Telescope Buying Guide: Newbie Telescopes Under $200
With the holiday shopping season in full swing, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people interested in picking up a telescope for themselves, or for someone they know. This guide will cover telescopes ranging from $40 to $200 – great for first-time telescope buyers on a budget.
In many cases, the people I talk to have an idea of what they would like to spend on a telescope, but usually don’t have much of an idea of what they would like to view.
Different objects in the night sky can require different types of telescopes, however in the “starter” telescope price range, there are a lot of good, all-purpose telescopes that can be had – with even the most modest budget. These telescopes do not feature “goto” functions, and are operated manually.
While you CAN find “goto” telescopes for a few hundred dollars, the optics suck, and the drive systems are of poor quality. If you see a computerized telescope at a “big box” retail store, stay away! Better yet, don’t buy ANY telescope from a big-box retail/grocery store.
Keep reading to learn more about some great telescopes that will give great views without breaking your bank account. I’ve used every telescope on this list, and provide the pros and cons of each model.
For starters, a long-time favorite telescope of mine is the Celestron FirstScope. At 76mm (3 inches), the view is much better than a lot of the “bargain” 60mm telescopes you see at places that sell mayonnaise in 50 gallon drums. The Firstscope is designed for first time telescope users, as its “table-top” design is easy to operate. Being a fairly small telescope, you can fit it in a backpack, or even in the smallest of cars.
Additionally, the telescope looks great on a desk. At a price of $35, you really can’t go wrong with this scope. One drawback though is that when you invest in acessories like filters or eyepieces, you can easily spend more on an eyepiece than the telescope. Then again, I know people who use $1,500 eyepieces on $300 telescopes, so it’s not like this is anything terribly unusual in astronomy.
You’ll be able to view solar system objects with this scope (Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus), along with some of the brighter deep-sky objects like the Orion Nebula.
Pros: Low cost makes the scope attractive to first time buyers. Good optics for an inexpensive scope. VERY portable and easy to use.
Cons: Included eyepieces are of “okay” quality – A wise investment would be different eyepieces. No real finder scope, so it can be difficult to line up on faint objects. The table top mount cannot be attached to a tripod, so you’ll need a table, or the trunk of your car to set the scope on.
Next up in my list of favorite telescope for beginners is the Galileoscope Telescope 50mm Kit. Yes, you read that right, this is an assemble-it-yourself telescope kit. At 50mm, the Galileoscope is smaller than the Celestron Firstscope, but its refractor design avoids mirror alignment issues that can cause views in reflector type telescopes to suffer. Designed for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, the Galileoscope aims to replicate Galileo’s original telescope that he used to discover the moons of Jupiter. The types of objects you will be able to view with the Galileoscope are the same as the Celestron Firstscope – Planets, our moon, bright nebula, etc. At a price of about $60, it’s a little more expensive, but you do get your money’s worth.
One thing I like about the Galileoscope is that it has a threaded nut which allows the telescope to be mounted on a standard photo tripod, which makes viewing objects a bit easier.
Due to the scopes fairly small size, this is another “go anywhere” telescope. Additionally, the hobbyist astronomy community have taken to performing several modifications to the Galileoscope. If you like to build and tinker, this is definitely a scope for you.
Pros: Low cost, rugged construction, easy to assemble. Extremely portable. Tripod mountable
Cons: Plastic lenses can scratch easily. No “diagonal” eyepiece holder can make use with a tripod cumbersome. Price point is considered by some to be high for what you get.
Moving back to “table-top” reflector telescopes is Orion’s 76mm FunScope Reflector Telescope. Similar to the Celestron Firstscope, but slightly more expensive ($40 – $60) this table-top model has a few features that easily justify the added expense.
For starters, the table-top mount can be mounted onto a standard photo tripod, which can make viewing easier. Secondly, the Orion Funscope comes with a basic finder, which can make lining the telescope up on objects much easier. The included eyepieces (20mm and 10mm) aren’t terribly bad, and provide decent views.
Like other scopes in similar price ranges, the Funscope is very portable, and can easily be taken on camping trips, as it won’t take up a lot of room. You’ll get good views of solar system objects, and some of the brighter nebulas in the night sky.
For just over $100, you can actually purchase a FunScope Reflector Telescope and Tripod Bundle which can save you the hassle of trying to find a compatible tripod.
Pros:Finder, tripod compatible, reasonable price, decent optics for the money spent.
Cons:Eyepeices aren’t the best quality, but that is expected in telescope at this price point.
Next up, is the first beginner telescope that comes with its own tripod. At a price between $80 and $100, the Orion SpaceProbe 3 Reflector Telescope will get a beginning astronomer a telescope that is similar in operation to telescopes that cost many times more.
With a 3″ diameter mirror, and a longer focal length than the 76mm table-top scopes, you’ll have improved views of solar system objects. Additionally, the included eyepieces are of slightly better quality, and will work well with a barlow lens, which is an essential accessory for any backyard astronomer.
Since this telescope is much longer than the table-top telescopes, and has its own tripod, it isn’t as portable as the previously listed telescopes, but is still quite lightweight and portable. Setup only takes a few minutes, and can easily be performed by a beginner. The size and quality of this telescope makes it a telescope that could be kept for many years, if properly cared for.
Pros:Good eyepieces, relatively inexpensive, better views than “inexpensive” table-top telescopes.
Cons:Not quite as portable as the table-top scopes, tripod could be a bit sturdier.
Last, but certainly not least in this list is the Orion SkyScanner 100mm Table Top Reflector Telescope ($100 – $120)
Yep, another table top telescope, but at 100mm, this telescope offers some incredible views. Much like the Funscope, you can purchase a SkyScanner 100mm Reflector Telescope and Tripod Bundle which pushes the price up to $199, but saves the trouble of finding a compatible tripod.
At the ~$100 price point, this telescope moves out of “toy” telescope range and into the real of a real instrument. Instead of plastic mirrors, this telescope features an actual glass mirror. Additionally, the larger diameter gathers considerably more light than the 76mm telescopes, making for better views. One other desirable feature is that while larger than the 76mm table top telescopes, this model is still very portable and easy to set up and use.
The included eyepieces are of decent quality, although with any “budget” telescope, a serious user will quickly want to invest in a quality eyepiece set. Lining up on objects with the included finder is a trivial task, which will reward users with great views of solar system objects, bright nebula, and even a few of the less bright objects in the night sky.
Pros:Good optics, larger aperture, decent quality eyepieces, okay finder. Easy to transport.
Cons:You’ll need a sturdy tripod to keep from tipping this scope over. Optical tube cannot be mounted on a different mount.
A quick side note:
At just under $200 you can move up to the Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Telescope, which is an even larger table-top telescope. At 4.5″ in diameter, you have some serious light gathering power.
I can’t do a mini-review on this scope since I haven’t used one, however what is enticing about this scope is that the optical tube is held on with a clamshell clamp mount. What this means is that when it’s time to upgrade to a larger mount, or even a computer controlled “goto” equatorial mount, the 4.5″ diameter optical tube could easily be attached to said mount.
The Starblast 4.5 table top uses the exact same 4.5″ diameter Starblast optical tube as many of Orion’s intermediate products. The optical tube is great for beginning astrophotographers, and has good optics for the cost. Putting this optical tube on a table-top mount provides beginners with a good quality instrument, with an easy-to-use interface. The previously mentioned telescopes are all great choices for newcomers to astronomy, however this scope is one that appears to “grow” as an observer becomes more experienced.