This article is part of a three part series, don't miss out:Part 1: What’s the Best Telescope?
Part 2: Making the Choice
Part 3: Our Recommendations (2023)
We present our suggestions for telescopes we find offer great value in each of several price ranges. But within a price class, you have a choice of what features might be most important to you and for your observing site. For example …
Aperture vs Portability
Most telescopes with apertures from 80mm (3.1-inch) to 130mm (5.1-inch) are very portable and capable of showing the Moon and planets well. The larger the aperture the more detail you will see. In that aperture range, large, bright star clusters like the Pleiades also look great. However, fainter deep-sky objects such as nebulas and galaxies will be dim, especially under city skies.
Move up to an aperture of 150mm (6-inch) or 200mm (8-inch) and those deep-sky objects begin to appear with more structure and detail, even from a city. Most telescopes on the market in that aperture range are reflectors of some form, and inevitably have some heft to them.
For example, 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes weigh 10.8 kg (24 lbs) for the Celestron NexStar 8SE to 18 kg (40.5 lbs) for the Celestron NexStar Evolution 8 (shown). They have to be transported in two pieces, setting up the tripod first, then bolting the telescope to it.
However, being compact for an 8-inch telescope, Schmidt-Cassegrains are good choices for camping trips or weekends at the cottage, as they don’t take up a lot of room, yet offer generous aperture to take advantage of dark skies.
Deep-sky fans love telescopes with apertures 250mm (10-inches) or larger, either Newtonian reflectors or Schmidt-Cassegrains. While any telescope of this aperture is a serious commitment to set up and use, the reward is the amazing views!
Grab and Go
Telescopes with 80mm to 130mm apertures (as above) offer a good balance of aperture and portability. Many can be carried outside all assembled, qualifying as convenient “grab-and-go” telescopes. A manual mount simplifies setup, but a motorized GoTo mount allows you to find more objects, and track them.
GoTo or Not to GoTo
GoTo telescopes do cost more. And they require power and special effort in setting up. See Using Your First Telescope — Part Two: Aligning a GoTo Scope.
But once they are “aligned” each night, GoTo technology makes it possible to see some deep-sky objects from the city that, while they can show up in a telescope, can be hard to find under light-polluted skies by the traditional method of hopping from star to star to object using charts.
GoTo scopes offer programmed, even narrated, tours of what’s up in “Tonight’s Sky.” And they make it easy to work through lists of objects, such as the popular Messier Catalogue of 110 deep-sky objects.
The Best Buys on a Budget (under $600)
The Antares 511AZ Reflector ($280) is a 4.5-inch reflector on a simple but solid manual mount and metal tripod, suitable for use by a child or adult.
The Celestron StarSense LT80 AZ ($300) has a smaller aperture (3.1 inches), but with the bonus of computer-aided object finding.
The Explore Scientific FirstLight 102mm 4-inch refractor ($430) has more aperture on a good manual mount easy to use by an older child.
Offering 5.1-inches of aperture is the Sky-Watcher Heritage 130 tabletop reflector ($340) on a wood Dobsonian mount and a tube that collapses for storage.
The larger Sky-Watcher Heritage 150 ($390) offers 6-inches of aperture, but still in a compact tabletop design. It is one of the best buys on the market.
With the same aperture, the long popular Sky-Watcher Classic 150P ($580) is a free-standing Dobsonian, making it easier to set up, but taking up more space in storage.
Moving up in Price ($600 to $1,000)
For computerized “push-to” finding with more aperture than the StarSense LT80, consider the StarSense DX 102AZ 4-inch refractor ($625) or the StarSense DX 130AZ 5.1-inch reflector ($625). Both use your phone to point you to targets.
The Sky-Watcher Classic 200P ($820) is a solid-tube 8-inch Dob that is one of the best values on the market. For $940, Sky-Watcher’s Flextube 200P offers the same optics but with a collapsible tube for more compact storage and transport. An 8-inch Dob can show hundreds of deep-sky objects very well, in addition to providing sharp views of the planets. For the serious beginner, either might be the best choice for under $1,000.
The Celestron NexStar 4SE ($850) is a very portable 4-inch Makustov-Cassegrain with a fully motorized GoTo mount, offered at the entry-level price for this technology.
Mid-Range Telescopes ($1,100 to $2,000)
NexStar 6SE ($1,370) and NexStar 8SE ($2,000) are two of the most popular GoTo telescopes we offer, with generous 6- and 8-inches of aperture, respectively, all in a compact Schmidt-Cassegrain design, with tracking mounts good for lunar and planetary photography, though not deep-sky imaging.
Or move up to a big Sky-Watcher 12-inch Dobsonian, great for use at dark rural acreages.
Higher Priced Telescopes (over $2,000)
The Celestron NexStar Evolution 6 ($2,100) and Evolution 8 ($2,750) have the same Schmidt-Cassegrain optics as the SE models, but with the addition of a sturdier single-fork mount and tripod, and built-in WiFi and rechargeable battery.
The premium Celestron CPC models ($4,000 for the 8-inch CPC 800HD) have even more solid dual-fork mounts and flat-field HD optics, making them suitable for advanced deep-sky imaging when placed on an optional HD Pro Wedge ($664) for polar alignment and equatorial tracking.
In this price class are also the mix-and-match astrophotography systems that mate an optical tube, such as a 60mm to 140mm apochromatic (apo) refractor from Askar, Orion, Sharpstar, Sky-Watcher, or TeleVue, with a German equatorial mount (the most popular type for astrophotography) from brands such as Celestron, iOptron or Sky-Watcher. We offer several Astrophoto packages to choose from.
The Two-Scope Solution
Once you really get into amateur astronomy, you might realize, as many do, that the ideal telescope is not one, but two: perhaps (as shown above) a small grab-and-go refractor, to complement a larger reflector or Schmidt-Cassegrain. Or an apo refractor on a German equatorial mount for imaging, complemented by a larger Dobsonian reflector just for visual use.