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Advice for a Beginner When Considering a Telescope Purchase

First, we all know and agree that there is no such thing as the perfect scope. Everyone's needs, budget, expectations, etc. dictates a different ideal. Heck, my perfect scope changes according to what I currently want to look at, where I'm doing the looking and how much coffee I had that day.

BUT in the sub-$500 range you must be especially careful what you buy. Many owners of beginner's scopes have been quite disappointed with their 'toy'. Even though the purchase price was a substantial amount of money, we are asking a lot for that money and manufacturers are hard pressed to live up to our expectations. Keep in mind I'm talking about $500 for the total setup: scope, mount, tripod, eyepieces and finder at a minimum.

So, when someone asks you for advice or if you are looking for advice on that first purchase, do a lot of research.

Now, here are my opinions regarding beginner scopes.  I assume you have already been doing some homework and I don't define some of the terms used.

  • No beginner scope should require user collimation.  Yes, that would rule out SCTs and all but two commonly available Newtonians (Edmundton Scientific's and Bushnell's little ball-shaped newts).
    Possible exception: If you have good support from a knowledgeable friend or astronomy club.
    Reasoning: There is so much you need to learn to enjoy observational astronomy that you shouldn't be worrying whether you can tweak your scope for improved images - plus collimation is complicated at first.
  • Most people would be best suited with a short focal length, rich field scope. That would rule out the remaining reflectors - the Maks.
    Possible exception: If a 6" or larger Dobsonian seems to be your best scope - but refer to the first opinion on collimation.
    Reasoning: Most scopes below $500 that don't require collimation have an aperture of 90mm or less. They are best suited to bright objects and after you tire of the moon and planets each night, you will find much enjoyment in open clusters and star fields - viewing best done with a rich-field scope.
  • No beginner should buy a 60mm scope.
    Reasoning: Even when they are of good optical quality, you can view so few objects, you will be looking to upgrade within a few months. Otherwise you will just pack it away for good. If you save for just a little longer ($50-100 more), you can buy an 80mm or larger scope and that truly makes a lot of difference on long-term satisfaction.
    Possible exception: I can't think of any exceptions to this rule - unless it is a second scope for the kids to get started on before letting them use your bigger scope.
  • No beginner should spend more than $500 on their first scope.
    Reasoning: There is just too much possibility that you will buy the wrong thing for you or that you will not be as interested in astronomy as you thought.
    Possible exception: You have been hanging out with the local astronomy club and have had the opportunity to really spend quality time with several scopes. Then you might have met your perfect match (in a telescope) and you obviously have acquired a taste for the avocation.
  • Computerized scopes definitely have a place as beginner scopes.
    Reasoning: You get to look AT things rather than FOR things.
    Possible exception: you live in an area with no electrical power or batteries ;-)

Well, those are just my opinions, mileage will vary from one person to another.

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Michael Swanson
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