In April 1999, Tony Flanders <firstname.lastname@example.org> sent out a call for participants in a "cheap" scope review project. The motivation was that there are plenty of potential beginners who would be willing to pony up $100 to $200 (U.S.), a range that has traditionally drawn silence at best and derision at worst. Yet there might still be scopes in that price range that are serviceable, even for all their drawbacks.
Here's the call as it originally went out to readers of sci.astro.amateur:
I have been musing for a long time now about a possible project that could be undertaken collectively by readers of s.a.a. Periodically, people post notes saying that they want to buy cheap telescopes, and asking for advice. We have a good collective answer for people whose idea of "cheap" is around $500 (U.S.). Most people suggest a Dob, some people suggest a small GEM Newt or refractor, and some people suggest an ETX. All plausible answers, and ample food for the prospective beginner to chew on.
Things are a good deal trickier in the range of $200 to $400 U.S., but even here there are some plausible answers—the Celestron FS80WA or an alt-az equivalent, Stargazer Steve's Dob kits, and so on.
People who want to spend under $200, however, usually come away either insulted or unhelped. To my mind, this is not very reasonable. For most people in the world, $200 U.S. is a major expenditure, and many of those prospective beginners are not at all sure that they really want to take up astronomy. For a student without rich parents, for an average blue-collar worker, for a musician or an artist, for a nurse or a farmer, it is not rational to spend $500 on something that may only be used once or twice. On the other hand, we all know that $100 will buy a telescope that would have made Galileo green with envy. I am willing to tell people who want to spend under $100 that they are out of luck, but I wish that we had some solid suggestions in the $100 to $200 range.
This price range is ruled by 60 mm refractors, which have the virtue of being mass-market commodities, and so potentially providing a better benefit per unit cost than fancier units. There are also probably a few 3-inch reflectors to consider, and maybe some 70 mm refractors squeak into this price bracket.
Going strictly by specs, I would recommend the Orion 60 mm Altaz Ultra, which sells for $169.21 including shipping and handling. My reasoning is that unlike almost all other 60 mm refractors, it has what looks to be a useable finder (6x30 on a 2-ring mount), and it includes two Kellner eyepieces (25 mm and 9 mm). However, specs are one thing and reality is another—I am not willing to recommend this until I have actually used one, or heard from someone reliable who has used one—or preferably used two or three, since there may be a lot of variation among units.
Unfortunately, there are too many 60 mm refractors out there for any one person to review. Even if I were to restrict myself to the offerings from Meade, Celestron, and Orion, it would be a huge undertaking. I have heard that all department-store refractors are junk, but I am not willing to take this on faith. I agree that it is plausible, but I won't really believe it until I have heard a report from someone who actually tried to use one. So that broadens the problem a whole lot more.
What I am wondering is whether it would be possible to get a group of people together to come up with a collective review of telescopes in the $100 to $200 range, ending up with a few recommended models. This would probably require that each person review at least two different telescopes, to make the comparisons meaningful. Ideally, we would review at least three units of each plausible model, to account for variations between units. Conceivably, we could agree on some reference scopes and mail them from one person to another, to minimize the total amount of buying.
Does anybody else think that this might be fun? Way I see it, most of us enjoy buying equipment, and many of us enjoy testing it. Here is your chance to buy and test two telescopes for less than the cost of a fancy eyepiece. And I, for one, can imagine that it might be nice to have a decent 60 mm refractor sitting around in the garage for use on certain occasions. I am willing to review my two telescopes if enough other people are willing to chip in.
Eventually, a few people signed on to review a number of scopes, including offerings from the Big Three as well as less well-known department-store scopes. So to be quite accurate, I shouldn't call it Tony Flanders's review, since without his fearless crew, there wouldn't have been nearly as broad a selection. But Tony can explain it better than I can, for he organized it, and has graciously allowed me to republish his report here. Without further ado, then, I turn the mike over to Tony, and let him tell the rest of the story.
Six months ago, I posted a note on s.a.a. asking for volunteers to help in my Cheap Telescope Review. The idea was that everyone would purchase one or two cheap telescopes (defined as under $200 complete with tax and/or shipping charges) and we would mail them around to each other and compare them pairwise, coming up eventually with a complete set of comparative ratings.
Since most cheap telescopes are purchased as Christmas presents, it seemed worth trying to publish our results before Thanksgiving. But it is becoming apparent that several of us (including me) are too busy to wrap the project up properly. So instead I will publish the prelimary findings. I doubt that they would be revised much.
We ended up with four volunteers and 6 different models of telescope. The volunteers were Kevin Daly, Tony Flanders (me), Bryan Jarvis, and Richard Shuman. The telescopes (and purchasers) were:
Mark Sisson also participated initially, with the purchase of Orion's 60 mm Alt Az Deluxe, which has since been removed from Orion's product line. But after some useful early reviews, Mark decided that cheap refractors are more trouble than he was willing to put up with, and dropped out of the project.
Here are the salient points of the review:
The one thing that all of these scopes share in common is that their finderscopes are anywhere from poor to abysmal. All of them have hopelessly inadequate mountings, which make it very difficult to align the finderscopes properly while also ensuring that the slightest bump will knock them out of alignment again.
Also, all of the finders were nominally 5x24, but in fact had internal baffles which stopped them down to much smaller apertures. The worst by far was the finderscope on the Table Top, which is effectively a 5x8 telescope, and actually shows considerably fewer stars than one can see naked-eye. The best was the finderscope on the 3-inch Space Probe, with an effective 18 mm aperture, but also the narrowest real FOV of the lot.
The finderscopes on the 60 mm refractors were mounted located in fantastically inconvenient places on the tube, much too close to the focuser. As a result, it is frequently impossible to look through the finder without bumping one's head into the eyepiece, or vice versa. The Space Probe's finder, by contrast is mounted in a very convenient spot at the top of the tube and far from the focuser. The one redeeming feature of the Table Top's finder is that it is a right-angle model, and so very convenient indeed, once one is pointed more or less to the right place.
Despite their shortcomings, I found the finders to be better than nothing, with the possible exception of the one on the Table Top 76. Much to my surprise, the Space Probe's finder actually showed M31 under heavily light-polluted urban skies.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the review is that the 60 mm refractors have consistently high optical quality. Bryan Jarvis was the first person to comment on this, and Kevin Daly and I concur wholeheartedly.
For the price, one can only call the optical quality superb. Comparing my Orion 60 mm Alt Az against my Televue Ranger stopped down to 60 mm, I found that the Orion was virtually indistinguishable in resolution, somewhat inferior in contrast, and a tad better in terms of false color. At its full 70 mm aperture, the Ranger shows dramatically worse false color than the Orion.
Observing Jupiter, I could easily resolve the SEB, NEB, and NTB, and I could make out hints of the EB and some festoons. I could also see considerable detail on the N edge of the NEB, and on the SEB in the vicinty of the GRS. Kevin Daly saw even more detail, and also split the Double Double easily. This is about all anyone could reasonably ask from a 60 mm telescope.
The 3-inch Space Probe has considerably worse optics. I found the image impeccable at the 35x delivered by the supplied eyepiece, but it began to break down at 70x and higher. I had trouble splitting Alpha Herculis, with components mag 3.5 and mag 5.4 separated by 4.7 seconds, and the image of Jupiter was distinctly fuzzy. On the other hand, the extra 16 mm of aperture made it clearly superior to the 60 mm refractors on most deep-sky objects, and it showed stars about 0.5 magnitudes fainter.
The 76 mm Table Top was the worst of the lot by far. The image was visibly unsharp even with the lowest-power supplied eyepiece, a 20 mm Huyghenian delivering 30x, and it did not improve significantly using any of my own 1.25-inch eyepieces and an 0.965-to-1.25 adapter. The telescope showed the NEB and SEB on Jupiter and separated Saturn's rings from the planet, but that was about its limit. I judge this telescope to be useful only for low-powered lunar observing.
The only one of these telescopes that I judged to be good as far as the supplied mount and focuser are concerned is the 3-inch Space Probe. It moves quite smoothly, being more reminiscent of a Dob than of a department-store telescope. The focuser is adequate, although it has extremely limited travel. For instance, the in-travel was nowhere near sufficient to come to focus with my 2x Ultima Barlow. I think it would be fine for any normal Kellner or Plossl.
Although the tripods and mounts of the 60 mm refractors look almost identical to those of the 3-inch Space Probe, they behave vastly worse. All of these telescopes suffer terribly from vibration, even with the tripod legs fully retracted. I found my Orion to be almost unuseable in any wind stronger than a gentle breeze. The vibrations also made focusing a difficult and unpleasant chore.
The focusers on the 60 mm refractors are barely adequate. They are made of plastic, and flex considerably away from the optical axis due to the force of gravity. They also tend to end up at slightly different angles depending whether one is focusing inwards or outwards. Between the mediocre focusers and terrible mounts, I found that these telescopes were effectively limited by how well I could focus. Focusing at 100x or higher was an almost intolerable chore.
Bad as the 60 mm refractors are, the Table Top 76 is worse. This telescope has a single-arm alt-azimuth fork mount, and the fork looks and acts as though it is made out of spring metal. If you tap the tube lightly, you can watch the whole thing vibrate like a tuning fork. To compound the problem, the focuser is rather stiff, and the focus is outrageously sensitive. The telescope obvious has a very fast mirror coupled with a tele-extender in the focuser tube to bring the focal length up to 600 mm, and the focusing sensitivity reflects the fast mirror (probably about F/3.5) rather than the overall effective focal length. I found it impossible to focus the telescope at any power above 30x.
We reviewed only one telescope with an equatorial mount, the First Scope 60 EQ. Bryan Jarvis found that the equatorial mount had all the shortcomings of the alt-az mount, and was also harder to use. This confirmed my previous suspicion that an equatorial mount makes no sense in this price category. The telescopes do not support the high powers where equatorial mounts become genuinely useful, and an equatorial mount has to be of fairly high quality before it delivers any benefit at all. In addition, the equatorial mounts cost quite a lot of extra money, which could be better spent on other things.
Two of the reviewed telescopes (the Novice 60 and the Table Top 76) come with 0.965-inch eyepieces as standard equipment. The optical tube of the Novice 60 is apparently identical to the optical tube of the First Scope 60, and both include a diagonal which accepts both 0.965-inch and 1.25-inch eyepieces, using a little plastic adapter. The Table Top 76 requires a separate 0.965-inch to 1.25-inch adapter if you want to use it with 1.25-inch eyepieces.
Richard Shuman judges the 0.965-inch eyepieces supplied with the Novice 60 to be dramatically inferior. My own impression of the (probably identical) 0.965-inch eyepieces supplied with the Table Top 76 is that they were not so bad, as long as one is willing to accept their extremely restricted field of view. In any case, it is clearly worthwhile to get the 1.25-inch eyepieces for the field of view alone, assuming one can afford them.
Each of the two Orion telescopes comes with a single eyepiece—a 25 mm Kellner for the 60 mm refractor and a 20 mm RKE for the Space Probe. Both eyepieces performed quite well at the relatively slow F ratios of their telescopes, yielding images reasonably sharp across the 45-degree apparent field.
The First Scope Deluxe telescopes with wooden tripods come better supplied, with 25 mm and 10 mm SMA eyepieces. To my mind, this is just about the ideal starter set for a budget-minded beginner using an F/11.7 telescope, yielding a moderately wide 28x at a 2.1mm exit pupil for finding objects and deep-sky observing, and a moderately high but unstressful 70x for lunar and planetary observing.
In my opinion, no beginner telescope is complete unless it offers at least two different powers; that is a very large part of the charm of a telescope. And in view of the fact that the Moon and the planets are the best targets for these telescopes, the 28x or 35x delivered by Orion's stock eyepieces seem hopelessly inadequate. I suspect that when you factor in the cost of an additional 10 mm eyepiece, the Celestron First Scope is a better deal than the Orion scopes.
If you buy a First Scope with an aluminum tripod rather than wood, the difference in manufacturing cost is made up by supplying inferior eyepieces—20 mm and 8 mm Huyghenians. Bryan Jarvis found that the aluminum tripod was certainly no more stable than the wood tripod, and probably less so, and the eyepieces clinch the argument against buying aluminum.
The Table Top 76 was clearly the worst of these telescopes in all ways except price and portability. This is a pity, because I was all set to like the Table Top 76; it is quite attractive and fantastically portable. Alas, the quality just isn't there. Recommended only if you are on a very tight budget and also have extreme portability constraints. It is possible that my particular unit was optically sub-par, but the vibration and focusing problems seem to be inherent in the design.
The Orion 3-inch Space Probe Alt-Az Reflector is very different from the other cheap telescopes, in many ways. It was head and shoulders superior to the 60 mm refractors in ease of use, making it rather attractive for a beginner. On the other hand, once you factor in the cost of a high-power eyepiece, it is significantly more expensive than the 60 mm refractors, and it falls down in high-powered planetary images, which is probably the best niche for small telescopes.
As far as I could tell, all of the 60 mm refractors that I saw were precisely identical, except that the 60 mm Novice lacks the "slow-motion" control in altitude that the other scopes have. The Saturn scopes offered by Meade through various mass-market outlets look outwardly identical too, and so, in all likelihood, are the Jasons and the Tascos. These telescopes combine excellent optics with bad-to-terrible everything else. It is a terrible pity, because they really can deliver outstanding images, and are offered at amazingly low prices. In my opinion, the basic design is flawed in several ways, all of which could probably be fixed at little or no extra manufacturing cost. I do not have time or energy to detail these right here and now.
The First Scope 60 mm EQ is a different telescope, with a 900 mm focal length as compared with 700 mm for all the alt-az telescopes. (This also seems to be characteristic of the 60 mm EQ refractors by Orion, Meade, Jason, Tasco, and others.) Given the already-good optics of the 700 mm focal length, the extra 200 mm seems like pure waste, just limiting an already narrow maximum field of view while making the telescope harder to mount.
Obviously, if you have more than $200 to spend, you would do far better to buy something other than one of the telescopes mentioned in this review. In the $200 to $300 price range, every little bit of extra money buys a huge benefit in optical performance and ease of use, assuming that you spend your money wisely. At the bottom end of the range, Richard Shuman puts in a good word for the Celestron 70 mm First Scope, which just straddles the $200 price point. At the top end of the range, you can buy a ready-to-use 6-inch Dob from Discovery which outclasses all of these telescopes by an almost inconceivable margin.
However, if you only have $100 or a little more, you could do a lot worse than buy a 60 mm refractor. It will take you a long time to master its quirks; these telescopes are not easy to use even for relatively experienced observers, let alone beginners. But if you have patience and persistence, these telescopes will reward you with some breathtakingly beautiful views, albeit limited by their small aperture.
Binoculars are another irreproachable way to spend $100 on a budding astronomy hobby; I certainly don't want to disuade anybody who prefers to start with binoculars instead of a telescope. But binoculars won't show you Saturn's rings, which are a piece of cake for any of the telescopes mentioned in this review, even the Table Top 76. And being able to view Saturn's rings at will is easily worth $100.
The night that I was out comparing my $100 60 mm Orion Alt-Az against my $600 Televue Ranger, looking primarily at Jupiter, Saturn, and the Orion Nebula, I kept having the same experience over and over again. I would look through the Orion scope and say "Wow! That's a really beautiful image!"
Copyright (c) 1999 Tony Flanders