Buying your 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. Lets 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. 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 at 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 a 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, 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 potentially 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 which will most likely be destroyed in a few months anyway, there is nothing wrong with going the cheap route. If however you are not trying to extinguish the hopes and dreams of someone with a genuine desire to view the heavens, stick with the brand names.
So what are the brand names you can generally trust? Orion, Meade, Celestron, Skywatcher and iOptron all make excellent equipment (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 a best first telescope for beginners.
What objects do you want to look at?
Different types of telescopes are better at different things. 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 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!) are usually awesome targets with even the most basic of equipment.
How hard are you willing to work?
Telescopes come with one of two basic types of mounts, computerized or manual. 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 to 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. 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 which have lenses in them making all telescopes a sort of hybrid.
The first issue is 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).
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.
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 buying their first beginner telescope.
Beginner reflectors can then be divided into the Dobsonian, Newtonian, SCT and MCT.
Dobsonians are some of the most popular beginner telescopes out there 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 great 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 down side 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) are 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.
SCTs and MCTs are usually reserved for more advanced users.
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, albiet 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 any one of 5,000 objects in it’s catalog with the press of a button. The setup trades optical quality and stability for the convenience of push button viewing.
The Orion SkyQuest XT8 PLUS Dobsonian is an excellent 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 makes this one a real winner.
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 is the investment for you. With over 42,000 objects in the computer, you are sure to never have to want for something to look at.
Any one you get is sure to provide you some amazing adventures in the heavens. If you choose to purchase your new telescope used, be sure you try it out before you purchase it.