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*Editor's Note: While you're looking for telescopes and other space gifts, check out our picks for the Best Space Gifts and Best Kids' Space Gifts and Toys for more ideas.*

Do you want a telescope that will probe the deep sky, teach you more about the universe on every night out and last for years? This list will help you find a sturdy instrument with enough photon-grabbing power to satisfy most skywatching hobbyists and machining that is precise enough to perform well every time you take it outside. Buy one of these, and you may never need another telescope.

  • Computerized German EQ Mount with AudioStar 
  • Capable mount for a flexible tribe of telescopes
Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

 

Think of Meade's new LX85 as a platform not a specific telescope. LX85 is a flexible, sturdy, precise, strong and smart "German equatorial" mount and tripod combination. No less than nine different Meade optical tubes assemblies (OTAs) can call the LX85 home. In fact, you can support practically any midsize scope weighing up to 33 lbs. (15 kilograms) as long as it adapts to a "Vixen-style" mounting plate ("dovetail receiver" channel). Most have 2-inch (5 centimeters) rack-and-pinion focusers with a velvety-feeling glide. Your choice of scope depends on what you like to do and how much you wish to spend.

One of the most cost-effective options, at about $1,200, puts Meade's R5 (120-millimeters, or 4.72 inches) achromatic refractor atop the LX85. This focuses your image at a relatively short 700 mm, keeping the optical tube manageably compact, at just 29 inches (74 cm) long. The mirror diagonal and eyepiece add another 3 inches (7.6 cm). (A Barlow lens or camera, neither one included, could add even more length.)

It may seem counterintuitive, but no telescope can brighten any object more than your unaided eye can do. All telescopes steal photons as the photons encounter lenses, mirrors and coatings on their journeys to your eye. Telescopes that are bad light thieves make better citizens. Telescopes are intended to harvest light; bigger apertures collect more.

The Meade R5 optical tube has a large aperture, but its lens design and coatings split white light into color bands that can appear as separate colored edges on objects. Stepping down in aperture from other optical tubes in the LX85 line but up in glass quality, brings you to the $1,700 LX 85 80-mm (3 inch) apochromatic refractor. Gone are the fringy, fake colors. Here is the increased contrast. This telescope is more portable, too: just 15.5 inches (39 cm) long with a tube weight of only 4.5 lbs. (0.5 kg).

The least costly LX85 OTA is the 6-inch (150 mm) Newtonian reflector, priced at about $950. You could start here, learning the superb LX85 mount, and trade up later. For $200 more, you get 2 more inches (5 cm) of aperture: the LX85 8-inch (200 mm) Newtonian. Both are fast (5/5), wide-field telescopes. Many observers find reflectors to be better at fuzzy deep-sky targets: galaxies, star clusters, nebulas and comets.

Some observers prefer the crisp images of a longer focal length folded into a shorter tube. This bit of ocular trickery is done using both mirrors and lenses. You focus them by moving the mirror, rather than the eyepiece; this can offer a more precise adjustment. Meade's 6-inch (152 mm), at $1,400, and 8-inch (203 mm), at $1,800, Catadioptric Advanced Coma-Free (ACF) telescopes give you a very flat field edge to edge. What you won't get are the spiky artifacts produced by starlight diffracting around mounting obstructions in the tube.

At the top of the LX85 line ($2500), Meade's 115-mm (4.5 inch) three-element apochromatic refractor sharpens your image and delivers very accurate color, almost completely removing any trace of chromatic aberration. The tube's increased cost goes almost entirely into its extra-low-dispersion, doped silicon glass. This telescope is probably the best choice among its siblings for visually observing Jupiter's clouds, Saturn's rings, or Mars' sugar-frosted cinnamon- and mocha-colored terrain.

Rounding out the OTAs of the LX85 family, the elder sister to the ACF is a 6-inch (150 mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain hybrid ($1,400). With a gigantic, 1,800-mm focal length, this telescope powers up to higher magnifications on objects in the abysmal reaches of the observable universe.

 

Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

 

Beyond the science side of the amateur astronomy hobby, there's the ego aspect. Appearances, frankly, matter. Any of Meade's LX85 optical tubes will give you a head-turning rig out there on the field before sunset. With dark black legs and motor modules set against stark white optical tube and mount, these are conspicuous telescopes.

You can use your LX85 during the day to look at terrestrial targets. You'll be looking at low angles close to the horizon, which means you're trying to see your target through a lot of thick air. Your lower-power eyepiece is probably the better choice, because it will better penetrate the heat-wave distortion inherent in the daylight atmosphere.

Meade doesn't skimp on its 8 x 50 finder-scope. Its view is sharp and the small tube can be precision aligned; a real help when operating at the higher powers Meade’s OTAs can deliver. You'll probably want to add a Polar Scope in the LX85 mount for easy alignment.
Meade doesn't skimp on its 8 x 50 finder-scope. Its view is sharp and the small tube can be precision aligned; a real help when operating at the higher powers Meade’s OTAs can deliver. You'll probably want to add a Polar Scope in the LX85 mount for easy alignment.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

A nice 8 x 50 finder-scope with a crosshair center indicator is included with all the OTAs. It's a much better finder than what you'd get from most of Meade's competitors. We did find it a little tricky to fit up on the R5 (120 mm, or 5 inch) achromatic refractor, however; the short optical tube places the scope's rear girth ring very close to the receiver of the finder scope. So, you have to put the finder's parts together in a specific order: Open the tube's girth-ring, insert the finder ring-clamp assembly, close the main tube girth ring, then fit the finder tube itself. You won't find that hack in the manual. You're welcome.

You will probably want to add a Polar Scope. This is a small telescope that screws in place inside the mount's lower unit. It's not included, but it's very nice to have. It helps you precisely align the mount on the Earth's celestial pole — most commonly the North Pole, as most people observe from the Northern Hemisphere. This is very helpful if you intend to photograph the night sky. The more precise your polar alignment, the longer the exposure you can take. As we took this review live, Meade did not offer a dedicated polar-axis finder scope for the LX85, but the LX70's polar scope will work and an LX85-specific polar scope is expected soon.

You'll need, of course, a source of 12v DC power. If an AC "wall outlet" is nearby, a simple transformer will get you what you need. With a simple 12v extender cable, you can run power from a car or truck's cigarette-lighter-style socket. To run self-contained, you'll need a power pack. This can be simply a rechargeable battery or a more fully featured unit with flashlights, USB charge ports and a radio receiver.

With the German Equatorial Mount polar-aligned, Meade’s LX85 tracks with great precision. For extremely long-duration astrophotography, a Periodic Error Correction mode enables the LX85 platform to self-correct its own minor internal motor slippage.
With the German Equatorial Mount polar-aligned, Meade’s LX85 tracks with great precision. For extremely long-duration astrophotography, a Periodic Error Correction mode enables the LX85 platform to self-correct its own minor internal motor slippage.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Meade's AudioStar hand controller is the link between your brain and your LX85. Someday, that might be a direct link — but for now, it's between your fingers and the keypad. The two-line LCD display is easy to read and won't spoil your dark adaptation. All the menus loop; just keep pressing the Scroll Down arrow. You'll use AudioStar to set up and align the telescope. If you're lucky enough to be able to leave your LX85 in a set location between observing nights, there's a Park Scope feature that will remember your alignment. There's also a clever Cord Wrap mode that will choreograph the 'scope so it doesn't strangle itself (or you) in its own cables as it slews around.

AudioStar holds ephemeris data (precise orbital plotting) for more than 30,000 celestial objects. It knows what will be where and when. AudioStar's Astronomer Inside can keep you company during the lonely night, talking you through 4 hours of guided sky touring.

One easy way to get started in astrophotography is to use your smartphone camera. Because the LX85 mount tracks like a champ, once you've got an object where you want it in the eyepiece, you simply substitute the phone for your eyeball and take a shot. Just make sure your flash is off — especially if there are other astronomers anywhere around — or things could get ugly! There are also aftermarket adapters that can attach to the telescope and hold your phone in place. Some will hold small sports cameras.

Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Meade's LX85 EQ computerized mount can be ordered alone or with your choice of nine different optical tubes. Pictured here, Meade’s R5 120 mm (4.72-inch) achromatic refractor.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

If you like your smartphone sky shots, the LX85 is ready to take you further. It has a built-in port for an auto-guider, which you can buy as a separate accessory from Meade or a variety of other sellers. These devices, once aligned with the main telescope, tell the mount exactly where to point (several times each second) to keep your target locked in the view.

Adding a dedicated astrophotography camera to your rig would let you collect light over time (long exposures and multiple exposures of the same object), the way billion-dollar research telescopes do. The LX85 lets you teach your 'scope how to fix its own inherent motor-drive slipups. This is known as Periodic Error Correction mode.

What if all you want to do is take beautiful pictures and you don't care that much about visual observing? Consider the cost-effective LX 85 70-mm (2.8 inch) astrograph. At around $1,900, this instrument's sole purpose is high-quality astrophotography. Think of it as a killer self-guiding telephoto camera lens, because that's exactly what it is. But compared to a telescope meant for visual observing, it's petite, at just 12.25 inches (31 cm) in length.

At this point, you will probably add a laptop computer with image-stacking and -processing software. Deep-sky astrophotography is a very deep hobby, with a lot of fun learning to be done. But the LX85 mount and its line of optical tubes are ready to carry you there if and when you want to go. We think they could be an excellent investment for years of enjoyment.

  • Computerized GoTo Dobsonian
  • Big light bucket with automated pointing and tracking

 

Zack Payne's Orion SkyQuest XT10g Dobsonian Telescope
Zack Payne's Orion SkyQuest XT10g Dobsonian Telescope
Credit: Zack Payne

 

In the late 1960s, John Dobson showed the world how to funnel the maximum number of star-spawned photons into human eyes for the minimum budget. He taught the embryonic amateur-astronomy community how to build large-aperture Newtonian reflector telescopes on simple up-down/left-right, homemade mounts called rocker boxes. There was nothing motorized, digital or automatic about them. And that was good: It elevated human curiosity and wonder. It put people on the street in direct touch with the sky. Dobsonian telescopes are human-scale things, tactile and direct.

A half-century later, the world looks different. For our human convenience, we increasingly give information and control over to artificial intelligence and self-driven machines. Orion's SkyQuest XTg GoTo models brought powered automation to the Dobsonian telescope about eight years ago, and they've proven themselves solid performers. For amazingly little cost ($1,500), these big, simple light buckets can find their own way around the sky.

Orion's XTg is a family. If you can handle more bulk, it's probably worth it to jump up to the big brother XT12g ($1,800) for that amazing 12-inch (300 mm) aperture. If you're budget-limited or closet-space-constrained, step down to the XT8g ($1,050).

The alignment process is not automatic. The XTg comes with neither GPS nor a self-alignment camera. But that's the case with most GoTo rigs out there. You'll need to identify two stars (or three bright objects, such as two stars and a planet) in your sky, have a good idea of your location on Earth and have an accurate source for marking the time. So, there's some methodical mind work to do.

But Orion hasn't lost the essential essence of Dobson, the chemist turned Vedanta monk turned sidewalk-astronomy sensei. You still assemble this telescope yourself. Only the very trickiest bits — encoders, motors and gears — are done for you. The rest is not unlike a flat-packed furniture build (think Ikea). There are panels to prop up and screws to twist. The enchanted journey is preserved: The palpable connection to constructing and the joy of assembling a few humble parts into a mighty perceptual starship are maintained. And you can always turn off the computer and fly the sky under totally analog manual control.

In GoTo mode, optical encoders on both altitude and azimuth axes talk to the computer, which commands the motors. To run all this, you'll need 12v power, and Orion offers its Dynamo Pro portable power source for that purpose. Other manufacturers do as well.

Once powered and aligned, the hand controller can deliver views of 42,000 different objects. Most are point-source stars, but in practice, you'll probably concentrate on the major planets and irregular shapes: clusters, galaxies, nebulas and comets. You can slew the 'scope with the hand controller or just shove it around with your hand; it won't get disoriented as long as you don't rock the base.

The two-speed Crayford focuser (11:1 reduction) feels smooth in the fast mode and precise in its fine mode. You can take simple photos of the moon and the larger planets, but the system really isn't designed for serious long-exposure imaging.

To help you learn the sky, plan observing sessions and understand what these objects are, Orion provides Starry Night Special Edition software. [Disclosure: This author contributed to the development of Starry Night software.]

John Dobson opened the universe for hundreds of thousands of people with person-size, friendly telescopes that could see deep into the sky. Orion's XTg series of large reflectors continues his work proudly.

  • Hybrid (Schmidt-Cassegrain) / Computerized German EQ Mount
  • Hefty rig for serious astronomy and astrophotography
The Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT is a lot to transport, but it's worth the effort to get this telescope operating under dark skies in exotic locations.
The Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT is a lot to transport, but it's worth the effort to get this telescope operating under dark skies in exotic locations.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

If you're truly serious about studying the sky, step up to the beast class: heavy, capable telescopes on big, brawny mounts. The largest of these can reach gargantuan proportions. And they need to be massive; there's no other way to get large apertures with fine precision. 

We picked the Celestron Advanced VX 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT) because it delivers a lot of the big-scope experience at the lower end of the size and price range for these behemoths. And, if you're looking to get into serious astrophotography, this instrument provides an outstanding platform for the price.

Your new, immense Celestron will come in two shipping boxes: one for the C8 optical tube, and the other for everything else. The boxes are sealed with "Celestron Quality Assurance"-marked tape. Indeed, everything in the many boxes within boxes arrived in starship-shape and ready to work.

To set up, you'll probably want a second pair of hands — and a brain attached to them wouldn't hurt. These components are massive. Stewarding them into proper configuration can be both strenuous and fiddly. It can be done alone, but if this is your first go at a big SCT, I suggest you conscript a helper. Fully built, this telescope weighs more than 59 lbs. (27 kilograms). You'll love every ounce of it, though; rigging it can be a great bonding activity with your skywatching partner, friend, spouse or other family member.

This classic tripod design hasn't changed substantially in 30 years. Massive, 2-inch-diameter (50 millimeters) stainless-steel legs splay out to carry the load. Even when the lower legs are not deployed, the mount base sits at a height of 28.5 inches (724 mm). That might be high enough for most skywatchers, because the tall, complex mount is about 15 inches (381 mm) high in the 45-degree position. The legs can extend another 20 inches (508 mm) — enough room for you to arrange your eyepiece or camera at just the right working height.

Hard plastic feet terminate the legs. They're workable on either soft soil or "hardscape," such as rock or paved surfaces. The thick steel accessory tray, riding the main mount shaft, doubles as the spreader. Warning: It will put small scratches in your brand-new tripod legs. In three decades, no manufacturer — and several use this exact design — has thought to add bumpers. Why not? Just another mystery of the cosmos.

A substantial scope on an equatorial mount needs a massive counterweight. This one is a single 12-lb. (5.4 kg) lump. We can't say this often enough, especially about a big rig like this: USE YOUR TOE SAVER (the counterweight stop at the end of the shaft).

The VX motorized mount is slewed around the sky via a NexStar+ hand control (remote). This system now will accept firmware updates via a USB port. Use the NexStar+ keypad to run the alignment procedure at the beginning of your night. Many thousands of viewable objects will then be just a few key taps away. You can hunt by planet, by star or through lists of deep-sky objectives. You can also work backward: Tap the "identify" function, and NexStar+ will read its catalogs of the nearest targets to your pointing position, along with the offsets to center them.

Though it looks a bit daunting for beginners, Celestron's Advanced XT 8" SCT becomes intuitive to run after a few nights of learning. And the view is well worth the price of admission.
Though it looks a bit daunting for beginners, Celestron's Advanced XT 8" SCT becomes intuitive to run after a few nights of learning. And the view is well worth the price of admission.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Mounting the remote holder to the tripod leg is an experience in brute force. Aim carefully; you get "one kick at the cat." The holder is high-strength plastic; you probably won't break it, but it'll feel like you could. It snaps on ("thuds on" is more accurate), never after to move. I'm right-handed, like the remote mounted on the leg to the starboard side (right side as you're facing north, in the Northern Hemisphere). Some skywatchers put it on the leg that extends back to the south, but I'm afraid that I'd bump it on my way to the eyepiece. Once locked in place, the remote in its holder looks very "Star Trek." Call me a geek, but I love it.

The VX mount is a magnificent machine. Smaller mounts look like "gadgets," but this brute is clearly an "engine." The servomotor force is strong with this one. You may see some grease weeping out of the rotating bits from time to time. Three cables make it go: The first connects the NexStar+ remote to the controller port, the second is the 12-volt DC supply from the power port, and the third is a wired link between the mount and the declination motor.

The mission of an equatorial mount like this is to get the telescope's axis of rotation to be parallel with that of the Earth. So, you'll have to do some vertical angle (altitude) adjusting and some horizontal (azimuth) positioning before you turn on the electronics. Celestron has cast in a metal peg at the position where the counterweight will sink nicely between a pair of legs when you're polar aligning the telescope. Plant your tripod so that the small peg faces roughly north. This peg guides you where to initially place the mount on the tripod. The closer you live to the equator, the more you'll appreciate why the company added this helpful little nib.

This sturdy, flexible mount accepts several different optical tubes in the Celestron line. To review a configuration close to the bottom of the price range, we chose the 8-inch (203 mm) Schmidt-Cassegrain (hybrid). Our tube was aluminum; a lighter carbon-fiber variant is also available. The tube also comes in other apertures: 6 inches (152 mm), 9.25 inches (235 mm), 11 inches (279 mm) and 14 inches (356 mm). Their optical surfaces have Celestron's "StarBright XLT" coatings, which supposedly pass more photons along to your eyepiece, camera or other detector. (We did not test this claim.) 

Celestron's Advanced XT 8" SCT can become your own personal starship, ready to engage targets, whether nearby in the solar system or many millions of light-years away.
Celestron's Advanced XT 8" SCT can become your own personal starship, ready to engage targets, whether nearby in the solar system or many millions of light-years away.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes (SCTs) fold the light path to give you a long focal length in a condensed tube. (See our pages on different telescope types.) That complex optical path steals some brightness, so SCTs are not "optically fast."  SCTs pass fewer photons than other telescopes of equal aperture. But your eye probably won't mind. And the mount will track smoothly enough for long photographic exposures, especially if you employ auto-guiding functions, for which this telescope is ready. In particular, Celestron has included what it calls Permanently Programmable Periodic Error Correction (PEC) software. This lets you correct for the small errors inherent in every telescope drive mechanism and store the correction so that your scope won't need as much guidance.

When focusing an SCT, you're actually moving the primary mirror back and forth with respect to the secondary. The internal rails on this C8 are smooth, and the focus knob has a nice balance between authority and accuracy. 

The compact simplicity of the Celestron Advanced XT 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain optical tube makes it comfortable and enjoyable to operate, compared with long-tube refractors or lengthy Newtonians.
The compact simplicity of the Celestron Advanced XT 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain optical tube makes it comfortable and enjoyable to operate, compared with long-tube refractors or lengthy Newtonians.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

The included 6 x 30 finder scope is a legit piece of kit; coated, dew-resistant lenses befit this up-market line. Its mount is affixed to the main optical tube, so there's no guesswork about alignment. Our only disappointment: soft plastic adjustment screws. (C'mon, Celestron, what's up with that?)

The included star diagonal is a proper prism (not a cheap mirror) with excellent light-transmission properties. It will make your image right side up, but it will be reversed left to right (just like a mirror). You can, of course, skip the diagonal and pop an eyepiece directly into the "visual back" of the tube. That will invert your image, but for cosmic objects, this isn't something to worry about. This technique is often useful for getting the brightest possible details when observing planets at high power.

There is only one eyepiece included in this kit, and it's 20 mm (0.8 inches). Celestron probably figures you may be trading up from a smaller scope and will have at least two others: a high and a low. So the midpower 20 mm is a welcome addition. But if not, you can choose from a large universe of eyepieces from many manufacturers.

All telescopes will sometimes "dew over" as moisture condenses on the optics. If the fog is on the outside surfaces, a low power (DC) hair dryer will kill it nicely. If dew gets on the inside of any SCT, your observing night is probably over. You'll need to dismount the optical tube, remove the eyepiece or camera and set the telescope facing downward in a dry, nondusty place.

Fast astrophotos

This telescope is well equipped to support astrophotography. You could simply adapt your DSLR or mirrorless camera to hang at the back of the scope, in place of the eyepiece. The German equatorial mount means your expensive camera won't go smashing into the base as it might with a forked alt-az mount. But Celestron gives you an even better option: The front lens on this telescope, called the "corrector plate," carries the secondary mirror. Celestron lets you remove that small mirror, to be replaced with an aftermarket CCD camera purpose-built for shooting the night sky. This conversion does negate your eyepiece, so you'll have to refine your shot via your camera. (You can switch back and forth in a few minutes, but you should avoid doing so in the dark.)

Adding the camera shortens the focal length by 5x (down to 16 inches, or 406.4 mm), but it makes the telescope that much faster. It also makes your field of view 5x wider. With the camera attached, the telescope becomes an f/2 light bucket, reducing your exposure times by an amazing 25x. So, for example, a color nebula image that would have needed 90 minutes with a DSLR can now be had in under 4 minutes (simplifying the auto-guiding process).

You can even do a live video feed to a monitor. That's perfect for family gatherings and public demos, and very cool for posting frame grabs on social media. With this setup — plus image-processing software, practice and patience — you can get better shots of certain objects from your backyard than the largest observatories on Earth did 50 years ago.

Like most telescopes with massive, built-in motorized mounts, this Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT needs an external power source, like the Orion "power tank" pictured here.
Like most telescopes with massive, built-in motorized mounts, this Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT needs an external power source, like the Orion "power tank" pictured here.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Extra equipment

If you're going this big, you'll need some peripheral items — minimally, a "power tank."  The VX mount draws 3.5 amps. You could burn through a full car battery's worth of 12-volt juice in one long, busy observing night. A few power-tank products come with handy extras, like red-filtered lamps, USB power sockets, and weather radios. Some even have inverters to supply 120 VAC. (Power tanks are also nice to have around your home, in case of power outages.)  

The VX mount can be controlled from a laptop or tablet. In fact, it comes with a digital download for Starry Night software. If you're doing astrophotography, you're almost certainly out there with a CPU of some kind (laptop or tablet). So it's essential to have plenty of power on-site.

You'll also want a case, or at least a protective carry bag for the optical tube. Celestron sells one that uses the molded foam from your original shipping carton to swaddle the light bucket. Protect your investment! 

Larger telescopes, like this Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT, need appropriately sized transportation. For very short distances, you could securely strap the components into a car or van. But it's much better to pack them into padded, form-fitting shipping cases.
Larger telescopes, like this Celestron Advanced XT 8" SCT, need appropriately sized transportation. For very short distances, you could securely strap the components into a car or van. But it's much better to pack them into padded, form-fitting shipping cases.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

A Polar Finder scope can also be quite helpful. This is a small optical tube that fits up to the built-in threads on the VX mount's internal polar axis. It helps you precisely align the EQ mount with the celestial pole. You adjust the tripod and tweak the right ascension until the star Polaris pops into the etched circle in the reticle of this little scope. Then — "Bob's yer uncle" — you're aligned!Celestron offers one polar finderthat works with four of the company's most advanced mounts.

Put simply, to speed up and improve the accuracy of your alignment (something you do each time you change your observing site), you might want to add Celestron's SkySync GPS. This is an inexpensive 16-channel Global Positioning System receiver that straps to a tripod leg and cable to the VX mount on one of the auxiliary ports. 

Yes, a big telescope like this takes a serious commitment of cash, transport and time to use it. But the universe will pay you back, many times over, in celestial trophies you really can't bag any other way.

  • 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
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?"

  • Reflector / AltAz / Tripod
  • Absorb the sky without a computer
The Meade Polaris 130 EQ reflector's design stimulates learning. The manually operated equatorial mount will teach you how Earth moves, and the excellent optics will spark questions about how the universe is put together.
The Meade Polaris 130 EQ reflector's design stimulates learning. The manually operated equatorial mount will teach you how Earth moves, and the excellent optics will spark questions about how the universe is put together.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

Certain telescope configurations lend themselves to learning; Meade's Polaris 130 is a perfect example. You'll obtain excellent views of objects, but for you to get them, the Polaris will gently compel you to understand some key celestial mechanics and a fair bit about how telescopes work. It's a completely manual telescope. To get it set up and start sky hunting, you'll need to understand the (nonintuitive) equatorial (EQ) mount, and you'll have to learn how to read a star chart.

The Meade 130 is similar to Levenhuk's Skyline (reviewed in our Best Inexpensive / Gift Telescopessection). But everything about the Meade is slightly bigger, better and more refined and, yes, rather pricier. 

Telescopes should be scored based on how nice the objects viewed through them look. But we were taken with how this Meade itself looks, standing proudly on its precision mount, the tube sparkling in metallic-blue Meade livery. Even the toe-saver screw is a finely knurled bauble wearing a blue anodized coat.

There's strength beneath the splendor: 1.25-inch-diameter (32 mm) tripod legs will minimize dreaded shaky stars on windy nights. The accessory tray is well-molded, high-impact plastic. It's cleverly designed, too. Topologically, it's a pregnant triangle sculpted to nestle up into the tripod's spreader arms, where it's captured and seated by a threaded stud with a six-lobed knob, making it easy to undo at the end of a crisp night. There are cutouts for three eyepieces and a finger for hanging "lanyarded" gear. There's also a dedicated cutout for a telescope remote, but with no motors onboard, the stock Polaris doesn't use one.

The telescope rides on a well-constructed "German equatorial" mount. Such mounts are not the best for beginners; EQ mounts are tricky to understand and demanding to operate. You need to know the latitude of your observing site and the direction of your closest pole (north or south). You should be able to locate exactly where your celestial pole is; it's either the star Polaris (the North Star) or the complementary point on the southern sky (close to the star Sigma Octantis). Longitude on the sky becomes right ascension on the telescope, and latitude maps to declination.

With a manual telescope like this, finding objects requires knowledge of how to read star charts and how to translate coordinates to the telescope, which can be taxing to do in the dark. But this Meade's setting circles – the numbered rings you use to point the telescope to a location by its coordinates – sport bright, easy-to-read markings. It's more work than you'd have with a computerized Go-To mount. But this Meade scope will immediately reward you with crisp, colorful starlight memories.

Meade one-ups the competition by including three eyepieces: a low-power 26 mm (1 inch), a higher-power 9 mm (0.35 inches) and a very-high-power 6.3 mm (0.25 inch). That last one is best used to see surface detail on bright planets, but it has a very small aperture and exit pupil (the diameter of the image formed by the ocular). Some folks will find it hard to get their eye aligned on it. It's become common practice to include a Barlow magnifier, and Meade follows the trend with a 2x lens. Placed into the focuser with the eyepiece fitted into it, the Barlow ups the focal length, increasing the effective magnification.

Meade's eyepiece capture screws are, thankfully, metal. Other brands use plastic, which tends to break in the cold, warp in the heat and shear off with even a small amount of over-torque by an enthusiastic thumb and forefinger (like mine).

The optical tube strikes a nice balance between high quality and economical production. Its 5.1-inch aperture (130 mm) collects plenty of ancient wave-particle dualities and focuses them into sharp targets.  

The silky feel of the focuser on Meade's Polaris 130 EQ speaks of the overall mechanical quality of this fine hobbyist telescope. The finder is a simple red-dot pointer with no magnification, but it will get you "in the zone" quite fast.
The silky feel of the focuser on Meade's Polaris 130 EQ speaks of the overall mechanical quality of this fine hobbyist telescope. The finder is a simple red-dot pointer with no magnification, but it will get you "in the zone" quite fast.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

The rack-and-pinion focuser feels silky but, to my touch, could use knobs of larger diameter. When observing a galaxy, I like to nudge the focus very slightly in and out a few times; it tricks my brain into noticing more of the object's structure. But this hack is harder to do with smaller focus knobs.

As on the Levenhuk Skyline reflectors, the tube rings provide a threaded stud for your camera.

The finder performs no magnification. It's just an illuminated red dot. But the glass has a nice diachronic coating befitting the Meade's "laboratory grade" heritage.

Noncomputerized telescopes, like this Meade Polaris 130 EQ, require knowledge of how to read star charts and how to translate target coordinates to the telescope. But the bright, easy-to-read setting circles lessen the burden on your brain.
Noncomputerized telescopes, like this Meade Polaris 130 EQ, require knowledge of how to read star charts and how to translate target coordinates to the telescope. But the bright, easy-to-read setting circles lessen the burden on your brain.
Credit: @DavidSkyBrody

 

Meade's instruction manual (included) is a good read all by itself. If you knew nothing when you started, you'd be well versed in basic astronomy by page 21. And the book reminds you to "Have Fun!" That's very sound advice from an excellent, experienced manufacturer.

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