The top performers in our review are the Celestron COSMOS 90GT, the Gold Award winner; the Celestron NexStar 130SLT, the Silver Award winner; and the Orion StarSeeker IV 130, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a telescope for beginners to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 16 products.
Stars have intrigued us since the first time we looked up at the night sky. The dim, twinkling lights in the distance, the long streaks of light that paint the sky blue-white for a moment and the so-close-you-could-touch-it bright light of a planet that rises in the twilight can be inspiring.
Most astronomy experts have this advice for the beginner astronomer: Read books about the stars and keep stargazing. You don’t need to be able to identify every celestial body, but it’s important to know the difference between satellites, aircraft, stars and planets. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the sky, you might be eager to buy your first telescope.
If you want to follow the advice of experts, get to know the sky first and then buy a pair of binoculars. A quality pair may not show you the deep sky objects that a telescope can, but they can show more detail than the naked eye, and they can help you get to know the sky better. If the budding astronomer in your life is taking a shine to all things science, you should consider buying a microscope to help satisfy your young one’s curiosity.
Buying a telescope for beginners can be daunting. Aperture, focal length, magnification, altazimuth and Dobsonian – there is a plethora of words with which you may not be familiar. Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison on loan from some companies and purchased the others. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
This guide can help you understand what it all means and which telescopes have what you need so you can easily make a decision on buying the best telescope for you. You can learn more about astronomy and the wonders of the night sky by reading our articles on telescopes for beginners.
Put your mind to it and you can learn anything. However, it helps when a company creates tools that make the learning process easy and fun. A beginner’s telescope should be easy to use right out of the box – from assembly to setup to operation. The go-to telescopes – computerized and motorized telescopes – on our lineup include libraries full of stars, planets and galaxies that you can find with the telescope’s help or, as with some models, the telescope moves automatically to train its site on the desired target. Some of the latest telescope models, like the Celestron COSMOS 90GT, offer Wi-Fi technology so you can download the app to your smartphone or tablet (iOS and Android), hike to a mountain where there is no signal, and the telescope creates a wireless connection on its own (with the help of batteries and your smartphone, anyway).
When you’re ready to buy your first telescope, you also need to consider how and when you use your telescope: at night only, for birdwatching or other daytime viewing? It’s important to buy a scope that is effective at showing you the details you want to see.
There are three main types of telescopes, but for the purposes of our evaluation, telescopes for beginners, Top Ten Reviews focused on the two most common types: refracting and reflecting telescopes. Refracting scopes feature a convex objective lens at one end of the sealed barrel and an eyepiece on the other. These telescopes work by bending light through a lens to form an image. Refractors tend to provide a higher image contrast than reflecting telescopes, and you can use them during the daytime without any additional accessories to correct the image, but these types of scopes are also more expensive.
Reflecting scopes, on the other hand, use a concave mirror rather than an objective lens. The tube or barrel is open at one end, and the primary mirror, which is located at the end of the barrel sends light through the tube where a second mirror magnifies the image and sends it to the eyepiece located on the side of the telescope. Reflecting telescopes are generally inexpensive, however, they need to be collimated, or aligned, periodically and because the tube is open at one end, they need to be cleaned frequently. Reflecting telescopes are also not ideal for terrestrial daytime viewing.
If you want to see the rings on Saturn and craters on the moon, you want a telescope that has the biggest aperture, or diameter of the primary lens or mirror, at a price you can afford and with decent focal length. In fact, most space enthusiasts will tell you that the only thing that matters in a telescope is aperture.
Ease of Use
The easier a telescope is to assemble, haul out to a remote and dark location, and set up once you’re there, the more likely you are to stick with the hobby. So, when we tested all of these telescopes, we kept our focus on finding the simplest telescope available.
Our telescope testers approached each telescope with the curiosity of a newcomer. They familiarized themselves with the knobs and the movement of the telescope on the mount. If the device included go-to capabilities, they set up the controls by inputting the location, time of night and began the star alignment. All of these factors were considered in our score for ease of use.
We also considered the initial assembly of each unit. Some telescopes required no tools and had straightforward instructions on how to put each piece together – we had those telescopes up and ready to align within minutes. Other telescopes were bulky and included several pieces that we had to assemble ourselves – including a tripod in some cases. In the case of the Orion StarBlast 6i, we had to disassemble what came in the box in order to attach the computer bits and pieces and then reassemble it.
Lightweight and compact models are easy to pack and take with you on hikes or to star parties, which is why we considered the weight of each telescope, too. Other factors, like backlit buttons, are helpful when you’re trying to locate a star on the hand-held control. Nearly every telescope included a finderscope, which is a small scope that places a crosshair or red laser dot on your target so you can quickly and easily line up your main optics.
As important as it is to choose a telescope that you understand how to use, it’s also important to choose one that gives you the best-quality image possible. The larger the aperture on a telescope, the more light comes through that opening – that means you can see faraway stars and dim stars better than through a telescope with a smaller aperture.
We considered each tester’s experience with magnification set to 50x per inch of aperture for each telescope. Everyone started with just trying to find the moon because it was the brightest light in the sky. Afterward, we found a bright star, focused on it and then performed the "snap test," in which one tests the telescope’s ability to focus on a star quickly and clearly, rather than the star bleeding into focus.
The detail you can see on a planet, for example, is determined by a few different factors, including focal ratio and the highest useful magnification, but largely is due to the eyepiece you’re using. So, a 10mm eyepiece, for instance, gives you a clearer image, but a smaller field of view. Those that offered an overall higher magnification received more credit than those that didn’t, because you can get more impressive views of planets. Although focal length and focal ratios are extremely important to those who engage in astrophotography, they are important specifications to pay attention to when choosing a telescope to meet your needs. Longer focal lengths allow for higher magnification and give you more telescope for your money. We assessed all of the factors that comprise the optics of each telescope on our list and considered those in our score so you can choose the right one for you.
The way you find the stars you want to look at varies from telescope to telescope. If you’re a do-it-yourself beginner astronomer, you might prefer a simple scope that lets you point and aim to find the morning or evening star (aka Venus – yes, both, depending on where you are). If you’re still learning the night sky, a go-to telescope might be better. Beginners who are scoping out the skies from their backyards might be interested in a specific, unique mount, while others who are packing up their telescopes for a hike where no city lights can interfere may be more interested in a more common, easier-to-transport mount.
Also, no one is perfect – not even manufacturers that mass-produce these telescopes. It’s important to buy a telescope from a manufacturer that offers a strong warranty. The standard warranty offers one to two years of protection, but the best warranties are those that cover any defects for the lifetime of your telescope.
Stability & Tracking
We found that some of the telescopes we used were extremely stable, and the image we were gazing at only budged when we bumped the tripod or the scope – and even then, only slightly. Others were rocked by the wind or even a breeze, so we considered the stability of the mounts in this score.
The type of mount you use can be all about personal preference, or you might need a specific mount for different kinds of stargazing, which is why we didn’t score the type of mount included with each telescope. An altazimuth mount allows you to move the telescope left to right, and up and down. It is the most common mount for telescopes available and is usually paired with a tripod.
If you live in an area with minimum ambient light, you could benefit from buying a telescope with a larger aperture and a Dobsonian mount, which is a unique altazimuth mount that’s very easy to set up and use. They are also generally less expensive than other entry-level telescopes. Equatorial mounts have a steep learning curve, but they are ideal for astrophotography because they follow the rotation of the earth.
For beginners, a telescope that can help you identify stars and planets can be very useful, which is why we gave more credit to go-to telescopes. Those that are computerized usually include a library full of stars, planets, galaxies and other space details that you can peruse and choose from a handheld remote. The telescope then guides you to the specified star, or in the case of those that are also motorized, it moves the telescope and finds the star for you.
Warranty & Support
Defects happen. You want to make sure the telescope you buy has a solid warranty that protects you if you’re unlucky enough to get a lemon. There’s also a chance you may buy a telescope that doesn’t work as you expected – maybe you aren’t a fan of the mount, or you decide a reflector scope would be better for you than a refractor. Some of the telescopes on our lineup offer a money-back guarantee, but only within 30 or 45 days.
Most warranties cover your telescope for one to two years, but Levenhuk offers a lifetime guarantee, which can be reassuring when you’re spending hundreds on a telescope. The instructional videos we found on both Orion’s and Levenhuk’s websites were very helpful when we were assembling the telescopes, which is why these manufacturers were ranked higher in this category than some of the other telescope makers.
After we got up close and personal with Betelgeuse, the moon and the Pleiades star cluster, we found that the best telescope for beginners was the Celestron COSMOS 90GT. Although this telescope offers a smaller aperture than several other telescopes on our list, we found that this lightweight, compact scope was hands-down the easiest to use – and the most fun – on the market. The app and instant Wi-Fi connection made finding the stars we wanted to see quick and painless.
We also really liked the Celestron NexStar 130SLT with its large aperture and excellent clarity. Although this one gave us a bit of trouble when we set it up, it was a favorite among users – it returned beautiful images of stars and star clusters.
Our third choice, the Orion Starseeker IV 130, is also a larger telescope that’s a go-to model, and it, too, was easy to set up and use. The alignment was easy enough: We chose a bright star in the sky and it aligned itself. You can’t use this scope during the day, though, because it’s a reflector, so images would be upside down.
It was difficult to choose a favorite because each telescope was fun and relatively easy to use. We found each one we tested had merits, such as the iOptron SmartStar R80. This was one of the most automatic go-to telescopes we used. After setting it up, we just chose a star or planet on a list and the tiny mount would move to the location.
If you’re looking for the most telescope for your money, the Orion SkyQuest XT4.5 gives you 114 mm-aperture for less than $300, and it’s on a sturdy and easy-to-use Dobsonian mount.
Looking for a telescope but on a budget? The Celestron Explorascope 60AZ costs less than $100. It has the smallest aperture of any of the telescopes on our list, but for a beginner, you’re still going to see awe-inspiring, detailed views of the moon and some of the closer star clusters on a dark, starry night.
A telescope is the perfect gift for yourself or a loved one, and it can bring years of entertainment, education and inspiration. Learn more by reading our telescope reviews to find out which one will suit you best.