*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. See our full Best Telescopes Guide, too*
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 (similar 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!
Lowest-Cost Entry into Amateur Astronomy:
Orion SpaceProbe II 76-mm Newtonian
- Reflector on a Simple Altitude/Azimuth Mount
Let's say this astronomy stuff looks interesting to you, but you just don't have the budget to plunge in with wild abandon. Orion's SpaceProbe II is a low-cost (about $80) solution that delivers an honest experience of amateur observing. Start here, and you will easily transition to bigger telescopes, more-complex mounts, better glass and perhaps astrograph cameras in the future. This inexpensive, small-diameter reflector can be the on-ramp to many years of rewarding observing.
The telescope is a classic Newtonian optical-path design, with a pair of eyepieces of the typical size, a smooth focuser, and an intuitive altitude/azimuth (up/down and left/right) mount. Those eyepieces yield a respectable 28x and 70x magnification.
So, what do you miss out on for this very low "spend?" Mostly, you give up aperture size and slow-motion guiding. The 76 mm in width is just not a lot of mirror; it's not a large area for collecting light. But it's plenty for the moon, and Orion includes a moon map with 260 labeled craters, rills, mountains and other surface features.
The SpaceProbe II is also a noble performer on bright planets; it's great for watching the solar-system-in-miniature that is mighty Jupiter and his lovers, the four Galilean moons. The darker your skies are, the more you'll appreciate this SpaceProbe. Several of the closer star clusters will look like hanging, jeweled candelabras in your eyepiece. If you're viewing from Earth's Northern Hemisphere, at least 20 galaxies are within range of this small telescope. You'll just have to get good at reading star charts — or using an app (not included) — to find the stars, as there's nothing computerized about this telescope.
Because the SpaceProbe isn’t under precise servo-motor control, beginner-astronomers will have to get the hang of guiding it by hand. There's also no gearing to slow down your manual inputs, so pointing the 'scope precisely is a matter of finessing your touch. This can be a little frustrating for very young users, but a calm adult hand will get them to relax into the serene art of observing the universe. That, after all, is the most important part of astronomy.
The rig is comparatively long. The steel tube is not flimsy, though it may dent a bit over the years. The tripod is aluminum, so the whole rig weighs in at less than 7 lbs. (3 kg), meaning it's transportable (but not compact).
Best Optical Quality in a Beginner Telescope:
Meade StarNavigator 102 with AudioStar
- Refractor (other types available) / Go-To AltAz Mount
- Works for terrestrial targets, too
Meade justifiably prides itself on the laboratory-grade heritage of its optical components and meticulous machining. Indeed, the clean light-transmission properties of this StarNavigator 102 are excellent, due to somewhat better glass casting and lens coating than those of competitors. The overall build quality of the telescope is also better, and the onboard computer's well-thought-out software and interface make it easy to grab starlight from all over the sky on every night out. You can get to more targets per session with a computer-guided telescope than with a manual rig, and this one is especially user-friendly and easy to operate.
Meade actually markets five very fine telescopes in this StarNavigator series. They vary in aperture, optical path type and, of course, price. Choose from a 5.1-inch (130 mm) Newtonian reflector, a 5-inch (127 mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain hybrid, a 4.5-inch (114 mm) Newtonian reflector, a 4-inch (102 mm) compact refractor and a 3.5-inch (90 mm) long-tube (spyglass) refractor. The range spans about $100.
The StarNavigator two-tier tripod is striking in its elegance and simple to use. Its legs are kidney-shaped in cross-section (rather than hard angled), so they never fail to slide smoothly. You extend each leg by opening a fingertip-friendly clamp lock that folds flat (so it doesn't get caught on anything), and the clamp lock is wide enough to release with a gloved hand on cold nights. During setup, you really must deploy the lower legs at least halfway, or else the accessory tray will be too low to the ground to use.
The 90-degree "prism diagonal" comes with the scope. This module fits between the eyepiece and the optical tube, and is used to bend the image into a comfortable viewing position. It's a so-called "image-erecting" type; objects appear through the eyepiece in the same orientation as they would to your eye. (Telescope lens and mirror combinations may naturally flip and/or reverse the images they project.) This lets you use the StarNavigator refractor to observe targets on Earth. And the 4-inch (102 mm) short-tube optical path makes the scope compact enough to pull double duty as a spotting scope.
Dual-axis servomotors drive the single-arm altitude-azimuth mount. They slew the scope to objects under the control of Meade's AudioStar computer, which is accessed with the handheld (wired) remote. You can choose among nine translation rates, from speeding across the sky to locate a new target, to very slowly centering that object in your eyepiece. Plus, the computer is preloaded with a database of 30,000 celestial sights. You'll also find the so-called Astronomer Inside, which is Meade's name for the 4 hours of narrated audio clips that play in context to your telescope's pointing. Astronomer Inside can even give you a guided tour of your local sky that will self-adapt to any night of the year. It's like a built-in star party.
Watch our video review of the StarNavigator 102 by Meade:
Bundled in the box is a 42-minute instructional video disc to be played along with the printed manual. (The software is Windows-only.) You can control your StarNavigator from a laptop with aftermarket planetarium software, but you'll need Meade's USB-to-RS-232 serial adapter.
The telescope's remote plops nicely into its custom-molded holder in the accessory tray. Its coiled cable is just long enough to reach the holder, though it does slightly stress cable's strain relief at the bottom of the remote. Or, you can hook it on the mount saddle higher up using the provided wire clip.
The mount is integrated into a sort of deep-dish-pie-shaped can, with the battery pod and the arm that holds the optical tube growing from its lid. (You'll need eight AA batteries, unless you have access to an external 12-volt DC (a "power tank") or an AC outlet for the included adapter.) This container holds the electronics, one of the motors and all of the electronic ports. It sits snugly into a saddle suspended from the tripod's legs. Straight out of the box, one of the flat rubber footpads that cushion the mount had come adrift due to failure of the adhesive. But one drop of rubber cement later, it was back on and working fine.
The smooth rack-and-pinion focuser on the StarNavigator has an advantage over most telescopes in its price range: In addition to the 1.25-inch" (31.75 mm) eyepieces that come with the scope, it accepts 2-inch (50.8 mm) eyepieces (purchased separately). These larger pieces of glass are especially fun as you pan across wide star fields; they provide that timeless, weightless "spacewalking" virtual experience.
(Editor's note: The author owns a previous Meade model. His scope is still going strong after 25 years.)
Best Manual (Non-Motor Driven) Beginner Telescope:
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 (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.
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.]
Best Value for Young Beginners:
Levenhuk Skyline 60 x 700
- Refractor on Altitude/Azimuth Mount
When buying a first telescope, especially for a younger user, the biggest consideration is the frustration factor. The shorter (and easier) the time from setup to first rewarding celestial view, the better. Levenhuk's Skyline 60 x 700 AZ checks this box beautifully.
As we have come to expect from the inexpensive Levenhuk scopes, this beginner model is lightly built, with thinner plastics and lighter aluminum in the optical tube. That's OK; it lets you experience amateur astronomy affordably. No one should expect this telescope to last decades, but it will not need much maintenance during its lifetime.
The accessory tray has a built-in threaded stud that screws down into the tripod's spreader. It has eight circular cutouts for eyepieces and an ample 0.4-inch (10 mm) wall around the outside to keep "rollies" (such as flashlights, pointers, pens, etc.) from escaping in the dark.
Fitting up the optical tube to the mount is fairly easy. But it does take a bit of choreography and a gentle touch; your eager child may need advance warning to be gentle and patient.
There's a bolted stud with a hole for the altitude "slow motion" control arm. Out of the box, this bolt may be. It must be loosened a bit so it can rotate to accept the small control arm that regulates the scope's ability to point up and down. Then, it will move freely, giving you the correct soft resistance to work the scope smoothly around the sky. Just be gentle!
The finder scope fits up very easily. We were impressed that it came with metal adjustment screws; breakable plastic is much more common in this price range.
You get two eyepieces (Kellner 20 and SR40), a 3x Barlow magnifier and a mirror diagonal to bounce the image into a comfortable, variable viewing position. All come rather haphazardly tossed into a cardboard sub-box. It's OK; this isn't expensive precision glass, and the low-rent packaging may be thought of as a test of the eyepieces' ruggedness.
The low-power 20-mm eyepiece magnifies objects 35x, and the 4-mm eyepiece boosts the telescope's power to 175x. The enlarged image won't be very bright, but it will reveal some detail on sunlit planets if you can keep the telescope pointed on them. That is a bit of a challenge with any manually guided altitude-azimuth mount, which doesn't automatically track the sky as Earth rotates. Expect Saturn to swim out of your view after a few moments. But then, chasing targets is part of the fun.
Turn this telescope to Jupiter for a few successive nights, and you will see approximately what Galileo saw in 1610, much as he saw it: small moons orbiting a banded planet, itself orbiting the sun. His observations catalyzed the scientific revolution. May your young explorer's skywatching adventures do the same for them!