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Best telescopes for beginners: Top budget-friendly picks for viewing the planets, galaxies and more

Observing through beginner telescope
(Image credit: Future)

Choosing one of the best telescopes for beginners can be a little confusing, especially if you're new to astronomy. Fear not though, as we're on hand to help you through the tricky jargon, different models and reputable retailers so you can find the right telescope for you. We've scoured the internet and found some of the best telescopes for beginners to suit everyone and every budget.

Telescope glossary

Aperture: Diameter of the primary mirror or lens, which allows a telescope to collect light.
Field of view: Area of sky visible through the eyepiece.
Focal length: A telescope's tube length. Short focal lengths offer a wide field of view and a small image.
Focal ratio: Also known as the telescope's speed. Small focal ratios provide lower magnifications, wide field of view and a brighter image.
Magnification: Relationship between the telescope's optical system and the eyepiece.

You would be forgiven for wanting to do even more research before picking out a new telescope or one of the best telescopes, and we've scoured through a lot of brands and picked out the best telescopes for beginners from the likes of Celestron, Meade Instruments, Orion and Sky-Watcher. You can also check out our guides to the best deals from each brand. 

Some key information to remember when looking for the best telescopes for beginners is the different major optical kinds of telescopes, reflectors and refractors. Typically, reflectors are better for faint deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulas whereas refractors can be better for objects like planets and moons. If you want the best of both worlds then a type of telescope known as Maksutov-Cassegrains, Schmidt-Cassegrains or catadioptric telescopes are what you want. Reflector telescopes use mirrors to focus the light and create an image whereas refractors use lenses to focus the light into the eyepiece.

If you want to explore more skywatching options then it's always worth checking out the best binoculars on the market. They're typically less powerful than telescopes but offer great night sky views and are often a cost-effective alternative. You should also check out our guide for the best telescopes for kids if you're looking for something to capture the imagination of a budding astronomer. 

We've also got in-depth round-ups of the best telescope deals and top-rated telescopes under $500 but if you want to check out the best telescopes for beginners, then read on below. 

Best telescopes for beginners


Celestron Astro Fi 102

(Image credit: Celestron)

1. Celestron Astro Fi 102

Computerized mount for easy night-sky navigation

Specifications

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain
Mount type: Computerized alt-azimuth single fork arm
Aperture: 4.02" (102 mm)
Focal length: 52.17" (1,325 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 241x
Lowest useful magnification: 15x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm
Weight: 16 lbs. (7.25 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
No tools required for assembly 
+
Controlled via smartphone/tablet
+
Database recommends targets

Reasons to avoid

-
Needs app to function

If you're comfortable with digital devices, then Celestron's Astro Fi is a great model that gives you more telescope for your money. It's a telescope with cutting-edge technology and superb support for anyone trying their hand at skywatching. 

Supplied with everything beginners need for great tours of the night sky, including 10 mm and 25 mm eyepieces (for magnifications of 132x and 53x), a smartphone adapter to dabble in basic astrophotography and a red dot finder, the Astro Fi is an excellent piece of kit for the price. What’s more, the overall build is of good quality, especially given the sturdy aluminum tripod.

The Astro Fi 102’s optics provide good views of the moon and is able to pick out the planets with ease. In our experience, pleasing views of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are achieved through the four-inch aperture as well as breathtaking sights of the rugged, chalky terrain of our moon. Beginners — and even the whole family — will be delighted with what the Astro Fi 102 is able to reveal. The Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) is also a pleasant sight, with its disk coming into view when playing with the magnification.

The attractive aspect of the Astro Fi 102 is the SkyAlign technology for simple alignment. Aligning your instrument is essential before you begin your observations as it reveals your orientation relative to the night sky and, with this information, the Astro Fi 102 is able to slew to your desired target at the touch of a button. 

The button in this case is your smartphone: skywatchers just need to download the Celestron SkyPortal app (downloadable from Apple's App Store and Google Play), which in our experience is quite intuitive and pick three bright stars to assist with the alignment procedure. The beauty of the Astro Fi 102 is that you don’t need to know anything about the night sky to enjoy it, but it does serve as a tool in learning your way around it.

If you’re unsure of what to observe on your first night, then the Celestron SkyPortal app recommends objects for you. A great feature that's useful for beginners.


Celestron StarSense Explorer 130

(Image credit: Celestron)
GPS enabled and good solar system and deep-sky views

Specifications

Optical design: Newtonian reflector
Mount type: Alt-azimuth
Aperture: 5.11" (130 mm)
Focal length: 25.59" (650 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 307x
Lowest useful magnification: 19x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm
Weight: 18 lbs. (8.16 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
Easy to assemble and align
+
Suggests targets to observe
+
Good intro to astrophotography

Reasons to avoid

-
No motor drive

The development of the smartphone has revolutionized how we interact with technology, and Celestron’s StarSense series of beginners telescopes take full advantage of that. The Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ owes its ingenious design and ease of use to the Starsense app, combined with the magic of GPS.

Ordinarily, a GoTo telescope user would have to align their telescope on one or two bright stars for the onboard computer to figure out what direction it’s pointing in. This could be a bit daunting for newcomers to the hobby who just want to start observing amazing celestial wonders, without getting bogged down in the setting up but Celestron’s StarSense technology ingeniously does all of the calibrations and aligning for you in a matter of minutes.

Once you have downloaded the StarSense app onto your device, it will display a simulated view of the night sky along with menus from which to select objects (such as the planets or galaxies) to observe. Once you choose your target, screen arrows are displayed, directing you to nudge the telescope in the direction of your chosen object. Once it's in your instrument's field of view, the app will issue an alert  — all you have to do is look through the eyepiece.

Celestron’s StarSense Explorer range includes a 4.5-inch aperture Newtonian and a 4-inch refractor, but for better light-grasping views, the Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ, which boasts an aperture of 5.11 inches, is the model to go for. 

The Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ does come with two eyepieces, 25 mm and 10 mm, which will provide magnifications of 26x and 65x, but as with all mass-produced budget telescopes, we recommend purchasing additional bespoke accessories to make the most of this instrument's optical system. 

It has to be said that this isn't a particularly heavy-duty telescope and you'll have to move it around manually to see the night sky because of a lack of motor drive. That being said, it does offer integrated smartphone technology and it is a starter telescope - you'll be hard-pressed to find an instrument that is as good in quality and easy to use in this price range. 


Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ

(Image credit: Celestron)

3. Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ

Lightweight and easy to assemble for a "grab and go" experience

Specifications

Optical design: Refractor
Mount type: Alt-azimuth
Aperture: 4.02" (102 mm)
Focal length: 2.98" (660 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 204x
Lowest useful magnification: 14x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm & 20 mm
Weight: 14.1 lbs. (6.4 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
Adjustable tripod
+
Easy to assemble
+
Very portable

Reasons to avoid

-
Color fringing around bright targets

The Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ is an easy-to-use, no-frills, classic-looking refractor telescope. It's the perfect choice of telescope for those wanting to learn their way around the night sky without the use of technology. Celestron's AstroMaster 102AZ is quite simply a must-have for beginners especially as it's easy to assemble and use. 

The telescope is attached to a single-arm alt-azimuth mount and features a slow-motion control for fine movements — from left to right as well as up and down — during navigation. Sweeping the night sky, we found that locking onto a target is simple with the Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ using the panning handle. There is no slippage and our chosen object remained in the center of the field of view.

A waning gibbous moon was visible using our observations. While the cratered surface could be seen in exquisite clarity and contrast, there is a degree of blue-purple fringing around the lunar limb. The same could be said when observing planets like Jupiter and Saturn, however, with the stunning views of the atmospheric bands and the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings, this minor flaw in this portable refractor's optics is soon forgotten. 

Like most beginner telescopes, the AstroMaster 102AZ is fully equipped for a successful night under the stars. As well as a good quality mount, skywatchers are treated to a StarPointer red dot finder for star hopping, an erect image star diagonal for comfortable viewing, Starry Night software as well as a 10 mm and 20 mm eyepiece. The duo will offer magnifications of 66x and 33x, which is ample for observing the solar system and a selection of bright deep-sky targets.

The Celestron AstroMaster is also available in apertures of 2.76 inches (70 mm), 2.99 inches (76 mm), 3.15 inches (80 mm), 3.14 inches (90 mm) 4.48 inches (114 mm) and 5.11 inches (130 mm), but for a budget-friendly telescope that's able to observe a wider variety of targets, the AstroMaster 102AZ is highly recommended.  

It looks like the Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ is out of stock in the U.S. Try this great alternative instead:


Sky-Watcher Skyliner 200P telescope – Sky-Watcher telescopes

(Image credit: Sky-Watcher)

4. Sky-Watcher Skyliner 200P

Picks out faint galaxies and nebulas with ease

Specifications

Optical design: Reflector
Mount type: Dobsonian
Aperture: 7.87" (200 mm)
Focal length: 47.24" (1200 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 406x
Lowest useful magnification: 29x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm
Weight: 58.64 lbs. (26.6 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
Picks out faint galaxies easily
+
Collapsible, so very portable
+
Built to last

Reasons to avoid

-
Requires frequent mirror adjustment 
-
Quite heavy

A great choice from Sky-Watcher's telescopes, Dobsonians are considered by astronomers to be observing powerhouses — huge tubes on simple alt-azimuth rocker mounts that don't require the need for a tripod — but they can often be bulky and cumbersome for travel. Sky-Watcher’s line of Skyliner Dobsonians solves problems of portability by manufacturing the tube so that it splits in two, allowing it to extend along a truss or collapse into a more compact form.

Because of their design, Dobsonian mounts can comfortably hold larger apertures, usually at far less of a cost than the equivalent tripod-mounted reflecting or refracting telescopes. The Skyliner 200P, with its 7.87-inch (200 mm) diameter aperture, is a great bargain for the price — especially given the superb views it offers thanks to its light-gulping ability: if you've ever wanted to see some of the furthest galaxies and nebulas up close, then this is the telescope for you.

There is a problem with the Skyliner 200P though, and it’s that the telescope needs frequent collimation — the process of aligning the primary and secondary mirrors, using tiny screws that hold them in place. Even a few small jolts can knock the mirrors out of alignment, so be prepared to tinker with this instrument.

The aperture size presents another issue: although the truss-tube design makes the set up more compact and portable, the tube and mount still weigh over 50 lbs. (22.7 kg) together. It’s not quite a grab ’n’ go telescope, so we advise being mindful of this before traveling to dark-sky sites.

The Skyliner 200P comes with a 10 mm (120x) eyepiece, suitable for presenting wide fields of view that can encompass entire galaxies or the full moon, and a 25 mm (48x) one for more detailed work on, say, a close up of the rugged lunar surface or the planets.

Sky-Watcher's Skyliner series also includes the larger 9.84-inch (250 mm), 11.81-inch (300 mm), 13.78-inch (350 mm) and 15.75-inch (400 mm) models, but for a beginner wanting a little bang for their buck, the 200P is a great place to start.  

If the Sky-Watcher Skyliner 200P is out of stock in the U.S  you could try these great alternatives instead:
 


Celestron Inspire 100AZ refractor

(Image credit: Celestron )

5. Celestron Inspire 100AZ

Very good views of planets, stars, galaxies, stars and nebulas

Specifications

Optical design: Refractor
Mount type: Alt-azimuth
Aperture: 3.94" (100 mm)
Focal length: 25.98" (660 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 241x
Lowest useful magnification: 15x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm
Weight: 20 lbs. (9.07 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
Great range of accessories
+
Easy to assemble
+
Good intro to astrophotography

Reasons to avoid

-
Slight false color in optics

The Celestron Inspire 100AZ is a top, top choice of telescope for beginners. It offers great ease of set up and use, and it comes with a far greater selection of accessories than most other starter telescope bundles - it's the complete package for those trying their hand at astronomy. 

The optics are of a good enough standard to reveal some enjoyable targets in the night sky, providing fair views of the moon, planets and brighter deep-sky targets such as nebulas and galaxies. 

During observations, we did detect a degree of false color and blurring in the field of view. The latter is easily resolved with a careful selection of eyepieces, so we recommend investing in further eyepieces to make the most of the Inspire 100AZ's optical system. False color, on the other hand, is to be expected in telescopes at this price point but it did not ruin our observations.

The Inspire 100AZ comes with a 90-degree erect image diagonal with a 1.25-inch fitting that makes the telescope suitable for terrestrial and celestial views, a pair of eyepieces (20 mm and 10 mm), red LED flashlight, accessory tray, StarPointer Pro finderscope and a smartphone adapter for basic astrophotography.

There are loads of beginner telescopes out there that come with flimsy optical finders that limits star-hopping or navigation to the brightest stars in the sky. But that isn't the case with Celestron's Inspire 100AZ telescope, the StarPointer is actually a pleasant surprise. Even under moderate light pollution, it's able to pick out faint stars making for an accurate skywatching experience. 


Orion StarBlast II 4.5 telescope

(Image credit: Orion)

6. Orion StarBlast II 4.5 EQ

Good overall build, with clear and crisp wide-angle views

Specifications

Optical design: Reflector
Mount type: Equatorial
Aperture: 4.5" (114.3 mm)
Focal length: 17.72" (450 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 228x
Lowest useful magnification: 16x
Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm & 2x Barlow lens
Weight: 20.72 lbs. (9.4 kg)

Reasons to buy

+
Very good overall build
+
Handy add-ons included
+
Good optics

Reasons to avoid

-
Mount could be a struggle for some beginners
-
Tripod needs an upgrade

The Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is an all-arounder for those hunting for an all-inclusive piece of kit. Be warned though: the equatorial mount can take a bit of getting used to compared to the simpler alt-azimuth and the computerized telescopes on the market. We recommend having a play with the setup during the day to get used to the counterbalance and fine-tuning controls. The overall build is very good, but the "lightweight" tripod could do with an upgrade.

The telescope is simple to assemble, we'd go as far as saying intuitive, but a manual is supplied for those who feel that they need more guidance. Included with the mount, tripod and optical tube assembly, the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is supplied with two eyepieces — a 10 mm and 25 mm, which offer magnifications of 18x and 45x — a 2x Barlow lens, Orion's Star Target Planisphere and Telescope Observer's Guide for planning your observations, a moon map, a red LED light to preserve your night vision and a red-dot finder. This all-inclusive reflector is a very good starter telescope at an unbeatable price.

Once you've mastered the mount (and we have to admit, it doesn't take long), the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is easy to slew from one target to the next. The red-dot finder is able to pick up some of the fainter, low magnitude stars, making star-hopping a breeze as we navigated the heavens. We didn't suffer with an undriven instrument, although if you're looking to try your hand at astrophotography then we recommend choosing a motor drive such as the Orion AstroTrack Drive.

With a focal ratio of f/4, the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is a fast telescope, meaning that it offers large fields of view compared to a telescope with a longer focal length. Views are bright through shorter optical tubes and this reflector was of no exception.

Jupiter was visible in the southeast during our observations, dazzling at a magnitude of -2.7. Conditions were fair, allowing us to pick out the gas giant's atmospheric belts and largest moons. We did detect a small amount of coma, causing our images to appear as if they were "falling inwards" near the edge of the field of view. However, with this telescope in particular, we had to look hard for the distortion. It didn't affect our views of the night sky.

Given the telescope is better suited to wide-angle objects, we turned the tube to the Pleiades (Messier 45), which dazzled in the field of view. The major member stars were pin-sharp, like white jewels. Around them, and using our peripheral vision, we were also able to pick out the Merope Nebula, a reflection nebula surrounding the 4th-magnitude star, Merope. 

This is a top choice telescope for beginners, even if it takes a little getting used to. The Orion StarBlast II 4.5 benefits from a selection of accessories - the stand-out being the eyepieces to maximize the magnifications. With those, it's the complete package, and a great choice for novices until they're ready to upgrade their equipment. 

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Gemma Lavender
Gemma Lavender

Gemma is content director of Space.com, Live Science, science and space magazines How It Works and All About Space, history magazines All About History and History of War as well as Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) kids education brand Future Genius. She is the author of several books including "Quantum Physics in Minutes", "Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Large Hadron Collider" and "Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Milky Way". She holds a degree in physical sciences, a Master’s in astrophysics and a PhD in computational astrophysics. She was elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011. Previously, she worked for Nature's journal, Scientific Reports, and created scientific industry reports for the Institute of Physics and the British Antarctic Survey. She has covered stories and features for publications such as Physics World, Astronomy Now and Astrobiology Magazine.