Shopping for Telescopes the Smart (and Economical) Way

By Stephen P. Maran

A cheap, mass-manufactured telescope, often called a drugstore or department store telescope, is usually a waste of money. And it still costs more than a hundred or maybe several hundred dollars.

A good telescope, bought new, may run you several hundred dollars to $1,000, and you certainly can pay more. But you can find alternatives:

  • Used telescopes are often sold through ads in astronomy magazines or in the newsletters of local astronomy clubs. If you can inspect and test a used telescope and you find what you like, buy it! A well-maintained telescope can last for decades.
  • In many areas, amateurs can observe with the larger telescopes operated by astronomy clubs, planetariums, or public observatories.

The technology of amateur telescopes is advancing at a rapid pace, and a former astronomer’s dream can be today’s obsolete equipment. Quality and capabilities are going up, and prices are generally fair, perhaps because reliable manufacturers are in competition for your money.

Generally, a good refractor gives better views than a good reflector that has the same aperture, or telescope size. Aperture refers to the diameter of the main lens, the mirror, or, in a more complicated telescope, the size of the unobstructed portion of the optics. But a good refractor is more expensive than a comparable reflector.

The Maksutov-Cassegrains and Schmidt-Cassegrains are good compromises between the low cost of a reflector and the high performance but high cost of a refractor. For many astronomers, these hyphenated telescope types are the preferred models.

One of the best small telescopes is the Meade ETX-90. Its aperture is 3.5 inches, almost the smallest size of any telescope that you should start with. (If you find a good instrument at a good price from a 2.5-inch aperture on up, especially in a refractor, consider it for purchase.)

The ETX-90 sells for about $400 and comes with an Autostar computerized controller and a tripod. This instrument automatically points at almost any object you specify if that object is in view from your location at that time. The Autostar can even find moving objects, such as planets, based on stored information, and it’s equipped to give you a “tour” of the best sights in the sky, selected with no input from you.

A good competing telescope for the ETX-90 is the Celestron SkyProdigy 90. It’s comparably sized and equipped and has the capability to automatically align itself on the sky, after which it points to almost any celestial object that you select. It goes for about $600.

You definitely don’t want to spend this much money on a telescope until you see the same model in action at an astronomy club observing meeting or a star party. But the price is no more than you pay for a fine camera and an accessory lens or two. You can find larger telescopes for less money — check the ads in current issues of astronomy magazines — but you have to invest much more effort in learning to use them effectively.

Some brand-name telescopes are sold through authorized dealers that tend to have expert knowledge. But take their advice with just a wee bit of salt.

Here are some key websites to browse for telescope product information:

On each of these websites, you can find the instruction manuals for many of the telescopes that they sell. Consider taking a look at the manual before you buy a telescope so you know whether it will be helpful when you run into problems.

If you don’t live in the United States, you may be able to find dealers for the telescope brands in your country. The Widescreen Centre in London carries Celestron, Meade, and Orion telescopes. In Australia, the Binocular and Telescope Shop, with locations in Sydney and Melbourne, is among the dealers that carry these telescopes.