no controllers, or having the best car with no way of driving it… A bad mount or even a proper mount that’s lightweight and on the flimsy side can result in plenty of frustration trying to keep the scope steady. Often times, cheaper setups include optical tube assemblies that are too heavy for the included mount!
Even though I’ve met plenty who got those Celestron PowerSeekers or Orion Starblasts because of their price and decent optics, users often say in hindsight they wish they spent a little more and got a sturdier mount instead of the flimsy mount they got, because they can’t steady on anything other than the Moon at low magnification.
Above everything else, you want a sturdy enough mount that has fine adjustment controls so that you can stay on something while the object moves due to the earth’s rotation. It also must be able to handle the load of the optical tube assembly (anything the mount is holding up) – otherwise we’re back to flimsy territory. Trust me when I say, it’s worth it to spend a little more for a heavier mount.
Equatorial or Alt-Az Mount?
I have written about this question in great length in another article, but in the interest in keeping it simple, here goes:
Equatorial (EQ) mounts are designed with Earth’s rotation and celestial coordinates in mind. They take longer to set up, and need to be properly aligned and calibrated to be accurate. But when you do learn and get it right, sturdy EQ mounts are amazing at manually tracking celestial objects with earth’s rotation.
The only issue you’ll find is that cheap and lightweight EQ mounts are pretty useless if trying to use the setting circles, and practically vibrate themselves out of alignment just from using them because the included scope is too heavy or impossible to balance.
Altitude Azimuth (Alt-Az) mounts are designed with your cardinal directions and visual sight in mind. They are practically ready to view out of the box and are much easier to set up and use compared to EQ mounts.
However, flimsy Alt-Az mounts, especially if they have no fine adjustment controls, are the reasons why so many telescopes collect dust after a few uses. All Alt-Az mounts are not the best trackers at high magnification, unless of course, they’re equipped with a Go-To system.
What about Dobsonians? Those are much sturdier, and are renowned among telescope users for being easy to use. Fully manual Dobsonians can also be much bigger than smaller scopes equipped with computer technology for the same price.
What About Computerized Go-To Telescopes?
I’m always a big proponent of learning things the “Old School Way” before graduating on to more technological sophistication. The reason why is because you can always fall back to those skills when your amazing computer telescope setup isn’t working for whatever reason.
For the same price as a bigger manual telescope, GoTo setups sacrifice the ability to collect the light needed to see and resolve objects in favor of computer technology. Even if one uses them, these systems require you to know your exact location and your stars to set up and work properly!
They are certainly handy for sure, but I’ve seen plenty of beginners who purchase these setups in haste and never use them because setups and procedures are too complicated for them – which is ironic because they’re supposed to make things less complicated!
So… What Should I Get?
Are you okay with learning polar alignment, how to use the celestial coordinates and how to find objects with them, plus having better abilities to track planets at high magnification without necessarily a computer? Get a scope with a sturdy equatorial mount!
Would you rather just take the telescope outside and start viewing instantly, but still want the Alt-Az mount to be sturdy? Get a Dobsonian! Otherwise, if you’re okay with sacrificing some aperture for computer technology that you’re willing to learn how to use, then get a smaller alt-az scope equipped with a GoTo drive.
You don’t necessarily need an EQ GoTo telescope unless you’re doing long exposure photography.
Don’t settle for cheap and flimsy mounts! Your pocketbook may not like it, but your interest in astronomy will blossom!
I will always say that when it comes to what makes the best telescopes, it will always come down to one criteria. It’s not the biggest scope, or the setup with the most technological sophistication, the best telescopes are ALWAYS the telescopes being used!
You don’t have to use it every day, but just be consistent, and you’ll see that you become much more adept at finding things in the sky, and your knowledge will grow!
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