Editor's Note: Before you buy a telescope, check out our Celestron telescope deals here! And If you're looking 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 painless, quick access to the universe? Our editors suggest these nimble telescopes.
Celestron has found a very clever way to give you much more telescope for your money. But you need to be comfortable with digital devices.
Most "GoTo" 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.
The Astro Fi is also available as a refractor at a similar price:
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.
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. 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.
Easiest to set up and use:
Easily set-up and inexpensively purchased, Meade's StarPro AZ 70mm refractor is ready to attack the sky. But it's equally useful for targets on Earth. Three included eyepieces, plus a Barlow lens, offers your choice of six different magnifications.
When operating the telescope in the daytime, you expect your target to appear just as it does to your eye but magnified, right side up and not reversed left to right. Meade makes sure the StarPro delivers this by including an "erect-image diagonal" to fit between optical tube and eyepiece. This small, image-correcting box also bends the optical path to make for more comfortable viewing when pointing at objects lying at higher angles in the sky.
Best manual beginner telescope:
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?
If you want the largest light bucket you can get for your dollar, try the StarBlast 6i 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 (32 mm) eyepieces. The telescope is very easy to set up, and you'll be observing very quickly — pure analog, just as inventor John Dobson intended.
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.)
The "i" in StarBlast 6i stands for "IntelliScope." It's not a "GoTo" (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.
Editors' choice for best of both worlds (blend of digital/analog):
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.
We were impressed with how quickly and smoothly the SkyMatic went together. It takes only a few minutes to unbox it and get going. 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.
Editors' choice for hobbyists:
The Celestron SkyProdigy 130 is the first consumer telescope to offer fully automatic alignment. Once you set it up under the night sky, it takes about 3 minutes for the scope to find itself. Then you can use the wired remote keypad to drive this high-quality Newtonian reflector. The SkyProdigy comes with two 1.25-inch Kellner eyepieces (25 mm and 9 mm). The nicely machined focuser can also accept 2-inch eyepieces.
Editors' budget choice:
Orion's StarMax 90 folds the light-path to give you big performance in a small package. It's Maksutov-Cassegrain optical design accepts light through a front objective, bounces it off a curved primary mirror at the back, to a secondary mirror mounted on the front objective, then out through a hole in the primary, through the eyepiece. Brilliant!
It's a compact, powerful and — at around $200 — very cost-effective portable telescope. But, yes, it needs a flat platform on which to perch. Orion calls it a "tabletop go-scope." Just know before you go if there will be a flat surface available for you under the sky.
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