Finding that best first telescope can be a challenge. There are not only so many different types of telescopes but so many different manufacturers and models that it can be overwhelming. Let’s break it down a little and see if we can find the perfect first telescope for beginners for you.
How serious are you?
This question will help define your budget for that best first telescope. Amateur telescopes can range from little $40 specials you may find in a department store to $25,000 monsters and everything in between. If you are simply looking for a Christmas gift for a small child who seems mildly interested in astronomy, then a $40 telescope might be something to think about.
If on the other hand, you are looking for a best first telescope for a teen or young adult who shows a serious interest, that same $40 telescope will probably do nothing but make them mad because it will provide blurry views, not be stable at all (which is important when viewing objects under high magnification) and will be prone to breakage and malfunctions. A great example is that cheap telescopes tend to have poor focusers which means getting an object in focus can be time-consuming and difficult. They also tend to have poor quality eyepieces which make it difficult to hold your eye just right to see through the tiny hole, and even then provide dim and blurry images.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands of dollars on the best first telescope for beginners, but it does mean you should probably stay away from the one in your local department stores.
What brands should you look at?
The brands you look at will affect the price you pay for your best first telescope, the quality you get, and the resale value should you ever want to sell the telescope. Two telescopes with the exact same specifications, one of which has a good brand name, will vary greatly in resale value and potential in quality of construction.
Unfortunately, there are a ton of knockoff brands, primarily from China, which manufacture telescopes with the same magnification, size, and accessories as the name brand models for far less money. The tradeoff is that the name brand versions are good telescopes that can last many years whereas the knockoffs are cheap flimsy versions that will likely not only provide horrible views and be tiresome to use, but will most likely fall apart quickly.
Again, if you are looking for something for a small child that will most likely be destroyed in a few months anyway, the best first telescope might be something cheap. If however, you are not trying to extinguish the hopes and dreams of someone with a genuine desire to view the heavens, a nicer brand name scope would be a better best first telescope for them.
So what are the brand names you can generally trust? Orion, Meade, Celestron, Skywatcher and iOptron all make excellent choices for a best first telescope (as long as you stay away from the absolute bottom of the line equipment). Although there are other quality manufacturers out there, these are the ones I have personal experience with who make good quality equipment which would be an excellent choice for the best first telescope for beginners.
What objects do you want to look at?
Different types of telescopes are better at different things, so to find your best first telescope we need to know what you want to see. A long focal length refractor will be better at viewing planets than a short focal length Newtonian. Large Dobsonians are better at faint objects than refractors at the same price point, whereas an MCT would be an awesome choice for observing the moon’s surface.
The first thing you should do is get a realistic expectation of what you can see with off the shelf beginner equipment. You can get pretty good views of Saturn and Jupiter with the most inexpensive equipment, but Mars will be difficult at best and the other planets will look like fat stars with no detail. Nebula and galaxies are a little more exciting and there are plenty out there so the better your equipment, the more you can see. The moon and sun (with the correct protective equipment!) will be awesome targets with anything on this best first telescope list.
How hard are you willing to work?
Telescopes come with one of two basic types of mounts, computerized or manual, the best first telescope mount for you might depend on what you want it to do for you. With manual you do everything; you find the object and you move the telescope to keep the object in the viewfinder as you view it. With computerized, you run through the computer’s alignment procedure and then tell it what you want to look at. The computer has a list of probably many thousands of objects and you simply select the one you want, then it moves and tracks the object.
Technically there is a third type of mount, a manual mount that you can put motors on which will keep an object in the viewfinder once you find it. This is not that common and you will have to learn to manually align your mount in order for the motor to work correctly so I suggest you avoid this type for your first beginner telescope.
The advantage of a computerized mount should be obvious, you spend less time looking for things and more time actually viewing things. The disadvantage is that they cost more.
Different telescope types
Generally, telescopes have two basic types; reflector and refractor. Just like we already talked about, picking the best first telescope for you might depend on what you want it to do. A reflector uses one or more mirrors to present you with an image while the refractor uses one or more lenses. There are some designs that use both, and of course, if you want to be really picky all telescopes use eyepieces that have lenses in them making all telescopes a sort of hybrid.
The first issue is the aperture or the diameter of the opening at the front of a telescope. The larger the aperture, the more light the telescope can collect so the dimmer things you can see (more nebulae and galaxies primarily). If you are looking to see faint galaxies, a large aperture would be a requirement for that best first telescope. On the other hand, if you prefer brighter objects such as star clusters and the moon, something with a smaller aperture would make a great best first telescope.
Refractors are usually the most expensive per inch of aperture, but typically provide the highest quality view with the most contrast, again, per inch of aperture. This is due to there not being any obstructions in the light path like reflectors have, and the fact that light is lost when bouncing off of mirrors in reflectors meaning refractors have higher light transmittance per inch when compared to reflectors. In my opinion, these are what you look at when you want the best professional telescope, but they can also be amazing first telescopes.
When people ask what is the best type of telescope for astrophotography, the answer is usually that refractors are considered to be about the best telescope for astrophotography by many people.
Oddly enough, inexpensive refractors are also the best telescope for kids as they are intuitive to use; simply point it where you want to look.
Reflectors are far cheaper to manufacture since there are no big pieces of high-quality glass to mess with. This allows you to get a telescope with far larger apertures then you might could afford otherwise. The loss of image quality due to obstructions and other issues is usually not noticeable by people looking for the best first telescope.
Beginner reflectors can then be divided into the Dobsonian, Newtonian, SCT, and MCT.
Dobsonians are often called the best first telescope because their inexpensive mount design allows for relatively large telescopes to be sold for extremely attractive prices. Dobsonians are also very easy for the beginner to set up and use. Larger mirrors, however, do require longer times for the telescope to adjust to the outside temperature before it will provide sharp images, so keep this in mind. Dobsonians also can require more expensive eyepieces to get good views but this is not that much of a concern when just starting out.
Newtonians are open tube reflectors just like the Dobsonian but are mounted on tripod style mount instead of a Dobsonian style mount. They are also usually smaller in aperture, lighter and are easier to find in computerized versions. This makes them a possible best first telescope for someone who doesn’t have a lot of room to store a large telescope and would like the convenience of a computerized system without a large expense.
SCT (Schmidt–Cassegrain Telescope) telescopes combine several mirrors enclosed in a short tube to provide a large aperture and high magnification in a compact package. The downside is that these are more expensive than Newtonians or Dobsonians, and require far longer to adjust to the outside temperature than any other type of telescope (except for MCTs). They are also relatively heavy for their size making larger aperture versions very heavy to deal with. The main advantage of an SCT is that you get most of the benefits of the Dobsonian and Newtonian in a nice small package with higher magnification making them excellent for splitting double stars, observing galaxies, etc.
MCTs (Maksutov–Cassegrain Telescope) is very similar to the SCT with the addition of a meniscus lens in the front and increased focal length. This makes these extraordinarily good for planetary observations, including high-resolution lunar observing. They are as heavy or heavier than SCTs and require even longer to acclimate before they can be used. If you are looking for the absolute best first telescope for viewing planets, this is it.
SCTs and MCTs are usually reserved for more advanced users but can be the best first telescope for someone with higher expectations and budgets.
This Celestron 114 EQ setup is small enough to fit in a closet or under your bed yet large enough to provide excellent views for the beginner. One thing I really like is that the telescope tube is mounted to a standard dovetail meaning that if you wanted to upgrade the mount to something with a full computer on it, you would simply slide the telescope off this mount and onto the new one, no fuss.
The Orion AstroView 90mm Refractor is an awesome introductory telescope for beginners. With crisp views of anything you want to point it at it is sure to please. Orion makes the EQ-2M motor drive for this telescope should you want it to track the objects for you which is an awesome upgrade. My personal opinion is that this is probably the best investment for the money and would be my choice in this price group. In fact, I still own an Orion 90mm refractor, albeit a much older one, and even with thousands of dollars worth of other telescopes, I occasionally come back to this one for some fun and relaxation.
This iOptron Smartstar 114mm Newtonian telescope has a computerized mount that will point it to anyone of 5,000 objects in its catalog with the press of a button. The setup trades optical quality and stability for the convenience of push-button viewing. This is probably the best first telescope for someone who wants all the bells and whistles in a small package without breaking the bank. It does well with brighter objects but sacrifices the view of smaller and dimmer objects.
The Orion SkyQuest XT8 PLUS Dobsonian could be the best first telescope for anyone to start with. While Orion and others make cheaper 8″ Dobsonians, this one is a far better product for just a little bit more money. Adjustable tensioners, improved mount, dual-speed Crayford focuser, thumbscrew adjustable secondary, and upgraded eyepieces make this one a real winner. In this roundup, this is probably the best telescope for deep space.
With most of the light-capturing ability of the Dobsonian above, the Orion 13161 StarSeeker IV 150mm Newtonian adds a stable tripod, full go-to computerization and more. If you are serious about exploring the heavens on a budget, this could be the best first telescope for you. With over 42,000 objects in the computer, you are sure to never have to want for something to look at. This is considered by many to be the best telescope under 1000 for the money.
Any of these telescopes you get is sure to provide you some amazing adventures in the heavens. If you choose to purchase your telescope used, be sure you try it out before you purchase it. There is nothing wrong with used telescopes assuming they have been treated well, and indeed a used scope may be the best first telescope for you.
I hope you enjoyed my article on the best first telescope you can buy!