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Do you need a telescope that can probe the deep sky for many years, teaching you more about the universe every night?

If you often think about how cool it would be to cast your mind's eye out into the universe and see its wonders firsthand, you're a strong candidate for the amateur astronomy hobby. You'll need a sturdy instrument with enough photon-grabbing power and burly build quality to perform well every time you take it outside. 

If you buy one of these scopes, you may never need another telescope. And if, someday, you crave more power or special features, these scopes will hold their value to help you trade up. But you need to make a fundamental choice:

There are two distinct schools of thought around what constitutes the best deal in telescopes. Some users — let's call them "digitals" — opt for an easy setup and computerized mounts, which find celestial objects without requiring you to study charts or translate coordinates onto the telescope. 

Other skywatchers — the "analogs" — prefer to put their money into the optical capabilities of the telescope. They would rather drive their light buckets manually. Rather than dictating which approach is better, we honor both: 

  • Reflector / AltAz / Tripod / Go-To
  • Easiest setup; totally self-aligning on the sky

Our first Editors' Choice, Celestron's SkyProdigy 130, emphasizes ease of setup and quick "Go-To" target navigation. It also provides excellent optics for the price, and more-than-adequate aperture (the size of a telescope's opening, which determines how much light can be collected). 

Easy set-up, self-aligning and optically excellent beginner telescope
Easy set-up, self-aligning and optically excellent beginner telescope
Credit: Celestron

The SkyProdigy is the first mass-produced consumer telescope to offer fully automatic alignment. Until now, you would expect to pay several thousand dollars for this functionality. You'd need an add-on camera, special software, custom mounting and an external laptop computer.

Over the past decade, however, Celestron's engineers have been busy taking the pain out of aligning a telescope. In the 1990s, the first generation of "Go-To" computerized consumer telescopes required a lot of help. You had to level the tripod, enter your location on the Earth (by latitude and longitude), enter your local time and know the names of three stars in your sky at the time of setup. You then had to find and center the first star, press a key to tell the mount you had found it and then repeat that process for one or two more stars.

In 2005, Celestron simplified this procedure when it rolled out its SkyAlign computing system. All you had to do was point the telescope at three bright stars, and SkyAlign would do the rest.

Now, Celestron has completed its engineering journey with SkyProdigy, which uses the company's StarSense technology. Just plant the telescope under a dark sky, and turn it on. A camera on the mount's arm takes an image of the sky, compares it to an internal database, slews the telescope to a few other locations, takes a few more images and then triangulates its position. In less than 4 minutes, the scope knows where it is, and you can pick up the keypad to enter your choice of target from among the 4,000 possibilities listed. This is similar to the way telecommunication satellites, military assets and science research probes hold their orientation in space; they employ "star trackers."

We found the SkyProdigy 130 extremely quick to unbox and set up. The tubular steel tripod is sturdy, with smooth lock knobs that are large enough to operate with gloved hands on cold nights. Attaching the mount is very simple and mistake-proof — a rare joy!

But effortless setup and precise pointing are not all the SkyProdigy 130 has to offer. It's a beautifully designed Newtonian reflector with a workman-like aperture of more than 5 inches (13 centimeters). The optical tube is made in China in the same factory that manufactures telescopes from many other brands.

You will need to "collimate" this telescope from time to time. (During this procedure, you keep the line of light vectors parallel to one another or with equal angles of reflection, so that the image entering your eye is tightly focused.) The SkyProdigy 130 has a well-engineered set of adjustment knobs and locks, back by the primary mirror platen, to make this process easier.

Celestron gives you two Kellner eyepieces: a 1-inch (25 mm) one and a 0.35-inch (9 mm) one. With the higher-power eyepiece (9 mm), the telescope maxes out at a little over 300x. The focusing mechanism is smooth, with plenty of range. However, we found the knurled focus lock knob to be small, and it doesn't completely immobilize the in-out travel. But we do love that the focuser can accept 2-inch (5 cm) eyepieces, which also makes it appropriate for full-frame DSLR cameras (though the additional mass may affect the motorized mount's tracking).

Celestron doesn't provide a separate telescopic finder scope (it expects that StarSense will do the finding for you), but there is a "StarPointer" reticle with an illuminated red dot of variable brightness if you should need it. You probably won't, leaving you a slot to perhaps mount a small camera to take long wide-field time exposures as the SkyProdigy holds its attention on your chosen point in the cosmos.

We think Celestron's SkyProdigy 130 is a fantastic rig. Just know that you could be spending up to $200 extra for the convenience of automatic setup. If you have the knowledge — and take the time (each and every time) — to align the telescope to your local sky, you can get exactly the same observing experience with Celestron's NexStar 130 SLT or the nearly identical Orion StarSeeker IV 130, and the quite similar Levenhuk SkyMatic 135 GTA (reviewed below).

  • Reflector / AltAz / Dobsonian
  • Best "Big Bang" for your buck; largest aperture          

Orion's SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope takes a different tack. This big Orion gives you huge light-gathering ability — so you can haul in dim objects — and instant manual control. But there's no motor, and you must know enough of the sky to "star hop" to where you want to go. 

Much "Big Bang" for your buck, has this large aperture Dobsonian telescope.
Much "Big Bang" for your buck, has this large aperture Dobsonian telescope.
Credit: Orion Telescopes and Binoculars

The SkyQuest is an 8-inch-aperture (20 cm) Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian mount. Serious astronomy hobbyists refer to these big Newtonian reflectors as "light buckets." If you are going after deep-space "fuzzies" (e.g., galaxies, nebulas) but are not intending to photograph them, this is the telescope to get.

Before you can fly, though, you must build it — and there's a lot of assembly required. You start by building the "rocker box" mount from precut pieces. Then, you have to set up the electronic encoder boards; thread the correct sequences of bushings, washers, spacers and locknuts; attach the eyepiece rack; and more. The few tools you need are included, but beware: It is at least an hour-long project, albeit a fun one. The parts are large, so it's nice to have a second pair of hands, thus making this a good endeavor to share with, for example, an older child.

The Orion's large parabolic primary mirror is cast of borosilicate glass, chosen for its ability to hold its shape as the ambient temperature changes after sunset. The glass is nicely coated in aluminum and silicon dioxide. The imposing-looking 44.5-inch (113 cm) steel optical tube is strong. The painted press-wood altitude/azimuth mount is brawny. But all this beefiness adds up to mass: The full SkyQuest XT8i rig weighs 41.5 lbs. (18.8 kg) and stands about 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall.

In contrast to classic Dobsonians (which have no electronics), this scope actually has a brain. Although it's a manually driven machine, the SkyQuest is called an IntelliScope because its tracking computer can guide you to objects. It does so by telling you which way to move to acquire your target. To pilot the telescope, grab the comfortable navigation knob under the optical tube's "chin." It takes a bit of time to get used to it, but the box has a deep database of 14,000 celestial sights to see. To enable IntelliScope, you need to go through a two-star alignment process.

If you have assembled the telescope well, the two magnetic encoders (altitude and azimuth) will do their jobs, and the IntelliScope guidance will work. Several users have reported minor issues with either slippage or binding, requiring workarounds. But Orion's telephone customer service and live-chat assistance are excellent, and most buyers are quite happy with their purchase.

You will especially enjoy the smooth, precisely machined Crayford-type focuser. It can accommodate 2-inch eyepieces — just what you need for catching galactic vistas, witnessing nearby nebulas in their cosmic context and taking in wide swaths of the Milky Way. Your 2-inch wide-field eyepiece must be purchased separately, and we strongly recommend that you do buy one to get the most out of this telescope. Out of the box, the SkyQuest comes with Orion's standard-issue Plossl-type pair of 1.25-inch eyepieces: 25 mm (1 inch) and 10 mm (0.4 inches).

Orion's SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope is a fine first telescope. If you like the analog approach and want to go deeper — or happen to be feeling flush with cash —– you might want to consider one of Orion's even bigger light buckets with up to a whopping 12 inches (30.5 cm) of aperture.

  • Reflector / AltAz / Tripod / Go-To
  • Best for those who want to learn the sky
 

If you want to not only observe objects but also learn star names and become more familiar with how the dome of the sky changes from day to day and season to season, Levenhuk's SkyMatic 135 GTA is a strong choice. This telescope's computerized mount requires you to perform at least one star alignment. That's a good thing: It encourages you to know what's in your sky. And the onboard database of targets can teach you a lot about how the universe is built.

The SkyMatic 135 GTA from Levenhuk, and its close relatives sold under other brand names, packs everything you need for hundreds of rewarding nights into an easy-to-set-up, computerized, transportable package.
The SkyMatic 135 GTA from Levenhuk, and its close relatives sold under other brand names, packs everything you need for hundreds of rewarding nights into an easy-to-set-up, computerized, transportable package.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

The optical tube (including mirrors and focuser) is quite similar to Celestron's NexStar 130SLT and SkyProdigy. All three telescopes have the updated (i.e., thinner than past models) four-armed vane holding the secondary mirror. (Less light is blocked, and fewer artifacts appear, than with the previous generation.) This is not a bad thing; interchangeable parts and accessories are easy to find.

We were impressed with how quickly and smoothly the SkyMatic went together. It takes only a few minutes to unbox it and get going. A Phillips-head screwdriver and triangular driver are included in the box, but we found these tools completely unneeded during setup.

We like the tubular tripod. Rectangular or square tripods tend to bend if they have been warped even slightly. Attaching the accessory tray is literally a snap! You just place its nicely designed keyway on the matching part, twist it and lock it. This keeps the tripod spread securely and gives you a convenient place for eyepieces, red-lens flashlight, filters and other items.

The single altitude-azimuth arm plops neatly into its saddle and is perfectly aligned to the screw holding it in. A couple of spins of the cone cap, and you're there! Fitting up the optical tube is similarly simple.

Our only objection to this design is that it puts a relatively long and massive optical tube on a single arm. When you slew the telescope (using the keypad), it takes 6 or 7 seconds after you've stopped for the wobble to settle down. Each time you increment the pointing, it sets up a new wobble, and in windy conditions, you get constantly dancing stars and planets. That said, a sturdier arm and tripod would have cost more and been much heavier to lug around.

The focuser will accept 2-inch eyepieces. It looks almost absurdly large on the 5.3-inch (13.5 cm) tube, but it's nice to know that you can have a wide-field stargazing experience with this telescope. The two included 1.25-inch Kellner eyepieces — 1-inch (2.5 cm) wide-angle and 0.4-inch (1 cm) high-power — are quite adequate to get you started with this telescope. The focuser is easy to use as well; we just wish it had finer teeth, to allow for more precise adjustment. This focuser lacks the second "vernier" fine-focus knob seen on more expensive telescopes.

The SkyMatic's overall design is simple, elegant and modern. Only the battery pack seems absurdly archaic: an injection-molded plastic cassette for eight AA batteries that is supposed to be placed within its own leatherette stuff sack. The wires' connections are easy to break and are under constantstress, with no strain relief. You're supposed to hang this thing somewhere on your telescope. It's a clunky rig, but sadly common among telescopes of many brands.

When the telescope is not powered up, you must be careful not to spin (rotate) the scope — in other words, change its azimuth. Doing so voids the warranty if you break it. Only the altitude ("tilt") may be manually adjusted when the scope is not plugged in.

The SynScan hand controller on this Levenhuk SkyMatic 135 GTA is identical to those seen on telescopes from other manufacturers.
The SynScan hand controller on this Levenhuk SkyMatic 135 GTA is identical to those seen on telescopes from other manufacturers.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Levenhuk's SynScan keypad controller is essentially identical to Celestron's NexStar computer. That SynScan slips into a plastic bracket, which you affix to one of the tripod legs with a nylon band with a Velcro closure.

It's easier to get the SkyMatic aligned and tracking on the sky than it is with many other telescopes. But it is not fully automated. You will need to know your latitude and longitude, your local time in 24-hour format, and the identity of at least one of the bright stars in your sky.

The SkyMatic can carry a small camera. (Larger DSLRs, however, will load down the drive motors and make the tube wobble.) For astrophotography, you'll need to go one step beyond the simple star alignment: You must invoke the SynScan's Pointing Accuracy Enhancement procedure. It's not difficult; but it takes some time, and you need to be able to recognize some additional celestial objects.

The SynScan onboard computer has a database of almost 43,000 objects. That's a lot more than you'll ever see in one lifetime. The sad truth is, most of them will never be visible under most observers' sky conditions. But if you can get your SkyMatic out away from city lights on a clear, moonless night, you can look out across the cosmic ocean and back into the depths of time. And you will wonder, "Who is out there, looking back?"

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