Getting the right start in astronomy is, as with most hobbies, important for success. It can make the difference between potential lifelong obsession or fleeting interest.
As an astronomy beginner, some telescopes will get you off to a faster and more rewarding start than others. Our review tells you everything you need to know about choosing the best telescope for beginners and reviews 5 top beginner scope models.
Quick Comparison: Top 5 Beginner Scopes
Celestron NexStar 6SE
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Orion SkyQuest XT8
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Orion StarBlast II 4.5EQ
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Celestron AstroMaster 70AZ
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Below you will find our detailed reviews (click here to go straight to them), or click on the links in the table to see prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Beginner's Guide to Choosing a Telescope
With such a vast array of telescopes to choose from, it is easy for novices to get overwhelmed when shopping for the right equipment to pursue their hobby.
It becomes extremely difficult to make an informed choice. (And you might find that getting a pair of astronomy binoculars instead is the right first piece of equipment).
Below are a few factors to keep in mind to ensure you purchase a telescope that suits your needs.
Aperture is the Most Important Specification
Aperture refers to the diameter of the main optical component. This can be either the mirror or lens depending on the model - refractors use a lens and reflectors use a mirror to gather and focus light from the stars.
The aperture of a telescope determines the resolving power as well as the light capturing capabilities. As such, it plays a critical role when it comes to your ability to see the night sky. The simple rule is that the bigger your aperture, the more detail and fainter objects you will see.
We generally recommend going with the biggest aperture your budget will afford, but there are other factors you need to consider - which we'll cover below.
As your aperture increases, the light it collects increase even more. For example, a 6" mirror is twice the diameter of a 3", but collects four times the light! So, whilst your 3" might show you Andromeda Galaxy as a faint smudge, the 6" will show you some details in its structure, as well as making it look brighter.
Ignore Your Intuition: Magnification is Not Everything
Contrary to what you might believe or have been told, your telescope's aperture doesn't determine its magnification. The level of magnification is set by the eyepiece you use.
The reality of backyard astronomy is that we rarely use high magnification when looking at the night sky. You need a lot of light to make good use of higher magnification. For example, you can use higher powers when looking at the moon or a bright planet, but your image will break down when using it on a galaxy because there is not enough light being collected by your scope.
The other factor to keep in mind is our atmosphere. The very air we rely on for breathing is actually quite a think and turbulent beast. In reality we can rarely use more than 200x magnification on anything overhead because at that magnification the moving air makes it feel like we're looking through water.
It is important to look for the optimum magnification that allows you to see the details without spreading the target's light too much.
The rule of thumb on magnification is that you shouldn't push a telescope more than twice its aperture in millimeters, or 50 times the aperture in inches. As an example, a 4" (125mm) telescope shouldn't be used be used at a magnification of more than 200x (4" x 50) - 250x (125mm x 2).
Refractors vs. Reflectors vs. Catadioptrics
Telescopes are broadly classified into three types: refractors, reflectors and catadioptrics.
A refractor is a long gleaming tube that features an eyepiece in the rear and a large lens in front. It is often sought out by planetary and lunar observers who value high contrast images at high magnification.
The fact that it's not easy for the lens to come out of alignment makes the refractor more rugged than other telescopes. Unfortunately, lenses are expensive to manufacture, which also makes them the more expensive than a reflector per inch of aperture.
A reflector uses a mirror to gather and focus light. The two typical examples are the Newtonian reflector (so called because it was developed by Isaac Newton) and the Dobsonian.
They each feature a concave mirror at the bottom and a smaller diagonal mirror near the top. They provide great images and you get a lot more light collected for your cash. The Dobsonian comes mounted on an easy to use base that is a simple 'point and shoot' style.
Newtonians, on the other hand, usually come mounted on equatorial mounts which are harder to set up but make viewing objects much easier because equatorial mounts move in the same line across the sky that the stars follow.
Catadioptric telescopes (also known as compound telescopes) combine the best qualities of a refractor and reflector. They were developed in the 1930s and use both a mirror and lens to form an image.
They almost always come with motorised mounts and computer databases, so you can tell it what you want to see and the telescope will automatically find it for you. The motor will also automatically track any object you find, keeping it constantly centered in your eyepiece - which makes compound telescopes great for astrophotography.
The downside of this design is it's quite expensive compared to the others. If you choose one of these, and many people do, you usually have to sacrifice aperture in exchange for having a computer take away the hard work of finding objects.
The Importance of A Stable Mount
The mount is perhaps the second highest consideration after aperture.
Its most important role is stabilizing your telescope. The next most important function of the mount is allowing you to easily follow a star, planet or galaxy while viewing it.
Mounts come in two main variations: altazimuth and equatorial.
Altazimuth mounts are a simple design that only swing up and down (altitude) and left and right (azimuth). You will have to move it in both of those planes to follow the planets, stars and moon as the earth turns.
An equatorial mount, on the other hand, makes it easy to follow celestial body as the earth turns. They are set up so that once you have an object in the eypiece, you only need to turn it in the left/right plane to keep it in view, the mount automatically handles the up/down plane.
While it is more expensive than its counterpart, we highly recommend it if you feel like backyard astronomy is a hobby you will get into deeply.
Why A Decent Finderscope is Important
A telescope only shows you a tiny bit of the sky when used at medium to high power.
This makes it almost impossible to find a specific target, often unimaginably small itself, by looking through the eyepiece and moving your scope in the right direction.
This is where your finderscope comes in.
It is usually attached by a bracket and located near the eyepiece and often looks like a smaller version of a telescope. The finderscope has a low magnification, which gives a wider field of view, i.e. you can see more of the sky through it than you can through your telescope.
Your finderscope is aligned to your main telescope so that when you have an object in the finderscope's crosshairs, it will be centered in the main telescope view. In this way they make it much easier to get great experiences from your new telescope.
Size & Type
3 inch Refractor
Reviews of the Best Telescopes for Beginners
With all of that advice given, there are still a lot of telescopes out there that you could review one at a time.
However, we've pulled together the five which we think are the best options for a first telescope, ranging in price and type. Our detailed reviews for each follow.
The computerized system uses 'SkyAlign' to make it easy to line up the planets and stars, as you can see in the demo video below.
The 6" aperture on this telescope gives useful magnification of up to 300x, although remember that we can rarely use more than 200x. Six inches is a great aperture for your first scope.
In a dark sky location you can expect to see many deep sky objects with good amounts of detail, especially the brighter ones such as Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades.
Rather than rely on printed star charts, this telescope has a vast database of 40,000 objects. The NexStar computer is simple to use and the red backlit screen is ideal for nighttime escapades that don't ruin your night vision.
What's even better is that you can upgrade the computer system through the internet.
- Portable & easy to set up
- Huge database of objects
- Goto and tracking motor
- Pricey for the aperture
- Poor controller battery life (separate charger available)
When you consider buying a telescope this big, you should be expecting to use it for great views of deep sky objects such as nebulae, galaxies and star clusters. However, unlike the NexStar 6SE, you will have to guide this telescope yourself.
That shouldn't be a problem though, as Dob's are often seen as by novices and intermediates as great telescopes because of their ease of use.
There is no complicated equatorial mount to set up here, you just simply point your huge telescope to the sky and enjoy an interstellar lightshow through the eyepiece.
Although this is a big telescope - you should keep in mind that it is almost four feet long and weighs over 40 pounds fully assembled - it does break down into two pieces for easier portability. The tube and the base each weigh about 20 pounds, and the tube should fit in your trunk for a drive to your viewing site.
- Simple set up and use
- Point & shoot tracking
- Huge aperture for price
- Big and heavy for moving
- Requires you to find and track objects in the night sky
This reflector telescope uses an equatorial mount. The advantage of this is you don't have to worry about keeping the target centered or tracked. Just the turn of one simple dial will let you smoothly follow objects as they cross the sky.
The mount also offers an option to add a motor for automated the star gazing in the future.
The finderscope on this model is the EZ Finder II. This is what's known as a reflex sight, which many astronomers swear by. Reflex sights have no magnification, just a lit crosshairs. You can quickly move your telescope to the area of sky you want to focus on without worrying about inverted images.
The downside of reflex sights, especially in light polluted areas, is that they don't show you fainter stars which are often useful starting points to finding even dimmer deep space objects. However, 4.5 inches will only give good views of the brighter DSOs, so it's not necessarily a deal breaker, but you should bear it in mind if you'll be doing urban astronomy under lots of street lighting.
Magnification is limited to around 250x with this size aperture, which is fine. You will find it excels at brighter objects, such as the moon, Saturn and Jupiter.
Additional features include Starry Night software bundle, accessory tray, tripod, counterweight and slow-motion cables.
- A lot of kit for the price
- Stable EQ mount makes following objects easy
- Reliable optical quality
- Reflex finderscope is not for everyone
- EQ mounts take some getting used to
The AstroMaster comes with an altazimuth mount, which is much easier to set up and use when compared to Newtonian and compound telescopes. It's also lighter and more portable than Dobsonian models. The mount features a large pan handle that offers plenty of targeting precision.
The downside of its lightness is that it also tends to suffer from vibrations, which is a real pain when you are looking at small objects. Thankfully, there are cheap and free ways to dampen telescope vibrations at home.
This telescope uses a StarPointer scope, instead of a magnifying finderscope, which is permanently fixed near the eyepiece. It has a red dot that comes handy when lining up a celestial body and is all you need for an aperture this small.
As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for. Yes, this is a cheap telescope, but it is also small and has a low specification. If you treat it as a practically risk-free way of trying out astronomy, you won't be disappointed, but don't expect to see anything other than the brightest objects at low magnification.
- Low price
- Very popular beginner model
- Light weight & easy set up
- Small aperture, only good for brightest objects
- Mount prone to vibration
GSkyer is a relatively new kid on the telescope block and, like the Celestron Astromaster, we've included this telescope in our beginner's list because its size lends itself to being used by the frequent traveller.
However, also like the AstroMaster, you need to be wary of low price, small aperture telescopes.
Gskyer is known for using German space technology to craft their products.
The AZ70400 is one of their best offerings that is best utilized by those who travel frequently. It is a refractor telescope that's equipped with a 70mm aperture and 400mm focal length, which gives a high level of clarity. However, 70mm will severely restrict what you can see with it - limit your ambitions to planets and the moon.
One big benefit of this telescope is its size. It is just a fraction over two feet in length and comes with a handy travel bag. That makes it an ideal choice for you if you are on the road / away from home a lot and would like the flexibility to try astronomy on your travels.
For the low price, it does come with a lot of kit. For example, you get 10mm and 25mm eyepieces and a Barlow lenses capable of doubling the eyepiece magnification. They are not of amazing quality, but certainly enough for you to experiment with.
- A lot of kit for a low price
- Small and lightweight
- Handy travel case
- Small aperture, only good for brightest objects
- Mount prone to vibration
Best Telescopes for Beginners Summary
As an astronomy beginner, you'll find it much easier to choose the best telescope for you... if you know what to look for.
Remember, the more you want to see, the bigger the aperture you need. Generally then, you want to maximize your aperture within your budget. However, you need to also think about build quality, especially the mount, and how much you are likely to use it - there's no point getting a huge scope if it's only going to come outside a few times per year.
Our absolute favorite is the Celestron NexStar 6SE since it has a vast database, a large aperture, optimized StarBright XLT lens, a computerized system and making it easy to align. More importantly, it is manufactured by a reputable company with more than 50 years experience in the optical field.
However, if you want pure brute force light-gathering power and are happy to spend the time learning your own way around the night sky, then the Orion XT8 Dobsonian is the obvious choice for you.