Viewing the Milky Way
Viewing the Milky Way. (Terence Dickinson)

Tips for First-Telescope Buyers

By the time you’re ready to buy your second telescope, you’ll likely know what you want. But that first purchase is often a shot in the dark.

A small refractor telescope with go-to pointing control.
A small, refractor telescope with computerized aiming.

It’s probably safe to say that most telescopes which sell for $400 or less are purchased as gifts. Often, the person receiving the gift scope is part of the buying process. A spouse or parent says, “Here’s a cheque to buy that telescope you have always wanted.”

Or the gift telescope arrives as a “surprise” from a thoughtful gift giver who knows of your interest.

In either case, what you used to end up with was a 60mm refractor with a tall, spindly tripod and a mounting with mysterious knobs and dials—knobs and dials that could remain mysterious for years. Today’s gift scope is often the same instrument, now equipped with a computer that (theoretically) allows the user to point the instrument at thousands of celestial targets. But let’s get real. A computer and a telescope for less than $200? It’s not surprising that I regularly receive e-mails (especially just after Christmas) from astronomy enthusiasts who find that these scopes are difficult to use or, if they do function, the views are less than satisfying.

Understandably, in some gift situations, you have no control over the purchase. But if you do, here are some basic guidelines for that all-important first telescope.

First, during the past several years, China has become the major player in the under-$1,000 telescope marketplace, displacing Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as the primary manufacturers. This, as it turns out, is a good thing. Quality is better than ever, and prices are lower than ever (when adjusted for inflation).

Second, walk right past the inexpensive computerized telescopes in your local big-box discount store. Hundreds of thousands of these scopes are cranked out each year. SkyNews has tested this category of telescope and given models to beginners to try. Our conclusion is that such instruments  should be avoided.  If your budget is limited, go for something basic and choose quality over features.

Third, if at all possible, shop at a telescope specialty store where it is likely that at least one salesperson has actually used the equipment on display. There are now several dozen such stores in Canada. They are usually owner-operated, and personal service and advice are their hallmark. Also, they tend to stock most of the telescopes I’m about to suggest—and not to stock instruments that have a history of being returned. If no such store is close enough to you, phone one of them. When a salesperson is willing to spend time on the phone, chances are that mail order may be a good choice.

The telescope market is a fast-changing place — new models come and go at faster rate than ever before.  To keep abreast of what’s available, page through SkyNews and look over the advertisements and our detailed equipment reviews.

In my 45 years of using telescopes, the choices, prices and overall quality have never been better. I never pine for the “good” old days. Yes, light pollution didn’t exist then and I could easily see the Milky Way from a backyard in suburban Toronto, but the telescopes then couldn’t compare to what’s available today.