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Do you want painless, quick access to the universe? Our editors suggest these nimble telescopes. One is "digital"; the other is "analog." Take your pick:
Celestron Astro Fi 102 Mak-Cas Wi-Fi
- Maksutov-Cassegrain/AltAz Tripod/Go-To
- Most innovative, future-proof and "digital"
Also Available as a refractor (same price):
Celestron Astro Fi 90 Refractor Wi-Fi
- Refractor/AltAz Tripod/Go-To
Celestron recently found a very clever way to give you much more telescope for your money. But you need to be comfortable with digital devices.
Most "Go-To" scopes have microprocessors on board with many lines of dedicated software code and special-purpose keypads cabled to the mount. The Celestron Astro Fi telescopes do away with all that stuff, because you already own it! Your Apple or Android smartphone or tablet makes a perfectly excellent telescope controller.
All you need to do is download Celestron's free SkyPortal app from the Apple App Store or Google Play, and then pair the app with the telescope via Wi-Fi. You won't need access to a network; your new Astro Fi scope is itself a network. The instrument will work even where your cellular networks don't.
There's no hand controller, no set of manual pointing knobs and no need for a laptop cabled to the mount. You just hold your phone or tab up to the night sky, and the scope will accurately track what's up tonight. Just touch an on-screen target, and your Astro Fi scope will slew to and center that sight, while your smart device displays information about the object.
You will have to perform a quick alignment, but this is super easy: Center any bright object in the eyepiece; repeat for two other bright objects. The Astro Fi (plus your device) will do the rest in a few seconds.
The overused phrase "this is the future" (of astronomy) comes to mind. In this case, it might be true.
We love refractors, like the Astro Fi 90, for spying on neighboring planets, and we love catadioptric hybrids, like the Astro Fi 102 Mak-Cas, for point sources, like stars.
Optically, the 3.5-inch (90mm) spyglass does not disappoint. The lens coatings do a fair job of contrast improvement. With a focal ratio of 10.1, it is not especially "fast." But if you have clear, dark skies, you won't need more speed unless you get into serious astrophotography.
Like all refractors, the Astro Fi 90 suffers from a bit of chromatic aberration; you'll see a ring of color spectrum around bright objects as the shorter indigo and blue wavelengths are bent more (by the lens glass) than the longer, red wavelengths. To keep the price squarely in the first-time-buyer range, Celestron did not go to the much more expensive ED (extra-low-dispersion) glass and harder-to-cast lens architecture needed to reduce this colorful artifact. But if you're new to the hobby, we doubt this will bother you much.
The Astro Fi 102 Mak-Cas is more compact. It's a tad "slower" optically than its refractor cousin. But you won't see any "coma" ("hair") on objects. Stars are clean and bright, and you'll avoid the colored rings around planets and brighter stars that you can get with the Astro Fi 90 and many other refractor telescopes.
You might notice a little softness at the edges of your circular image with the 102 Mak-Cas. That's a characteristic of the hybrid mirror/lens design. All but the most expensive catadioptrics have fields that are less than flat. But it's actually a nice visual effect, and you'd slew to put your main target in the center anyway.
If you absolutely must have a reflector, Celestron offers the Astro Fi 130 Newtonian. But we found that big-tube reflectors riding on Celestron's one-arm altitude-azimuth mount (same for all three Astro Fi scopes) tend to wobble when the scope is slewed and wiggle when the wind blows. The 130 reflector also costs $20 more.
The aluminum tripod scared us a bit. It's softer than steel and could easily be bent. Worse, the legs have a rectangular cross section. If they take a serious dent, get twisted or become warped (all quite possible), they will not smoothly slide to their collapsed positions.
We do love the accessory tray, though. Not only does it serve as a spreader to lock the tripod in position, but the tray also has a sweet rubber-coated hump designed to rest your phone or small tablet at a viewable — but not "slip and fall" — angle. Of course, the tray also holds your eyepieces.
In summary, it feels altogether wizard-y the first time you touch your phone's screen and the long, thin telescope slews to a celestial sight. You're going to enjoy this!
Orion StarBlast 6 or StarBlast 6i "IntelliScope"
- Reflector/AltAz Rocket-Box
- Simplest to use; gobbles big gulps of photons
For some people, the definition of "easy" does not include a screen, a keypad, icons or apps. If that is you, you are right: The universe is analog, not digital. So why not put your money into bigger, better optics so you can capture more starlight rather than buying cutesy gimmickry to find that light?
You want the largest light bucket you can get for your dollar. Orion produces several models at various sizes and prices. Try the $339.99 StarBlast 6 Dobsonian reflector. You'll get nearly 6 inches (15 centimeters) of aperture on a tabletop turntable, a rocker-arm mount and a pair of 1.25-inch (3.2 cm) eyepieces. The telescope is very easy to set up, and you'll be observing very quickly — pure analog, just as inventor John Dobson intended.
Unlike a few of its larger siblings, this Orion pops out of its shipping box fully assembled. Everything "just works," from the nonbinding PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) bearings letting the scope swivel and rock easily, to the smooth focuser. Like with all Newtonian refractors, you will someday need to collimate the optical path by adjusting the mirror, but that's not hard to do.
With a noncomputerized instrument like this, you are more likely to have extra discovery moments: There's nothing quite like the thrill of manually slewing a telescope across the sky when something catches your eye. Your brain sets off a little fire of neurons, pleading with you to stop, look around and key in on some object: perhaps a galaxy or nebula you weren't looking for. At that moment, you join a brotherhood and sisterhood of astronomers stretching back through Hubble and Herschel and Galileo and on down into prehistoric times.
To assist your observation planning — or even just to help you get familiar with the cosmic real estate up there — Orion includes Starry Night astronomy software. (Full disclosure: This author helped to create the Starry Night product.)
If you really want some extra targeting assistance, step up to the StarBlast 6i "IntelliScope" ($499.99). The "i" in StarBlast 6i stands for "IntelliScope." It's not a Go-To (that's very hard to do on a Dobsonian) but rather a Push-To. A small electronics pack keeps track of the telescope's altitude and azimuth and, once the instrument is aligned, tells you when you're closer to, or farther from, your intended objective. [Watch this video explaining the Orion StarBlast 6i IntelliScope, and read our full review.]